Recommended CAD laptops?

My team is in search of laptops for cad and programming, and would like to know what you recommend in terms of hardware. I’m currently looking at laptops under $300. If you know of a company that would be willing to donate laptops to a Florida team, please tell me.

A sub $300 laptop is going to be nearly worthless at CAD for any sizable assembly.

Should gave mentioned we’re fine with used…
I know a decent new cad laptop will run around 500-700 $, but used laptops seem to dip dramatically in price.

You will need to budget a lot higher.

Some specs to look for, in addition to the minimum specs of the software you use:

–CPU clock speed is important, the higher the better. More cores will help with rendering speed. I would recommend a clock speed of at least 3 GHz “turbo”, with 4 cores. This will typically mean an Intel Core-i7, although you can get away with an i5. You can compare Intel CPUs here.

–Get as much RAM as you can. I would consider 8 GB minimum. Keep in mind that, depending on the laptop, you might be able to install more yourself.

–A dedicated GPU is a plus, if you can afford it. The newer Intel HD integrated graphics are getting a lot better though. Intel Iris integrated graphics are better, with dedicated Nvidia/AMD the best option. The gamer GPUs (GTX/Radeon) will work, but a workstation GPU (Quadro/FirePro) are more optimized for CAD. These are typically found on the more expensive business laptops. Keep in mind that integrated graphics will use system memory for graphics data.

–A SSD for storage will drastically reduce the time it takes to load the software and load/save a large model. They are expensive, however, and may not fit in your budget.

Okay, thanks for the help! I build my own desktops, so I’ll ask our mentors if a CAD desktop would be fine, as that would probably be a lot cheaper than a laptop. Now that I know the required hardware, I can look into trying to get specific parts. :slight_smile:

How large are you expecting your assembles to be? $500-700 new may not be enough. Also I believe a desktop will give you more power for the price and would consider that first before a laptop. CAD is really meant to be done on a workstation PC which for laptops starts at something more like $1,200 maybe.

In short your best bet is to get them donated. An interesting tactic I thought of was to search job listings in your area for companies who need people who know CAD or any other skill that would require the use of a computer with that kind of power. Then ask them for the old ones they have. Also any engineering school at a university near you.

Example Lenovo

And desktops:

PS I’m writing this on a Lenovo W540 laptop.

for CAD I would reccomend a desktop over a laptop just because they are more powerful and you shouldn’t need to do cad on the go, for programming anything will work really, just make sure it has an alright keyboard because of the excessive typing you will bee doing on it.

Some teams may not have the space to keep a desktop set up 24/7.

You can setup the desktop onto a small cart that can be rolled into a closet or storage space. You can also setup and store the desktop computer at every meeting (not ideal, but that’s what we did on 228 when I was in high school).

It’s way cheaper to get workstation graphics cards like NVIDIA Quadro or AMD FireGL (that are needed if you want to do serious [full FRC robot] CAD assemblies) in a desktop form factor compared to a laptop.

Unfortunately you need to pay a price for a decent CAD workstation. Either a fairly pricey laptop that doesn’t take up much room or a less expensive desktop that takes up a lot more room. Even something like a Macbook Pro will choke on a halfway decent sized SolidWorks assembly. Trust me…I know…I switched to a new Dell Precision laptop, but I paid the price for it. For something that can whip around large assemblies, you really probably want a dedicated video card, and that generally sets the baseline price fairly high for laptops that can do CAD. Do you need a Dell Precision to do it? No. It can be done with a much cheaper laptop, and this was the computer I wanted.

A couple points on CAD computers:

  1. A workstation graphics card is definitely better, but I have been doing just fine on full robot assemblies and more with a gaming graphics card (specifically 2 nVidia GT750M’s each with 2GB memory). Gaming cards might be cheaper than the high end workstation cards, and will be more easily available in most laptops and pre-built desktops. Also, in my experience, integrated graphics just doesn’t cut it, but the last time I used integrated graphics to CAD was with an Intel HD3000 chip, and it was terrible.

  2. Having a desktop workstation is nice if you only ever plan on working in one spot, but I always preferred to be able to take my work home or wherever, and for that, laptop portability is awesome if you can justify the extra cost. It is also nice to have flashy CAD models you can hold up on a laptop in the pits to show to judges and other visitors (We used Solidworks eDrawings on an iPad, which can also be done, and that year we won the Quality Award at both regionals we attended). Also, even though I prefer a laptop, I never CAD without a mouse, and having a number pad is also really nice for dimensioning parts.

  3. Definitely get an SSD or a hybrid drive. My laptop (stupidly) came with a 5400 rpm SATA drive that I didn’t replace, and I find it is responsible for every bottleneck I’ve had so far with my computer, including CAD problems.

For reference, I have a 15" Lenovo IdeaPad (which I love) with a quad-core i7 (clock speed 3.something), dual nVidia 750M graphics cards, 8GB RAM (could maybe use 12), and a 1TB hard drive. I have had no problems other than the previously mentioned read speed issue when running Solidworks, Inventor, and Creo, often two at the same time.

We purchased two Dell Latitude 5000 series laptops just before build season and they worked out great for running SolidWorks. They have Intel Core i5 processors, 8Gb of RAM, 500Gb Hybrid HDD, the Intel HD Graphics 4400 and Windows 7. They were a little under $800 each. We modeled our entire robot including almost all of the electronics, nuts, screws and even a few rivets (the devil’s in the details!) Didn’t include the wiring. No problem viewing and manipulating the full model even when placed on the model of the full field with game pieces. Takes about a minute to load the full model. We didn’t try any high res renders and we didn’t do any FEA.

If you’re looking for cheap(er) CAD workstations, I’d recommend at least taking a look at Dell off-lease computers. Are they going to be the prettiest machines? No, and they might require a bit of modification, but they’ll likely be cheaper than something brand new.

I’ve never tried this method, but I’ve heard it brought up several times over the past few years.

The good news is that teams were building great CAD models five and ten years ago, using the technology that existed at the time. That should confirm that you don’t need the latest, greatest processor and video card to do meaningful CAD.

At home I use a five year old desktop computer running Windows 8.1, with an Intel Core 2 Quad Q8300 processor running at 2.5GHz. It has 4GB of RAM, and an ATI Radeon HD3850 video card. For most basic parts and assemblies, it runs Autodesk Inventor 2015 just as well at it did five years ago.

It does bog down a bit on bigger assemblies… I downloaded the “Simbot Evolution” STEP file from the CAD section of Simbotics website (thanks, 1114, your CAD files make a nice benchmark!). It takes quite a while (maybe a minute? a bit more?) to open the file. It moves a bit jerkily when I zoom, but actually rotates okay. Edits can be… well, tedious would be a good word… but they do happen. Eventually.

To be honest, I wouldn’t want to use my computer to edit the entire assembly of Simbot Evolution. I could probably speed the process up quite a bit by turning off parts of the model that I don’t need to see. Or by realistically asking if I’m ever going to need to design something with as many speed holes as that beast! But the fact of the matter is… it does work, and on less detailed models it works fabulously.

The Passmark rating for my CPU is about 3000. Compare that to the CPUs on this chart and you might have an idea of a minimum CPU performance level

The Passmark rating for my video card is about 400. Looking at this chart will suggest you can’t buy a discrete video card that slow any more

And get at least 8GB, just because you can.

In the fall I had the opportunity to review a Lenovo P300 (… an entry level desktop workstation. I could drop 12 copies of Simbot Evolution into Inventor before the P300 started to bog down. That was nice, but probably overkill for your needs.

A $300 laptop should work great for modelling parts and simple assemblies, but if you want to crunch a highly detailed full-blown Simbot style assembly, you will definitely enjoy the luxury of a more powerful machine. Depending on your modelling needs a $300 laptop might make a great CAD machine… I know the only time this old desktop of mine really bogs down is when I do silly things like load Simbot models or do a lot of RAW photo editing.


Any modern computer will run CAD in a basic sense. But once you get into advanced work and large assemblies, you need something more powerful.

I’ve recently spec’d this particular HP laptop for my first-year classes, since I’m required to buy out of the HP business line. We currently run on HP EliteDesk 800 G1 machines with i5-4570 processors, 8GB of RAM, and integraded Intel HD4600 graphics. It’s totally fine for what we do in this first year class, and it’s still workable for more advanced work as needed. We do basic work in Autodesk Inventor 2015. An HP Z-book would be preferred, but this particular 650 G1 laptop is superior in some ways, such as the faster processor and a 10-key number section on the keyboard, and it’s considerably cheaper than a Z-book. An SSD is preferred, but I’ll live with the 7200 RPM spinning disk. If I were buying one laptop just for team use, I’d have other manufacturers and more choices. Laptops in the consumer line are often better performance for less money than business-class laptops.

If I were buying a laptop today, I absolutely would not get anything without a 1920x1080 screen. 1366x768 just doesn’t cut it for CAD, and the jump in screen resolution is really where the dividing line is in laptop prices in the market. Also, today, I probably would either get or put an SSD in anything I buy. It’s a big performance difference.

I’ve run Inventor 2013 with full robot models on an i5-2450m with 8GB of RAM and the on-die Intel HD3000 graphics and it was fine. I had about $500 into that machine about 2-3 years ago. Not stellar, but completely usable with Inventor 2013. Inventor 2015 has higher system requirements.

There’s really three things you need for CAD:

A fast CPU (the higher the clock speed the better)
A ton of RAM
A great graphics card

and if you have an SSD, that’s icing on the cake. And really, they’ve gotten cheap enough nowadays where I wouldn’t build or buy any new system without one. You’ll never go back to a spinning disk.

On CPU’s, there are some interesting and unfavorable trends taking place as of currently. As the manufacturing process gets smaller, the clock speeds are actually getting slower, and although new technologies are allowing for more instructions per clock cycle, certain newer CPUs are actually slower than their older counterparts. The emphasis in CPUs over the past year has been economy and efficiency, not necessarily performance. Intel has been putting out a lot of CPUs with low clock speeds that draw a very low amount of power, to pack into devices with small batteries while maintaining all-day run times. Certain 5th-gen Core-iX series CPUs are slower than their 4th-gen predecessors, and certain 4th-gen Core-iX series CPUs are slower than their 3rd-gen predecessors. If there’s a U in the part number like i5-4200U, it’s underclocked. Now clock speed isn’t everything. Really, you need to look at a benchmark, like from Passmark. And look at the single-thread rating, as most CAD work is single-threaded, unless you are rendering. Only recently has CAD moved into the realm of multi-threading many of the routine tasks and functions. You’ll be better off with a fast dual core processor, rather than a slower quad core.

For desktops, it’s hard to beat the previous generation HP Z series workstations. Media companies are offloading them by the pallet-fulls after buying new generation ones, and they’re all over eBay for reasonable prices. Even though they’re a few years old, they’re still rock-star workstations for the price. The Z400 with the Xeon X3565 processor is where I found the sweet spot between performance and value. Check out a listing like thisor this. Both have 12 gigs of RAM in triple channel, which is a great performance boost. The second one I liked has a water cooler and an SSD in addition to a 2TB spinning disk. The first one has a Quadro 2000 card which is slightly better than the Quadro FX3800 in the system with the SSD. If you watch eBay regularly, I bet you can swing one about $100 cheaper than either of these listings. I did. Be careful to look only for systems with Windows 7 CofAs included on them, unless you have extra Windows licenses sitting around, or you plan to buy one. Some of the Z400s are sold with a Windows 7 license, some without. You may also want to look at Z200, Z210, Z220, Z600, etc.

If you’re looking to assemble and customize yourself, one of the best values in computing right now is the Lenovo TS140. It’s $224 with 4GB RAM and no HDD, $484 with 16GB RAM and a 1TB spinning disk. Either way, throw in a Quadro K620 or a FirePro card for about $160 and you’ve got a rockin CAD workstation. Keep in mind though, the Lenovo TS140 does not come with a Windows license like the HP Z400 systems I linked above. You would have to provide that here.

For the year 2015, any new CAD system I recommend 8GB of RAM to do basic work. To work with a full robot model, 16GB of RAM.

On graphics cards, it really depends on which application you plan to use. Solidworks is Open GL and you’ll be better off with a workstation-class graphics card such as a FirePro or Quadro. On the Autodesk side of things, it’s all Direct X, and will perform very well on a gaming-class card, and acceptably on Intel HD graphics. However, I will mention that Autodesk only certifies workstation class cards, not gaming cards.

To outfit a brand new school lab with business-class desktops for some serious and fast CAD, animation, and simulation work without totally blowing the bank, here’s what I’d recommend as of today.

Finally, don’t skimp out on the monitor. You don’t have to go totally overboard, but something like dual 24" 1920x1080 displays is really where it’s at if you can fit them on the desk. If you can only fit one monitor, perhaps look into a single 27" 2560x1440, or perhaps a 29" ultrawide at 2560x1080, or one of the new beautiful 34" Ultrawides at 3440x1440, but that’ll cost ya. It’s hard to beat dual 22-24" widescreens at 1920x1080 for screen real-estate and size versus value. I’d stay away from 4K monitors at this point in time. Everybody says get an IPS panel, and I own some, and they’re nice, but honestly I use a TN all day every day and it serves me just fine, and it’s cheaper.

On the bottom line here, if ~$300 really is all the budget you have to work with, and it really must be a laptop, get the fastest Core i3 you can find in your budget. We have several Acer laptops that we’ve been very happy with.

If you’re affiliated with a school, you can do a project on DonorsChoose to get a laptop, but it will take a little longer.

a few things to consider about speccing a CAD computer:

-memory and processor speed matter most. not necessarily number of cores, particularly when opening a large assembly, each part must be loaded in sequence or in serial and unless something has changed with processors lately, this process cant switch between cores. keep that in mind when opening large step files too for the same reason. let it run, dont switch to another window while the assembly loads in the background, surprisingly you might get a different or failed to open result.

-gaming graphic cards dont do anything for the type of graphics needed for 3D CAD. the type of graphics of updating small colored fragments at high framerates has little to do with rendering wireframe lines and manipulating (rotating) parts on the fly. look up solidworks approved list of graphics cards to find the type of graphics card youll want. honestly a good intel i7 integrated HD graphics is more than enough.

-SSDs are amazing. but if its not in your budget, it wouldnt be the most important thing. it mainly helps for large assembly load time and startup.

-again about memory, run at least 4gigs and windows 64. after solidworks 2014 you cant run it on a 32bit OS anyway. BUT, doesnt mean you cant just use an older version and run 32bit. youll just run into back compatibility limitations when importing files saved with newer versions.

Regardless of your hardware, from some super workstation to a 10" netbook, you should still follow some good practices to maximize the performance when running solidworks, particularly when opening large assemblies.

-disable shadows, or any realview graphics from the view settings far right drop down on the heads up GUI. perspective should be orthogonal. use a simple 3 pt shaded background or plain white.

-create dummy parts to represent subassemblies in a larger assembly (think drivebase gearbox). recreate the same interfaces (holes, mating surfaces) and general volume. this will help reduce assembly load times and reduce the number of wireframe edges (more on that next). if your computer can handle the graphics, but want to reduce the load time anyway, you can save a complete assembly as a part and place that part instead of the assembly.

-create dummy parts to represent complex parts. when i say complex, parts with lots of wireframe ridges like gears and electronic parts that were imported from step. its all the extra wireframes that slows the computations down when revolving or zooming the full assembly. make a gear a simple disc, or replace the PDB or victor with a box of the appropriate size and interfaces.

-suppress or hide parts/subassemblies when not needed. particularly hardware screws (if you bothered to add them, you should at some point). organize parts using folders and you can suppress and unsuppress groups quickly. and keeps the assembly tree simpler.

-any part that turns into a large blob when youre running sluggish and rotating is a good clue that is whats slowing the graphics down and should be either hidden or dummified.

-maximize your memory by not leaving other windows programs running, browser, etc.

that all being said, i still have my HP core2 duo that can open a complete robot from 2011. same laptop is selling for $135 on ebay…

I use Intel HD graphics on my laptop and I dislike it, however, it will open large assemblies (slowly). i7 core, 8gb ram, but the lack of a dedicated graphics card just kills it. I would say an i7 + 8gb ram + Nvida card would be good enough for just about anything you care to do.

One addition, no matter what, if the OS is MS Windows based, make sure it is a 64 bit OS, so you can actually install and make use of the 8~16 GB of memory you may install. The 32 bit OS severely limits the RAM allowed, no matter if the hardware allows it to be installed.

And remember (Win 7 or higher), you will qualify for a FREE Win 10 upgrade when released to the public. So time those purchases well and snatch up a ton of Win 7 & 8.1 units right around release time on e-bay or elsewhere. I’m buying Win 7 Premium (64 bit), multi-core i7 laptops now, restoring & refurbishing, upgrading them, and selling them often right now. The drives are large, cores are fast, they take 8~16 GB RAM (and that promised FREE OS Upgrade is a great selling point). But, I add my special touches and tools.

Sadly nobody is building a decent add in MMX graphics card anymore…An old HP ZD8000 (17" LCD 1 HD Bay), or DV7 (DV7 has a large 21" LCD and 2 HD bays), was the perfect unit w/ the add in cards (used a ton for Karoke units because of the extreme graphics reached, needed, and used, and each takes 8 GB RAM), but they run really hot until tricked out w/ copper shims on the graphics chips internally, and a copper bridge added to the 3 fan cooled triple vented copper heatsink from them to actually connect to that heatsink. (Then they run nice and cool w/ super ATI graphics). Those laptops weigh a ton though due to the 3 fans internally. Case is very heavy. (NOTE: Stay w/ the ATI graphics and less fear of the dreaded black screen & necessary non-leaded solder needing a reball of the vid chip problems & issues).

Anyone have a super water cooled Desktop or Server unit running CAD? How about liquid nitrogen cooled yet?

I build em’ & sell em’, but I can’t donate them. SRY. (But I am reasonable).