The Definitive Engineering Computer Buying Guide Mid 2019

August 27, 2019 Mark Harris

If you’re looking for a new PC for engineering (electronic or otherwise), you don’t need to break the bank. This guide is for those of you more focused on engineering than keeping up with the latest PC hardware.

 

Laptop vs Desktop

Unless you plan on moving around a lot, or just don’t have a place to put a desktop computer, buying or building a desktop computer instead of a laptop will save you a lot of money and give you significantly better performance. Processors in laptops are much weaker due to thermal and power constraints, as are graphics cards. A laptop’s hardware must be packaged into a portable chassis, whereas a desktop computer doesn’t have this constraint. Consequently, the desktop computer can have significantly higher power consumption, due to having no battery restrictions, and more effective cooling, owing to its larger chassis space. Desktops can do more for less money.

The primary disadvantage for me with laptops is the lack of screen size. I like a nice big screen on which I can see what I’m doing without straining my eyes. That being said, a laptop is certainly nice for being able to sit at a cafe or in a forest and get some work done. If you’re planning to buy a laptop instead, you might check out the laptop buying guide article I wrote on my blog.

 

Build or Buy

If you are looking at a laptop rather than a desktop computer, you don’t have much of a choice when it comes to building vs buying. A laptop allows you some specification options at the time of order, but that's about it. With a desktop machine, you’ll get much higher specifications and better quality components for your money if you go to a computer store (online or locally) and order the parts instead of buying a pre-assembled machine. Typically a computer store will assemble and set up the computer from your chosen parts for a relatively trivial amount of money if you don’t feel up to assembling the machine yourself.

To my mind, the main advantage to a brand name pre-built machine is the support that comes along with it. That being said, a next day on-premises support contract with the machine can be expensive, and the time lost waiting for a technician to come out to you might not be worth it if you can simply buy a replacement part yourself. A local computer store will also offer a warranty on the build, as well as the manufacturer's warranty on each part. If you are in the vicinity of a local store, your business will mean more to them than it ever will to a large multinational corporation.

 

Tech Specs

The most important specification when it comes to a computer for me is RAM (Random Access Memory). There’s no point in having a super fast processor, great graphics card and tons of fast storage if you can’t load a complex circuit board or mechanical design into memory. If you don’t have enough RAM, your computer will swap data into and out of RAM, and will be very slow as it transfers the data between memory and disk. RAM runs at a bit over 50Gbps meanwhile the highest speed NVMe solid state hard drives run at a fraction of that speed and will be the biggest bottleneck in the system.

If you want to get to the recommendations, jump straight to the end of the article.

 

RAM - Random Access Memory

For an engineering computer, 32GB is the bare minimum I would consider. When I’m using Altium, Chrome, and Solidworks, I can easily sit at 20-25GB of RAM in use and have Solidworks Resource Monitor constantly complaining at me. An extra 32GB of RAM will only cost an additional $100-200 these days, so it’s well worth the price.

 

CPU - Central Processing Unit

I’ve been using the top of the line Intel i7 processors for the past 10 years, however, AMD is starting to make some competitive options for processors. Generally, CAD software requires more single-core performance than multi-core but that is slowly starting to change. Intel’s next generation of processors are due out for notebooks this month, but desktop computers will have to wait several more months. Looking through Intel’s literature, it looks like the coming 10th generation processors are not going to offer a very substantial increase in performance over the current 9th generation. I feel what I say about 9th generation processors will stay the same with the 10th in regards to engineering.

For a desktop computer, if you’re on a budget, an AMD Ryzen 5 2600X is a very attractive processor. It’s almost half the price of the popular Intel i7-9700K that I’m using, but the i7 is about 30% faster. By using the AMD processor over Intel, you could buy the extra 32GB of RAM and still have some extra cash left. If performance is more critical than price, the i7-9700K or it’s future replacement will give you more performance per core, and more physical processor cores. If you’re still seeking more power, an Intel i9-9900K gives you more cache (allows more instructions to be queued/data stored) and adds multi-threading per core for 16 virtual processors on 8 cores. The cost increase to the i9 may look minor, however, they don’t include a CPU cooler which will add to the cost.

 

Motherboard

Shopping for a motherboard as an electronics engineer is pretty fun. The marketing material is like a grade A comedy routine, which gets better the more expensive the board is. You’ll see gems like “we've reimaged motherboard trace routing from the ground up,” and “we've employed a highly customized T-Topology layout that delivers time-aligned signaling” from ASUS. From MSI, you have wonders such as “MSI motherboards circuitry ensure the case standoff keep out zones are pure and clean, preventing any component contact or damage to the motherboard” and “using separated layers in the PCB ensures equally pristine sound quality for both left and right audio channels.” Does this mean that previous models didn’t employ good design practice?

Anyway, back to specifications. When shopping for a motherboard, I ignore brand and only care about features. Assuming each company hires competent engineers, you will not see any performance difference across the various implementations or models of motherboards. What you will see is varying options for peripherals. In my opinion, you want an option with at least:

  • Gigabit Ethernet.

  • Two M.2 Connectors using PCI-E. On motherboards meant for AMD processors, you will only get one pure PCI-E, extras will be SATA.

  • Four Memory slots.

  • Either onboard WiFi or at least one PCI-E x1 slots.

If you need lots of storage, you might look at a board with six or eight SATA connectors rather than four. You’ll use the M.2 connector for your high-speed storage, but SATA is great for high capacity mechanical hard drives.

With lots of dev kits, programmers, logic analyzers and other such devices to connect to the computer, I like to have a whole lot of USB connectors available. A typical home user or gamer just doesn’t require as many USB ports as us engineers do.

Intel: On the budget side of things, a Gigabyte Z390 M GAMING ticks all the boxes, but only has four USB 3.0 + one USB 3.1 on the rear panel, which I would find rather limiting. For a little more money, the Gigabyte Z390 AORUS ELITE has four USB 2.0, four USB 3.0 and two USB 3.1 connectors on the back panel, as well as 6 SATA connectors internally.

AMD: For a cheap motherboard, the ASUS PRIME B450M-A/CSM has a lot of connectivity. On the back panel are two USB 3.1 Gen2 and four USB 3.1 Gen1 ports, and internally, it has six SATA connectors. It only has one M.2 PCI-E socket however, so if you want to run multiple high-speed SSD drives, you won’t be able to. Going with a more expensive board such as the Gigabyte X470 AORUS ULTRA GAMING gives you more connectivity with the rear panel having one USB 3.1 Gen2 Type C port, one USB 3.1 Gen2 port, four USB 3.1 Gen1 ports and four USB 2.0 ports. Internally, there are two PCI-E M.2 connectors and six SATA connectors.

 

Hard Drives

I find that when using engineering applications, the software accesses a lot of relatively small files fairly frequently. In Altium, you have all your schematic and PCB files, plus regular backups, pcblib and schlib files, all of which are quite small. If you want to optimize load times, you need solid state storage. If cost is not an issue, I recommend using two SSD drives, one for your operating system/programs and one for your data. This also enables you to back up your files across both disks in case something happens. As a disk failure can very quickly cost you tens of thousands of dollars in lost time or data, I highly recommend sticking with an SSD manufacturer that produces their own flash chips, such as Intel or Samsung. The Samsung EVO line has been my favorite drive for many years, and I have not had any drive failures yet. Other more budget oriented SSD brands I used in the same period have all failed.

The performance of NVMe storage is so great that you probably won't notice the performance difference between the brands in day to day usage, so flash endurance is the key specification I examine when deciding between drives. The Samsung 970 EVO series is their latest generation of drives, with the 500/512GB models having an endurance of 300TB Written for the Plus model, and of 600TB Written for the Pro model. 

The Intel 660p series available at half the price of the Samsung EVO Plus has a flash endurance of just 200TB Written, and has about a third of the bandwidth.

I consider the 500/512GB models to be the minimum size I would consider for engineering. With software installs being tens of gigabytes and having multiple IDEs for firmware development, disk space goes away very rapidly. Depending on how large your project storage is, consider using a 1TB drive for your operating system, and a 500/512GB drive for your data. 

If you need a lot of archival storage on your computer, or lower-speed data access (videos/renders, datasheets, SDKs and such), consider adding a SATA mechanical hard drive. For the same price as the Samsung EVO Pro 1TB drive, you can buy a 10TB Western Digital RED NAS drive. It’s ten times the size but has a tenth of the transfer speed, which should still be plenty for backups and storage.

 

Video Card/Graphics Card

For CAD work, you need a dedicated graphics card. The onboard graphics might cope with everyday office software/web browsing usage, but some CAD packages and simulation/modelling software are very hard on the onboard graphics chip, so a dedicated card is a great option. I’m only interested in cards from nVidia for reasons that are more about performance than about brand loyalty. Each time I start considering Radeon cards, they look very attractive as far as price and specs go, but reading online reviews from professional CAD users really puts me off with many reports of graphics artifacts and glitches. I don’t have time for weird graphics artifacts, so it’s down to GeForce or Quadro cards for me. If you love Radeon cards however, by all means, feel free to consider buying one.

Quadro is nVidia’s line of ISV (Independent Software Vendor) qualified cards. They run the exact same processors and memory as the gaming line (GeForce) but at lower performance and with a significantly higher price. Altium doesn’t care about your graphics cards certifications, but some mechanical CAD software does. Solidworks cares deeply about Quadro cards and will only enable certain features for this line of cards. Luckily, you can edit your registry and trick Solidworks into thinking a gaming card is a Quadro. If you’re very adventurous, you can swap two resistors on a GeForce card and reflash the firmware on the board to make the graphics card think it’s really a Quadro card that costs four times as much money, but this isn’t always successful and voids your warranty, so is not recommended.

The low-end GeForce GTX 1650 will not be heavily stressed by Altium, but some mechanical CAD software might start to warm it up a little bit. If you’re rendering photorealistic scenes, then you will want to spend as much of your budget as you can on the highest performance graphics card you can afford. If you’re just doing day to day CAD work, a GeForce GTX 1650 or 1660 will get you by.

If you are rendering, the new GeForce RTX line offers higher performance than the GTX line. Performance per dollar spent is about the same on the RTX cards as the GTX options.

 

Power Supply

Just like in an electronics product you design, the power supply quality is critical in the PC. A cheap supply that doesn’t have sufficient capacity to run the computer will cause you a lot of headaches as the CPU and graphics card go to full load. At worst, a poor quality supply can damage components of your PC. Luckily, a good power supply does not have to be very expensive.

If you are building the desktop computer yourself, rather than having a shop build it, consider getting a modular power supply. These are supplied with either no cables at all coming out of them or just the main motherboard cable. Instead, there is an array of plugs which allows you to plug in just the cables you need to power up each device in your computer. This makes routing cables through the PC a lot easier and doesn’t leave you looking for somewhere to stuff all the unused cables in the case. Having tidier cables in your case will marginally improve airflow and cooling.

An engineering computer won’t draw as much power as a multi-graphics card gaming machine, so you can get away with a relatively small supply. If you’re looking at the CPUs from either AMD or Intel listed above, you will have around 100W of power draw from the CPU alone. A basic graphics card (GTX 1650) uses about 75W, a mid-range one (RTX 2060) about 160W and a high end card (RTX 2080 Ti) draws 250W. Each hard drive (SSD or Mechanical) will draw about 10W.

Add up the total wattage, and then add another 100W for the motherboard, cooling fans, USB devices, and to allow some overhead for future use and you’ll know what capacity your power supply should be. Your average draw will be much smaller than this amount, but if everything peaks at once, you don’t want your computer to crash from being starved of power. 

Most engineering computers will be absolutely fine on a 550W power supply. If you’re running a top of the range graphics card, or multiple graphics cards, for rendering or simulation processing, consider an 850W power supply.

The Corsair RM series is a series of very popular, fully modular power supplies. A little more budget conscious choice is the CX series from Corsair that is only semi-modular.

 

Case

People can get quite particular about which case they use. In the end, a case is an EMI shield that lets you mount your components nicely. If you’re testing RF products, don’t bother with a case that has windows as this allows most electromagnetic noise generated from a computer to get out, which will raise your noise floor.

I use the cheapest ATX sized case that has USB 3.1 sockets on the front panel, and dust filters on the fans. ATX is the size of a standard motherboard; there are smaller form factors available, and cases for those but you will have most likely selected an ATX form factor motherboard as they have the most functionality for the lowest price.

 

Screen

Computer screens are something I find most employers severely neglecting. They’ll give a staff member a powerful computer and then a 22” Full HD (1920x1080 pixels) resolution screen or two to use. As I mentioned when discussing laptops, I really dislike small screens. One of my computers has a 32” Quad HD (2560x1440) screen, and the other a 40” 4K (3840 x 2160) screen. I have a neck injury that causes a lot of strain if I’m using two large screens side by side, but I also like to have a lot of screen real estate. To make full use of a 4K resolution screen, you need a large screen area so you can use it without UI scaling. A 15” laptop with a 4K screen can’t display any more data than a 15” Full HD, as 4K at that size makes anything too small to read, so the UI is scaled up to look sharper instead.

A 22” Full HD has a similar pixel size as a 32” QHD/WQHD screen and a 40” 4K screen. I really like the 4K 40” for Altium, you can see all the details on a large board whilst being zoomed in. When Altium is full screen, it has the same amount of pixels as four Full HD screens. Mechanical CAD packages are subject to the same improvements, you can see the section you’re working on very clearly, the same as on a lower resolution screen, but also have good context as you can also see all of the surrounding model areas. Large or multiple screens also allow you to multi-task more efficiently. Keep in mind that the higher resolution your screen is, the stronger the graphics card you need in order to run it.

If you’re not going to use the computer for gaming too, consider getting a 4K 40-43” TV for a screen. TVs are not the best for gaming as they tend to have slower response times than a monitor does, and this can cause blurring which induces eye strain. For CAD work though, they are very cost effective as 40” is a fairly small size for their market.

 

Budget Oriented Engineering Computer

Whilst this is the ‘budget’ option, it's by no means lacking performance. The specified components are intended for professional engineers where every minute spent waiting for a computer to respond or think is lost money. It’s s high performance build with an eye to cost.

  • CPU: AMD Ryzen™ 5 2600X Processor, 3.6GHz

  • RAM: Two Corsair Vengeance LPX 32GB DDR4 2666MHz CL16 Dual Channel Kit (2x 16GB)

  • Motherboard: Gigabyte X470 AORUS ULTRA GAMING

  • Primary Drive: Samsung 970 EVO Plus NVMe M.2 PCI-E x4 SSD, 500GB

  • Second Drive: Samsung 970 EVO Plus NVMe M.2 PCI-E x4 SSD, 500GB

  • Graphics Card: Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1650 OC 4GB PCI-E

  • Power supply: Corsair CX Series CX550M Semi-Modular Power Supply

  • Case: Carbide Series 200R Compact ATX Case

Total Price, approximately US$1000-1200 depending on the supplier, display, operating system, peripherals, etc.

 

Performance Oriented Engineering Computer

This computer is oriented more towards higher performance, but without going over the top on cost. It’s what I’d expect to find in a productive electronics or mechanical engineering lab where engineers are doing basic to moderate simulation and 3D work, and a lot of solid modeling or PCB layout. This machine has about 25-30% higher performance than the budget option above and hosts a significantly larger storage capacity.

If you are doing heavy simulation, finite element analysis, or rendering, consider purchasing a dedicated server with dual Intel Xeon processors and high-performance graphics cards if your simulation/rendering package supports GPU processing. This will allow you to offload simulation work from your desktop computer, allowing you to continue working while the server crunches the numbers for your workgroup.

  • CPU: Intel Core™ i9-9900K Processor, 3.6GHz

  • RAM: Corsair Vengeance LPX 32GB DDR4 3200MHz CL16 Dual Channel Kit (2x 16GB)

  • Motherboard: Gigabyte Z390 AORUS ELITE

  • Primary Drive: Samsung 970 PRO NVMe M.2 PCI-E x4 SSD, 1TB

  • Secondary Drive: Samsung 970 PRO NVMe M.2 PCI-E x4 SSD, 512GB

  • Backup/Archive Drive: Western Digital 6TB Ultrastar Hard Drive, SATA III w/ 256MB Cache

  • Graphics Card: Gigabyte GeForce RTX 2070 GAMING OC 8GB PCI-E

  • Power supply: Corsair RMx Series RM650x 80+ Gold Fully Modular

  • Case: Corsair Carbide Series 270R Mid Tower ATX Case

Total Price, approximately US$2,400 to US$2,600 depending on the supplier, display, operating system, peripherals, etc. This should be under US$2,000 if you use two Samsung 970 PRO NVMe M.2 drives and drop the 6TB mechanical disk.

When it’s time to buy new PCB design software, you only want to buy the best of the best. Altium Designer® contains all the industry-standard tools you need to produce the best electronic devices. If you want the best PCB design software on the market, look no further than Altium Designer. Have more questions? Call an expert at Altium.

About the Author

Mark Harris

Mark Harris is an engineer's engineer, with over 12 years of diverse experience within the electronics industry, varying from aerospace and defense contracts to small product startups, hobbies and everything in between. Before moving to the United Kingdom, Mark was employed by one of the largest research organizations in Canada; every day brought a different project or challenge involving electronics, mechanics, and software. He also publishes the most extensive open source database library of components for Altium Designer called the Celestial Database Library. Mark has an affinity for open-source hardware and software and the innovative problem-solving required for the day-to-day challenges such projects offer. Electronics are passion; watching a product go from an idea to reality and start interacting with the world is a never-ending source of enjoyment.

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