The Cheapest Solidworks Workstation

Update 5/31/15: Go check out How to build a true Solidworks Workstation for about $300.  The following post suggests using components that are not true workstation components.  Furthermore, actual workstation components can be had for as little or less than the system builds described here.

For quicker access to the information you want, here’s an index of this post:

1. Backstory

2. What does a Solidworks rig need?

3. Useful websites

4. Buy a used workstation/older components

5. Just tell me what new parts to buy

Over the holidays I received some gifts from my family.  They totaled to $312.50.  In my situation, having $312.50 that was as-yet not earmarked had me reeling over the possibilities.  (If you don’t know my situation, it goes a little something like this:  Homeowner, part time university student, full-time product designer, pet parent, husband, etc.  All of those things require a lot of time, and most of them cost a lot of money.  In other words:  I have no time or money.  My paychecks all come pre-spent.)  I had a couple ideas for how to spend it:

1.  Ninja Blender

I wanted a Ninja Blender because I’ve been frequenting Smoothie King for lunch.  I drink smoothies for lunch because I don’t have time to chew.  I’m only half joking.  I can pick up a smoothie and be back to work in 15 minutes.  I can drink the smoothie on the clock without disrupting my thought process or workflow.  The blender would negate the almost daily trip and reduce the cost of the smoothies.

2.  Electric Razor

I wanted an Electric Razor because I really, really hate shaving.  I also really, really hate having facial hair.  This seems like something every employed guy should have easy access to.  But, I’ve been using my wife’s disposable 24-blade, pumice stone equipped, moisturizer infused women’s razors for as long as I can remember.  It works.  It’s cheap enough.  Whatever.  But, the idea of saving time by shaving while driving to work is something I find enticing.

Then, it hit me.

I have this dream of doing freelance product design work.  I do product design for a home automation company.  They give me flex hours so I can go to school.  I enjoy the work.  I spend about as much time playing in Solidworks as I do actually building the designs and testing them.  I have VPN access to my work computer, and I’ve used it to model in Solidworks from the “comfort” of my dining room table.  However, it’s not ethical to use my company’s assets for my own personal gain.  But, as I’ve told you before, I’m writing to you from hand-me-down laptops and clicking buttons with thrashed mice.  So, what’s a guy to do?

I should build a Solidworks rig.

Now, you’re laughing to yourself.  I can hear it.  “This idiot can’t build a computer that runs Solidworks for $312.50!”  Or, can he?  Can you?  Let’s take a look at the possibilities.  We’ll use Solidworks 2013 as a basis.  It has tons of features, probably too many.  Solidworks is at a point in its development where most new features are “nice to have” and not necessities.  For example, Solidworks 2014 has a new Sheet Metal Gusset feature.  Wonderful.  It saves me some time putting in gussets.  But, I can still model gussets manually in 2013 if I have to.  And, sometimes I have to.

So, by using slightly older (but not less capable) software to start with, we can use system specs that aren’t quite bleeding edge.  Let me also tell you, I’ve seen solidworks run on several low-end and old-as-hell machines without too much trouble.  I ran 2010 on a low-end Athlon X2 Dual-Core processor laptop when I was first learning.  I ran 2013 on an i3-330M (this very Vaio laptop I’m on now) a few years later and had to wait for every edge of the object to re-draw every time I changed the view.  It’s not totally unworkable, but it’s not ideal, either.  The main changes in Solidworks between 2010 and now have mostly been “tweaks” rather than full-on major improvements/reimaginings of functionality.  So, if you already have an older rig, try using an older version of Solidworks first.  HOWEVER, if you’re serious about rendering, building complex models and/or assemblies, or even simulation, you should probably throw more machine at the problem.

Anyway, Solidworks wants these things:

1. Processor Speed

Solidworks runs mostly on a single thread when you’re modelling.  You need the fastest processor you can buy.  If you plan on rendering or simulation, extra cores and processors greatly increase the speed of rendering and simulation.  You can’t render or simulate if you can’t model, though.  So, let’s aim for the fastest processor we can afford.

2.  RAM

Solidworks is a memory hog.  It takes up a full gig of RAM on my workstation just to be open.  (Keep in mind, though, that PDM, Simulation, Toolbox, and various other add-ons are typically enabled when I’m at work.)  When you start building assemblies, it wants to hold tens, maybe even hundreds of parts in RAM.  There are ways to reduce this load (the “Lightweight” feature).  If you have a web browser open at the same time, you’re probably going to be taxing most consumer-oriented systems.  Solidworks’ website recommends at LEAST 8GB of RAM.  And, despite what everyone says, RAM is actually pretty expensive.  Let’s aim for 8GB at least.

3.  Graphics Card

This is third on the list, because it’s really the almost the least important.  It has the least impact on how well Solidworks performs.  So, you really only need something mid-range, and maybe even on the low side of that.  I’m not a graphics card expert by any means.  I’ll try to make some suggestions based on research I’ve done.  Solidworks’ website also has certified cards that are recommended to use.

4.  Hard Disk

Keep in mind, Solidworks does a lot of data access from the hard disk.  Many people are recommending Solid State Drives.  I have no experience using Solidworks with a Solid State Drive.  However, I do have experience with storing assemblies on a remote server, and Solidworks WILL CHOKE trying to pull things from a slow disk.  So, we probably can’t completely skimp in the hard disk area.

These are the issues we face.  The other components are relatively cheap.  I’m going to assume you can skrimp and scrounge a LAN/Wifi card, DVD drive, keyboard, mouse, and monitor from somewhere.  So, let’s go shopping!

In my efforts to build this thing, I’ve stumbled upon a few different websites that saved me a lot of time and effort.  The first, and maybe most important one, is PC Part Picker.  PC Part Picker does a lot of the compatibility checking between components for you.  Although, it sometimes fails at this.  It’s very powerful in the sense that it reduces the time you spend searching for and researching parts.  It also gives you direct links to purchase the parts from various vendors.  HOWEVER, I found this feature to be faulty.  The prices are kept somewhat up-to-date.  The problem is that the price of your build fluctuates almost hourly.  Furthermore, some components disappear from the list completely.  This isn’t the fault of PC Part Picker, but rather of the vendors its pulling information from.  Still, as a design tool, it will save you tons of time.  I recommend using it to find the proper configurations.  Then, use that list to build an order on Amazon or Newegg or whatever you prefer.

The second website that I recommend is CPU Benchmarks.  CPU Benchmarks has managed to benchmark over 600,000 CPUs at the time of this writing.  If you’re on a serious budget, trying to build a rig from used or older components, CPU Benchmark will give you an idea of what to expect.  I’ve used it to assess whether or not I should upgrade my laptops.  For example, my Linux machine has the Athlon X2 QL-64 that I mentioned earlier.  That chip is socket S1g2, which means that only other S1g2 (and S1g1) chips are compatible.  When I go searching for S1g2 chips, there are only a few.  But, CPU Benchmark lets me know that if I buy a $15 Turion ZM-84, I could increase the processor performance by about 20%.  20% isn’t bad.  But, CPU Benchmark also lets me know that that Turion ZM-84 is also still old as hell.  In fact, that processor is 20% as fast as the latest Intel i7’s.  From that frame of reference, that $15 isn’t buying me much.  The other good thing about CPU Benchmarks is that they also benchmark GPUs and RAM.  So, if you’re serious about using older components, CPU Benchmark is where you go to determine how much value you’ll get out of it.

Speaking of older components, I also looked into purchasing used workstations.  You can pick up a used hp Z600 or equivalent workstation for a few hundred dollars.  It won’t necessarily have multiple Xeon processors and 16GB of ram (which is what my Z600 at work has), but it may be a less time-consuming and labor-intensive solution to this problem.  So, if you’re not computer savvy, or just don’t care to be, feel free to explore Amazon for used hp Z600’s, Dell T3500’s, Lenovo P500’s, etc.  It’s probably the most painless (and maybe even the cheapest) way to get a Solidworks rig.  Just keep in mind the issues listed above.

If you’re still with me, you’re serious about building this thing from scratch with brand new components.  So, here is a list of components that will run Solidworks REASONABLY well, for about $350 to $400 (before shipping and taxes).  Below there is an AMD rig and an Intel rig.  At the bottom we’ll compare the rigs to each other as well as to a typical workstation.

AMD Rig:

At the time of this writing, the following components total to $349.80.  Click on any of the images to be taken directly to the Amazon product page to check for the latest prices.  Below the images is a summary of why I chose these components.

AMD FX-6300
AMD FX-6300
61+o98AXmsL
ASUS M5A78L-M LX PLUS Motherboard
8GB (2x4GB) 240-pin SDRAM DDR3 1333Mhz
8GB (2x4GB) 240-pin SDRAM DDR3 1333Mhz
Hitachi Deskstar E7K1000 1TB, 7200RPM, 32MB Cache HD
Hitachi Deskstar E7K1000 1TB, 7200RPM, 32MB Cache HD
ASUS R5-230 Graphics Card
ASUS R5-230 Graphics Card
Rosewill MicroATX Tower
Rosewill MicroATX Tower

Intel Rig:

At the time of this writing, the following components total $403.14.  Click on any of the images to be taken directly to the Amazon product page for the latest prices.

Intel i5-4330 Processor
Intel i5-4330 Processor
Gigabyte LGA 1150 Intel H81 MicroATX Motherboard
Gigabyte LGA 1150 Intel H81 MicroATX Motherboard
8GB (2x4GB) 240-pin SDRAM DDR3 1333Mhz
8GB (2x4GB) 240-pin SDRAM DDR3 1333Mhz
Seagate Constellation 2 250GB HD
Seagate Constellation 2 250GB HD
Rosewill MicroATX Tower
Rosewill MicroATX Tower

Let’s compare this two machines:

AMD Rig Specs:
Processor Speed: 3.5Ghz
Processor L2 Cache: 6MB
RAM: 8GB
Graphics: Radeon R5 230

Intel Rig Specs:
Processor Speed: 3.0Ghz
Processor L2 Cache: 6MB
RAM: 8GB
Graphics: Intel HD Graphics (integrated)

So, I’m breaking my own rules here.  The AMD FX-6300 has a ridiculous number of cores.  The Intel i5-4330 is slower than the AMD.  So, which is better?  Well, according to CPU Benchmark:i5-4330 vs FX6300But, that’s not the whole story.  If you dig deeper into benchmarking, you’ll find “single thread ratings” that describe how each core performs on its own.  The FX-6300 has 6 “slow” cores.  The i5-4330 has 4 “less slow” cores.  (Neither of these processors is blazing fast like the i7-4770.)  Solidworks generally uses only one thread when you’re modelling.  So, depending on what you plan to do (rendering, simulation, etc), the i5 may actually be a better choice.

Now, for grins, let’s compare those two processors to the cheapest Z600 workstation on Amazon right now:

i5-4330 vs FX6300 vs E5520Next up, the graphics cards.  This is way far out of my area of expertise.  So, I’m pretty much just going by the numbers here.  The Intel i5 has integrated graphics that are no slouch.  They obviously don’t replace a high-end graphics card, but we don’t need a high-end graphics card.  The Radeon R5 230 is a low-end card that I stumbled upon on Amazon that was within the budget.  Comparing them at CPU Benchmark:

GPU compareAll of the other components are essentially the same, because they can be, and because they’re cheap.  I myself have not built either of these rigs.  Nor have I tested them with Solidworks.  So, what you have here is essentially a “best guest” of how to make a Solidworks-worthy computer for a low, low cost.  I can’t help you put them together.  I can’t guarantee that all of the parts listed are compatible with each other.  But, I hope I’ve at least given you the inspiration to set a seemingly impossible goal and attempt to attain it.  I’m still tempted to try, even though that Christmas money wound up being spent on school books and lab supplies.

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