Here at SolidBox, we encounter SOLIDWORKS and Mastercam users from a vast amount of industries. There seems to be one common question that we get from CAD/CAM folk across that wide array of industries, and that question is some variation of this:
I just built an expensive gaming computer, can I use it to run SOLIDWORKS/Mastercam as well?”
The honest-to-God truth is yes, most gaming computers would accept an installation of SOLIDWORKS, and yes, you could even do some modeling with it. However, there are a few key reasons why gaming computers actually make pretty terrible options for CAD/CAM workstations.
It’s incredibly easy for someone to take a look at the components list of a high-powered gaming computer and come to the conclusion that it should have enough power for CAD/CAM. Most gaming computers come spec’ed with higher-end Intel i7 processors, 32GB of RAM, and expensive 4GB graphics processors (GPU) – surely, a computer with those specs should be enough for SOLIDWORKS…
It’s when you dissect the nuances of computer hardware and really begin to understand the different families of processors, GPUs, or even the different types of RAM that all go into a precision class workstation, that you’ll begin to see why gaming computers just don’t cut it.
Let’s first focus on the one component that is ultimately the Achilles heel of the gaming computer: the GPU. There is an entire portion of SOLIDWORKS’ website devoted to communicating whether your graphics card has been “certified” by SOLIDWORKS. I highly suggest that you take a look at this page if you’re building a CAD workstation, as it will provide you with one important bit of info. From this page, you will learn whether SOLIDWORKS has tested and certified the video card in question. If a GPU shows up on this list, it means that SOLIDWORKS has put it through its paces and it can be trusted to provide adequate graphics processing power to keep SOLIDWORKS stable.
If a GPU is not on that list, then it doesn’t meet the minimum requirements set by SOLIDWORKS and therefore should not be considered as part of a CAD workstation.
So, other than just taking SOLIDWORKS ’ word for it, what makes a precision-class GPU different from a gaming GPU? A lot of it has to do with the demands of each application. Historically, CAD graphical computations and video gaming graphical projections have been handled by two different application programming interfaces, OpenGL and DirectX. The OpenGL interface is known for precision and handling large amounts of mathematical data necessary for correctly aligning points, lines, and arcs. DirectX has been largely utilized as a gaming platform because of its ability to generate a lot of graphics that don’t require overlay planes, stencils, or other high-detail features.
The good news is that today, both OpenGL and DirectX are supported on all middle to high-end GPUs, so the application programming interface is mattering less and less, but as of this moment, SOLIDWORKS still relies heavily on OpenGL for graphics processing.
That’s quite a bit of exposition for you regarding the GPU of your CAD workstation. So, where does that leave the CAD user?
If we investigate which GPUs are certified by SOLIDWORKS, we’re basically presented with two separate groups of options: the NVIDIA Quadro series and the AMD FirePro series. Both manufacturers are producing amazing choices for every level and budget. Here at SolidBox, we’ve made the decision to partner with NVIDIA because the tried-and-true Quadro series has been rock-solid for CAD computations for over a decade. We also really like how frequently they update their device drivers, and their customer support can’t be beat. The NVIDIA Quadro video cards that come spec’ed in SolidBox systems are listed below:
2GB Quadro M1000M (Creative)
4GB Quadro M2000M (Engineering)
4GB Quadro M3000M (Professional)
4GB Quadro M4000M (Professional)
8GB Quadro M5000M (Professional)
2GB Quadro K620 (Creative)
4GB Quadro K1200 (Creative)
4GB Quadro M2000 (Engineering)
8GB Quadro M4000 (Professional)
8GB Quadro M5000 (Professional)
What would happen if you decided to throw caution to the wind and ignore all recommendations posited here? The worst-case scenario is prolonged instability in SOLIDWORKS. It’s fairly common knowledge that SOLIDWORKS is prone to crashes, and in most cases, these crashes are initiated and handled because there is a mismatch of what SOLIDWORKS expects, versus what data is actually there. The software crashes because it doesn’t want to corrupt your existing design data by letting those mismatches through the gate. But the trade-off is obviously that you can potentially lose a lot of work done in the short term if you haven’t saved your document in a while.
So, an uncertified graphics card geared toward gaming will increase instability and cause more crashes because it isn’t tuned to handle graphical data in the manner SOLIDWORKS requires.
Aside from the GPU, more often than not, we see people try and save money on their system by choosing a 7200RPM mechanical hard drive. It would seem tempting to choose the 1TB 7200RPM HD because of all that space, and because these drives often sell for under $100. However, that decision just won’t cut it for a modern CAD computer. In this case, you don’t lose stability as much as you lose speed/time. These mechanical drives, especially the larger capacity ones, are quite sluggish due to the fact that they are limited by how fast the disk can spin inside. Solid State Drives (SSDs) are now the industry standard and are far less cost prohibitive than in the past. It’s the difference between your computer taking 30-40 seconds and 10-13 seconds to boot. Opening applications and saving data is on average 30% faster with an SSD vs. a mechanical HD. That translates to a lot of design time saved in one week.
One final point worth mentioning pertains to the Operating System (OS) of most gaming machines. Again, most gamers don’t receive any benefit from a higher tiered version of the Windows OS, so it would make sense to save some money by going with a non-enterprise version of Windows, but that can also wreak havoc with SOLIDWORKS. CAD applications benefit greatly from certain options and features found only in the enterprise versions of Windows (Windows 7 Professional or Ultimate, Windows 10 Professional, etc…). Conversely, SOLIDWORKS is prone to instability when installed on a system with a non-enterprise version of Windows (Windows 7 Home, Windows 10 Home, etc…). So, although Windows OS-version doesn’t make much of a difference for gamers, it does have consequences for SOLIDWORKS users, and especially in an office atmosphere with two or more SOLIDWORKS users sharing design data.
As engineers and designers ourselves here at SolidBox, our focus is always to provide our unbiased opinion about the hardware out there. The choices are vast, and we’re always looking for tools to do our jobs better, instead of letting a paid sponsor pitch their products on our platform. The bottom line is this: if you’re looking for a laptop or desktop powerful to enough run SOLIDWORKS, call us first and we can assess your exact needs. But assuming a gaming PC will run SOLIDWORKS effectively because it was built to handle a high level of gaming graphics is dangerous due to the nature of SOLIDWORKS. CAD is work, both on the designer and the computer, and you wouldn’t bring your Ferrari to the job site when a Cummins 5.9L Diesel is required.
If you’re just getting started in the industry and you need a cost-effective GPU that can do the heavy lifting, then you can’t go wrong with the 2GB M1000M and K620 cards for laptops and desktops respectively. Each has enough on-board memory and CUDA cores to process an impressive amount of graphical data for their price tags. The other most important recommendation is to prioritize the Solid State Drive, even if you have to buy one with less storage, you can always add HD storage to the mix down the road if necessary. Of course, if you have any specific questions related to computer hardware, we would be glad to give our honest assessment of your specific situation and budget.