How To Build A Faster 3D CAD PC

This is a special guest post from GrabCAD user Scott Bruins

For an updated (7/2015) post with more modern specs and prices, click here.

Tired of trying to do 3D CAD on an outdated system? Can you read a novel in between rebuilds? Waiting days for a rendering? It may be time to upgrade your workstation. In this article I’ll go over what you need to know to build a fast 3D CAD PC.



The general rule of thumb when it comes to a CAD workstation is that, the CPU is king. The majority of CAD operations are CPU based so it's a good idea to get the best one you can afford. The better the processor, the faster your rebuild and rendering times will be. The speed of a processor is referred to as its “clock speed” and is measured in GHz. The core count refers to how many cores per CPU. For instance, a 3.2GHz hex-core processor has 6 cores, each running at 3.2GHz.

More cores vs. higher speed?

Now, do you spend your hard earned cash on a CPU with a higher speed or more cores? That depends on what kind of work you will be doing, rendering or CAD design?

When rendering, you want as many cores as possible to get faster render times. A common misconception is that rendering is performed by the graphics card, when it is primarily CPU based. A even though rendering is primarily CPU based, some modern rendering programs can utilize higher end graphics cards for rendering. The graphics cards are essentially turned into an additional processor cores to aid the CPU in rendering.

Now, rendering is a multi-threaded operation, meaning it can utilize more than one processor core at a time. A quad core processor will render much faster than a dual core processor with a higher clock speed. The more cores you have, the faster you can render. There are motherboards that support multiple CPUs on a single board. For example, you could have two hex-core processors giving you a total of 12 processing cores.

On the other hand, modeling with 3D CAD software (such as SolidWorks) is primarily a single threaded operation. This means it will only use one CPU core at a time. So when speaking about CPU's in regard to 3D modeling, the higher the clock speed, the better the performance. It may seem odd, but a dual core processor running at 3.5GHz will rebuild a complex part faster than a quad core running at 2.5GHz.

Many processor are also capable of running at much higher speeds than advertised by the manufacture. The process of manually increasing your CPU’s clock speed is called “Overclocking”. With overclocking you can increase your processors performance by changing timing and voltages of the processor to achieve a higher clock speed.

Overclocking often requires improved cooling for the processor such as a larger heat sink or liquid cooling, but can yield significantly improved performance. However, If not done properly overclocking can damage your hardware. So do your homework and proceed with caution! If you are nervous about overclocking, there are several companies that offer pre-overclocked computers with a warranty.

3D CAD PC CPU Cooler

Graphics Card

After the processor, the graphics card (GPU) is considered the second most important piece of hardware. The graphics card handles the visual display of the model when you roll, pan or zoom. For 3D CAD applications you will need a professional, OpenGL graphics card.

There are are two main brands of workstation cards, the NVIDIA Quadro and ATI FirePro series. These graphics cards range in price from $100 all the way up to $2,000+. These OpenGL cards are considerably more expensive than their DirectX based “gaming” counterparts, but are necessary for most 3D CAD applications.

The easiest way to think about the difference between OpenGL and DirectX is an OpenGL card calculates higher detail models at relatively low frame rates, while a DirectX card calculates lower detail models at high, sustained frame rates.

When choosing a graphics card you want to keep in mind the type of work you will be doing. If you work on very large assemblies with lots of models you will want a graphics card with more memory. If the graphics card does not have enough memory, the frame rate will lag or stutter when moving the model. However, most users won’t need more than 256MB memory and can get away with a cheaper card.

It is possible to use DirectX cards for 3D CAD, however some features may not function properly (such as SolidWorks RealView) and you may experience slow frame rates as well as graphical glitches.

Hard Drives

Although not as important as a CPU or graphics card for CAD work, the hard drive can have a significant impact on overall performance. Hard drive technology has come a long way in the past few years. With the rise of the Solid State Drive (SSD) transfer speeds have increased dramatically.

The fastest traditional disk drives have a transfer speed of around 100MB/s, while modern SSDs range from 120MB/s to 750MB/s (and getting faster!) The faster transfer rate of the SSD will let you save and open models faster, make programs start faster, and decrease your computers boot time.

The downside of the SSD is its cost. Although the price has come down significantly in the past few years, an SSD is still considerably more expensive per GB. That being said, in my opinion an SSD is worth every penny. The massive performance increase over disk drives is very noticeable. Because of the cost, it is a good idea to use a small SSD as the main drive for the operating system and programs, and a high capacity disk drive as a media/storage/backup drive drive.


Stop screwing up CAD files use cloud-based PDM from GrabCAD


If you build it, it will rock!

So now, when it's time for an upgrade, you’ll know what you need to build a screaming 3D CAD eating monster! Check out all the computer parts on GrabCAD and design your own custom PC. I will keep an updated list of components for a budget performer and dream machine below. What are you running now? What is your dream system? Let me know in the comments!

Budget Performance System (Workstation): Updated July 11, 2011
CPU: Intel Core i7-2600K Sandy Bridge 3.4GHz
Motherboard: GIGABYTE GA-P67A-UD4-B3 LGA 1155 Intel P67
Graphics Card: ATI 100-505682 FirePro V5800 1GB
SSD: OCZ Vertex 3 VTX3-25SAT3-120G 2.5" 120GB
HDD: Western Digital Caviar Green WD20EARS 2TB
RAM: Mushkin Enhanced Blackline 8GB
Cooling: CORSAIR H80 (CWCH80) High Performance Liquid CPU Cooler
Case: NZXT H2
PSU: CORSAIR Professional Series Gold AX850

Approximate Cost: $1,743.86

Dream System (Rendering) : Updated July 11, 2011
CPU: 2x Intel Xeon X5690 Westmere-EP 3.46GHz LGA 1366
Motherboard: EVGA Classified SR-2
Graphics Card: 4x PNY VCQ5000-PB Quadro 5000 2.5GB
SSD: OCZ Vertex 3 VTX3-25SAT3-480G 2.5" 480GB
HDD: 4x Western Digital Caviar Black WD2002FAEX 2TB
Cooling: Custom Liquid Cooling
PSU: CORSAIR Professional Series Gold AX1200
Approximate Cost: $15,000-$17,000

Scott Bruins is CAD designer/drafter at a machine shop that specializes in high precision medical implants and devices. He specializes in SolidWorks 2011 and rendering with PhotoView 360.

guide to CAD file managementStruggling with CAD file management?  

Unmanaged CAD data can lead to wasted time and  expensive mistakes, but traditional PDM and PLM solutions are too costly for many companies. This guide, written by industry analyst Jim Brown, will help you find the solution that fits your needs.

guide to CAD file management

  • Nice article. Right now I’m running a Lenovo W500 laptop that I purchased through my engineering school. It has a FireGL V5700 and it’s been able to handle pretty much anything I’ve thrown at it. I would like to build a CAD desktop but I don’t think I can justify it when I have this laptop.

  • Ill get the system posting started. Here is my current CAD/Gaming rig:
    Motherboard: MSI 890FXA-GD70
    CPU: AMD Phenom II X6 1090T (Overclocked to 4.0GHz)
    RAM: Mushkin Enhanced Silverline 8GB
    Hard Drive: OCZ Vertex 2 SSD 120GB
    Graphics Cards: 2x XFX 5770 (Crossfire)
    PSU: NZXT HALE90-850-M 850W
    Case: NZXT H2

    Great Performer for under $1000, does well with SolidWorks and Great at rendering.

  • Robert Voogt

    Great article,

    I have a question about the GPU, I want to buy a new pc somewhere q4 2011 / q1 2012… and besides my modelling with SW, I game a lot (high end games). So I wont but a workstation GPU.
    However, if I bought a workstation card, where would I see improvement compared to a normal GPU?

  • @Robert- The only area would be OpenGL aplications like SolidWorks or Adobe Photoshop. Otherwise you can get away with a DirectX Gaming card. I use two 5770’s and they work great for gaming and CAD. Let me know if you need any help building your gaming system. I build custom systems and Id be more than happy to help point you in the right direction or if you want I can build the system for you.

  • Couldn’t have come at a better time.. thanks Scott!

  • Chanson

    So basically you took all the emails you sent me and published them haha! Nice article Scott, knowledgeable as always.

  • Scott Moyse

    Nice article Scott. 1 point to note Autodesk Inventor isn’t OPEN GL anymore and uses Direct X instead, so teh need for a ‘CAD’ card isn’t required. Some of the new software in the newly created product design suites use Open GL, however, all the new geforce (Gtx) cards support Open GL as well as Direct X. I’m not sure if thats the case with the Ati Radeon cards, need to look into that.

  • Scott Moyse

    what do you reckon to this setup:
    -Intel Core i5 2400 3.1Ghz
    -GIGABYTE P67A-UD3-B3 mobo
    -Kingston DDR3 1600MHz 8GB Gaming
    HyperX Memory Kit (2x4GB) CL9 Non-ECC Dimm
    -Intel 120GB 320 Series SATA 3 SSD
    -EVGA GeForce GTX550 Ti 1GB DDR5 or a Sapphire ATi HD6850
    -COOLER MASTER Gladiator 600 black
    w/ 500W

    I plan on upgrading the i5 CPU to an i7 one in a year or so. But Which GPU do you think would be best?

    Above you suggest the UD4-B3 mobo, but I couldn’t see much of a benefit over the slightly cheaper UD3-B3 mobo i have spec’d.

    I see neither mobo fully supports dual GPU’s at full speed on both slots. I believe thats a limitation of the PCI x16 support on the P67 chipset. What do you think about this?

  • Robert Voogt

    Hi Scott,

    Thanks for the quick and helpful response! Now I know that I won’t need a workstation GPU, SW does just fine with my HD5870.

    I have quite a lot of experience building PC’s myself, it’s just that I miss experience with workstation GPU’s
    Maybe in the future, when I have loads of money of course, I can afford 2 pc’s. 1 for gaming, the other for 3D creation.

    Thanks for the offer though!

    ps, do you think that in the future, nvidia/amd will merge the 2 GPU variants? or is it just too profitable for them to do this?

  • PerOlav

    Hi Scott,
    I am in need of a laptop annex notebook this for use of 3D tools; such as SW, Inventor and Ansys with rendering capabilities. What brand or configuration you could recommend in such case ?

    Kind regards,

  • @Chanson- Thanks! I should have done that! That would have saved me some writing. ^_^

    @Robert- Gaming cards will work for CAD but they are not ideal. I have heard people tend to have better luck with the ATI/AMD cards than the Nvidia GeForce cards for CAD. I’d love to have a second PC just for CAD if I had the money.

    Unfortunatly I don’t think they will merge OpenGL and DirectX. Not because It wouldn’t be possible but because it would hurt their profits. They can charge a lot more for “Professional” workstation cards so why merge the two. At some point the Software companies may switch to DirectX but I still think there will be a distinction between DirectX gaming cards and OpenGL workstation cards.

  • Great and very helpfull. Although you didn’t mention it in the article I think it was obvious enough that a 64bit operating system is the only choice.

  • For those of you not looking at purchasing a OpenGL card does an excellent monthly piece on “Best Graphics Cards For The Money”.,2964.html

  • David

    Nice article Scott, i might just add the fact that you can use the gaming graphics card with the workstation video driver to get the best of both worlds.

    @Robert Voogt : Wait for the Lga2011 socket from intel this new chips will be out in January 2012 and it looks promising.

  • Mason

    In my 30 years of using computers it has been my experience that the more powerful computers become and the higher capacity of hard-drivers the bigger the programs get & the more memory and processor greedy they become.

    How can I say that I hear some of you cry.

    Well this is how. Three years ago I custom built a machine for my own needs the case was a server case, well cooled, five(5) fans in all, CPU is a P4 3,2MHz 32bit with 4GB DDR2 RAM. When running Autodesk Inventor 2009 there was a notable performance increase, as compared to my older Dell P3 and 4GB EDO RAM, however on the new machine with Inventor 2010 it was notably slower in comparison to when Inventor 2009 was run.

    Yes there were more tools in 2010, but that could no way account for the loss of performance.

    Windows task manager Process tab gave some answers IV 2009 used less memory than IV2010 hence a slower IV 2010, more of the program in RAM = less RAM for file processing

    Answerers to problem increase memory!!! is the cost of faster CPU and more memory for a system really worth the it when, in reality, the developers make the programs more CPU & Memory greedy but advertise the product as better preforming with out giving actual test computer specifications so that we too can have the same or better results.

    Well those of us that either work for our selves or have a geared up boss can always opt for the solutions of Quad core or above, max out the RAM and run the 64 bit version of windows, But are all programs avable in 64 Bit if not then 64 bit Windows will only runs in 32 bit mode.

    There is however something else in the upgrade equation and that is the present financial situation most company’s and individuals have more important things to worry about than increasing computer performance for what can be little production gain

  • Elian Feenstra

    Currently, I use my HP EliteBook 8530W for everything: from gaming to modelling. I never do rendering a lot really, but my laptopshot seems to have some pain with games. (It has the NVIDIA Quadro FX770 M, so it is not meant to be a gaming machine at all) It still peforms games like BFBC2, but it has next to no problems running SolidWorks 2010.

    I am looking into buying a gaming rig one of these days, and use my laptop, with its Quadro card, for the 3D creation. Only problem is, I am a student, and budget is my problem…

  • @David- Thanks! You used to be able to “Softmod” the older Nvidia and ATI cards to trick your PC into thinking they were their OpenGL counterparts but both companies have since changed their drivers/software so it isn’t possible to do anymore. Either way you can still do CAD on a gaming system it just won’t perform as well as a dedicated OpenGL card.

  • Pingback: 10 interesting CAD models from last week « « GrabCAD Blog GrabCAD Blog()

  • Tim

    Great article Scott, since you’re a experienced PC
    builder can you tell me with a bottom mounted power supply should it be installed so the fan is blowing out of the case or in? There’s an “exhaust” fan at the top of the case by the way. Thanks for any input.

  • @Scott Moyse- Inventor may be DirectX but the majority of CAD programs are still OpenGL. Thats a decent system you have speced out Scott. My advice would be to go for the i5-2500k as it can be overclocked where the 2500 is locked at 3.1GHz. Also I would spend the extra cash and go for a GTX560 Ti. It is a little more expensive but they overclock very well. The GA-P67A-UD4-B3 is more “overclocking friendly” than the UD3, if it was me I would get the UD4. If you really want 2 @ x16 SLI then you could get a GA-Z68X-UD7-B3 but most mid ranged boards run at x8/x8.

    @PerOlav- Could you be a bit more specific? What type of software will you be using? How often will you be using it? I am not a big laptop guy but I can point you in the right direction. I am a big fan of Boxx systems, their laptops and desktops. Dell laptops are alright but I’ve never been totally happy with Dell products.

    @Elian Feenstra- You can make a decent gaming desktop for pretty cheap now adays (much cheaper than a laptop with the same specs). Send me an email with what you want to do and I can help point you in the right direction.

    @Tim- You want the fan blowing out of the case (down).

  • Emil Pop

    Nice article, but…

    I have a laptop dual core intel 2.4 Ghz not overclocked with an indecent VC on it but it handles Inventor and Autocad pretty much OK for the 800 bucks I paid for (win NT)
    I have another question (I have a lot actually, but I refrain)
    Computer farming with playstation 3, I heard it’s a good cheap idea for fast renderings and stuff.
    I was considering buying myself a few, plus a 60 inch LCD TV (their price is affordabe now) and use my laptop as workstation and the PS3 farming as rendering power, where can I have some decent info about the way I can do that? (farming management software and all)

  • @Emil- The article is build a “FASTER” CAD PC not build an “OK” CAD PC. :) I would never recommend overclocking a laptop by the way. The processors are already reaching their max temps in a laptop and there really isn’t a good way to cool them adequately.

    As for PS3 farming, I don’t know. I know the DOD has a PS3 computing farm but as for rendering I really couldn’t say. You would need A LOT of PS3s to make the cost savings worth it. If you really need that large of a rendering farm then its beyond my area of expertise.

  • Singh

    Great Article Scott, Thanks for sharing your knowledge. I am working on building a workstation, came across two ATI V4800 ($160) and ATI V5800 ($380), one is 400 streaming and other is 800. Do you think the performance of these cards justify the price difference. Also, are the NVidia quadro cards better in performance than their counterpart ATI.

  • @Singh- That depends on the type of work you will be doing? I would highly recommend the V5800 as it is very powerful for the price, but if you only do very simple CAD work the V4800 will do fine. The difference between Nvidia and ATI cards at the same price point is minimal but Nvidia has the advantage when it comes to the high end cards (mainly those with CUDA processing).

  • vicente

    Scoott, how much a computer like that could cost?

  • vicente

    sory I just saw up there

  • Matthew

    Love the article! Comes just in time.
    I have a question about the case. Do you think the “budget performance system” parts would fit in a “Corsair 600T” case?

  • Yes, budget system should fit in any mid tower case including the Corsair 600T. As long as the case supports ATX motherboards it will work. The 600T is a nice case too, especially the special edition white. :)

  • Robert Reed

    I have just finished putting together my new Dream machine
    CPUs – 2, Xeon X5680 3.33 LGA 1366
    RAM – 48GB Patriot Sector 7 @ 2000Meg
    Graphic Cards – 2, Nvidia Quadro 600
    Boot Drive – OCZ PCI Exress 256 SSD @ 16 speed
    HHD x6 – Total 10TD
    Cooling – Twin Prolimatech Armageddon with 140mm fans
    PSU – SilverStone ST1500, 1500w
    Case – Cubitek HPTX
    Screens – Dual 23.5″

  • Pingback: 3D Rendering Tech, Tips, Tutorials and More - GrabCAD newsGrabCAD news()

  • I put this together and it does not preform as expected. What should I have done differently

    MOBO – Asus® P6X58D-E Intel® X58-3xPCIe 2.0-Triple Ch.
    CDU – Intel® Core™ i7 990X EE O.C. @ 3.69GHz 1×6.4GT/s QPI Six-Core 12-Threads VT EM64T
    RAM – 12228MB DDR3 @1333MHz Triple Rank Interleave
    Graphics Card – nVidia® Quadro® 4000 2GB DDR5 PCIe 1
    HD – (3)300GB 15000RPM Seagate SAS Serial Attached SCSI 16MB Cache <9ms
    Raid % Adaptec® RAID 3405 HostRAID™ PCIe

  • Chris

    Hi Scott,

    Can you recommend an updated list with a budget of $1400 in mind…give or take. Thanks.

  • Thank you for the details. Its been a few years since I last put together a CAD machine. Being busy with work I lost touch with technology. This post will save me lots of time.

  • james

    hi scott,
    if using AMD and on a budget what would be recommended for solidworks 2012 x64 win 7 dual screen quadro 600.

  • roger

    Hi Scott,
    Thanks for the nice article. I didn’t see you mention the Maximus systems from Nvidia as I am considering one for my work. We do a lot of 3D design and FEA with proE and solidworks,as well as renderings and animation in bunkspeed and 3DS max.
    I would appreciate your thoughts on this system spec:

    Processor 1: Intel® Xeon® Processor E5 2650 2.00GHz (2.80GHz, 20MB, 8.0GT/Sec QPI, 95W) 8C/16T
    Memory: 64GB (8x 8GB) 1600MHz DDR3 Memory
    Graphics: NVIDIA Quadro K5000 – 4GB GDDR5 Workstation Graphics Card (1536x Cores)
    GPU/MIC: NVIDIA Tesla K20 Workstation – 5GB GDDR5 GPU Card – 2496x GPU Cores
    Primary HDD: 240GB Ultra High Performance Gen3 Solid State Hard Disk Drive (Intel 520 Series)
    Data HDD 1: 1.0TB (7,200rpm, 32MB Cache, NCQ) SATA3
    Optical Drive: DVD/RW +/- Optical Drive – Black (SATA)
    Many thanks,

  • Russell

    Hi Scott, Great Article!

    A few Questions;
    1) How to know if my Cad program (Alibre) is using OpenGl or DirectX ?

    2) How to choose the best performance-value for money Processor? I have asked several PC shops for a quote and some are quoting i3-WXYZ while others are quoting i5 or i7 and the WXYZ is never the same even if the i3,i5 or i7 is. How to compare?

    2) Processors have come along way in technology (and confusing processor naming) since your 2011 article. can we have an updated recommendation on a fast CAD system for a reasonable budget.


  • luiis

    How good it’s. This
    and FX 6300 oc.45ghz with liquid cooling

    16gb ram DDR3-1600MHZ

    SSD 128GB (550/445)

    PSU 600W

  • Norman

    Are you going to update this? It’s 2013!

    • Maybe you’re right, Norman. I’ll see if we can convince Scott to contribute again. Stay tuned!

  • Will

    I’m in need of building a new machine.

    Budget: $4k. USD

    Primary Use: Solidworks 2013 and Keyshot 3

    Any suggestions?! Thanks to anyone who can help!

  • Will

    Hey Scott,
    With the ever changing hardware thats available as soon as you’ve built your workstation…How ’bout a refresh on that 2011 BOM, maybe even add a mid range system build.

  • antónio andré


    I am Architect and 3D+render + Adobe intensive user of very very complex models, with a lots os edges. i spend many hours working on it, with laptop on.

    Now i need to buy some new monile machine. And i need all information its possible.

    Which is better?
    DELL PRECISION, LENOVO W530, or CLEVO Professional Custom?

    Which GPU is better to work smooth and speed and not stoping?

    GTX or QUADRO?

    Which CPU?

    Quad Core 6MB or 8MB (cache)

    Pelase help me to spend nice Money on new machine. I need a machine that do not stop for thinking while iam workin. Time is Money.

  • Any ideas for a laptop primarily geared towards CAD, secondarily towards rendering? Budget <$1600

  • Kylie

    Hi! I am an aerospace engineering major and will have to use SolidWorks in several of my classes. I am on a budget, so what would be the best laptop I could buy to run CAD programs efficiently and while also not breaking my wallet? the MAX i can spend is $1500. Right now I am looking at the Lenovo ThinkPad W540.

    • jade cereno

      Just don’t trust laptops. they will just eat your money. Go for a desktop

  • Blah

    Arrghhhh soo annoying! NO I DO NOT WANT TO SUBSCRIBE!

    I can’t even read this article with this popup showing up every 10 seconds asking me to subscribe to grabCAD.

    I’m outta here! SO annoying!

    Admin, please have a look at this, it may be a bug!

  • The Mobile back covers are
    the best protective mobile accessories to protect the mobile phone from
    scratches and external damages. Similarly, if in the case the mobile falls
    down, the back cover will help it to protect from the damage and keep it to be
    the scratch proof and damage proof.
    Mobile Back Cover

  • Liam

    HI, I am a Civil Engineer, at the moment I´m using a MacBook pro, not ideal. I finally have a good job and they will be providing a PC but I´d like to build my own and work from home at times. I want something capable of running Civil 3D with ease and some other side programs like excel etc for exporting data. I was thinking of a 3 monitor display, 1 for the CAD another for programs and a third for monitoring CPU etc and tutorial videos. Any recommendations or deviations from the above list? was thinking of buying the parts bit by bit and assembling the tower once I have everything then adding monitors speakers etc so as to spread out the cost.