Tips for Going Mobile with CAD, Part 1: What Laptop Should I Get?
One of the most common questions I receive from readers is a variant on “I am looking to purchase a laptop that will run X,” where X is a CAD application like SolidWorks, AutoCAD or Pro-E. Then they add, “But I also want to be able to play the latest 3D games and do some occasional PhotoShop imaging. What should I get and what are the tradeoffs I have to make?”
The simplest, marketing-driven advice would be: “Buy the most powerful mobile workstation you can afford.” But I hear a different story from readers who do CAD or architecture for a living. According to them (as well as my own experience), the best advice is: “Decide what you mean by mobile and then choose the specs that offer you at least 80% of the functionality you would ideally want.”
What’s Out There
Pretty reliably every year, workstation laptop vendors (most notably Dell and HP) role out new models with the size of the screen correlating with the power and features of the machine. So I’ll start with the 17-inch powerhouses but some of the points will also apply to the 15-inch and smaller models.
The 17-inch Desktop Replacements
Fact: Mobile workstations with 17-inch screens are an amazing feat of miniaturization that, when settled on a desk and plugged into a power outlet, provide almost the full CPU and GPU performance of a full-sized workstation, with support for all peripherals — all in a self-contained package.
That said, do not delude yourself or fall for the marketing hype — they are not mobile devices that you can carry around and use on the go. To use them you need to settle in and nest.
On the Plane
Everyone always plans to do work when they fly cross-country. For me the airplane means 5 hours with no emails or meetings! But here’s the reality. When I pull out a 17-inch laptop in economy, I have to swivel myself and the laptop at an angle to even open the screen and get at the keyboard. If there is anyone sitting next to me, I am out of luck. If the person in front reclines at all, I am out of luck.
Now in the rare cases when I get upgraded to business class, then I can open up the laptop (and not intrude on the person next to me eating lunch). However even then, there are some limits. If I am doing anything remotely CPU/GPU intensive, such as pushing around a bunch of 3D polygons, then I can expect my battery to last about 45 min. Better plan on carrying your power adaptor and hope your airline and type of plane supports your particular adaptor! Also be sure to shut down other apps, turn off WiFi, etc. Keep your focus on CAD to get that whopping 45 min!
Essentially you’ve got this Ferrari, but you have to drive it at 10 mph when you go mobile.
Don’t get me wrong though — if you look at your 17-inch workstation, not as a mobile device, but rather as a portable workstation that you simply setup at each final destination, then it is an awesome choice. It has a full size screen, lots of USB ports for devices, multi-drive support and lots of memory.
With that in mind, what would I look for in a 17-inch mobile(-ish) workstation? I’ll detail this out in Part Two of this post.
Do you have any experiences with 17-inch mobile workstations for CAD use? If so, I would like to hear your experiences and where you have found you need to make compromises when compared to a desktop workstation.
Author: Tony DeYoung