How to Choose a Computer for Architecture – How to choose the best computer for architecture today. Whether you’re a student, aspiring architecture, a draftsperson, or if you’re in a related professional discipline, well dig into the things you should look for and their order of relative importance. Now, because computer specs change so often I’m gonna keep this general in nature, so no specific model numbers.
But, I’ll update the cards up here over time with current recommendations. I’m going to talk about how architecture use computers in practice so you can see which system requirements are most important to each one of those daily tasks; this should give you a framework for making the decision no matter when in the future, you’re looking for a new one.
How to Choose a Computer for Architecture
Alright, I’m not gonna spend a lot of time here because I think this is actually an easy one. If you don’t have a system yet or if you’re a student, get a laptop. Done. When you’re ready to supplement it and you have a permanent place where you can put a desktop system, you’ll buy that to complement it.
Of course, laptops are more expensive pound-for-pound than desktop systems, but portability I think wins out here.
You’ll use it for field work, job site meetings, and even measuring existing conditions. And, what I like to do is bring it with me and I’ll draft the building that I’m measuring right into AutoCAD as I measure it so, that’s a huge time savings.
Of course, there’s also client or planning board meetings, presentations, talks, teaching opportunities, and you’ll need one if you’re traveling to the remote projects anyhow. Now, obviously there’s a lot to choose from in the laptop category. You’ll want to focus in on the more powerful mobile workstations, not ultra-books, or notebooks, or airs; here, portable doesn’t mean light.
Between a large screen, a fast CPU, and the upgraded hardware you’ll need to run powerful graphics software, all of that doesn’t fit into a small light case. Check out brands like: MSI, Asus, Dell and its Alienware line, Apple, and Lenovo for starters; these are all really good brands. This one’s a little tricky.
Although many of the CAD, BIM, and modeling softwares are native to the Windows operating system, you can have almost anything you want on either operating system. Having used both in the past in production environments, I don’t actually think they’re that different.
Yes, the UI is different, and the design and the internal hardware too, but they have roughly equal capabilities. What you will notice is: lagging or slow load times, or render times, lagging context clicks. Generally, any time you’re using the software and it’s slow to respond those are the things you’ll notice most and importantly, those are things that impact your efficiency and how much you can get done in a day.
Now, assuming you can solve those things with either a PC or a Mac – and I think you can – then software choice, budget, and optionality are probably the more important drivers of the decision to choose one platform over another. It’s fair to say that Mac’s are more expensive than PCs, they’re not as easy to upgrade or swap out parts like hard drives, or upgrade RAM, and they’re also more limited in the natively ported software you’ll have to choose from.
Notably absent from Mac OS are two industry favorites: Revit and 3DS Max. But, for BIM software in a Mac environment there’s Vectorworks or ArchiCAD and for modeling you have access to Rhino and SketchUp. Another industry standard, AutoCAD is available for both. Now, it’s worth noting here that many of the best architecture schools here in the US, like the GSD at Harvard and Cornell, strongly recommend students purchase windows-based laptops. At the very least you must be capable of running Windows on your laptop if you’re a student there.
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Now, windows-based machines offer more customizable options for system configurations and are sort of inherently future-proofed because so many of the components are swappable. So, you’ll have a more adaptable machine over the time you’re in school, or over a period of years rather than having to buy an entirely new set up every couple of years.
If you want to use Windows based programs like Revit or 3DS Max on a Mac you’ll have to either virtualize Windows using Parallels or buy Boot Camp and actually boot windows on your Mac. And, although Boot Camp is the recommended way to do this, it means that if you’re running Photoshop in a Mac environment and Revit in a Windows environment on your Mac, you’ll have to reboot your machine every time you want to switch between the two applications. That’s not only a pain, it’s a terribly inefficient workflow.
So, here’s what you’ll be doing a lot of as an architecture: you’ll be doing a lot of drawing, and CAD, 3d modeling, maybe some rendering, there’s lots of communication, which is both in written form, and graphic form.
You have schedules to write, specifications to write, you have budgets to track, there’ll be some photo editing, and of course you’ll have video conferencing, things like Skype. Then those specialty tasks like laser cutting, special modeling, or texturing, or really high-end rendering, or – if you’re like me – audio and video editing. So, you have to choose which software is the limiting determinant for your hardware.
Designing architecture requires we use graphically intense applications for 3d modeling, rendering, and CAD work.
And, the CPU is the brain that does all the necessary calculations. Now, there’s a lot of technical jargon to wade through when you’re looking at processors and I know it can be intimidating. Kaby Lake, Ryzen, i5, i7, Intel, AMD, cores, chipsets. For most architecture tasks, you basically want to buy the fastest processor you can afford. Now, you’ll also hear about multi-core processors, quad cores, dual cores, so what does all that mean?
Well, this has to do with how your software uses the CPU to do the necessary calculations. And, stick with me here, this is actually pretty simple. There’s a difference in the way that 3d rendering, 3d modeling, and CAD drafting software assigns tasks to your processor.
3d modeling and CAD drafting software are generally single-threaded tasks, while rendering, ray tracing, and video transcoding are generally multi-threaded. Single-threaded means it can only happen on one core of the processor at a time, while multi-threaded means the task can be split up and assigned to more than one core of your CPU simultaneously.
So, if you plan to do a lot of 3d rendering – or in my case – video transcoding, the more cores you can access, the faster your rendering times will be. For 3d modeling or CAD tasks, multiple cores won’t help as the software can only assign the tasks to one core at a time.
So, with those you’re really concerned with getting the fastest speed for any individual core. So, just having multiple cores doesn’t mean you’ll see an advantage because it’s software dependent. Now, just because you’re a CAD drafting software right now isn’t multi-threaded doesn’t mean it won’t be in the future.
But, if you’re looking for just a CAD workstation and you won’t be doing much rendering or video editing then it’s better to buy the fastest processor you can afford rather than buying one with more cores.
Of course, there are exceptions. If you’re using BIM software like ArchiCAD, that actually does use multi-threading, so more cores will offer better performance. Now, besides all this, multiple cores are good because they free up resources for other tasks to take place at the same time on the computer. You’ll no doubt be switching between AutoCAD and Photoshop and a browser window let’s say, so you’ll want the ability to do that without a lot of lag.
Having multiple cores will allow you to be a better multitasker. In general, with CPUs, higher clock speeds – this is the gigahertz number – will provide a peppier and sort of smoother experience. Now, a lot of people misunderstand what a graphics card actually does. It doesn’t actually make your modeling tasks faster. Your graphics card controls how fast your display repaints itself, how fast it refreshes the results of your modeling and rendering tasks.
If you’ve ever seen a model sort of lagging on the screen as you rotate it, that’s usually because the graphics card is underpowered. A dedicated, or as it’s often called – discrete – graphics card is one designed specifically for graphics intensive work and it stands separate from the CPU. It controls how many frames per second your screen will refresh. For 3d drafting, modeling, Photoshop, Lightroom work and video editing, you’ll care a lot about how fast your screen regenerates when working. These tasks require a lot of computation and the better your card, the faster and smoother your screen experience will be.
You want to always check your software manufacturers website for individual card recommendations to make sure they’re compatible. You can spend multiple thousands on graphics cards, but you have to balance things here. If you need a Quadro card you’re probably in the specialty market and sort of beyond the scope of this video. If you have no idea what a Quadro card is, then you’re definitely in the right place. 1080p, 4k, 5k, 8k, this is simply referring to your screen size in pixels.
Now, the screen behind me here is a 5k screen, it’s 27 inches wide.
That screen is 5120 pixels wide by 2880 pixels high. With screen size or resolution, bigger – in my opinion – is always better. Your CAD graphics and modeling work will involve lots of zooming around and large sheet sizes; the larger your screen the less of this navigation you’ll have to do and the more time efficient you’ll be. More screen real estate also allows you to bounce between open applications checking things, cross referencing other materials, picking up redlines – you know, things like that.
So, on my desktop system I still feel like I could use more space.
On a laptop, you’ll be confined to 15 or 17 inch monitors so there’s actually a lot less space. Of course, if you pair a laptop with an external monitor or two, you’ll double or triple the room available. So, take that into account as well. Another thing that affects how life-like and realistic your picture is, is pixel density, or pixels per inch.
So, this 5k Retina display has a pixel density, or PPI, of 219 which is roughly equivalent to the 15-inch MacBook Pros Retina display at twenty-eight eighty by eighteen hundred pixels. A Retina display simply refers to that pixel density that’s high enough where the human retina can’t pick out the differences between individual pixels. The closer it is, the higher the density needs to be.
So, if you’re holding something in your hands at about twelve inches away, that number turns out to be close to 300 pixels per inch, whereas on a desktop you’re slightly further away so it’s lower. The amount of information you’re able to store in RAM directly affects how fast you’ll perceive your system to be.
The instant response when executing commands like context menu clicks is attributable to the amount of RAM you have. The more you have, the more programs will use, up to a certain point. But, it will also help keep recent files close at hand and quickly accessible. Eight gig is a suggested minimum for most software today, 16-gig is better. When specing your system, make sure you have a path to upgrade it later.
More slots are always better; this will accommodate future operating system upgrades and it’s an inexpensive way to increase performance if a new software package has left you feeling underpowered.
Now, RAM is also classed by its speed too, so higher numbers are always better. SSD or solid-state drives are really fast. They don’t have moving parts and so you can access your data extremely fast. Putting your operating system and your program and system files on a solid-state drive will give you a definite speed advantage, and they use less power which is great on a laptop.
They’re also generally more reliable. The trade-off here is that they’re actually pretty expensive.
Your other option is the HDD or hard disk drive. Now, these use disks or spinning platters to store your data. These, of course, do have moving parts, which means they’re slower and more apt to break over the life of your computer.
But, they’re also much less expensive per megabyte of storage space. The trend today is to use HDD drives as data drives to store the masses of files you don’t need to access all the time, and SSDs to install the operating system and applications. This allows the speed advantage of loading applications and your operating system quickly, and then you can save on the cost of the large amount of data space you’ll need to store all your files if you pair a 256 or 512 gigabyte solid-state drive with a one terabyte or two terabyte hard disk drive. That offers a good balance of speed, price, and storage capability. Apple refers to this combination as their Fusion drive.
Up until earlier this year, I used a combination of PCs and Macs with the PC almost exclusively being used for CAD and modeling work.
But, when the motherboard in my very old Dell laptop died, I decided to move completely over to Macs. Now, for me, the choice came down to a few things – and this is a genius plan by Apple by the way – the Mac seamlessly integrates with the life I’ve created on my iPhone. Now, like it or not, there’s so many parts of my life that are wrapped up in the iPhone: the apps I use are there, there’s messaging, podcasts, my calendar, photos, notes, music, and all of this, it transfers back and forth between my mobile life and my desktop. Now, that’s a big deal to me.
And, this UI advantage, it really does matter because it saves me time. And, lastly – and this is super important to you ultimately, the software I wanted to run helped me make the choice. I knew AutoCAD could run natively on the Mac now and there’s a few other programs I rely on every day like Final Cut Pro 10, that only exist on the Mac.
Now, I was never a big of the Windows environment, but I used to love the fact that I could sort of get under the hood and adjust things, tweak, and fine-tune, but I also found that that meant I could really break things doing that too. Now, this may sound clich, but Macs don’t require me to tweak things endlessly to get things working the way I want.
Does that mean less customization? Yes. But, I’m okay with that honestly. I want the computer sort of get out of my way and I do find that the Mac does that pretty well for me. In my experience though, PCs and Macs are equally reliable.
I’ve had major trouble with both of them in the past. Your computer is really just another tool to help you do your work, it won’t make you a good designer, or architecture.
If that insanely beautiful rendering isn’t backed up by good design, it has very little meaning. So, I’ll close by reminding you that computers don’t obviate the need for sketching, and physical model building. All architecture sketch.
All architecture build models. Learn to use these tools, in addition to purchasing a really nice computer, and learning 3DS Max, or V-Ray. Good tools are force multipliers and they have a value that far exceeds their cost.
So the information we can convey, hopefully useful about How to Choose a Computer for Architecture above