Hardware advice: Desktop and Displays

This page is part of the Hardware Advice series

We’ve tried to keep the information as general as possible. We do this to keep things understandable on one hand, and to prevent the information from getting outdated too quickly on the other hand. Technological advances are quick so some information may be a little obsolete. We’ll try to keep it up-to-date though.

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Desktop computer

Processor (CPU)

It doesn’t really matter which brand you get: AMD and Intel both make good processors. Make sure you select a ‘fully featured’ type. Do not get a lightweight processor that’s designed to be used for typical office applications (Intel i3, AMD Athlon/Sempron, etc.).

It’s important to consider the price, raw performance and energy efficiency. The final decision will probably depend on the prices at the moment and personal preference.

Nowadays most processors have multiple ‘cores’. This means that the processor can do multiple tasks in parallel. We recommend getting a quad core processor.

Make a selection based on the best price/efficiency/performance ratio, but also consider the near future. The fastest processors are (relatively speaking) too expensive. Models that are a few steps slower usually already have pretty good price/performance values, while the processor is still quick enough to last a few years. We advise you to consider energy consumption as well: especially the energy consumption when your computer is idle.

Motherboard

The motherboard is the base of your computer, housing all components, such as the processor, memory, graphics adapter and connecting to the hard disk etc. The choice will depend on the type of processor. Furthermore there is usually some choice for “extras”. Many motherboards have integrated components, such as a sound adapter and network adapter. In most cases it’s convenient to have them already integrated on the motherboard.

Select a motherboard that offers sufficient connections, for example to connect USB (3.0) devices, network, eSATA, etc. Don’t go overboard either though. If you decide to build your own system, buy the ‘right amount’ of motherboard to fit the tasks you intend to use your computer for. When you buy a preconfigured computer, the selection for the motherboard is determined by the manufacturer. Check whether it offers the connections you want.

Memory (RAM)

When your computer has insufficient memory, performance will be poor. This is especially the case when you’re working in several heavy applications simultaneously, like having Photoshop, Maya and even several internet browser tabs open at the same time. Choose a minimum of 8 gigabytes, but 16GB is recommended.

Graphics adapter (GPU)

Actually applications such as Maya and Rhino require a dedicated graphics adapter (nVidia Quadro or AMD FirePro), but as budget is limited in most cases, this is not always a viable option.

Alternatively you can use graphics adapters that are designed for games to get acceptable performance. There are two main manufacturers: AMD (formerly ATI) and nVidia. Theoretically both are fine, but practice shows that especially the drivers of ATI/AMD cards have nuisances or major problems more often in professional CAD applications. Therefore we recommend getting an nVidia GeForce GTX graphics adapter.

The video memory is of limited importance for us in CAD and 3D applications: for games a large video memory is really important. New dedicated graphics adapters all come with at least 2GB of video memory, which already is sufficient for your typical CAD needs.

We recommend selecting a graphics adapter that has a digital output (DVI, HDMI or DisplayPort) for digital displays (LCD/TFT), but that’s already very common. If you already have a display, note that you can connect DisplayPort to HDMI or DVI and vice versa using a cheap adapter cable, so you’re not restricted to buy a graphics adapter that has exactly the same type of connector as your display. It’s nice when the graphics adapter can connect two displays. Using a multi-display setup has great advantages, since you’ll have more on-screen space to organize your program windows.

An adapter of about €100-€150 will already offer sufficient performance which, for example, allows smooth display and interaction with high detail models in Maya and Revit. Depending on your budget and your wishes you may opt for a more powerful and expensive video card. Make sure the extra money is spent on a faster graphics processor and not only on more video memory.

Integrated graphics, such as Intel HD/Iris Pro, are not suitable for CAD applications.

Storage

For Windows and your applications, get a solid state drive (SSD). You would need at least 120GB, but 240 is recommended. You could opt for 500GB or more to be able to store your other files, so you can load and save them even faster.

Desktop computers can house 3.5 inch hard drives, which is great for bulk storage. When selecting a hard disk, make sure you get a model that offers at least 3 years of warranty (some models only have one year). This hard disk can be used to store your bulk data.

So we recommend to get a SSD for your operating system and applications and a traditional hard disk for your bulk data. This topic is discussed in more detail on the tips ‘n tricks page.

Even though the use of optical drives is diminishing having a CD/DVD/Blu-ray in your computer could still come in handy: also lack of space in a desktop case is logically not a big issue like it is with laptops. Select a model that supports Dual Layer DVD, DVD+RW and DVD-RW. Blu-ray is optional. Being able to write backups to DVD (or Blu-ray) is very useful.

Quality components

We recommend spending your money on quality as well, which means don’t get the cheapest of the cheapest. It’s absolutely worth the extra money to have a reliable and stable computer, especially when you depend on it for your studies and work. Well known A-brands include: ASUS, Gigabyte, MSI (for motherboards and GPUs), Antec, Corsair, Seasonic (cases and power supplies), etc.

Display

A display is essential for a desktop computer, but might also be interesting when you buy a laptop. Usually it offers a better working environment (position) and a bigger screen with higher resolution so you can fit more on your display, which might be nice.

Size and resolution

It is recommended to go for a monitor with a display resolution of 1920×1080 (Full HD) or better. An additional display (dual monitor) is also recommended if you have the space and your graphics adapter supports it (most do). The extra space on your screen makes working with applications with lots of windows and buttons much more convenient and helps you to focus on your tasks and keep overview.

Looking at physical dimensions, all good monitors are basically over 20 inch in size (smaller monitors often have worse specifications and are best avoided). A good size to aim for is 23 inch diagonal. You could go larger if you like, providing there’s enough space on your desk. Just be sure that you’re not sacrificing screen performance for more inches or unimportant ‘extra features’.

Quality

It’s important that your display offers above average quality in color fidelity, good contrast ratio and sufficient controls for display and position. The response time is less important: it’s only important when playing games.

Monitor performance is firstly dependent on the type of panel used (this site explains clearly what to look for): monitors come with TN, VA or IPS panels and variants thereof. IPS displays offer the best color rendition and are thus the type of panel you should go for.

Recommended manufacturers are, among others: Dell, ASUS, NEC, and Eizo. Pay attention to the type of display. Most manufacturers have displays for various applications. Select a screen that is targeted at the graphics market. Displays aimed at gaming are less suitable. On most websites you can find information on targeted use or performance in the various categories.

Connection

LCD displays are ‘digital’ and are therefore best connected to your computer using a digital connection, provided your graphics card or laptop supports digital video output. It’s common that you have to buy a DisplayPort-, HDMI- or DVI-cable separately: in most cases only a standard ‘analog’ cable is supplied with your display. A digital connection offers far better display quality. DisplayPort, HDMI and DVI are all digital connections. There are various cables and converters that allow you to connect a DVI display to a HDMI output or vice-versa.

Summary

Desktop computer:

  • ‘Fully featured’ Intel or AMD processor. Brand doesn’t really matter;
  • Sufficient connections (USB, sound, network) on the motherboard;
  • Minimum 8 gigabytes of memory;
  • nVidia graphics adapter. AMD adapters have (driver) problems with professional 3D applications more often;
  • A-quality components;
  • SSD for system + application: 120GB minimum, 240GB recommended + hard disk drive with 3 years warranty for bulk data

Display:

  • Minimum 20” IPS display (Full HD 1920×1080 pixels). Larger (23″) is recommended;
  • Optimized for graphical applications (not games);
  • Use a digital connection: DisplayPort or HDMI.
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