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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 Football That Can’t Not Be Caught

This might sound crazy, but I’ve been pursuing a Bachelor’s degree for about six years.  What’s crazier is that I’m only half way done.  I can explain:  I go part time, and I needed a lot of pre-requisites that weren’t included in my previous degree.

What’s possibly even more crazy is that I have had ideas for my senior project since before I even started the program.  I am here today to discuss one of those ideas.  When I first had this idea, I had only a cursory knowledge of the technical details.  Furthermore, I knew it was possible, just not what all it entailed.

If you read the title, you know the idea.  Perhaps it’s about time I just said what it was.  …  I could just keep referring to it as “it” and prolong the anticipation for the big reveal.  That is, of course, assuming you have not read the title of this post.

The idea is guided artillery.  Not a new concept.  However, most guided artillery is designed with one major criteria that we will be leaving out of this project:

Traditional Guided Artillery Design Criteria

  1. Kill People

However, my idea still involves guiding a projectile at a person (in theory).  However, this projectile would not explode on impact.  It wouldn’t explode at some proximity.  It wouldn’t explode at all.  In fact, it would be soft, and grippy…  Like a Nerf football.

So, let’s list the desired end-user functionality of this guided artillery football:

Toy Guided Artillery Design Criteria

  1. Be throwable, like a football.
  2. Be catchable, like a football.
  3. Change direction during flight so as to minimize the distance between itself and some designated target.

Numbers one and two seem simple enough.  There might be some off-the-shelf items that could cover those bases.  I don’t know, maybe I’m underestimating the difficulty of those two criteria.

Number three is the real challenge.  How the hell do you make a football guide itself to a target?  The first problem that comes to my mind is that the ball’s flight time is limited by who threw or kicked it.  That greatly limits its ability to reach a target.  Secondly, the ball has no control surfaces with which it could change its direction during flight.  Along those same lines, it requires a lot of practice to develop the skill required to throw a stable-flying football.  Finally, and probably the worst part, it takes A LOT of fast-moving data and sensing to fly anything toward a target.

So, let’s split this big problem up into little bite-size, chewy pieces.

  1. The Guidance System
    1. Navigation – “Where am I?”
    2. Guidance – “Where am I going?”
    3. Control – “We’re in the pipe, 5 by 5!”
  2. Flight
    1. Stabilization
    2. Control Surfaces

The guidance system may be the most complex part of the project.  However, flight isn’t easy.  Flight is mostly a mechanical issue.  And, in this case, the control surfaces will be totally experimental.  Therefore, the flight surfaces cannot be trusted.  Stabilization is easy enough, though.  We just need to stick some fins on the back.  Or a long, flowing tail.

The control surfaces themselves are rather difficult.  In order for the football to be throwable and catchable, the control surfaces need to be discrete.  In other words, they need to be hidden away until they’re needed.  Furthermore, typical control surfaces on an air plane take advantage of the large lift-generating wing in front of them to alter the lift output.  The football will have small stabilizer wings, if any wings at all.  That means that it will not generate its own lift.  Therefore, the control surfaces are actually going to be simple air brakes.

Now that we have the “simple” part out of the way, let’s move on to the complex part.  The guidance system needs to answer two questions continously:  1. “Where am I?” and 2. “Where am I going?”  The answers to these questions will determine which control surfaces deploy and at what time.  However, answering these questions is potentially very difficult.

“And you may ask yourself

Well, how did I get here?”

I propose that the guidance system use an inertial measurement unit and a fixed-point reference (the starting location) to determine where it is.  To do this, the football will require an accessory:  A throwing glove.  The throwing glove will have magnets embedded at strategic locations along the gripping surfaces.  The ball will have hall effect sensors in close proximity to its outer surface.  In this way, the ball will know when it has left the thrower’s hand.

Next, the ball will have an accelerometer and possibly a gyroscope.  Many accelerometers are now capable of measuring the constant pull of gravity and comparing it to the X, Y, and Z axis.  When the hall effect sensors detect that the ball has left the thrower’s glove, and by measuring the change in acceleration on 3 axes and comparing them to the acceleration of gravity, the ball will know approximately its location relative to its starting point.

But, how does it know where to go?  I’ve been putting a lot of thought into this.  The best I have right now is, “I don’t know.”  I don’t know, because of the following reasons:

Reasons I Don’t Know

  1. The form factor limits the complexity and fragility of on board sensors.
  2. The form factor also limits the accuracy of on board sensors, because the ball cannot be expect to be precisely stable.  In fact it may intentionally be spun about its axis to gain distance.

Anyway, while writing those last two sentences, I had an idea aside from all the commonplace ideas (cameras, infrared, radar, GPS, etc).  However, this idea greatly limits the “fun factor” of the concept.  Although, it does use the existing hardware and adds only one more accessory:

THE CATCHER’S GLOVE.

The catcher’s glove will essentially just be another thrower’s glove.  It will be exactly the same.  The difference, though, is how it is used.  Before the ball is thrown, it must be told what mode it is in.  The first mode will be “target mode”, wherein the catcher makes contact with the ball.  While making contact with the catcher, the ball initializes all of its location variables.  Essentially, X=0, Y=0, Z=0.  Next, the ball is placed in “launch mode”.  In this mode, it is recording changes in its location and waiting to both make contact with the thrower’s glove AND to lose that contact.  Upon losing contact, the ball enters “flight mode”, wherein it tries to get all of the axial changes back to zero by actuating the control surfaces accordingly.

And that, my friends, is the football that can’t not be caught.

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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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.