This is a really hotly debated topic amongst drafters and anyone that uses any high end creative software. That is to say 3D modelling, photo processing and Video editing. I am not even going to pretend this article will put the debates to bed, however I hope that it will make people think a little differently about how they spec their next computer.
Opposed to just telling you what computer to buy, although I will give some recommendations at the end of the article, hopefully by the end of reading this you will feel comfortable enough to either make an informed decision about which computer to buy or possibly take the plunge and build your first task specific computer to suit your needs. Honestly, learning about all this “stuff” is one of the best things I have done in my career and has saved me tens of thousands of dollars in the process.
Like most people, the question came up for me when my computer was working to slowly for a job I was working on a little over 12 months ago. I was faced with the daunting task of building a “super computer” to process a huge scan job in a big hurry. A task made all the more difficult by the fact no one knew exactly what components I was going to need for this computer. In my search for answers I did the usual thing of going to the “high end” computer shops. (You know the ones where we mere mortals get uncomfortable with all the LEDs and computer components in glass cases.) I also trawled computer and software forums for some deeper insight into what I might need. It quickly became apparent that no one really had a definitive answer.
The two big issues I had here were;
- What components do I need to process point clouds fast?
- Will those components work with my modelling and drafting software?
To answer #1 was almost impossible to find because the only other people processing vast quantities of scan data were either huge firms doing it in house and didn’t seem to care about processing times. Or they were other small operators that either just put up with the time it took or had no real idea about computer hardware and were throwing out “theories” as fact. It appeared that no one had looked closely at the way the software was actually working with the computer and what changing the computer internals (hardware) would actually do. If anyone out there genuinely knew what was going on and how to process this data in a hurry they weren’t posting about it online.
The answer to #2 was equally hard to work out due to the amount of “noise” out there on the topic of what works and why. Forums and the internet in general are full of arguments about which set up works best and very little information about why.
The key to this very difficult and stubborn lock was to work out what hardware the software was using and go from there. However, before I could work out what the software was doing, I had to understand the hardware.
This section is meant to be a very basic explanation of the insides of a computer aimed at those of us out there that are better at working with the software than the hardware. If you don’t know a CPU form a GPU or RAM, then read on. If you already understand the basics of computers, feel free to skip ahead to Working out How Your Software Works.
For any IT folks reading this, please don’t laugh too hard at this section. While I already had a better than average understanding of computers and did a lot of research, I have also spent the last 12 months or so “testing” what I have learned to prove it was right. That said I openly admit I have the google/youtube degree in IT. That and some guidance from some mates (IT types) and the good folks at a couple of different computer shops around Brisbane.
The Main Bits
The cool kids call them MOBOs, but basically this is the bit that all the other components plug into and makes them “talk” to each other. The most important thing to understand is that they have different socket types that relate to the CPU you end up with. It is also the case that the higher end the Motherboard the more/better stuff you can plug into it. It is also important to understand that not all Motherboards can work with all components. This will come into play a little later.
CPU (Central Processing Unit)
This is the thing that crunches all the information your software works with and creates. It ultimately runs the show. This is one of the most commonly referred to components. It is the i5/i7 Dual/Quad core thingy most computer advertisements refer to. Probably the most important thing to understand here is that the higher the gigahertz (Ghz) number, the faster the computer will work. I will delve a little deeper later.
RAM (Random Access Memory)
This is probably up there with the most commonly talked about components of a computer and the go to for anyone who knows little to nothing about computers. If you are ever talking to anyone about computer issues and their first response is “put more RAM in it”, then most of the time you will know to ignore almost anything else that comes out of their mouth about computers. It really is a misunderstood part of the computer.
The crux of what happens here is that your software needs a certain amount of information to work with and access quickly all the time. However, the computer doesn’t always need that information on hand so in stores that information in the RAM and “deletes” or “drops” it from the RAM when you close your software. Some software also uses the RAM for certain processes, so while it is possible that you may need more RAM, it is not always the case if your software isn’t using it.
Graphics Card (GPU – Graphics Processing Unit)
Motherboards have a built in GPU, known as on board graphics, but these days a dedicated graphics card is so cheap that almost all new computers have one. This is the bit in the advertisements that says something like “2 gig graphics”. While the GPU plays an important part in the computer for some software other software doesn’t use the GPU at all. You may be surprised to learn that a lot of CAD software doesn’t actually rely on the graphics card all that much. I know I was. This is why it is so important to understand what your computer is doing when it is slowing down if you are looking to upgrade.
Hard Drives (HDD – Hard Disk Drive or SSD – Solid State Drive)
This is the place that your software is installed and your files are saved to. You will always need at least one of these, which one can be pretty confusing, but we will get into that later.
Probably the single most important part of your computer, without it, nothing else will work. This is a little box that you plug the cable from the wall into and it supplies the right amount of power to the other components.
Motherboards have a built in one, which is good enough for most people. You can buy a dedicated sound card which, despite what I was always told, they do make a huge difference to the quality of the sound your computer puts out.
Video Capture Cards
These cards are used to record the things happening on your computer screen and save them as a video on your hard drive. These are not needed by the vast majority of people, but they can be used to do things like video tutorials. That said there is a lot of software available out there to do this same task, so I don’t think they will be around for much longer.
This is the broad, over arching term for everything you can plug into your computer. Everything from your keyboard to your mouse and headphones is considered a peripheral.
This is the box that all the bits mentioned above go into. While this might be obvious the choice of cases is quite frankly frightening! Thankfully your choice will be determined mainly by the bits you put in it, your budget and personal taste. That makes it both the easiest and most difficult thing to choose.
Now that I had an understanding of the hardware, I had to understand how the software interacts with the hardware.
Working out How Your Software Works
This could be a whole article in itself on each bit of software, but there is a short cut to working this out without having to go into that level of detail.
The easiest way to work out what hardware your software is using is to watch your task manager, or to get a little closer look, the resource monitor. For the uninitiated, this is the window you normally go to when you want to force close a program that has hung (stopped working/responding). What a lot of people don’t realize is that you can click on the performance tab and see what your computer is doing. You can get to it by either pressing CTRL+SHIFT+ESC or by right clicking on your toolbar and selecting task manager from the menu, or the one most people know press CTRL+ALT+DELETE and selecting task manager.
Windows 7 Task Manager
On the windows 7 Task Manager, the top line shows the overall CPU usage as a percentage to the left and the individual core usage as a graph on the right. The more cores your CPU has the more graphs you will see. (You may need to go to View>CPU History>One Graph per CPU in the menu at the top.) How many graphs you see will depend on your CPU, but you will see at least 1 per physical core. So if you have a Dual or Quad core processor you can expect to see 2 or 4 graphs respectively. If your CPU has Hyper-Threading you will see two graphs per core. This is starting to get a little deep, and we will get back to it later.
The bottom line shows the RAM usage as a percentage on the left and a graph on the right. This one is pretty straight forward and just shows how much of your RAM is being used.
Windows 8 Task Manager
Windows 10 Task Manager
To get one graph per CPU as per the above images for windows 8 and 10, right click on the graph hover over the “change graph to” at the top of the menu and select “logical processors” from the drop down list. Each of the graphs on the left side can be clicked on to show a larger graph for that particular component and in the case of windows 10 you even have a graph for the GPU, meaning all of your hardware can be monitored live from the task manager.
While this is the most basic look at what your system is doing it can often be enough to work out what you have to upgrade or where your computer issues may be coming from.
All graphs are “live view” and will change as you open, use and close programs.
The information at the bottom show some stats that can be handy if you are looking to get a deeper understanding of what is going on. If you need to see a more detailed view of what is happening you can click the “Resource Monitor” button or “Open Resource Monitor” and you can see some really detailed information on what programs are using what resources, but for the most part you don’t have to worry about that for now.
If you have multiple screens you can keep the Task Manager open on another screen while you are working on the computer. If you don’t have multiple screens you can select “Always on top” from the options menu.
By monitoring the Task Manager and/or the Resource Monitor you can see which hardware is being used to the maximum when your computer is slowing down.
In the case of windows 7, if neither of graphs are being maxed out when your computer is slowing down, then your problem likely lies with either your hard drive or Graphics Card. You can monitor the hard drive usage in the resource monitor. If your hard drive isn’t the issue it is likely your graphics card.
If your files are on a network resource like a server, another computer or NAS (Network Attached Storage), then the issue could be that. Opening, modifying and saving files across a network is almost always much slower than saving them to a local internal hard drive. You can also see the network usage in the Resource Monitor. If you are not seeing anything being maxed out in either the Task Manager or Resource Monitor, then the issue could be (is most likely) with the graphics card.
To monitor the graphics card usage, you will need a dedicated program. Some graphics cards come with software to monitor the performance, or you can download software like GPU-Z. Almost the only time you will see the graphics cards working to their full potential is on the latest and greatest games or if you are using a GPU based render engine to render 3D scenes/movies. If you didn’t understand the last part of that last sentence, then it likely doesn’t apply to you and I can almost guarantee that you don’t need a more powerful graphics card. It is actually mind blowing how few programs and processes rely on a graphics card. That includes CAD software.
I should stress that you should monitor your computer for at least a week if you feel it is a more general overall feeling of slowness. If there is a specific task you want to speed up you should do that task and actually time how long it takes. This way you can run the process again after you have upgraded your hardware and see how much of a difference it has made, if any. Once you have worked out what hardware your computer is using, you will need to work out what to buy to best suit the software.
Choosing the Hardware
This bit will look at each component and go through in detail the list of questions you will need to answer in order to pick the right components for your computer. This section is written from the perspective of building a high end workstation for CAD work, so if you are just looking to buy a decent upgraded Desktop or Laptop form a Computer store you can probably skip to the recommendation section after the Hard Drives section.
When I was trying to work out what to get I figured out the order you had to choose your parts was as follows;
- RAM Quantity and speed
- Graphics Card(s)
- Hard Drives
- Power Supply
- Other Internals
To this effect, we will look at the components in that order. However you will need to keep the motherboard in mind during the selection of each one of the components. The reason for this is that not all components will work with each other due to the fact it may not be possible to get a motherboard that can make them all work together. Think of the choice of motherboard like a game of guess who whereby, you choose a motherboard based on what will work with all the other components you choose.
There are a few things to think about when choosing a CPU;
- What brand of CPU do you want to go with? (Intel or AMD)
- Will your software work with multi-core CPUs and Hyper threading?
- How fast does it need to be? (Ghz number)
The brand of CPU, Intel or AMD, will determine the Socket type and what motherboards are available with that socket type. This will also impact a lot of the other components depending on what can and can’t work with the motherboards and the CPUs. Which is why CPU choice is first up.
The answer to number two is a little difficult to work out sometimes in software literature, but stands out like nothing else when looking at your Task Manager. If the program(s) you are using is only using a single CPU core (single threaded) it will max out one of the CPU graphs only. If it is using multiple CUPs it will show increased activity on more than one graph. If it is using Hyper-Threading then it will increase activity on all graphs (typically). If you are using software that is only using a single core then having the biggest fastest 12 core CPU won’t necessarily help speed up your work all that much compared to a 2 core processor with the same Ghz number. If your programs are working with multiple cores then the more cores you can afford to throw at it the better.
The last thing to consider is the speed of the processor. That is the Ghz number and this is how fast the processor can crunch the data it needs to. The general rule of thumb is to go as fast (biggest Ghz number) as you can. This will be heavily governed by your budget though. The CPU is the typically the single most expensive part of the computer.
RAM Quantity and Speed
There are two critical considerations when looking at RAM, quantity and speed. The speed at which the RAM can take on, drop and take on more information is governed by the MHz number of the RAM.
Again, this is going to be governed a little by what will work with your motherboard choice. But most motherboards seem to work with most RAM. The individual motherboard manufactures will have a detailed list of the RAM they support. While you will get the best performance from supported RAM it isn’t always critical.
The more important bit is to work out how much RAM you need. If you are using a program or process that is using a lot of RAM than the more you can afford to throw in it the better. The good news is though that you can always add more RAM later to spread the cost over time if you get a motherboard that will let you do that. If you are going to buy RAM over a period of time, the one thing you need to be careful of is that you get RAM that matches the stuff you put in when you built the computer or get a full new set. Where this counts at the time of the build/purchase is determining the quantity of RAM you plan to eventually use. If you intend on using 128Gb or more of RAM that will really limit the number of motherboards you can choose from. This can also affect the choice of CPU which is why I put it as second choice.
When it comes to graphics cards they don’t matter as much as you would think. When talking about graphics cards there are 2 main things that are discussed
- Render times
- RAM or GPU Memory
When talking “render times” for a graphics card it is better to think of it as frames per second (FPS) speed than an actual time to render a JPG scene out of a program. The reason for this is that is how the graphics cards are “rated” due to the fact most of them are used for gaming and not displaying 3D models. In games the speed which a card can render a scene changes how smooth the game is and how high the definition of the game is. With 3D models though the bigger the models the higher the frame rate you need typically speaking. However it is surprising how many programs still don’t really use the graphics card all that much or at all.
The GPU Memory, the 2Gb or 4Gb bit, comes into play when you are actually rendering a Image out of a program. The catch here is that your program actually has to be using the GPU to do the rendering. This has a lot of influencing factors but if the program isn’t using the GPU to do renders it will be using the CPU and often the RAM. So that will be very evident when monitoring the Task Manager.
Should I get Multiple Graphics Cards?
The short answer is, not unless you are doing a ton of 3D rendering that relies on the graphics card(s).
If you are going to go down the multiple graphics card rabbit hole there is a hell of a lot to consider. In the small amount of research I did in to this topic (it scared me to much to keep going) I quickly worked out that there are only a handful of really specific instances where it will actually make a difference. There were even a few tests I stumbled across that showed that one big card can often be better than multiple smaller cards.
The other thing was the cost. While you can link smaller cheaper cards the real reason you are linking cards is to increase the GPU memory quantity. So by the time you link a couple of smaller cards it is cheaper to by a bigger one. This means that to get the real benefit you should be linking the bigger more expensive cards. At $800-$1200 a pop, I wasn’t doing enough rendering at the time to justify it.
There is a bit of information available online about how all this works, but it is hard to find and I found talking to my software reseller was the best source of information on this. So, if this is something you want to look into, then start by being 100% certain that your software is using the graphics card and go to your software tech support to make sure your software actually can take advantage of multiple cards.
The Great Quadro Card Debate.
Most high-end 3D modelling programs recommend using Quadro cards. While there is a host of reasons for this, which I won’t go into, in my opinion they are massively overrated. In my 10+years of 3D modelling I have only used 2 computers that used the Quadro graphics cards that everyone says you “have to have”. They both sucked as far as graphics were concerned when compared to my computers using gaming cards. This is a really well debated topic and yes sometimes you will get a driver issue when working with some 3D modelling programs, but not enough issues that it is worth the ridiculous asking prices for the Quadro cards. Most issues are pretty well documented and easy to find solutions for online. Also, if you update your driver and your 3D modelling program starts playing up it is a fair guess what caused it and you can easily rollback drivers for popular gaming graphics cards. So don’t waste the money on a Quadro card.
Hard Drives are starting to get to be a little more of a complex topic due to some recent technological break throughs. Basically, there are 2 types of hard drives on the market;
- Hard Disk Drives (HDD)
- Solid State Drives (SSD)
Hard Drives (HDD) have been around for the longest time and are the most common and cheapest. However, they are the slowest. That is to say, when you are trying to read information from them or write information to them (opening and saving files) they take the most time.
Solid State drives have been around for a while and are starting to get a little cheaper. (Think USB “thumb” drives.) These are about 5 times faster than HDDs on average when talking about internal drives. I can not describe how much of a difference these thing make to a computer. They need to be setup as the main drive (typically C) on the computer to see a major difference though. As they are newer tech, they won’t always work with all PC either, so before rushing out and getting one, talk to someone at the computer store to ensure you are not wasting your money.
For a great in depth look at the distinct types of drives have a look at this article. https://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/ssd-buying-guide,5602.html
Don’t skimp on the power supply. The cheaper ones can be a bit dodgy apparently and they can fry your newly built system the first time you flick the on switch. Also, always buy something that is a higher capacity than what you need. If you are working fine for 12 months and a graphics card that can’t be replaced dies or you need to add more ram, you don’t want to have to fork out for a new power supply as well because you were a tight arse at the start. They are one of the cheaper parts of a build, so do it right the first time. The rule of thumb should be buy for what your motherboard will support not the components you are buying.
If sound is a big thing for you, then it might be worth considering a sound card. They are cheap (I only paid about $55 for mine) and they really do make a huge difference. I got mine because for some reason my mic wasn’t working on my new set up. It was cheaper/easier/faster for me to get a sound card to fix the issue. But the sound improvement was noticeable even to me and worth the outlay.
If you are (or are planing on) doing video tutorials, then you may need a video capture card. The advantage is that they take the load off your graphics card while recording, allowing for smoother videos and over all computer performance.
The single most important thing to consider here is will there be enough room in your motherboard to fit all the bits I want to add? Most “extras” seem to use PCI or PCIe slots. So if you want a graphics card, a sound card and a video capture card then you have to have 3 or more of these slots. You also need to make sure there is enough room between the slots to fit the components. This will be detailed a little more in the motherboard selection.
Peripherals are an entirely personal thing and I won’t go into too much. But it is worth thinking about all the things you want to plug into your computer and make sure your motherboard can support all of them and still have a couple of spare slots. So if you have a lot of USB peripherals and you want to plug in an external drive or charge your phone, then you will need to make sure you have the extra USB capability. This can sometimes also be a strong consideration while choosing your case.
By now, you will have a short list of motherboards left to pick from. If you are building a high-end computer there will likely only be a couple. So the final decision will likely be governed by your budget more than almost anything else. Probably the biggest things to think about are;
- Form Factor (how big it is)
- Are there enough/the right slots to fit everything.
If you have used your high-end software requirements as your sole guide to choose your other hardware, and you have all high-end components, your choice of form factor will likely be simple, Standard ATX. If you are building a reasonably “stock” but strong drafting computer, you might want to consider one of the newer, smaller formfactors, especially if space in your work area is an issue.
While most (if not all) components that work on a Standard ATX board will fit on and work with Micro ATX boards, you will need to consider the size of the components and if they will fit on the board together. This will be especially critical when going to Mini, Nano and Pico-ITX boards. The choice of form factor may mean you need to go back and choose different components to fit your motherboard.
The biggest issue with high-end hardware working hard for long periods of time will be heat dissipation. Heat is the number one issue for computer components, it will critically shorten the life of the components and has the potential to kill your computer in a very short time. The more spread out you can make the parts the better. Just because you can fit all your parts on a smaller board doesn’t mean you should. So keep that in mind when choosing a form factor.
Number two will be governed by the quantity of bits you want to put in your computer, but you need to keep it in mind when choosing the formfactor. Smaller boards have less and a smaller variety slots typically, so don’t forget that.
Lastly you will want to consider Upgradeability. Can you add or change components in the future. If you buy a motherboard that only has just enough slots for the bits you have now, will that limit you in the future? RAM is a good example of what to consider there (if you need it). But also don’t get your motherboard from the bargain bin as they are (typically) older and will be less likely to work with newer parts in the future. While you may not plan to upgrade or think you will just buy a whole new computer, don’t forget individual components can fail. If your other part that you got out of the bargain bin dies and you can’t replace it with precisely the same part or a part that works with your motherboard, you may be up for another computer because a $200 part fails.
The last thing to choose is the case that all of this will go in to. As mentioned above, this is almost a purely personal choice, but make sure that you choose a case that will support your motherboard, and all the bits that need to plug into it. The other three considerations here are
- Will it hold all the hard drives you want to put in it?
- Will there be sufficient airflow and fan mounting on your case to keep everything cool?
- If you need extra ports for things like USB peripherals and the like, does the case support them and are they in an easily accessible place for where your computer will live?
Keep these things in mind while choosing your case and you shouldn’t go to far wrong.
Just tell me what to buy already!
OK, if you have soldiered through all of the above, by now you should have a good idea how to work out what hardware you need to get and what specifications that hardware should have. If you are still a little unsure of what to get I will tell you what I recommend building since learning about all of this stuff.
Please note that this “advice” in very general in nature and you should take the time to work out for yourself which would be the best computer for your specific needs and software. I take no responsibility for your laziness or poor decision making, if you couldn’t be bothered to read the rest of this article and work out that what I am recommending doesn’t suit your specific needs, then suck it up princess and go waste more of your money on a new computer, because it isn’t my fault.
What I would recommend for a “Drafting Computer” is as follows;
At a minimum you should be looking at a Quad Core processor of 3.2GHz. The more processors the better and the bigger the GHz number the better. If it comes down to it in most cases the GHz number is more important than the number of cores. So if you can get a 4.0GHz Quad Core processor for the same price of a 3.2GHz Hex (6) Core processor, than you should get the Quad Core.
RAM Quantity and speed
As a minimum on a drafting computer I would expect to see 32Gb of RAM of 2400MHz speed. I would recommend getting 2666MHz or 3000MHz RAM though as it is noticeably better. If the higher speed RAM is out of your budget at the time of the build, you can get away with 16Gb of the higher speed until you can afford to upgrade to 32Gb.
As a minimum you should get a mid-level gaming card. Something with about 2 – 4Gb of GPU memory.
Ideally you would get something like a GTX 1060 or better. This would allow for some low end Virtual Reality use if required also.
Size and quantity of drives will ultimately be determined by your needs, but I would strongly recommend not skimping here. Ideally you would get 2 SSDs of a minimum of 1Tb capacity. If two SSDs is a little too pricy, you can comfortably get away with one as the C drive where your operating system and programs are stored and a HDD as your storage/working drive. As a minimum your HDDs should be 7500rpm SATA drives.
If you can’t afford the SSDs at the time of the build it is typically very easy to upgrade them later, so don’t stress too much about this. Just make sure you get 7500RPM drives.
This is 100% going to be governed by what you have brought, but I would highly recommend the Corsair HX Platinum series Modular power supplies. Your best bet is to ask the folks at the store where you are buying your components what size you will need, but I would expect that you will need a 650W as a minimum and likely a 750W or 850W.
For a drafting computer you shouldn’t really need any “other” the internals. That said a couple of extra fans never hurts for getting rid of the heat. If you like to listen to music as you work a sound card could also be considered a great investment, but you will chew up a spot on the motherboard.
Again, this is a personal choice, but as a minimum you need to allow for a keyboard and mouse. Most, if not all, motherboards will have allowance for this obviously. As most peripherals are USB powered, the best thing to do here is have a look at what you are currently using and think about anything you might want to use in the future, tally that up and then add at least one USB port onto that number. It wouldn’t be unusual to find that you won’t be able to get a motherboard with enough USB ports for all of your stuff, but you can get PCI/PCIe USB boards if required however, they will require a spot on the motherboard and you will need to think about this when picking a motherboard. You can also allow to have a few USB ports on your case, just make sure that your motherboard has the capability to plug the case ports in.
Again, this will be governed 100% by your choices above. I would highly recommend sticking to a Standard ATX sized motherboard. Due to the amount of air flow that you can get around the components. Remember your drafting computer will be on/working for about 2000hrs a year, so you want good heat dissipation. The make and model doesn’t really make that big of a difference, but the more you spend the more/better features you will get. I personally have Gigabyte motherboards as they are the best bang for buck and (touch wood) haven’t had any issues with them so far.
You’re on your own here, just make sure that pretty, LED filled, gaming case you want will hold all the bits you have brought. Good luck!
Working out the best specifications you need for your computer is a strangely satisfying thing to do in this day and age. Taking the plunge of specifying and buying your own computer components then building the computer is a very rewarding and satisfying thing to do and hopeful this article goes some way to helping you with your next computer purchase or hopefully your first personal build!
Good luck and please let me know how things work out for you in the comments section below.