Several years ago processor vendors began backing away from a sole focus on cranking up clock frequencies and otherwise striving to squeeze every last possible bit of performance from single-thread processing. That path was heading down the road of diminishing returns and leading to other problems, most notably excessive power consumption and thermal output.
Growth of Multi-Core Processing
Single-thread performance hasn't been forgotten, but the dominant thrust has shifted to parallel processing, with Intel moving from dual-core to quad-core and now hex-core processors. Factor in the dualsocket configurations available in mid-range and higher workstations, and today 12 processing cores in a single machine can easily be had.
What Does Multi-Core Processing Mean to the CAD Professional?
Multi-core approaches have proved to be a great way to gain theoretical speed-ups, but for CAD professionals who have practical computing demands, how well reality tracks theory depends on their application. Some CAD software programs, including AutoCAD and SolidWorks, do limited multitasking if multiple processors are available — for example, in managing the user interface and on-screen display. And rendering software, whether running on the CPU, GPU, or both, tends to use multiple processing cores.
Given this, most CAD pros will want to find the right balance of multiple cores and increased single-thread performance, the latter enabled by Intel through a combination of architectural improvements in its CPU design and its Turbo Boost Technology 2.0, which delivers an (often temporary) increase in CPU clock speed.
What Should You Buy?
Although an oversimplification, it's generally fair to say that if CAD modeling chews up more hours than anything else in your day, you should allocate more of your workstation budget to buying a fast processor. If you spend most of your time rendering, you should invest more of the budget in more cores, or in many cases, a more powerful GPU if that's what your application needs. Read on.
Where do you draw the line on how much of your budget to allocate to the CPU? Again, there's no universal answer — sorry, there never is — but keep in mind that the upward climb on this (or nearly any) product spectrum follows a path of diminishing returns. So once you've decided whether to favor most cores or fastest cores, try to get a sense of where the "knee" is in the price curve. That is, where do you start paying a lot more to get a comparatively small return? That's likely to be your sweet spot, tempered of course by the constraints in your overall budget.