3D solid modelling packages such as Solid Edge, NX, Solidworks and Inventor are very demanding applications. In order to optimise productivity, choosing a workstation that is up to the task is essential.
There are big names in this market designed specifically with CAD in mind, such as Dell, HP & Lenovo.
Before beginning my research, I had already a strong prejudice towards going for a Lenovo, due to their reputation for making rock solid laptops that last. But mobile workstations don’t come cheap & it’s always worthwhile to do some research before investing.
For traditional solid modelling, single core processor speed is key, the faster the single core speed of your processor, the more responsive the application will be. There are some areas of CAD where multiple cores are a great benefit, such as CPU based rendering, but if you spend most of your time solid modelling, it makes sense to optimise for single core speed.
When looking at the processor clock frequency of the mobile workstations for the main players, I was underwhelmed. Lenovos’ top of the range offering, with its’ eye watering price tag, quoted a clock speed of “up to” 4.6GHz, which sounds impressive, but that is the turbo boost frequency of the processor, not what you can expect it to run at all day long, its’ base frequency is a more modest 2.9GHz. Even less impressive was HP & Dell’s best offerings with a base clock speed of 3.0GHz and a turbo boost to 3.9GHz. This is slower than my four year old desktop workstation, what happened to Moore’s Law?
The limitation appears to be due to the use of laptop processors. Desktop processors use more power, create more heat & need better cooling than laptop processors, if you are willing to trade off on battery life, thinness and noise, there are a number of companies that produce laptops with desktop processors. The best known, is probably Dell’s Alienware range of gaming laptops, which have an option to configure with a desktop processor, MSI also produce workstations with this option. There are also more specialist companies such as Boxx, Xi Computer & Eurocom.
This is probably one of the more controversial topics for CAD hardware. There are gaming cards and there are workstation cards, they both use basically the same hardware, but gaming cards are optimised for speed, while workstation cards are optimised for accuracy. The difference in cost between gaming and workstation cards can be large, making it difficult for a lot of people to justify the additional expense of a workstation card. The problem is most CAD packages are only certified for use with workstation cards, meaning if you are having issues with your CAD package, you may run into a dead end when dealing with support if they conclude the problem may be related to you using non-certified hardware
While some users may have luck using a gaming card for CAD, even if it works well for you, there is no guarantee that it will work as well with the next release of your CAD package.
This ruled out Alienware laptops for me, as they are gaming machines with gaming graphics cards.
After sales service
Mobile workstations don’t come cheap, you don’t want to be stuck with an expensive paperweight if things go wrong. The ability to get an issue fixed quickly is essential.
Researching Eurocom I found enough unhappy customers to convince me to look for greener pastures.
Boxx & Xi Computer are both very well regarded within the CAD community, with lots of positive comments about both vendors on many forums. Xi Computer had the best spec for my budget at the time of buying, so I decided to go with them.
Since it arrived I have been very happy with the performance and build quality of my Xi Power Go XT. I did have an issue with the power adapter, but it was quickly resolved with minimum fuss from Xi, who shipped out a replacement to me by courier. After this experience I am very happy to have chosen Xi Computer.
While expensive, I think a spare power adapter is a good investment.