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Workstations & Peripherals for CAD Users: Resources and Guidance

Looking for the latest on CAD workstations and peripherals? Start here!

From the Editors of Cadalyst


CAD Workstations 101

Welcome to the Cadalyst CAD Workstation and Peripherals Resource Center. What is a professional CAD workstation? What distinguishes workstations from other types of computers? Although they may look identical to standard PCs on the outside, workstations are designed for heavy professional-level use, comprising components and features that are typically more powerful and more reliable than those found in consumer-grade machines, such as error-correcting code in memory. In addition, workstations — and workstation components — may earn ISV certification, meaning that independent software vendors (such as Autodesk or Dassault Systèmes) have tested the hardware and confirmed that it can run their software smoothly.

Do You Need a Professional Workstation?

A workstation may be the right type of computer for you if your work requires you to operate CAD software and time losses due to the computer crashing or running the software slowly would waste money or impair deadline compliance. In the CAD world, engineers and designers typically rely on workstations, although they may use consumer-grade machines instead if they work mostly in 2D CAD. For those professionals who perform rendering, simulation, or frequent 3D modeling tasks, consumer-grade computers are not an option because their capabilities do not provide the necessary support (see the next section for more information).

Are Workstations Worth the Extra Expense?

Workstation customers have a wider range of price points to choose from than in the past, and the price gap between workstations and consumer-grade computers is smaller than it used to be, but workstations still cost more than standard PCs, in general. What justifies the difference in cost? And is it better to save money by buying a PC instead?

For some demanding applications, such as heavy simulation and rendering, workstations are non-negotiable; they provide top-end compute performance that is simply not available at lower levels of the market. An entry-level workstation appropriate for less compute-intensive work has more competition from standard PCs, but is still distinguished by ISV certification and greater reliability, which save time during purchase and use. For casual computer users, downtime and data loss from crashes and throttled software are an annoying inconvenience; in design and engineering environments, they spell wasted wages at best, and disaster at worst.

Choose Components that Meet Your Needs

Configuring a workstation — choosing the right combination of components for your workload — is a balancing act. On one side, you have software performance requirements that you must meet, or you’ll suffer the consequences of slowed software operation, crashes, or inadequate storage. On the other, you have budget constraints, and you certainly don’t want to waste money by buying more computer than you need.

Find the Most Functional Form Factor for You

Tower workstations. The standard tower (or desktop) workstation, the oldest and most common form factor, is a familiar sight in design and engineering offices. They are generally more affordable than other form factors, and their lack of portability doesn't affect the office-bound CAD user. In addition, full-size towers are often necessary to house all the components required for compute-intensive workflows such as simulation and rendering.

Mobile workstations. Because more and more CAD users require portability, mobile workstations have proliferated in recent years, with capabilities that are coming ever closer to those of their desktop kin. Who needs a mobile workstation? They can be a helpful addition for users who visit remote offices or client sites, or even as a replacement for a desktop workstation in some cases. Keep in mind that although they are portable, mobile workstations have shorter battery lives than consumer laptop computers, and they’re heavier. Mobiles also have different configuration considerations than desktops. Find out more about the latest models from HP

Small form factor (SFF) workstations and other form factors. If space is a concern, look for small form factor (SFF) models, which are more compact versions of the classic tower shape (you may also see the term minitower). Recently, some even smaller models have made their debut: The pocket-sized Dell Precision 3240 Compact,  Lenovo ThinkStation P320 Tiny and HP Z2 Mini are barely recognizable as workstations.

A few users would benefit from a more specialized machine, such as an all-in-one touchscreen workstation such as the Microsoft Surface Studio.

Explore Your Virtual Workstation Options

Today, a workstation is not necessarily a physical item humming away within arm’s reach. Thanks to cloud computing, CAD professionals have access to new technologies including shared virtual workspaces and hosted virtual machines. Cloud-hosted virtual workstations can alleviate some data handling struggles and security concerns, and help companies scale up or down with workforce fluctuations more efficiently than they can with physical hardware. 

Invest in CAD Peripherals

Although not part of the workstation, peripherals are key to a productive, comfortable interaction with your machine.

Monitors are fundamental to workstation utility, whether you prefer to use one or several, flat or curved, glossy or matte. Before you start your monitor search, familiarize yourself with available types, sizes, and aspect ratios. Find out the best style of monitor for CAD.

Input Devices. Be sure to choose a well-designed keyboard and mouse, trackball, or other input device. Some, such as 3dconnexion's 3D mice and Contour Design's RollerMouse, enable ways of working not possible otherwise. Let your physical needs, work style, and workflow guide your choice of input device.

Multi-Function CAD printers are an important tool for your CAD office. Be sure to get one that fulfills your office's needs. Pay attention to ink replacement and paper costs, print times, and what other functions needed.


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