Building a Cost Effective Workstation for SolidWorks - Updated


We receive a few calls every month looking for recommendations from users and CAD administrators building new PCs to run Solidworks.  Depending on your primary workflow, the PC requirements for Solidworks can vary greatly.  Let's break out the main tasks in Solidworks and see how they relate to PC hardware, then we will focus on building a BALANCED system for Solidworks that doesn't break the bank.   We can easily do this between $1250 and $2000 (or $1500-$2500 for a laptop).  If you are spending more than $2000 on a system, you are generally purchasing many "luxury" items that have little impact per $. The bleeding edge of PC technology generally refers to your wallet.

  1. Part modeling: The feature tree is serial in nature and therefore your CPU must start at the top and work its way down the tree.  You PC cannot split this task up among different cores (ie multi-threaded) to have one core start at the top and the other half-way down working in parallel.  The 2nd core just wouldn't know what to build upon since the first core has not finished its work.  This is a single threaded PC load so single core processor frequency (measured in Ghz) is key here.  Turbo boost (by Intel) is a great piece of technology because it helps overclock a single core to a higher frequency (GHz) in single threaded loads.
  2. Assemblies: Assemblies behave quite a bit like parts with respect to CPU load with two caveats.  Your PC has to have enough RAM to load all of the parts into memory without taxing the "Virtual Memory" of your machine.  The other (usually overlooked) area is how fast a PC can load your parts from your HDD into RAM.  SSDs completely outclass HDDs in this area by an order of magnitude.
  3. Drawings:This is where we start to see Solidworks dip into the multi threaded loads.  Solidworks assigns a core to each drawing view in your active drawing sheet.  Since most sheets have 4 views or greater, a quad core CPU handles drawing loads easily as do dual cores with Hyper-Threading.
  4. Simulation/Photoview360: These 2 items scale linearly with the number of cores in a system.  If you are using either of these features occasionally, you need multiple cores in your CPU.  A quad core CPU is 2x as fast as an equal dual core CPU in these applications.  You will quickly see a return on investment because there is not much of a price premium from quad core to dual core CPUs.


CPU

We start here because it is the heart of a PC and the most important item to design a system around. There is no other single component that will affect more Solidwork's tasks than the CPU. Our recommendation is a quad core CPU with Hyper-threading and turbo boost at a value price. While people will tell you that Solidworks doesn't use multiple cores that often, you (as a PC user) do most of the time. We constantly have PDFs, email, 2D CAD, and company specific programs running while using Solidworks. Users need the ability to work in multiple programs at the same time without overly stressing their PC.

Storage

SSDs are probably the biggest performance impact you can have on a PC, but there is a price premium to be paid. They are an order of magnitude faster than any HDD, but the $/GB is much higher. Every piece of information you work with is stored on your hard drive and your "new, fast" PC can quickly be bottle-necked by poor HDD performance from a traditional mechanical drive. This is why I recommend both a SSD for installing the OS/programs to and a HDD for raw data storage.   

Please watch this video for a nice comparison of SSDs to a conventional HDD. This is an excellent area to spend your money on, and once you use a SSD based PC, you will never go back to a HDD system. You will be amazed at how much faster Windows, MS Office, and Solidworks boot up when installed on a fast SSD drive. Remember that you aren't productive when waiting for your programs to launch.

Video Card

The video card is responsible for displaying your 3D models on the screen. It does NOT affect rebuild times, processing, or anything other than the refresh rate of the 3D graphics on screen in frames per second (FPS). When the video card is being taxed, rotating a model becomes choppy as the card is not fast enough to process what geometry should be shown or hidden as the view changes. Most monitors can display 60 FPS max so this is the ceiling with respect to performance. If you are at this ceiling with a low to mid range card, a high end card will offer no noticeable improvement because your monitor is the FPS bottleneck, not the card. FRAPs is a good program to monitor or display your FPS while using Solidworks. 

The main thing you need to remember is that there are 2 card manufactures (Nvidia and AMD/ATI), 2 product lines for each manufacturer (Geforce and Quadro for NVidia: Radeon and FirePro for AMD). Geforce and Radeon cards are for 3D gaming while theQuadro and FirePro cards are for CAD. The CAD cards are much more expensive compared to their gaming equivalent. I DO NOT recommend buying high end workstation cards because the margin on these cards is outrageous, and the technology advances at a high rate = poor investment. It is always a better value to upgrade more often with mid range or entry level cards than to spend thousands / card on the high end. You can generally upgrade 2-3 times with a mid range card and still be under the cost of a high end card while having better average performance over that period. Solidworks also has many options that can reduce the graphical load on your system, helping you avoid poor graphical performance (and lessoning the need for high end graphic cards).

  • Real view - On/Off (affects shader load)
  • Toggle transparencies Off (affects geometry load)
  • Image Quality slider in Tools/Options/Document Properties/Image Quality (affects geometry load)

Do not try to run Solidworks with a gaming card (Geforce or Radeon) as you will experience graphical display issues with these cards. The drivers are different for these cards and do not handle CAD programs accurately. When your dimensions don't show on a model when using these cards, please don't blame us. The gaming cards drivers throttle the Open GL performance in Solidworks (I don't like it either). A technically "better" gaming card will run Solidworks worse than a low end CAD video card. This has been benchmarked and proven time and time again among all gaming cards.

Hardware Recommendations listed in order of importance for SW users (as of 5/23/2013):

HDD:  

  • Recommended: 256GB Solid state disk drive (SSD) for OS and programs AND a conventional HDD for data.
  • Budget minded:  120+GB SSD. Note: usually it is much cheaper to buy the SSD separately and install it yourself.  PC makers still charge upgrade costs of about 1.5-2X the cost of the SSD.
  • DON'T BUY: Conventional HDD as your only drive, or a RAID setup.  These are painfully slow compared to SSDs.  If you are building a new PC, don't handicap the entire PC by the weakest link of a HDD.  They obviously work, but you will regret it.  A SSD is THE first place to spend money on a new PC for Solidworks.

CPU: 

  • Recommended: Intel  I7-3770K, or our old recommendation of I7-2600K, (all around best CPU/$, does everything well. High GHz for parts, 8 threads for multi threaded loads). Note: Overclocking the CPU can yield great results inside Solidworks due to its dependency on CPU GHz. This is obviously and "at your own risk", but there are many suppliers that can build a factory overclocked PC for you. You can generally get a 15% performance increase from overclocking.
  • Budget minded:  I5-3570K (still 4 cores, but no hyper threading.  4 threads max)
  • Mobile: I7-2620QM
  • DON'T BUY: Any server class CPU…ie Xeon, or dual CPUs. No better way to waste your money and not have a single tangible benefit in Solidworks to show from it. DUAL CORE cpu. These CPUs struggle in drawings with multiple views.

RAM:

  • Recommended: 12-16GB.  RAM TYPE/SPEED IS NOT IMPORTANT.  It is very easy and cheap to add more if you need it. 
  • Budget minded:  8GB is the min RAM you should ever use with Solidworks.

VideoCard:

  • Recommended: FirePro W5000 (best card for the money right now)
  • Mobile: Quadro K2000M
  • Budget Minded: AMD FireGL-V4900, Quadro K1000M (mobile)
  • DON'T BUY: High end cards over $1K.  They don't add much to Solidworks performance to justify their cost.  We recommend you upgrade a $400 GPU more often than spend $1000+ on a single high end card.  You will have better performance over time with this approach.
  • DON'T BUY: Old generation cards…ie Quadro 2000D, Quadro 4000, etc.  Best money is always spent on current generation cards.

OS:

  • Recommended: Win 7x64 (64 bit enables OS to utilize more than 4GB RAM, 32 bit OS is obsolete)
  • DON'T BUY: Windows 8.  Solidworks obviously works with this OS, but this is a poor OS choice for a work PC in my opinion.

Case/Cooling/Power Supply:  These are often overlooked, but are critical to a stable system.  Please do not identify this as an area to pinch pennies if building a PC yourself.  The blue screens will remind you of the money you saved later.  Quality components should last users through 2-3 complete system upgrades.

But what about…

  • Dual processor motherboards
  • Workstation (Xeon) processors
  • Over 16GB RAM
  • High end video cards (> $500)
  • Multiple video cards (Crossfire / SLI)
  • RAID setups

Single answer:

For all users, your money is better spent on other items or saving for your next PC.  Please call us for more detailed PC component recommendations or to review your specific PC work load.

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7 Comments:

Dennis Miller said...
Great article. I have often wondered about this and get asked this a lot at user group meetings.
July 9, 2013 13:07
Rollin Willis said...
Fantastic information. I share this posting with anyone who has questions related to configuration. Thank you for putting this together!
July 24, 2013 07:07
Brunell said...
I have always used gaming cards / gpu's for solidworks and have never had a problem. Excellent value and better for using your pc for other applications as well.
November 19, 2013 19:11
Justin said...
If you were looking into getting a laptop to do some work, both in SW and programs like Photoshop and Rhino 3D, but no intention of real gaming, are there any particular models you could recommend?
December 16, 2013 08:12
Bill Knestrick said...
Laptops are almost primarily equipped with quadro chips in them so here is a great tip. Figure out what chip you want first (by clicking on the website listed in the post). Then hit Google Shopping and search for that chip. All laptops that are available with that video card will show up. Your options are going to much more limited compared to a desktop however, but the guidelines above still ring true in a laptop.
December 16, 2013 13:12
Parthu said...
Very useful and interesting article in a simple way without going too deep like discussing floating points or processor's architecture. really I like this. Thanks Parthu
December 20, 2013 21:12
Dave said...
I have never built a computer but I am going build one for the specific purpose of using it for solidworks. After reading this post I am going to save money. Thank You
February 13, 2014 20:02

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