Computer-aided design, or CAD, is a very distinct computing category that’s all about one thing: precision. CAD applications can make things look good, just like image and video editing applications, but that’s not their purpose. Rather, CAD applications must create virtual constructs that mimic physical reality precisely. After all, if you’re designing an aircraft wing, you want to ensure that the application is correctly modeling how that wing will perform in-flight — not simply that it looks pretty.
Choosing the best laptop for CAD applications, therefore, requires some careful planning. That’s true for a Windows desktop computer, where components can be replaced and upgraded in the future. It’s doubly true for a laptop PC, where most components cannot be upgraded — thus making your initial purchasing decisions that much more important.
The following are some laptop configurations that would provide sufficient performance depending on whether you’re going to be conducting 2D or 3D drafting and the overall complexity of your projects.
|Standard 2D Consumer|
|Intel Core i5 or AMD Ryzen 5 Mobile||Intel or AMD integrated graphics||512GB SSD||16 GB DDR4|
|Standard 2D Workstation|
|Intel Core i5 or AMD Ryzen 5 Mobile||Intel or AMD integrated graphics||512GB SSD||16GB DDR4|
|Entry 3D Consumer|
|Intel Core i7 H-series or AMD Ryzen 7 Mobile||Up to NVIDIA RTX 2080 Super||1TB SSD||32 GB DDR4|
|Entry 3D Workstation|
|Intel Xeon W-10855M||NVIDIA Quadro RTX 5000||2TB SSD||32 GB DDR4|
|High-End 3D Consumer|
|Intel Core i9 H-series or AMD Ryzen 9 Mobile||Up to NVIDIA RTX 3080||2TB SSD||64 GB DDR4|
|High-End 3D Workstation|
|Intel Xeon W-10885M||NVIDIA Quadro RTX 6000||2x 2TB SSD||128GB DDR4|
There are a host of CAD applications available, from free to use version to those costing in the thousands. The most popular include Autodesk AutoCAD and its newer 3D modeling tool Revit, SolidWorks, and Vectorworks. These applications can vary in their target markets and their stated objectives — SolidWorks, for example, is all about 3D — but they have similar requirements.
If you read the basic requirements for these applications, you’ll be tempted to think they’ll run on low-end laptops. For example, AutoCAD’s requirements are as follows:
- CPU Basic: 2.5-2.9GHz processor
CPU Recommended: 3+ GHz processor
- RAM Basic: 8GB RAM
RAM Recommended: 16GB RAM
- Conventional display: Full HD display (1,920 x 1,080)
High-resolution and 4K display: UHD (3,840 x 2,160) supported on Windows 10 64-bit
- GPU Basic: 1GB GPU with 29GB/s bandwidth and DirectX 11 compliant
GPU Recommended: 4GB GPU with 106GB/s bandwidth and DirectX 11 compliant
Those aren’t very stringent requirements, and you won’t want to limit yourself to these specifications. Interestingly, Autodesk doesn’t specify much higher requirements for 3D modeling, but we’re going to recommend much more powerful components.
Our recommendation is to buy significantly more laptop than the manufacturer requires. You’ll get faster and more reliable performance, which eventually will pay for itself through greater productivity and more completed work.
2D versus 3D
One of the most basic criteria in determining your laptop requirements for CAD work include whether you’ll be working primarily in 2D or whether you’ll be delving into 3D modeling. The computing power for the latter is significantly greater than the former.
That’s particularly true when it comes to the GPU you’ll want to look for in a laptop. 3D CAD work is incredibly demanding, both in creating 3D drawings and in rendering those drawings to realistic depictions of whatever it is you’re designing. A legitimate discrete GPU is a requirement for 3D CAD, and the faster, the better. NVIDIA RTX GPUs of various power are popular choices, as are NVIDIA Quadro commercial GPUs for workstations (see below).
3D CAD also places greater stress on the CPU, meaning that you’ll want to get as fast a processor as you can to make sure your laptop can keep up. If you choose an Intel Core CPU, then you’ll want a 45-watt H-series. If your preference is AMD, then the new AMD Ryzen 5000 series will meet your needs well, particularly if you choose the Ryzen 7. If you’re looking at a workstation, then you’ll have the choice of Intel Xeon processors or AMD Threadripper CPUs.
Consumer Laptop versus Workstation
One of the more important decisions you’ll make is between consumer laptops and commercial workstations. The latter are designed specifically for the kind of work that you’ll be performing, with thermal designs that can keep the heat down and processor speed up, and commercial components — like Xeon CPUs and NVIDIA Quadro GPUs, as mentioned above — that offer increased reliability through both system design and specialized driver support.
Workstations are also more expensive, with displays that are often a cut above those found on the average consumer laptop in terms of color support and the ability to configure more storage (including multiple drives) and more RAM. Some examples of workstation laptops include the HP Z Workstation, Lenovo’s ThinkPad P-series, and Dell’s Precision line.
The right consumer laptop can also work, and interestingly, many CAD users choose gaming laptops thanks to their high-performance tuning. Gaming machines tend to offer the fastest CPUs and cutting-edge GPUs like the NVIDIA RTX 3080. Where gaming laptops don’t always do as well is with display quality — they’re made for gaming, after all, not for applications that demand accurate colors and wide color gamuts. That limitation can be overcome by adding a high-quality external display if you’re going to be primarily working in an office location.
Fortunately, there are mainstream laptops that can often provide sufficient power for all but the most demanding users, along with excellent displays that rival workstation quality. The Dell XPS 17, for example, can be equipped with an Intel 11th-gen Core i9-10885H CPU, an NVIDIA RTX 2060 GPU, and up to 64GB of RAM. You’ll spend close to $4000 for the machine, but it’s capable of churning through 2D tasks and working fairly efficiently with 3D modeling as well.
Finally, there’s a new crop of creative-oriented consumer laptops that offer close to workstation specifications with specialized designs that can be real boons to productivity in applications like CAD. The Acer ConceptD 7 Ezel, for example, can morph from a standard clamshell into a drawing tablet (which may or may not come in handy for CAD work, depending on the application), while offering fast components like a Core i7-10857H CPU, NVIDIA RTX 2080 Super GPU, and up to 32GB of RAM.
There’s never been a better time to buy the best laptop for CAD applications. CPUs and CPUs are more powerful than ever, and manufacturers are offering more variety in laptop designs to go with greater specifications including more RAM and storage. And while we indicated earlier that laptops aren’t as upgradeable as desktop PCs — and that’s true — many laptops are more upgradable than you might imagine, allowing you to add more RAM and storage as your needs grow.