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Is It Time for a New Workstation? Specs for 2024 (and Beyond)

CAD Manager’s Column: Each year software gobbles up more workstation resources. What do you need to look for if you are buying new workstations this year?

A persistent question I receive from CAD managers is, “What are the specs we should use for purchasing CAD workstations?” In fact, my periodic updates on this topic continue to be one of the most searched and read articles on Cadalyst’s web site. The curiosity comes from all companies large and small, from CFO’s, IT managers, and CAD managers alike. With so much misinformation and marketing hype around workstations, is it any wonder that confusion abounds?

In this edition of the CAD Manager’s Newsletter, I’ll update my workstation recommendations for 2024 and explain how I arrived at them in a format you can send directly to your boss or IT department. Here goes.


Image source:  tiero/stock.adobe.com.

Don't Go Cheap

I strive to purchase workstations that will successfully serve the power CAD user for 2 to 3 years and figure that the workstation will then be passed along to someone else with less taxing applications. Yes, this means I spend more up front, but I ultimately get a better investment return. I also avoid the long-term costs that come with cheap computers such as these:

Bad performance. Cheap workstations make software run slower, are more prone to resource-related crashes, they become obsolete sooner, and they frustrate the users who work on them.

Upgrading later is difficult and not cost effective. The idea that you can under configure a machine today only to upgrade it next year is flawed logic. Most mobile workstations (AKA, laptops) can’t be upgraded because they’re already maxed out and even expandable desktop machines can be prohibitive to upgrade when you consider the IT labor required. For anything other than adding another storage drive, or maybe a new graphics card, upgrading just doesn’t make sense.

Powerful workstations actually help retain key staff. I see plenty of companies that have 5-year-old boat anchor computers that drive away CAD power users. As a user I talked with at a conference a few years ago rightly said, “If the company can’t afford a workstation to make me way more productive, they probably don’t care about keeping me.”

Now that you understand how I’ll approach the recommendations, let’s dig in.



The processor and its cores are the heart and soul of your workstation. If you don’t get this part right, you’ve failed before you start.

The first thing to consider for most locally installed CAD programs (think AutoCAD, BricsCAD, Revit, Civil 3D, Solidworks, etc.) is that processor selection is primarily about maximum frequency (clock rate) rather than the number of cores. These CAD applications tend to run on a small number of cores so it isn’t so much how many cores you have, but how fast they are.

Things have changed a lot in the last few generational releases of Intel processors so here’s a quick guide for understanding what’s going on: Processors have fast Performance (P) Cores and slower Efficient (E) Cores which each have a base and boosted frequency. For CAD applications, the boosted P-Core frequency is what you’re interested in. If we go to the Intel web site and look at the table below you’ll see the data for the high end i9-14900K processor.

Data from Intel.com


The parameters to consider are the base and turbo frequencies which define the normal and boosted speed at which the processor cores can run. Higher numbers are always better. The processors will be boosted up to their turbo frequencies as the applications running on the machine require more resources so long as — and this is very important — the chip can thermally handle the load. For CAD and BIM, higher P-Core turbo frequencies are the benchmark to look at.

Lastly, only processors with high amounts of cache and threads should be considered — ruling out Intel i3/i5 processors. What is left are the highest frequency 13th and 14th generation Intel i7/i9 processors with the Intel i9’s being preferred. Use the Intel web site to search for the specifications for any processor you are considering to be sure you’re looking at the right numbers.

Recommendation: Intel Core i9-149xx series processors provide great E-Core (up to 4.3GHz) and P-Core (up to 5.6GHz) frequencies and are becoming available in a wide variety of machines (even some high-end mobile workstations). They cost more but are worth it.

Minimum recommendation: To save some money you could step down to the Intel Core i7-147xx family which clocks in at 3.6GHz and 5.0GHz boost frequencies.

Senior management note: Processor selection is the one thing you can’t upgrade later, so don’t go cheap on your processor — get the higher speed Intel i9. Is an extra $300 amortized over a 5-year lifespan really worth arguing over?


RAM and SSD’s

Having a fast processor is only part of the performance equation because all the other systems in the workstation support the processor so it can operate at its maximum speed. And, given the huge model files CAD software produces, it stands to reason that harmonizing your processor with the right RAM and SSD systems can you get the absolute best performance form your workstation.

Consider the following:

RAM (Memory). If the processor doesn’t have adequate RAM, then it must go back and forth to the system disk to work with data. The data channel speed from the processor to the RAM is optimized to feed the processor at maximum speed where the disk speed can be substantially slower. Therefore, the RAM you install should ALWAYS be the highest speed the processor supports, and all available RAM slots should be populated with the same size RAM modules.

Solid State Disk (SSD). Of course, the processor and RAM must load all the operating system, CAD software, and CAD data from somewhere and that somewhere is the solid-state disk. The fastest available technologies now are NVMe or M.2-based solid state disks (SSD’s) that can read/write data at rates starting around 3,500/2,000 MB/sec but can go much higher, while older SATA SSD’s can only provide read/write speeds of 550/500 MB/sec throughput.

Minimum purchasing recommendations: Buy 32GB of the fastest technology RAM your workstation will support as a practical minimum for CAD. Buy a 1TB NVMe class SSD as the boot disk so all operating system, software, user, and current project files are loaded from a fast SSD — secondary storage used for less frequent access can use cheaper SSD drives. These peripherals will squeeze every bit of power out of your processor for the entire life of the workstation.

Upgrade recommendations: Bump the RAM up to 64GB for high-end power users (big mechanical/BIM models and heavy rendering) and consider the latest NVMe drives like the Samsung 990 PRO that approach read/write speeds of 7,450/6,900 MB/sec and also include their own thermal heat sinks to prevent overheating.

 Senior management note: Buying the RAM and SSD systems specified will give you awesome performance for years to come without having to replace any components or spending IT time on upgrades. DO NOT SKIMP on RAM and SSD components — buy the right components now and be done with it for the life of the machine.


Graphics Processors (GPUs)

Which GPU (often referred to as a graphics card) to purchase is always a subject of debate and vendor spin but the good news is it doesn’t have to be that complicated. Here are some general questions you need to answer for yourself to decide on which GPU to specify: 

  • What resolution monitors will you use? Be sure the GPU can handle 4K monitors at minimum (3840 x 2160) or the increasingly popular WUHD (5120 x 2160) ultrawide monitors.
  • How many monitors will you use? Be sure the GPU can support your typical requirements which for CAD is at least two high resolution monitors today. Be sure the connectors on the GPU (HDMI or DisplayPort) are compliant with your needs and/or legacy monitors.
  • What software will you use? Purchasing a GPU that is certified for your software applications could reduce configuration glitches and problems — particularly for rendering software. But be aware that software changes rapidly and so do GPU certifications.
  • Consider “gaming” GPUs from reputable companies like AMD or NVIDIA to get more bang for the buck. A recent poll of CAD managers I conducted showed 9 out of 10 had used less expensive gaming GPUs for CAD with no problems.
  • Will you be doing principally 2D work, 3D work, 3D work with animations, etc.? As tasks move from 2D up to 3D with animations the amount of GPU memory required will go up.
  • While a base level, more could be required if real time animation and visualizations are required.

Minimum purchasing recommendations: An 8GB8 GPU like the NVIDIA RTX 4060 would be fine for most Revit/Solidworks workflows today.

More power recommendation: A 12GB GPU like the NVIDIA RTX 2000 is a great high power yet compact GPU that checks all the boxes above.

Special upgrade recommendations: Bump the GPU up for aggressive 3D application users that create videos, renderings, or training content. In these cases, use the vendor recommendations as there may be specific certified GPU requirements.

Senior management note: If you need to cut costs on new workstations, the GPU is one place you can do it because general CAD/BIM users don’t need a super expensive GPU. The RAM and SSD specifications are way more important than GPU’s so do not even think about buying an expensive GPU without getting the minimum 32GB RAM and 1TB SSD recommended above.


Thermal Management

As alluded to in the processor section, keeping processors, RAM and SSD’s cool allows them to run faster, so it is to your advantage to upgrade the cooling systems in the workstations you buy. If you can add an extra fan, or liquid cooling in desktop systems it is certainly a good idea to do so. The cooler the machine, the faster it runs and the longer it lasts.


But What About Mobile Workstations? 

The remote CAD worker environment brought on by COVID means more of us are using mobile workstations (i.e., laptops) as our primary CAD workstation. So, what should we specify for a minimum mobile workstation then?

It turns out that a CAD-capable mobile workstation should be configured just like a desktop CAD workstation. Of course, a similarly equipped laptop will cost more than its desktop equivalent, but the performance can be just as good. There are a few caveats I’d like to mention:

  • Mobile workstations aren’t easy to upgrade or expand so it is crucial to buy a robust machine that’ll serve you well for 3 years.
  • Tasks that require more than 64GB of RAM and multiple GPUs like video rendering or training material production are much better suited to an expandable desktop machine.
  • Be sure you can drive an external high-resolution monitor.
  • Be sure the laptop has a high-speed interface port so an external dock can be used for expansion if needed.

Minimum purchasing recommendations: High speed i7 processor, 32GB RAM, 1TB NVMe SSD, and 8GB GPU that supports high resolution external second monitors.

Upgrade recommendations: High speed i9 processor, 64MB RAM, add a second high-capacity SSD, highest rated graphics available for the machine.

Senior management note: “Laptops” for CAD should be viewed as a high-performance workstation, not a cheap solution mobile workers. If your CAD users are home-based, they need a powerful machine — so don’t hamper them with a cheap laptop.


To Save Money, Recycle Rather Than Scrimp

Remember that today’s high-performance desktop or laptop will be a great general performance machine in 2 or 3 years. The trick is to view each workstation you buy as having two lifetimes — a CAD life and a general-purpose life — so you can make machines serve you for at least 5 years before they are retired.

Remember that CAD/BIM/rendering machines are the highest performance machines you’ll purchase for the most demanding applications your company runs, so doesn’t it make sense to replace them every 2 to 3 years then repurpose the old CAD machines for their second life? Your IT department may not like having to reset the machine for a new user, but the savings potential cannot be ignored.


Summing Up

I’ve seen way too many expensive engineers and architects waste countless hours working on old, slow workstations. I’ve also seen too many companies buy new workstations that are functionally obsolete from the start. In both cases I always ask the question, “Why is it OK to waste a $90,000 a year engineer’s time to save $3,000 on a workstation?” Ask this question repeatedly if anyone argues with your CAD workstation specifications and watch the game change.

Now that you know what you should be buying, the technical reasons for doing so and how to explain it to your boss go get your new CAD workstations! In fact, send them this newsletter. Until next time.




Read more about CAD Management on our  CAD Management Resource Page


Robert Green

Robert Green performs CAD programming, standardization, and consulting services globally. He is the author of Expert CAD Management: The Complete Guide. Reach him via his website (greenconsulting.com/).

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