Tag Archives: Planning

The Leasing Game

There are people in this world who hate leasing vehicles.  The reasons vary.  My favorite one is that leasing leaves you with nothing to show for the money you’ve spent.  Then comes the expense.  You’re responsible for maintenance.  You spend all this money on a car that isn’t even yours.  You pay insurance premiums that will ultimately pay out to the leasing company in the event of an accident.  They also say that you’re paying for the worst depreciation on the car — when it is first released into the wild.

I can’t deny the truths behind these arguments.  Leasing is kind-of an odd thing.  You really do insure a vehicle that you don’t own.  You really do have to maintain it on your own dime (although, a warranty will cover everything else.)  You really do have to give it back at the end of the lease term.  So, what’s the up-side?  That depends.

A car lease is a contract wherein the lessee (you) agrees to pay money for a given term in exchange for the use of a vehicle.  The amount of money you pay is determined by the purchase price of the vehicle less the residual value after the lease term.  The residual value is how much the lesser (the people leasing you the car) think the car will be worth after you have used it.  This value seems arbitrary, but it is actually based on several obvious factors: mileage, wear and tear, “gap insurance”, and supply and demand.

Mileage is the most obvious variable in the residual value equation.  A lease always includes very strict mileage allowances.  For every mile over that allowance the car has traveled, you pay extra.  So, right here — right at this very sentence — if you drive more than 12,000 miles in a year, you shouldn’t lease a vehicle.  Honestly, you shouldn’t be driving 12,000 miles a year.  Driving is a total waste of time and energy on your part.  It’s expensive.  It’s boring.  It’s dangerous.  Don’t do it.  If you drive only 3,000 miles per year, you may want to consider purchasing.  Why?  Because you won’t use the car as much as you could have, and you will be paying for utility that you do not utilize.  Just buy a car and plan on keeping it forever.

Wear and tear is also pretty obvious.  The dealer expects the car to need some work when it comes back.  This work will be minor, but it still has a cost.  That is factored in to the residual value.  After a 36,000 mile lease, the car will likely be out-of-warranty, but still very mechanically sound.  This is great for the used-car market, where “clean”, low-mileage cars actually go at a premium.  This relates to the supply and demand factor.

I use quotations on “Gap Insurance”, because the actual contract isn’t technically gap insurance.  There is a risk that a certain number of lessees will total the cars they lease.  The dealer factors that risk (and the cost of that event) into the lease.  Meanwhile, you pay regular car insurance that covers smaller accidents, medical bills, etc.

Finally, and the least obvious of the factors, is supply and demand.  The worst thing about this factor is that it is constantly changing.  The residual value of a vehicle is largely influenced by the greater used car market.  The used car market is supplied by off-lease vehicles and trade-ins.  Car lease terms range from 24-48 months, with the most common advertised term being 36 months.  Car loan terms have taken on much longer terms in recent years, as long as 72 months.  In fact, In 2010 nearly 1/3 of car buyers financed using a 6-year (72 month) car loan.

What do you know about car loans, or just loans in general?  I’m going to take a minute to explain them.  If you already know, feel free to skip ahead.  Most people know the basics of loans.  An interest rate and a term is advertised.  The interest rate is applied to the loan balance repeatedly over the life of the loan.  In many cases, the interest rate is applied monthly.  The other advertised value is the principle, or sale price, of the vehicle.  You must understand that both the interest rate AND THE TERM determine how much extra money you pay.  So often people focus on the interest rate.  The term can have as much or more influence on the total interest charged.  Furthermore, you must understand that loan payments are biased toward the balance of the interest, and gradually change bias towards the balance of the principle (the car’s sale price)

Let me try to put that in a concrete example, without getting too mathy.  Let’s say you want to finance (not lease) a $10,000 car (forget taxes for now).  The interest rate is 6.00%  The term is 36 months.  Over those 36 months you will pay $1996.81 in interest.  Great.  When you’re done paying for the car, it actually cost you $11996.81.  And, your monthly payment will likely be $333.  That’s pretty steep for a $10,000 car!

Now, let’s say you want to finance that same $10,000 with an interest rate of 3% for 72 months (6 years).  That interest rate is really attractive, right?  I mean, it’s HALF of the other interest rate.  But, the term has doubled.  Over those six years, you will pay $1969.48 in interest, and the car will have cost you $11969.48 total.  Now, your payment is only $166!  How wonderful!

But, is it wonderful?  Now that you’ve seen compounding interest in action, you need to understand depreciation.  Accountants learn that word in college, and all it means is “things lose value.”  Cars, houses, mobile homes, your computer, your tablet, your phone…  Everything you have ever bought becomes less valuable after you buy it.  They all take on wear and tear.  They all become “old”.  There is no mathematical equation that predicts depreciation in the way that we can predict interest.  The car’s value is determined by whoever is willing to buy it, and the amount they are willing to buy it for.  Car dealers buy used cars all the time, so they often have a big say in how much value a used car has.

Now, as soon as you drive your brand new $10,000 car off the lot, it has lost value.  It doesn’t lose value gradually, the value drops FAST, and then gradually sinks as the car ages.  If you owe more money on the car than what someone else is willing to pay you for it, you are “upside down” in your loan.  In other words, if you want out of the loan, you need to come up with not only the value of the car, but also the difference between that value and the balance of your loan.  If you’ve only made two payments on your $10,000 car financed for 36 months, and someone is only willing to pay you $8,000 for it, you need to come up with $1333 to cover the difference.  However, if you financed that same car for 72 months and you get the same offer, you need to come up with $1668.  Why?  Because your monthly payment for a 72 month term is only half of what it was for the 36 month term.  (36 month term payment was $333/mo, 72 month term payment was $166/mo.)

I’m trying to paint a picture here that shows you why financing anything is a terrible idea.

To make it even worse, loans are designed such that you pay more towards the interest at the beginning, and more towards the principle toward the end.  For example, 90% of your first payment goes towards the interest you own, and 10% goes toward the principle.  These rates gradually swap over the loan term, until your last payment is 10% interest and 90% principle.  What does that mean?  Well, number one, it means that the finance people want their interest first and foremost.  And, number two, it means that you actually aren’t paying much toward the car’s actual cost.  It’s another way to keep you upside down in the loan and to keep you from selling the car before you’re done paying the interest (which is where the bankers make their profits).

Jeez.  This is a long post.  Go grab a cup of coffee or tea and meet me back here.  I’m about to start talking about leasing.

So, we’ve established that long financing terms are bad, even at lower interest rates.  We’ve described how loans are set up to keep you from being able to sell the car before the loan term is over.  (And, at 6 years, you’re probably stuck with a car that is falling apart.)  We’ve shown that a low payment is both a blessing and curse.

Now, on to leasing!  LEASING IS STILL A FORM OF FINANCING.  You pay interest on a lease, but it has a different name.  This is the “money factor”, and it is basically an interest rate.  So, yes, leasing is just as bad as financing.  But, when you lease, you agree to pay for only the portion of the car that you use.  No, you don’t only pay for the driver’s seat and the steering wheel.  You pay for the car’s loss of value.  So, if that $10,000 car is only worth $6000 after a 36 month lease, you have only payed $4000.  $4000 divided over those 36 months is an $111.11 per month payment (not including the interest).  That’s ridiculously low, right?  I was just talking about how a low payment was a bad thing.  Well, in this case it still is.  The car is still losing value as you drive it.  More on that later.

Most lease advertisements include a “down payment” amount.  It’s a payment that goes directly toward the price of the car, and often times includes a sort of security deposit.  The portion that goes directly to the car is basically a pre-paid amount toward the lease.  This is good and bad.  Paying money down brings the monthly cost down.  For example, if you put $1000 down payment on your $10,000 car lease (36 month term), your payment drops to $83.33 (not including interest).  Holy cow!  That’s all fine and good.  But, what if you’re driving along and some joker runs a red light.  He hits your brand new leased car that you just drove off the lot and totals it.  You walk away form the accident unscathed, but you’re now carless.  You know what else you are?  You’re out $1000.  That’s right.  Your down payment gets carried away on a flatbed truck.  That’s why my advice is to never, ever put a down payment on a lease.  But, I don’t trust other drivers at all.

So, is that all there is to leasing?  Yeah, basically.  But, no, there’s much more.  You should be aware that car dealers lease cars from each other all the time.  In fact, they lease cars and then they sell them.  Sounds shady, right?  It’s not.  Basically, they pay a monthly payment to keep the car on their lot.  When the car sells, they pay off the lease balance and pocket the difference between the sale price and that lease balance.  The best part of this is that you can do it, too.

Car dealers don’t want you to do it, though.  They want you to pay the lease payment every month (because you’re paying interest) and then turn the car back in when you’re done.  The problem with this is that they will change the tires, give it a fresh coat of turtle wax, and then re-sell it for a much higher price than the residual value.  But, hey, that’s the business.

Remember, though, that cars depreciate faster than most people can make payments toward their financing.  A lease works in the same way.  But, because you’re only paying for a portion of the car’s overall price, and because you’re guaranteed a certain residual value at the end of the lease, you have the opportunity to out-pace the depreciation.  In fact, a 36 month lease can be set up in such a way that you beat the depreciation around the 24 month mark.  Now, understand, at 24 months you may only be breaking even with the car’s resale value.  And, also understand that you may have to sell the car privately in order to break even.  (This is because private sales are higher than dealer trade-ins.)  However, many dealerships offer incentives if you defect from one brand to another.  For example, if you take your Honda to a Ford dealership, Ford sometimes offers an incentive for first-time Ford buyers to trade in their other-brand cars.

All of these things can help you beat the depreciation on the car, and you can escape a 36 month lease after only 24 (or so) months.

HOWEVER, and this is a big deal, you must have negotiated a very good lease contract to begin with.  A dealer can AND WILL overcharge you for both leasing and finance.  You must go to the dealership knowing how much you plan to pay, and be willing to walk away from the deal.  This is another reason to not wait for the lease term to end before getting rid of the car.  If you have no ride home, the dealer has leverage on his side.  Are you gonna take a taxi home?

The internet is chock-full of car lease calculators.  Most manufacturer websites also list the terms of the lease contracts in the “incentives” and “offers” section.  What you need to do is go to these sites and look for the lease offers for the car you want.  Find what the sale price and the residual value are (IN THE FINE PRINT) and plug those into a lease calculator.  The calculators typically give you a money factor, and the manufacturers often hide that.  Calculate a lease payment, with or without down payment and trade-in value, and then have that number burned into your brain when you go to negotiate the deal.  (Also, double check your number.  Make sure you have input all the information.  Check your calculation against the lease offers to see how realistic it is.)

If they bring you a quotation that is wildly out of proportion with your calculated number, you need to get angry with them.  Or, laugh in their face.  Get them as close to your number as possible.  I had a Ford dealer bring me a quotation of $300/mo for a Ford Fiesta!  I knew from my research that I could get the car for $200/mo easily.  And, $200/mo would be a fair deal to us and to them.  We had already told the guy what we were willing to pay, and he insulted us with his ridiculous offer.  We insisted that our number was fair, and that if he came back with anything different that the deal was off.  Sure enough, they came back at $218 (which included tax of $15/mo).

Now, the problem with this strategy all comes back to the supply and demand factor.  As I said before, the used car market is supplied by off-lease vehicles.  When more people lease vehicles, more vehicles flood the used card market.  When there are a lot of used vehicles for sale, their prices all come down.  Why?  Because supply is higher than demand.  They become harder to sell when you have too many.  Furthermore, when people end a lease, many of them start a new lease.  And, as more people move into leasing instead of buying, used car sales drop.  How does this affect leasing?  Well, as used car prices drop because of oversupply, residual values on leases also drop.  Therefore, leases become more expensive.  Furthermore, as demand for leases increases, car dealers start to charge more.  So, leasing becomes even MORE expensive.  Eventually, these supply and demand forces hit another tipping point, and it all goes in reverse.  Where are we right now, as of mid-2015?  We’re moving toward an over-supply of used cars and more popular leases.  The leasing game may be getting harder to play.

And, when that happens, it becomes more attractive to purchase lightly used car.

How to build a true Solidworks Workstation for about $300.

I’ve written before about building the Cheapest Solidworks Workstation.  Things have changed a lot since then.  Firstly, my budget has increased slightly.  Secondly, my knowledge has increased greatly.  In that post I claimed that modern Intel i5 and AMD FX chips could handle Solidworks.  They will, but not in the best way.

In another post, I describe some things I learned about error-checking components and the “big picture” concept behind true workstations.  In short, if you’re serious about using Solidworks (or some other machine-crushing software), you need a true workstation.  The good news is that it can be had for a reasonable amount of money.  We’re talking $300-$600 for something that won’t disappoint.

The bad news is that you’re going to have to shop, and you may have to get your hands dirty.  I’m going to share with you the “Workstation Algorithm”, wherein we try to get the best performing, true Workstation for the least cost (not including the cost of your time).  If you’re like me, you spend a lot of time looking before you leap.  If you’re REALLY like me, you look and look and finally choose not to leap at all.

Let’s leap, though.  I’m serious about building my own rig and doing CAD work freelance.  I’m even serious about helping other people get CAD rigs.  CAD is the future.  3D printing is here, and it’s getting ever better and ever cheaper.  I hope my kids will be designing their own toys.  It’s totally possible.

First off, you’re going to need some shopping music.  Might I recommend this Pandora station, or perhaps this album?  (I just did.)

Second, you’re going to need to understand what we’re looking for:

Shopping List
Processors/Cooling System  (Notice the plurality?  You need more than one.)
Dual Socket Motherboard
ECC Memory
Graphics Card
Power Supply
Case

I’ll leave the monitor/keyboard/mouse situation up to you.  You know what you like, and you can find used monitors for reasonable prices at several places online.

Now, there are multiple approaches to this endeavor.  We’re going to take the hard road first, because we’re math people and math people always do things the hard way first and then learn the shortcuts that make them say to themselves, “WHY DID I JUST SUFFER THROUGH ALL OF THAT HARD WORK WHEN I COULD HAVE JUST _______?”  (Everyone does that, right?)

Approach 1: Build your workstation from piece parts!

Alright, I know that some of you are scrolling right past this section.  You might just want the easy way out, or you might have a fear of tinkering with computers.  No matter how you go about this, to get the best workstation for the lowest price, you’re going to have to open a computer case and replace some things.  Later on, we’ll buy an existing workstation and upgrade it to “modern standards of performance.”  Now, if you can’t handle that, feel free to bail on this whole project.  It’s cool.  Just go.  You don’t want it bad enough.

1. Processors (YES, TWO OR MORE PROCESSORS)

If you read the other posts about this project, you know that you need processors that know what to do with error-checking RAM.  In other words, you know that you need actual workstation/server processors.  Intel makes the Xeon line, and AMD makes the Opteron line.  I’ve already abandoned AMD, because I found it difficult to find Operton processors with the performance I needed at the price I wanted.

So, in this post we’re basically only going to shop for Xeon processors.  First, open up http://www.cpubenchmark.net/multi_cpu.html.  You’re looking at a list of benchmarked systems running multiple processors.  At the top of the list, you’ll see the latest and greatest processors smashing through benchmarks with ratings somewhere around 30,000.  You can’t afford these processors.  On the right side of the list you’ll notice the prices.  The price shown is the total for two processors.

As a starting point, the workstation I use at work ranks around 8,000 on the benchmark list.  It runs Solidworks 2014 while I have tons of other stuff going on.  I max out all of the cores when I render, and rendering takes a while.  So, start your search for a set of processors around the 8,000 range.  You’ll quickly notice that even some of these are expensive as hell.  Don’t worry.  These processors are typically 3-5 years old, and can be found used for reasonable prices.  However, YOU ARE GOING TO HAVE TO DO SOME LEG WORK to find out what can be had for what price.

But, because I’m a pretty cool guy, who doesn’t afraid of anythin, I’ll do a little bit of the work for you.  The table below shows an ESTIMATED cost for 2ea of the processor described, the benchmark listed at cpubenchmark.net, and the socket.  (All values are as of 5/31/15, and are not guaranteed to be accurate.)  The socket is important because it will determine what motherboard you can use.  Please be aware: You need a workstation motherboard, not a server motherboard.  This is important when you go shopping for motherboards, which is coming up next.  Just to jump ahead some: The X7350 at the top of the list uses Socket 604.  This is an old, old processor, and it supports old, old technology.  The RAM you need will be relatively slow, the motherboard will be hard to find, etc.  It looks like an amazing deal, but it’s likely to be more trouble than its worth.

Cooling

You will need a cooling system for these processors!  Browse your favorite computer retailer’s website for Heatsink/fan combinations that are compatible with the processor’s socket.  Also, keep in mind form-factor.  Just for example, an LGA1366 heatsink with fan costs about $30.

Processor prices are round-about, and do not include heat sinks/cooling systems.

Processor Socket Price (for 2) Benchmark Benchmark/$ Link
X7350 @ 2.93GHz 604 $25.00 9,238 369.5 http://rover.ebay.com/rover/1/711-53200-19255-0/1?icep_ff3=9&pub=5575127758&toolid=10001&campid=5337702912&customid=&icep_uq=X7350&icep_sellerId=&icep_ex_kw=&icep_sortBy=12&icep_catId=&icep_minPrice=&icep_maxPrice=&ipn=psmain&icep_vectorid=229466&kwid=902099&mtid=824&kw=lg
X5560 @ 2.80GHz LGA1366 $40.00 9515 237.9 http://rover.ebay.com/rover/1/711-53200-19255-0/1?icep_ff3=9&pub=5575127758&toolid=10001&campid=5337702912&customid=&icep_uq=X5560&icep_sellerId=&icep_ex_kw=&icep_sortBy=12&icep_catId=&icep_minPrice=&icep_maxPrice=&ipn=psmain&icep_vectorid=229466&kwid=902099&mtid=824&kw=lg
X5550 @ 2.67GHz LGA1366 $40.00 9,233 230.8 http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=as_li_ss_tl?_encoding=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&field-keywords=X5550&linkCode=ur2&rh=n%3A172282%2Cn%3A541966%2Cn%3A193870011%2Cn%3A229189%2Ck%3AX5550&tag=wharyolitorin-20&url=node%3D229189&linkId=MVNV5T2CW7D35AP7
E5620 @ 2.40GHz LGA1366 $40.00 8,286 207.2 http://rover.ebay.com/rover/1/711-53200-19255-0/1?icep_ff3=9&pub=5575127758&toolid=10001&campid=5337702912&customid=&icep_uq=E5620&icep_sellerId=&icep_ex_kw=&icep_sortBy=12&icep_catId=&icep_minPrice=&icep_maxPrice=&ipn=psmain&icep_vectorid=229466&kwid=902099&mtid=824&kw=lg
E5540 @ 2.53GHz LGA1366 $40.00 8,079 202.0 http://rover.ebay.com/rover/1/711-53200-19255-0/1?icep_ff3=9&pub=5575127758&toolid=10001&campid=5337702912&customid=&icep_uq=E5540&icep_sellerId=&icep_ex_kw=&icep_sortBy=12&icep_catId=&icep_minPrice=&icep_maxPrice=&ipn=psmain&icep_vectorid=229466&kwid=902099&mtid=824&kw=lg
X5570 @ 2.93GHz LGA1366 $55.90 9696 173.5 http://rover.ebay.com/rover/1/711-53200-19255-0/1?icep_ff3=9&pub=5575127758&toolid=10001&campid=5337702912&customid=&icep_uq=X5570&icep_sellerId=&icep_ex_kw=&icep_sortBy=12&icep_catId=&icep_minPrice=&icep_maxPrice=&ipn=psmain&icep_vectorid=229466&kwid=902099&mtid=824&kw=lg
X5460 @ 3.16GHz LGA771 $60.00 8,158 136.0 http://rover.ebay.com/rover/1/711-53200-19255-0/1?icep_ff3=9&pub=5575127758&toolid=10001&campid=5337702912&customid=&icep_uq=X5460&icep_sellerId=&icep_ex_kw=&icep_sortBy=12&icep_catId=&icep_minPrice=&icep_maxPrice=&ipn=psmain&icep_vectorid=229466&kwid=902099&mtid=824&kw=lg
E5640 @ 2.67GHz LGA1366 $80.00 8,897 111.2 http://rover.ebay.com/rover/1/711-53200-19255-0/1?icep_ff3=9&pub=5575127758&toolid=10001&campid=5337702912&customid=&icep_uq=e5640&icep_sellerId=&icep_ex_kw=&icep_sortBy=12&icep_catId=&icep_minPrice=&icep_maxPrice=&ipn=psmain&icep_vectorid=229466&kwid=902099&mtid=824&kw=lg
X5647 @ 2.93GHz LGA1366 $100.00 10,132 101.3 http://rover.ebay.com/rover/1/711-53200-19255-0/1?icep_ff3=9&pub=5575127758&toolid=10001&campid=5337702912&customid=&icep_uq=x5647&icep_sellerId=&icep_ex_kw=&icep_sortBy=12&icep_catId=&icep_minPrice=&icep_maxPrice=&ipn=psmain&icep_vectorid=229466&kwid=902099&mtid=824&kw=lg
E5630 @ 2.53GHz LGA1366 $90.00 8,666 96.3 http://rover.ebay.com/rover/1/711-53200-19255-0/1?icep_ff3=9&pub=5575127758&toolid=10001&campid=5337702912&customid=&icep_uq=e5630&icep_sellerId=&icep_ex_kw=&icep_sortBy=12&icep_catId=&icep_minPrice=&icep_maxPrice=&ipn=psmain&icep_vectorid=229466&kwid=902099&mtid=824&kw=lg
W5590 @ 3.33GHz LGA1366 $120.00 10,646 88.7 http://rover.ebay.com/rover/1/711-53200-19255-0/1?icep_ff3=9&pub=5575127758&toolid=10001&campid=5337702912&customid=&icep_uq=w5590&icep_sellerId=&icep_ex_kw=&icep_sortBy=12&icep_catId=&icep_minPrice=&icep_maxPrice=&ipn=psmain&icep_vectorid=229466&kwid=902099&mtid=824&kw=lg
E5649 @ 2.53GHz LGA1366 $130.00 10,709 82.4 http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=as_li_ss_tl?_encoding=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&field-keywords=E5649&linkCode=ur2&rh=n%3A172282%2Cn%3A541966%2Cn%3A193870011%2Cn%3A229189%2Ck%3AE5649&tag=wharyolitorin-20&url=node%3D229189&linkId=UQUZZQB5Z7R4UNOM
L5640 @ 2.27GHz LGA1366 $133.98 10341 77.2 http://rover.ebay.com/rover/1/711-53200-19255-0/1?icep_ff3=9&pub=5575127758&toolid=10001&campid=5337702912&customid=&icep_uq=l5640&icep_sellerId=&icep_ex_kw=&icep_sortBy=12&icep_catId=&icep_minPrice=&icep_maxPrice=&ipn=psmain&icep_vectorid=229466&kwid=902099&mtid=824&kw=lg
X5650 @ 2.67GHz LGA1366 $158.00 11687 74.0 http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=as_li_ss_tl?_encoding=UTF8&bbn=541966&camp=1789&creative=390957&keywords=x5650&linkCode=ur2&qid=1433103905&rh=n%3A172282%2Cn%3A541966%2Ck%3Ax5650%2Cp_n_feature_four_browse-bin%3A1264445011&sort=price-asc-rank&tag=wharyolitorin-20&linkId=GGFO3FSCM76I6AI6
X5482 @ 3.20GHz LGA771 $120.00 8,578 71.5 http://rover.ebay.com/rover/1/711-53200-19255-0/1?icep_ff3=9&pub=5575127758&toolid=10001&campid=5337702912&customid=&icep_uq=x5482&icep_sellerId=&icep_ex_kw=&icep_sortBy=12&icep_catId=&icep_minPrice=&icep_maxPrice=&ipn=psmain&icep_vectorid=229466&kwid=902099&mtid=824&kw=lg
W5580 @ 3.20GHz LGA1366 $140.00 8,845 63.2 http://rover.ebay.com/rover/1/711-53200-19255-0/1?icep_ff3=9&pub=5575127758&toolid=10001&campid=5337702912&customid=&icep_uq=w5580&icep_sellerId=&icep_ex_kw=&icep_sortBy=12&icep_catId=&icep_minPrice=&icep_maxPrice=&ipn=psmain&icep_vectorid=229466&kwid=902099&mtid=824&kw=lg
L5639 @ 2.13GHz LGA1366 $170.00 9,697 57.0 http://rover.ebay.com/rover/1/711-53200-19255-0/1?icep_ff3=9&pub=5575127758&toolid=10001&campid=5337702912&customid=&icep_uq=l5639&icep_sellerId=&icep_ex_kw=&icep_sortBy=12&icep_catId=&icep_minPrice=&icep_maxPrice=&ipn=psmain&icep_vectorid=229466&kwid=902099&mtid=824&kw=lg
X5667 @ 3.07GHz LGA1366 $160.00 8,809 55.1 http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=sr_st_price-asc-rank?keywords=X5667&rh=n%3A172282%2Cn%3A541966%2Cn%3A193870011%2Cn%3A229189%2Ck%3AX5667&qid=1433107777&sort=price-asc-rank
X5470 @ 3.33GHz LGA771 $160.00 8,651 54.1 http://rover.ebay.com/rover/1/711-53200-19255-0/1?icep_ff3=9&pub=5575127758&toolid=10001&campid=5337702912&customid=&icep_uq=x5470&icep_sellerId=&icep_ex_kw=&icep_sortBy=12&icep_catId=&icep_minPrice=&icep_maxPrice=&ipn=psmain&icep_vectorid=229466&kwid=902099&mtid=824&kw=lg
L5638 @ 2.00GHz LGA1366 $180.00 8,930 49.6 http://rover.ebay.com/rover/1/711-53200-19255-0/1?icep_ff3=9&pub=5575127758&toolid=10001&campid=5337702912&customid=&icep_uq=l5638&icep_sellerId=&icep_ex_kw=&icep_sortBy=12&icep_catId=&icep_minPrice=&icep_maxPrice=&ipn=psmain&icep_vectorid=229466&kwid=902099&mtid=824&kw=lg
X5492 @ 3.40GHz LGA771 $200.00 9,099 45.5 http://rover.ebay.com/rover/1/711-53200-19255-0/1?icep_ff3=9&pub=5575127758&toolid=10001&campid=5337702912&customid=&icep_uq=x5492&icep_sellerId=&icep_ex_kw=&icep_sortBy=12&icep_catId=&icep_minPrice=&icep_maxPrice=&ipn=psmain&icep_vectorid=229466&kwid=902099&mtid=824&kw=lg
X7560 @ 2.27GHz LGA1567 $400.00 11,631 29.1 http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=as_li_ss_tl?_encoding=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&keywords=X7560&linkCode=ur2&qid=1433106119&rh=n%3A172282%2Cn%3A541966%2Cn%3A193870011%2Cn%3A229189%2Ck%3AX7560&sort=price-asc-rank&tag=wharyolitorin-20&linkId=HXNRCDNHAXLGFOTS
E5645 @ 2.40GHz LGA1366 $400.00 10,515 26.3 http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=as_li_ss_tl?_encoding=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&keywords=E5645&linkCode=ur2&qid=1433106442&rh=n%3A172282%2Cn%3A541966%2Cn%3A193870011%2Cn%3A229189%2Ck%3AE5645&sort=price-asc-rank&tag=wharyolitorin-20&linkId=DUMKSYWINFAUORF4
E5-2609 v2 @ 2.50GHz LGA2011 $450.00 8,705 19.3 http://rover.ebay.com/rover/1/711-53200-19255-0/1?icep_ff3=9&pub=5575127758&toolid=10001&campid=5337702912&customid=&icep_uq=e5-2609+v2&icep_sellerId=&icep_ex_kw=&icep_sortBy=12&icep_catId=&icep_minPrice=&icep_maxPrice=&ipn=psmain&icep_vectorid=229466&kwid=902099&mtid=824&kw=lg

2. Motherboard

So, you did some leg work and found a processor that is going to kick Solidworks in the pants.  You’re far from done.  The next step is to find a workstation motherboard that will actually take that processor.  As mentioned before the processor table, you need to take the Socket into account.  The sockets in the table in order of oldest to newest: 604, LGA771, LGA1366, LGA2011 (v1-v3).  Now, you need to make a decision.  It’s a tough one.  This motherboard is going to determine the overall performance of your entire system.

Older technology is just slower.  Moore’s law implies that processing power improves exponentially.  Topping out your budget will help ensure that the system you build is fortified against future performance demands.  The list of processors clearly shows newer technology that is slower than older technology.  Don’t let that fool you.  The newer, slower tech is low-end compared to the older, faster tech.  The main difference is that you could upgrade your Socket 2011 CPU later on to something that will make your top-end LGA1366 feel slow.  You wouldn’t be building a workstation if you weren’t planning on making money.  So, plan ahead.  It may be expensive and “slow” (relative to its benchmark neighbors), but in a year when you need more power, you could drop another $200-$400 and possibly double your power on the same rig.

The motherboard is also going to determine how much RAM you can cram in, how many video cards you can use, and how big those cards can be.  The processor also plays a part in the RAM, as the RAM’s speed will be limited by the processor’s bus speed.  Furthermore, DDR ram has gone through four generations of improvements.  Your processor/motherboard combination is going to determine which generation can you use.

So, let’s get on to shopping for motherboards.  Here’s what to search for: “Dual Socket XXXXXX Workstation Motherboard”.  Fill in “XXXXXX” with whatever socket your processor is.  Oh, hell, I’ll just do it for you:

Socket 604
Socket LGA771
Socket LGA1366
Socket LGA2011 (be careful here, LGA2011 went through 3 versions, and the -0, -1 and v3 processors require -0, -1, and v3 sockets, respectively.  Check your processor before committing!)

You’re going to be shocked by the cost of motherboards.  This is where you step back and say, “Well, maybe older tech is okay, because it’s still pretty fast and relatively cheap!”  And, you’re right to say that.  LGA1366 motherboards can be had for about $90.  If you chose the cheapest LGA1366 processors (with two $30 heat sinks), your total thus far would be about $190 and your benchmark rating could be about 9,000.  For comparison, a brand new AMD FX8350 costs about $165 alone (no motherboard), and has a benchmark rating of 8,982 at the time of this writing.  We’re winning!

ECC Memory

Alright, now for the kicker.  ECC Memory isn’t cheap.  It can also be kind-of hard to find.  You need to know the maximum bus speed that your chosen processor can handle.  You may have to google and dig for it.  You also need to know the pin count of the slots on your motherboard.  Since you’re support two processors, each one has a set of memory slots.  That implies that you need to supply memory in pairs, not just one big single stick.

You’ll be happy to know that it gets more complicated.  Some memory is buffered, and some is not buffered.  Some motherboards can take either.  You really only need buffered memory if you’re planning to use a ridiculous amount.  For example, some motherboard can handle 24GB of un-buffered memory on its own.  BUT!  If you use buffered memory, the motherboard could handle 96GB OF MEMORY.  Imagine needing that.  You won’t.  Don’t think too hard about it.

When you’re searching, many listings will say “Non-ECC”, which is both helpful and annoying as hell.  It’s annoying, because if you wanted non-ECC memory, you would just search for “memory” instead of “ECC memory”.  Anyway, just include “-Non-ECC” into the search and jog on.  Oh, you’re too lazy?  Argh!  Jeez!  Here, I’ll just do it for you again:

DDR2 ECC (old stuff)
DDR3 ECC (this is where you’re likely to find what you need)
DDR4 ECC (you won’t need this, and the price is ridiculous)

Remember, Solidworks is a memory hog.  You want between 12-16GB as a baseline.  That’s easily $120 worth of DDR3, which is almost as much as you’re spending on the processors and cooling.  But, it’s super important to ensure that everything runs smoothly, and you don’t waste time waiting for Solidworks to …work.  (Keeping tabs?  We’re at roughly $400 for a workstation at this point.  But, I said $300 in the title.  Don’t worry, that comes later.)

So, why do you need ECC memory again?  Because, you’re going to be using Solidworks, and you’re going to have clients.  The clients want the job done fast, and they want it done right.  You want to do some finite element analysis to make sure your parts don’t break and kill someone.  So, you set up a really thorough simulation and set it to run.  It runs… FOR HOURS.  So, you go to sleep.  A typical desktop processor/memory combination might come across some corrupt data and plow through it, crashing Solidworks, the simulation, maybe the entire computer.  You lose everything.  You have to restart the simulation, but will it fail again?  ECC memory helps prevent that.  It’s checking for corrupt data as the data is accessed.  It can even correct corrupt data is some instances.  You want this.  This will ultimately save you time and money, in the long run.  Just trust me.

Graphics Card(s)

You don’t need two graphics cards.  But, you do need a workstation-quality graphics card.  Remember the last paragraph the of the last section on ECC memory?  That’s why.  These cards aren’t meant for gaming, and they won’t do well on typical gaming benchmarks.  They’re meant heaving data around at incredible rates.  So, you’re already buying old technology, and the strategy here is the same.  Recall the very first blog post about cheap workstations:  Solidworks is CPU-heavy and GPU-light.  (I use the word “light” very loosely.)  The GPU will keep you moving through the complex geometry as its being continuously rendered, but the CPU is going to be doing the brunt of the work.  My suggestion:  Go to http://www.videocardbenchmark.net/mid_range_gpus.html and look for the Quadro FX or AMD Firepro series in the 600-800 benchmark range.  What?  Are you kidding me?  You want me to list them for you?  …  Fine:

GPU Price Benchmark Benchmark/$ Link
Quadro FX 4600 $30.00 608 20.3 http://rover.ebay.com/rover/1/711-53200-19255-0/1?icep_ff3=9&pub=5575127758&toolid=10001&campid=5337702912&customid=&icep_uq=Quadro+FX+4600&icep_sellerId=&icep_ex_kw=&icep_sortBy=12&icep_catId=&icep_minPrice=&icep_maxPrice=&ipn=psmain&icep_vectorid=229466&kwid=902099&mtid=824&kw=lg
Quadro 600 $35.00 681 19.5 http://rover.ebay.com/rover/1/711-53200-19255-0/1?icep_ff3=9&pub=5575127758&toolid=10001&campid=5337702912&customid=&icep_uq=Quadro+600&icep_sellerId=&icep_ex_kw=&icep_sortBy=12&icep_catId=&icep_minPrice=&icep_maxPrice=&ipn=psmain&icep_vectorid=229466&kwid=902099&mtid=824&kw=lg
Quadro FX 3700 $35.00 639 18.3 http://rover.ebay.com/rover/1/711-53200-19255-0/1?icep_ff3=9&pub=5575127758&toolid=10001&campid=5337702912&customid=&icep_uq=Quadro+FX+3700&icep_sellerId=&icep_ex_kw=&icep_sortBy=12&icep_catId=&icep_minPrice=&icep_maxPrice=&ipn=psmain&icep_vectorid=229466&kwid=902099&mtid=824&kw=lg
Quadro FX 5600 $100.00 699 7.0 http://rover.ebay.com/rover/1/711-53200-19255-0/1?icep_ff3=9&pub=5575127758&toolid=10001&campid=5337702912&customid=&icep_uq=Quadro+FX+5600&icep_sellerId=&icep_ex_kw=&icep_sortBy=12&icep_catId=&icep_minPrice=&icep_maxPrice=&ipn=psmain&icep_vectorid=229466&kwid=902099&mtid=824&kw=lg

Surprisingly, they can be had very cheap.  The reason is because lots of companies lease their workstations and servers.  Then, when the lease is up, the stuff gets sold off to the highest bidder.  The market is flooded with these components, so their price is super low.  Honestly, you don’t need to over-think this aspect.  $35 for a graphics card is a steal, no matter which one you choose.

Power Supply

Workstations use a lot of power.  They use server CPUs, heavy-duty GPUs, heavy-duty ECC memory, and require a fair amount of cooling.  You need a power supply that matches.  To be safe, don’t get anything less than 800W.  But, to be safer, dig up the specs on the motherboard you’ve chosen and get the power supply specified by the manufacturer.  You can’t miss it.  This can be made even easier, which we’ll explore a little bit later.

Case

Alright.  The ruse must end.  You’re going to start searching for workstation cases, and you’re going to find that they are rather hard to find (but not impossible).  This doesn’t make a lot of sense, because their innards are all over the place.  So, why not just buy an old, off-lease workstation and use the knowledge gained in the previous sections to perform upgrades?  This will be the easiest path to take.  It’s also probably cheaper, as no one will have to be paid to remove all those components from various systems.  But, what workstation to buy?

Modifying an off-lease Workstation

Well, you have only a few big suppliers of workstations.  HP, Dell, and Lenovo.  I’m biased toward HP, because that’s what I use at work.  HP offered the Z600 and Z800 with dual sockets.  I honestly don’t know what Dell and Lenovo offer, so I’m not going to pretend like I can point you in the right direction there.  However, the strategy here is to find a workstation with lackluster specs, and verify that it can be upgraded to meet your needs.  In the case of the Z600 and Z800, some of them only have one CPU, leaving one socket empty.  In some other cases, the existing CPU is worth keeping, and then you’re only on the hook for one CPU and the ECC memory.  The money saved can be spent upgrading the hard disk to SSD, which Solidworks will LOVE.

For example, I’m looking at an ebay listing for “HP Workstation Z800 1x Quad Core X5550 2.67GHz 8GB RAM 4x 250GB HDD FX1800 768MB”.  Its starting bid is $200.  The Xeon X5550 benchmarks at 5398/ The Quadro FX1800 benchmarks at 595.  Added another X5550 and heat sink for about $50, and you’re now benchmarking at 9,233.  Throw another 8GB of ram at the new processor for $50, and you’ve got your Solidworks rig for about $300, assuming no one bids the base unit up.

So, to get the absolute lowest price workstation that can REALLY handle Solidworks, you need to know some stuff.  The information I’ve provided is really just a road map.  There are lot of details you need to discover on your own in order to make this work.  The people who skipped this paragraph will run off and make some uninformed decisions, and possibly end up with components that don’t work together.  But, you won’t.  You’re diligent, persistent, and determined.  You’re going to take everything I said here with a grain of salt, and assume that I screwed up somewhere and told you something wrong.  (Don’t feel guilty, I’m going to assume that as well.)

Go forth, build a workstation, do CAD.

How do I get started in Home Automation development?

TL;DR: Here is a listing of Zigbee and Z-wave dev kits and IDEs with costs and LINKS!

I enrolled in a paid research position at school for the summer term.  Turns out that the research is very much related to the industry in which I work: Home Automation.  We aren’t actually researching home automation, but we’re using home automation systems to collect data.  The reasoning is that the systems are readily available, robust, and infinitely customizable.  The customization I’m talking about is on the back end.  Many sensors and things are available off the shelf and can be integrated into any network using the same protocol.  So, on the back end we can develop a system that operates on the collected data in whatever way we please.

The two primary communication protocols discussed here are Zigbee and Z-wave, the two most popular commercially available systems at the time of this writing.  The reason for focusing on these systems is threefold:

1. Cost.  The widespread acceptance of these standards helps to drive down costs.

2. Support.  The development kits, documentation, and expert support are all readily available.

3. Existing components.  Many off-the-shelf components already collect the data we want, and are integrable with any compliant network.

Network Topologies and Radios

Zigbee and Z-wave are actually standards that define network protocols, and companies simply build microprocessors and radios which meet these standards.  Before Zigbee and Z-wave really caught on, many companies were developing their own proprietary systems and radios.  Some of these proprietary systems were network based, others were very simple control schemes.  Generally, the radios used were around 900Mhz sending data at low baud rates (<=9600bps) for FFC compliance reasons.  The flavor of Zigbee that caught on commercially operates at 2.4Ghz and up to 250kps (depending on the implementation.)  The 2.4Ghz band is significant because it’s globally accepted.  WiFi uses the same band, so it’s rather crowded.

Zigbee creates a star network, where a central “coordinator” routes network traffic through the various network “nodes”.  A node is simply a device that has the ability to pass instructions back and forth from “end devices” to the coordinator.  End devices are really only intended to receive commands and report.  The creator/installer of these systems is generally required to identify the type of each device: coordinator, node, or end device.  The network ultimately resembles a star fish, or perhaps a snow flake (for very large networks).  As mentioned before, the most popular Zigbee flavor communicates via 2.4Ghz, but a ~900Mhz flavor also exists.  Zigbee’s radio uses Phase Shift Keying.  Phase Shift Keying encodes digital signals over the air by reversing the phase of the radio carrier wave.  Depending on the phase of the signal received, the receiver knows whether it is seeing a “1” or a “0”.

Z-wave uses a mesh network, meaning that every device can route messages through any other device within range.  This allows for many routes for data to take around the network.  All the data is still passed up to a coordinating device.  Furthermore, Z-wave implements a sort of mesh healing, wherein lost nodes can be routed around by discovering a new path through other nodes.  This all happens over RF in the 900Mhz range (depending on region) using Frequency Shift Keying. Frequency Shift Keying is a way of encoding digital signals over the air.  The transmitter sends signals on one of two frequencies to send either a “1” or a “0” to the receiver.

So, which radio is better?  Neither.  They both have pros and cons.  Z-wave’s radio is arguably better for indoor use, as the lower frequency is better able to penetrate building materials.  It is also on a relatively quiet band, where the only other traffic is coming from things like weather stations and garage door openers.  Zigbee operates in the same band as WiFi, which raises the noise floor for the carrier waves.

The latest Z-wave chip is only capable of 100kbps over the air, while Zigbee’s radio is capable of 250kbps over the air (at 2.4Ghz).  Does that really matter?  I guess it depends on how fast you need your data to travel.  For very large networks, the transfer rate could be very important.  For your typical 2000 square foot home, this is a non-issue.  Also, the radio performance is greatly influenced by the antenna geometry and load matching.  If you’re developing a product that requires RF communication, you need an RF engineer to design a proper antenna to get the best performing radio.  Luckily for low-budget developers, most dev kits for both systems come with antennas already matched to the dev kit circuits.

Which network is better?  Neither.  They both have pros and cons.  The Z-wave mesh is self-healing, and it routes messages whichever way it can.  The problem is that re-routing a message through an unintended path requires that a node be acting as a repeater, which requires it to listen at all times.  This means more power drain on such a device, which basically means that such a device cannot be battery powered.  The Zigbee star network can be undermined by dying nodes (in the case of battery operation).  Either way, the networks will transfer data back to the coordinator.

In my research I have found that Zigbee end-users complain of some Zigbee compliant devices not working with others.  One goal of both standards is to maintain consistent compatibility between devices, brands, developers, versions, etc.  The problem with Zigbee is that they do not require device certification before it is released to market.  The problem with Z-wave is that they require device certification before it is released to market.  And, it costs money!  Furthermore, Z-wave compliance ensures backward compatibility of new devices with the old, but not forward compatibility of old devices with new.  In short, as new features become available in the Z-wave protocol, older controllers (hubs, gateways, coordinators) may not support newer device features.

Which one costs less?  This is the hardest question to answer.  I have been requesting quotes and searching for development kits.  Zigbee is by far the easiest to find.  The price of Zigbee dev kits ranges between $1,000-$5,500.  The Zigbee code has various names, depending on the dev kit vendor.  But, whatever “stack” you end up with, you will need IAR Workbench to compile it.  IAR Workbench is an IDE, and a license for it costs between $2,500 and $3,500, depending on type.  There are situations where you will not need to modify the Zigbee stack.  However, experienced users told me that they were told the same thing, and found they had to do it, anyway.  Finally, Zigbee would really like it if you had your product certified.  The cost of this certification is rather elusive, until it’s time to have it done.

Getting started with Zigbee will cost you $3,500-$9,000, depending on which dev kit you choose and the license type of IAR Workbench.

Z-wave was a bit harder to find.  Z-wave is proprietary: only one company makes the SoC’s, defines the standard, certifies devices, etc.  That company is Sigma Designs.  The way I see it, Sigma is taking the “Apple approach” to the Home Automation Network Protocol game.  An all-inclusive dev kit costs about $3000.  This kit is actually two parts: The main developer’s kit full of dev boards with SoCs.  The second part is a regional radio kit.  In short, the Z-wave radio for US products won’t work with Z-wave radios for products intended for other markets around the globe.  Furthermore, the Z-wave protocol also requires a specific IDE: Keil’s PK51 for 8051 chips.  The only quote I have on this IDE so far is for $1,320.  Finally, Z-wave requires certification before your device can be marketed.  Certification costs between $1,000 and $3,000, depending on product complexity.

Getting started with Z-wave will cost $4,320.

BUT WAIT!  There’s more!  Atmel has released several eval boards for Zigbee that are peculiarly cheap compared to the competition.  Furthermore, Atmel’s free Atmel Studio 6 is purportedly able to compile Atmel’s proprietary Zigbee Stack (called BitCloud).  I read through the data sheets, the user manuals, etc. and it all just seems too good to be true.  I’m not sure if their offering is on the same level as the more expensive dev kits, or if it’s more on the level of XBee (a standalone Zigbee chip intended for use by hobbyists.)  Still, I am intrigued.

Here is a listing of the dev kits I researched.  There are actually more Zigbee kits available.  But, by the time I hit Freescale’s offering I was suffering from analysis paralysis and decided to stop my search.  Personally, I’m leaning toward the TI kit, but I’m biased.

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.

(0,0)

I am currently writing to you from a hand-me-down Sony Vaio laptop with a broken touchpad.  Rather than use the touchpad, I have been employing a mouse that was thrown out at my job.  Today, the left mouse button broke.  I am now using the right button as the primary button, and foregoing the use of the right-click menu.  I work full-time as a product designer for a home automation company.  I also study Computer Engineering at a public university part-time.  When I’m not studying or working, I am renovating my home, working on various projects, or dreaming up projects that I have no hope of ever getting around to.  That is what I hope to cover in this blog.

I don’t believe in doing everything yourself.  I believe that sometimes it is better to hire an expert (or, at least have a friend who is an expert.)  Despite myself, I still end up doing a lot of things the hard way.  Fortunately, that’s the best way for me to learn.  I’m fortunate enough to have had several employers willing to teach me (or allow me to learn) on the job.  I am learning product design in this way.  I learned a little bit about manufacturing engineering in a previous job.  And, at school, I am learning computer and electrical engineering.  However, I am far from an expert in any of these fields.  I am the Jack of all trades, and the master of none.  That said, another great way to learn is to observe other people’s mistakes.  And, trust me, I have made PLENTY of mistakes.  I expect to make many more.  I also hope to document them here, such that someone else might avoid making them.

The offending freebie mouse.
The offending freebie mouse.

As I mentioned earlier, all of my computer mice are broken in one way or another.  I’m considering doing something wacky as a way to remedy this.  Rather than do the reasonable thing and spend $10 on a replacement, I have an MSP430 starter kit laying around collecting dust.  I also have access to two kinds of high-end 3D printers, as well as a well-equipped machine shop.  Perhaps a good first project would be to homebrew a mouse?

I also (try) to do some 3D CAD work and video editing on this old Vaio.  It’s a slow, frustrating process.  I also dabble in developing Android apps, and the IDEs for doing so are becoming so complex that this machine chokes on them.  Being a student, homeowner, pet parent, husband, and generally financially responsible guy, I’m not in a great position to go out and acquire a true CAD/video editing/projecting managing/Android emulating machine.  So, another project I would like to cover at some point is building a sub-$400 computer that CAN actually do those things. (The $400 would not include the monitor, keyboard, mouse, or other desired peripherals.)  I think it’s totally attainable…  Once I have the cash.

The first of 8 doors.
The first of 8 doors.

My wife and I are renovating our home.  We bought it as a foreclosure back in 2009.  It’s about 35 years old, as were most of the finishes and things in it when we bought it.  We have since gutted it.  I learned how to remove and replace walls, toilets, sinks, counters,appliances, and doors in the process.  Speaking of which, I am still working on replacing the doors.  I have 5 of 8 completed.  I may document the process at some point and post it here.  I chose the WORST POSSIBLE WAY to do it.  So, I don’t know how much it could benefit anyone.  In short, we were so strapped for cash at the time we wanted to purchase the materials that I bought low-grade lumber for the jambs and trim.  It’s full of knots and has a horrible finish.  HOWEVER, the mantel that was in place when we moved in has a “saw-cut” finish for that wonderful rustic look.  (I use italics here for sarcastic emphasis.)  So, I’m imagining that the rough look of the wood used in the door trim and baseboards will match.  In this process, I have acquired a few new tools and also learned that I hate battery powered Dremel Tools for several reasons.  Anyway, that is a future blog post.

Being a Computer Engineering student and product designer, I do a lot of math.  I can’t claim to do it well all of the time, but it’s a subject that interests me.  I have been slowly introducing myself to the wonderful world of Android programming through a project involving a math-related app.  I’m reluctant to divulge too much information about it here, simply because I think the concept has yet to be implemented by anyone.  The problem is that I do not have sufficient knowledge (and perhaps not sufficient skill) to pull it off right now.  Furthermore, the project merges two conflicting worlds:  Algebra and Tablet Computing.  From my perspective, tablets are the least-useful computing tools on the market.  So, when I think of apps, I think of apps that would help me do the things I do often.  It just so happens that I’m basically doing algebra all the god damn time.  Anyway, as the project progresses, I would love to cover it here.

There are plenty of other things to cover.  I’m guessing that many of them will never be started.  And, of those that do get started, many of those will never be completed.  Still, whatever I learn along the way I hope to share with anyone who is interested.

So, since this is where everything begins, I’ve labeled this post as the origin.