What is the best Computer or Laptop for CAD Software such as Autocad, Solidworks, Inventor or Revit?
What is CAD-Software anyway, and why is it so difficult to find reliable information on what type of Hardware Components you need to build a greatly performing PC for CAD?
Well, let’s dive right in!
What is CAD Software and what is it not?
You might have already read some of our Articles that talk about building the best Computer for DCC (Digital Content Creation) Software such as Cinema 4D, After Effects or for Video Editing and 3D Modeling & Rendering.
The thing is, though many throw all of the 3D-“Modeling” types of Software into the same category, I do not consider Software such as Cinema 4D, Maya, 3DS Max or Blender, CAD Software –
CAD and DCC Software have some fundamental differences, that will also influence what Parts we should pick for our new PC.
The reason CAD and DCC Software have some fundamental differences, that will also influence what Parts we should pick for our new PC.
The main difference between these two types of Application Categories, is that the mentioned DCC Apps are targeted at Content Creation for visual purposes.
They don’t necessarily need high precision but rather should make an Image or Animation look believable or photorealistic, but not mathematically correct.
Because, hey, when I go watch a VFX Movie, that Space ship hovering over the Earth is quite believable, but if it is Mathematically correct and possible, is not really the issue here.
Another important factor in DCC Software such as Cinema 4D or Maya is, that they are mainly based on Polygons and not Curves.
Yes, there are tools that let you create curves and NURBS Objects, but the main work is usually done with polygons.
If you have enough Polygons you can make an object look round and smooth, even though it is actually made up of many small flat faces.
CAD Software though is targeted at mathematically precise Forms of content creation. If you zoom in on a car that was modeled in Solidworks, it will always be smooth, no matter how close you zoom in. (Sort of like the difference between Vector Software [CAD] and Pixel-based Software [DCC])
Content that simulates real-life properties.
It is of utmost importance that a rocket nozzle on a SpaceX Booster Engine is modeled to an extremely high mathematical precision, otherwise, the Rocket might not last very long after launch.
If it launches at all.
For the sake of this article let’s name the polygon 3D Software Packages “DCC” (Cinema 4D, Maya, 3dsmax, Blender, ..) and the Precision Software Packages “CAD” (Solidworks, Autocad, Revit, Inventor, SolidEdge …).
CAD Software comes in many forms and Brands, some open source, some crazily expensive.
In this Article on building the best PC for CAD Applications, I’ll focus on Autocad, Solidworks, Inventor and Revit, as these are among the most popular CAD Packages you can find.
Of course, lots of the theory and Part Recommendations can also be applied to other CAD Software as they all tend to work very similarly.
How do CAD Apps utilize the Hardware?
Very Similar to 3D Modeling and Rendering in DCC Apps, CAD Software benefits from a high-clocking CPU – for active work.
Active work means, you are sitting in front of your workstation and actively modeling and working on a project.
These I call attended tasks and they require you to interact and be present at all times, otherwise, your project does not progress.
The other type of task is the unattended task. This includes things like Rendering and Simulation caching and other processing tasks.
Unattended tasks run on their own and usually take longer than a few milliseconds to process (often hours or days).
Tasks that take days to process have a higher probability to be targeted by developers earlier in order to make them ready for multi-processing.
And of course, as soon as these tasks can be worked on by multiple cores simultaneously, they can be processed much faster.
Look at this Single VS Multi-Core Performance scaling to get a feel for how more Cores can improve performance in workloads that support multi-threading:
For speeding up tasks that can be parallelized (Rendering, (Most) Simulation, Image Processing ..), you will need the maximum number of Cores and not necessarily a high core clock.
Of course, having both, a high core clock and lots of cores is best, but not always possible.
So to recap:
- Your Active Work performance requires a high-clocking CPU
- Parallelizable tasks such as Rendering and Processing need lots of Cores.
Best Hardware for CAD
So let’s apply this to some real Hardware. What parts do we need for a PC anyway and what components make the CAD work we do the fastest:
Best Processor (CPU) for CAD Software
As you can see in these benchmarks that measure the CPU performance in Autocad, Solidworks, Inventor and Revit, the tendency is quite clear.
The higher the IPC a CPU has the better it performs in the respective CAD Software.
IPC (Instructions per Cycle) of course is something that is not openly advertised by the manufacturer, so let’s take the Boost clock as an indicator.
The Turbo Boost Clock of a CPU is probably the closest we can match the IPC indicator of a CPU, with the benefit, that Boost Clocks are advertised on CPUs and this lets us easily buy and compare CPU Performance.
CPUs are clocked at a predefined Base Clock and can automatically overclock a Core or multiple cores to a higher Clock as long as the entire CPU with all its Cores does not exceed certain power or temperature limits.
Let’s make an example: an Intel i7 8700K CPU has a base clock of 3,6GHz and a Boost Clock of 4,7GHz.
In this specific case the CPU can overclock 1 Core up to 4,7GHz, 2 Cores up to 4,6GHz 3C: 4,5GHz, 2-5C: 4,4GHz and all 6 Cores up to 4,3GHz.
This means, when we work in a Software that currently utilizes only 1 Core of a CPU, this CPU Core can and will most likely run at its advertised maximum Turbo Boost Clock.
The higher the Clock, the better the Performance.
Look at these Inventor Benchmarks of Finite Element Analysis Meshing. High-Core-Clocks with High Turbo-Boost Clocks win all the way (Lower is better):
Here are some Revit Benchmarks made by Pugetsystems. Again, in Single-Threaded Workloads a High-Core Clock (IPC) wins, in multi-threaded workloads such as Rendering, more Cores win.
Performance relative to an i7 7700K that has 4,5GHz Boost Clock, 4 Cores, 8 Threads
These Autocad 2D and 3D Performance Benchmarks were taken with the Cadalyst Benchmark Tool and show how high-core-clocks win every time.
The 3D Performance Benchmarks too have high-clocking CPUs at the top of the ranking:
And one last CPU Benchmark for Solidworks, confirming what we have already seen:
Turbo Boost and IPC are so important because many tasks cannot be parallelized.
Either because the Software’s Codebase is old and hasn’t been updated or optimized (for parallelization) in a long time, or because certain Tasks just can’t be parallelized, because of things like dependencies.
Think about this example concerning dependencies: You are modeling a House in Revit or Sketchup and have your Scene nicely optimized in a non-destructive Hierarchical structure.
It looks a bit like this:
- House Wall Extrusion
- Window Boolean
- Edge Bevel
- screw Booleans on Edge Bevel
- Edge Bevel
- Window Boolean
Now we will thicken the House Wall Extrusion a bit.
We have 5 different Objects and would think that having a CPU with (in this case) 5 Cores would speed up the thickening of the House Wall Extrusion, because every core can work on one object, right?
Wouldn’t that speed things up nicely?
It would, but unfortunately, because the Objects dependent on each other as they are in a hierarchical chain, the CPU will have to start stepping through from the topmost Hierarchical Element first and then move towards the deeper Elements of the hierarchy.
There is no way the “screw Booleans” can already be calculated before the Edge Bevel has been finished processing and so on. Because of dependencies.
A single CPU-Core will have to work through the entire hierarchy chain by itself.
A single CPU will have to first calculate the thicker Wall Extrusion, after that it can calculate the Window Boolean, then the Edge Bevel on The Window Boolean, then the Edge Bevel on that Window Boolean Edge, and only after all of these have been stepped through can the CPU calculate the screw Booleans that are in the Edge Bevel.
And this is an example which is quite simple, made for easy understanding. What usually goes on inside a CAD Software is much more complex.
So long story short: We need a high clocking CPU, that optimally has a nice Boost Clock on one or more cores, to be able to actively work as fast as possible with a responsive and snappy Viewport in CAD Applications.
Here are the currently highest clocking CPUs which will bring the most performance to your active work:
- Intel i9 10900K – 3.7 GHz base, 5.3 GHz Turbo Clock
- Intel i7 10700K – 3.8 GHz base, 5.1 GHz Turbo Clock
- Intel i9 9900K – 3.6 GHz base, 5.0 GHz Turbo Clock
- Intel i7 9700K – 3.6 GHz base,4.9 GHz Turbo Clock
- AMD Ryzen 9 3950X – 3.5 GHz base, 4.7 GHz Turbo Clock
- AMD Ryzen 9 3900X – 3.8 GHz base, 4.6 GHz Turbo Clock
- AMD Ryzen 7 3800X – 3.9 GHz base, 4.5 GHz Turbo Clock
- AMD Ryzen 7 3700X – 3.6 GHz base, 4.4 GHz Turbo Clock
These are all high-clocking CPUs that will give you a smooth working experience within your CAD Application.
What about Xeon or other “professional” CPUs?
What’s the deal with Xeon? It seems to be recommended very often on CAD Software Manufacturers Sites, so it should perform well, shouldn’t it?
Well, the thing with Xeon is, you usually trade Software and Driver certification, official Support and a high Price for Performance.
Intel Xeons are a lot pricier than the CPUs I listed above, their clocks are lower, IPC is lower & the Turbo Boost Clocks are lower.
BUT, Xeons have ECC Memory Support (Error Correcting memory) that can in very rare cases make your CAD Software a bit more stable.
Also, often times expensive CAD Software Manufacturers only offer support when you actually have a Xeons (that they recommend and then, of course, should also support) and not a mainstream or High-End-Desktop CPU.
So if you absolutely need reliability and need immediate support for your systems, then you would have to go the Xeon Route for many of the top tier CAD Apps out there.
Then again, if you value performance over reliability and can support yourself by googling or asking in forums, you should be getting a performance CPU as mentioned above, such as the Intel i7, i9 or AMD Ryzen / Threadripper CPUs.
Best Graphics Card for CAD Software
Let’s shed some light on to the Quadro vs. Geforce debate:
The Benchmarks will support my writing: The Geforce GTX or RTX Cards are faster in almost all CAD Benchmarks. Autocad, Inventor, Solidworks, Revit you name it.
BUT, professional GPUs such as Nvidia’s Quadro Cards have other things to offer.
They have different Drivers than their mainstream counterparts which enable some features in various CAD apps. Take Solidworks for example: It has a feature called RealView, which is only supported on Pro-GPUs.
Also, the question of Official Vendor Support should not be neglected.
Many CAD Application Vendors only offer (good) support if you use Hardware that has been certified by them, and this certified Hardware consists of mostly Professional-Tier Components like Nvidia’s Quadro Series or AMD’s Radeon Pro GPUs.
Ask yourself, do you need specific features (e.g. in Solidworks) that are only supported on Pro-GPUs or do you need official vendor support?
If it’s just your own Workstation you have to worry about and you can troubleshoot on your own and want the fastest experience possible and would like to save some money (because Pro-GPUs are so much more expensive) go with a Geforce GTX or RTX GPU, or an AMD Mainstream GPU.
An Nvidia RTX 2080Ti leads in performance against most Pro-GPUs in many Benchmarks, and costs a lot less.
That said, Solidworks is a bit of a special case: It does benefit from Quadro cards. It seems this Software’s Codebase has been well optimized to make use of the additional Features that Nvidia Quadros have to offer (Or mainstream GPUs have been artificially crippled).
If you do want to go with a quadro, these Benchmarks by Pugetsystems will show you the performance of current GPUs:
Now that we have the most controversial Parts of a CAD Computer out of the way lets move on to some standards:
Best Motherboard for CAD Applications
Different Motherboards won’t influence your performance all that much, but you should make sure the Motherboard you are buying supports all the features you need and matches the Hardware that you are going to plug into it.
Of course, you should match the Motherboard Socket to the CPU you chose earlier. Get an LGA1200 Motherboard (Z490 Chipset) for an Intel Core i9 10900K (or same Generation) CPU, and an AM4 Motherboard (X570 Chipset) for an AMD Ryzen 3900X CPU.
Other features you should look out for might be the amount of PCIe-Slots that you can plug Graphics Cards into, the amount of USB connectors, the amount of supported RAM Modules and RAM Slots as well as the number of Storage Devices such as M.2 Slots you have available to use.
For the Intel i9 9900K, that I currently recommend highly for CAD Apps, you will need an LGA 1151 v2 Motherboard such as the Gigabyte Z390 Designare.
Best RAM (Memory) for CAD Software
The amount of RAM needed depends very much on how complex your projects and assemblies are and how many projects you have opened at the same time.
Also, if you tend to have more RAM-hungry Applications in addition to your CAD Software open at the same time, you should make sure you have lots of RAM.
Running Windows 10, for example, and having Chrome, a Mail Program, some other DCC Software like Photoshop and Illustrator and a Word-Processing App open at the same time in addition to your CAD Software will surely eat away at your RAM much more than when you have only one App open at a time.
It is ease of use that we are looking for, and closing down other Applications just so we can use our CAD Software is not very efficient.
For lighter CAD work you should be looking to buy at least 16GB of RAM.
With more complex assemblies or when you are using multiple Apps at the same time, you should be leaning towards 32GB or even 64GB of RAM.
For Mainstream or HEDT CPUs such as the Intel i7, i9 or Ryzen / Threadripper CPUs, I recommend the Corsair Vengenace LPX DDR4 RAM that comes in all sorts of Memory capacities.
Memory Clock Speed can influence your CPU’s performance and it is advised to aim for RAM clocked at 3200Mhz or higher.
Best SSD / HDD / Storage for CAD Work
Assemblies and other Project Files can get quite big, especially on complex projects. You will be happy to have enough space to keep all of your projects saved in multiple revisions – Additionally, a fast drive for loading and saving your Projects will keep you working longer and waiting less.
The currently best type of storage Device for most PC-workloads, including CAD workloads, is the NVMe M.2 SSD.
This stands for Non-Volatile Memory Express M.2 (the form factor) Solid State Drive and basically is an SSD that has been further developed to:
- Be smaller
- Use a faster interface and
- Be much faster in reading and writing data.
You can plug an NVMe SSD into the Motherboard without needing any cables. It is about the size of a stick of gum, and about 5 times as fast as a regular SATA SSD and even about 25x faster than a mechanical HDD.
I recommend getting an NVMe SSD from the Samsung 970 EVO Plus Series, that come in sizes from 250GB – 2TB.
Of course, NVMe Drives are somewhat more expensive than HDDs or SATA SSDs and it’s best to get both – A smaller NVMe SSD for active projects, apps, and the OS. And a large HDD for Backup and Archiving.
In this day and age, and for High-Performance CAD workloads, an NVMe SSD should be a standard on the buy-list. Do check out our NVMe SSD Guide to see more of the options available.
Best PC-Case for CAD Work
The Computer-Case, of course, will not influence the performance of your CAD Build in any way. Well maybe in terms of air-flow, but that can usually be neglected as CAD Work doesn’t tend to make your CPU or GPU overheat all that fast (unless you’re doing some heavy rendering).
There are lots of Cases out there in all kinds of Colors, Sizes and from all kinds of Brands.
There is not much you can do wrong here. Check your Motherboard Form-Factor (e.g. M-ATX or ATX or E-ATX) and make sure your case can fit this Motherboard size. The most common size is ATX and you’ll find a gazillion options to choose from.
A nice Case that I keep coming back to is the be quiet! Silent Base 601, as it looks professional and has some noise dampening features that will make your CAD PC quieter.
Best PSU for CAD
The Power Supply Unit should have enough Wattage to be able to Power your Components.
If you are unsure as to how much Watt your selected Components actually need, check out this easy to use Wattage-Calculator over on bequiet’s Website.
Some reliable Brands to look out for are Corsair, beQuiet, Seasonic and EVGA that I have all been able to successfully use and test for quite some while now.
We have a Guide to finding the best modular PSU’s here if you need some more specific recommendations.
I recommend buying a somewhat stronger PSU than you currently need. This way you can upgrade to more powerful components in the future without having to buy a new PSU.
Finished PC Builds
That’s about it for the Main Hardware Components needed for a great Computer for CAD Work!
Let’s take a look at some finished Builds at different price points, that will work well with CAD Apps such as Autocad, Solidworks, Inventor, Revit and lots of others.
Keep in mind, that these are Performance builds and not Reliability/Support Builds. If you are responsible for CAD Computers at a large Company you might want to trade performance for reliability and support, but that, of course, is up to you.
Performance Builds: Best Computers for CAD
Best Computer for CAD, AMD ~1000$
Some Build notes:
AMD’s 3rd Gen Ryzen CPUs bring a lot of bang for your buck to the table and will make sure to accelerate your active work and Viewport Performance. The AMD Ryzen 7 3700X sports 8 Cores / 16 Threads that clock fairly high (3.6GHz Base, 4.4 GHz Turbo Clock) and can blaze through some of your renders in no time.
At this price point, the Nvidia GTX 1660 6GB, 16GB of DDR4-3000 RAM and Samsung 970 Evo Plus NVMe SSD easily step up to the task of making this a great budget PC-Build for CAD.
Best Computer for CAD, AMD ~1600$
Some Build notes:
Stepping up the performance into a roughly 1600$ PC-Build, this configuration brings a 12-Core Ryzen 3900X CPU with it, which clocks higher and sports more cores for faster active work and rendering. I added a third-party CPU Cooler, the beQuiet Dark Rock Pro 4 to the Build List, which is one of the best Air Coolers to keep the CPU nice and cool, even during sustained loads.
The Nvidia RTX 2060 Graphics Card is a workhorse which will enable you to do some fast GPU rendering and will handle any OpenGL/Viewport related tasks without any hiccups.
32GB of RAM and a 500GB Samsung 970 Evo Plus make sure you can work on complex CAD Projects and have multiple of them opened at the same time.
Best Computer for CAD, Intel ~2800$
This 2800$ Intel PC Build brings with it all the bells and whistles that you can think of. Although the Intel i9 9900K CPU has less cores than the 3900X from AMD, those cores do clock higher and will make your active work snappier and smoother.
The GPU is an Nvidia 2080 Super is a beast of a Graphics Card, which will blaze through your GPU Renders in no time. True, if GPU rendering or other GPU intensive tasks aren’t part of your everyday work, this might be a bit overkill, but for those who can make use of it, it’s a great time-saver.
64GB of RAM make sure you’ll almost never have to close down a Project or Software again and the two 2TB SSDs make sure you have enough space for lots of Programs and Projects.
Reliability Build: Best Computer for CAD
Best reliability Computer for CAD, Intel XEON / Nvidia Quadro ~6350$
- CPU: Intel Xeon W-2145, 8x 3.70GHz
- CPU-Cooler: be quiet! Dark Rock Pro 4
- Motherboard: ASUS WS C422 Pro/SE
- Memory: 2x (or 4x) Kingston Server Premier DIMM 16GB, DDR4-2666, CL19-19-19, reg ECC (KSM26RS4/16HAI)
- Storage: Samsung – 970 Evo 500GB M.2-2280 Solid State Drive
- GPU: PNY Quadro P6000, 24GB GDDR5X, DVI, 4x DP
- Case: Fractal Design Define S – ATX Midi Tower
- Power Supply: Corsair Professional Series Platinum AX760 760W
This is an excellent Reliability / Durability / Stability Computer for CAD Applications with the potential of being granted Support from more picky Software Manufacturers. The Xeon gets you ECC RAM Support and the Quadro offers Drivers with additional Features in many CAD Apps as well as 10bit Monitor Color output. The price tag sure is hefty, but that is what you pay nowadays for reliability.
Custom PC-Builder Tool
Head on over to the Web-Based CGDirector Custom PC-Builder Tool that lets you configure your Computer at custom price points for all kinds of purposes. It suggests parts that work well together and gets the maximum performance out of your budget.
Build your own Computer
Assembling your Computer yourself has many benefits. It is much cheaper to buy the individual hardware Components and assemble them on your own.
It is lot’s of fun, it’s easy and you learn a lot.
With that knowledge, you should be able to troubleshoot any problems that might arise later-on yourself, without having to bring your Computer to a shop to have it fixed.
You can upgrade parts yourself when newer and faster hardware is available and you learn a lot about how computers work, which never hurts!
Start by taking a look at what parts you need for building your own Computer.
After that, here is our PC Build Guide for you to read or, if you are the visual type, here is an easy to follow Video Tutorial on how to build/assemble your own Computer:
Best Laptops for CAD Software such as Autocad, Solidworks, Inventor, Revit and more
So what about Laptops? We have been talking about Desktop Computers all this time but fortunately, everything we discussed above can also be applied to a Laptop.
The Theory behind what is important to create a greatly performing Laptop for CAD Work is the same as in desktop Computers for CAD.
We will need a high-clocking CPU, a GTX or RTX GPU, 16-32GB of RAM and a fast M.2 SSD.
In Laptops, as the Hardware components are usually supposed to draw much less power the components will not reach the performance of Desktop Computer Parts.
But that is to be expected from such a small enclosure. In a Laptop, you get the benefit of Mobility but trade it for performance.
In Laptops too, we will differentiate between performance vs reliability/support, as both the Xeon CPUs and the Quadro GPUs are available for Laptops.
Best Performance Laptop for CAD Software
If it’s Performance you are after, you will want to lean towards a high-clocking CPU and a higher-end GPU such as the GTX 1070 as you will find in the following Laptop:
The Specifications on this Gigabyte Laptop are:
- CPU: i7-9750H
- GPU: GeForce RTX 2070 with 8GB of VRAM
- RAM: 16GB RAM
- SSD: 512GB PCIe SSD
- Win 10 Pro
- 15,6″ / 4K IPS Screen with a FullHD Resolution
Some notes on this Laptop:
The Gigabyte Aero 15 OLED is the newest of a long line of excellent Laptops for Content Creators. It comes with an excellent 15,6″ 4K IPS Screen which performs admirably for visually demanding work.
The Nvidia RTX 2070 is a top-tier GPU with 8GB of VRAM and the Intel i7-9750H will make sure your active work and viewport experience is as smooth as it can get in a mobile form factor. The great thing is, it sports a numpad, which is very rare in 15″ Laptops – I personally use the numpad all the time, but you might feel differently.
If the Gigabyte hasn’t hit your sweet spot yet, here are two more great choices:
- ASUS ROG Zephyrus G15 (2020) with an AMD 4800H CPU and an Nvidia 1660Ti, which is quite affordable.
- Razer Blade 15 Series Laptops, which are quite popular among Content Creators and Gamers alike.
Best Reliability / Support / Stability Laptop for CAD Software
The Specifications on this Gigabyte Laptop are:
- CPU: Xeon E-2176
- GPU: Quadro P2000 (4GB)
- RAM: 16GB RAM
- SSD: 512GB PCIe SSD
- Win 10 Pro
- 15,6″ IPS Screen with a FullHD Resolution
Some notes on this Laptop:
The Lenovo ThinkPad P52 has a 6-Core Intel Xeon CPU that boosts up to 4.4GHz. With 16GB of Ram, an Nvidia Quadro P2000 GPU and a PCIe-M.2 SSD you will get the Reliability Workstation Experience inside a mobile Form factor.
That’s about it! What Computer or Laptop for CAD are you thinking of buying?