The Best Laptop Computers for Engineering Students [2019]

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Quick Guide for Engineering Laptops 2019

Starting an engineering program can be an exciting milestone. The promise of the learning to come, and the title of “engineer” to be earned, will entice many students to begin an engineering degree this June, but there are many things to consider before starting this new adventure, and one that often goes overlooked is the special requirements an engineering program has when it comes to computing. While all students need a computer to function in a university environment, engineering students may have assignments with unique requirements, and many engineering programs take advantage of certain programs that won’t function well, or won’t function at all, on a standard student laptop. While most universities will have computers readily available for students to use that are already equipped with these high-power programs, If you want the freedom to work on assignments on your own, having a computer that can handle the engineering software requirements is vital. Below we take a look at some of the things an engineering student should consider when selecting a laptop and recommend a few that are more than up to the challenges brought by an engineering curriculum.

Know your Curriculum

            One of the first things to consider when selecting an engineering laptop is the specific curriculum that the computer is to be used for. Every program is different and even the same engineering discipline is different between different schools, so knowing how the program is structured before you begin is vital to selecting a laptop that will meet your needs. We highly recommend speaking to a student advisor or the head of the program to find out what, if any, special software might be used. After obtaining a list of what software will be used, take a look at the system requirements to make sure the chosen computer can handle the computational requirements. This would also be a good time to ask if they have a computer that they recommend, or if there is a way to get a student discount on a new computer. It is also worth noting that more and more universities are giving students computers when they enroll. This is a great tool for many students, but just because a computer is provided by the school doesn’t mean that it can handle the specific challenges posed by the high demand software often used in an engineering curriculum. Make sure to check that computer’s specifications against the system requirements of the software you’ll be required to use.

Operating System

A quick but important note on operating systems. When selecting a computer, many discussions start with which Operating system should be used. In this case the decision is all but made before the question is even asked.  In the field of Engineering Windows is almost universally used. Many of the unique programs that are used aren’t well supported or available on other operating systems. Additionally, Windows is a standard within the industry and likely to be what is required to use in the workplace. Some people have developed functional workflows on operating systems such as Mac or Linux, but this article is about the best choice in laptop for an engineering student. Because of software compatibility and the demands of the workplace, the best choice is to go with a windows PC. Because of this, the following pertains only to Windows computers.

Common Engineering Software

We have continually mentioned certain engineering software that may be encountered in an engineering curriculum. There is a larger list than could be listed here, and which software is used could vary greatly depending on whether the student is entering school for mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, or some other discipline. That said, it is still worth mentioning some of the most common programs that engineering students encounter and the most demanding hardware requirements of those programs. Keep in mind that if a computer doesn’t meet the minimum system requirements, some programs will not offer troubleshooting or support for install or operational issues, even if the software usually runs fine on that computer. For this reason, we highly recommend meeting at least the minimum system requirements for the most demanding software to be used.

Computer Aided Design (CAD)

If entering a Mechanical or Civil Engineering Program, it is very likely that a CAD program will be a part of the curriculum. These programs tend to have very high computing demands, and there are multiple things to consider when selecting a computer for a CAD application. The biggest thing to consider when determining whether or not a computer can handle a specific CAD program, is the graphics processing requirements. This usually boils down to the computers Graphics Processing Unit (GPU). This is different for different programs and you’ll need to check the requirements for the specific program to make sure to meet the requirements. Below we list a few of the more common CAD programs with links to their system requirements.

SolidWorks: System Requirements

When selecting a computer to run SolidWorks, be sure to select one that has a GPU that is on SolidWorks list of supported GPUs. Some functionality may be disabled if your GPU is not supported.

AutoCAD: System Requirements

AutoCAD has similar GPU requirements to Solidworks but may have different “supported cards” so be sure to check the requirements.

Revit: System requirements

While Revit is technically a building information modelling (BIM) software, it fits nicely into the CAD category. Revit is produced by the same company that does AutoCAD, but Notice that with Revit, in addition to the GPU requirements, there is also far more strict CPU requirements.

MATLAB

System Requirements

MATLAB is an industry standard for data processing and complex mathematical processing, and can be commonly found in the classroom. Even within MATLAB’s listed system requirements it is clear that the requirements to use MATLAB depend greatly on what you will be doing with it. This is another time when getting specifics from a professor or advisor is recommended.

Programming and Integrated Developer Environments

Many engineering curriculums do include some degree of programming. In this category, we’re thinking of Programs such as MIcrosoft’s Visual Studio or NI’s LABView. Compared to the previous programs that we’ve listed, the minimum system requirements for software like this aren’t nearly as difficult to meet. If, however, you find yourself in an engineering program that is going to be heavy in programming, it is recommended that you prioritize a fast, multicore processor, plenty of memory, and as much RAM as you can. Saving a little time compiling and running programs can be a huge asset when a deadline is upcoming.

Hardware

Once you have a good idea of what programs that are required by the curriculum in question, it’s good to have a basic understanding of the hardware requirements that are needed by those programs. Having at least a basic understanding can help to prioritize if faced with a scenario where there is a choice between upgrading one aspect over a different aspect. Learning about the ins and outs of computer hardware is a degree in and of itself but narrowing it down to the most basic level of what is needed by an engineering student can still be helpful in selecting the best laptop for those specific needs.

Central Processing Unit (CPU)

One of the first things that is often listed about a computer is its CPU. The CPU, as the name would imply, is the computer’s main processor. Other than the brand name and model, you’ll often see two things most advertised about a CPU. Its clock speed, and the number of cores. The clock speed is a number often listed in GHz which essentially the number of “instructions” it can process per second. As you may have guessed here, faster is better. When it comes to selecting just how fast, once again, we recommend checking those system requirements and making sure to meet at least the minimum for the most demanding program that will be used. It isn’t entirely uncommon to be faced with a decision between a faster processor, or one with more cores. The number of cores is essential the number of processing units on your CPU. A quad-core CPU can be thought of as 4 CPU’s in one. While it may seem obvious that you always want more cores, this once again depends on your program. Many (though perhaps not all) CAD programs calculate in a very linear fashion, and cannot take full advantage of multi-core processing, at least not for their main modelling function. If the curriculum in question is CAD heavy, it may be wise to go with a computer that has fewer cores if it means that you get a higher clock speed. By contrast MATLAB’s system requirements clearly recommends a multi-core processor. If all other things are equal, it is usually recommended to have more cores, but, as can be seen here, if there is a decision to be made between clock speed and the number of cores, knowing the specific use case can be the deciding factor.

Random Access Memory (RAM)

RAM can be thought of as memory that is temporarily allocated for specific tasks, then erased when the process is finished. The more RAM that is available the better your computer’s ability to handle large processes that contain high amounts of data. In reality, it is much more complicated than this simple explanation. There are multiple types of RAM that can process at different speeds, or in different ways but rather than dig in to the mud, the simple way to handle it is to meet the minimum system requirements. If a specific type of RAM isn’t listed than just make sure to have as many Gigabytes of RAM that the program asks for. More RAM is always better, so if the minimum requirement is 4GB and the computer in question has 8GB, getting the 8GB computer will only result in better performance.

Hard Drive (Memory)

The hard drive of the computer is perhaps the most easily understood. It is the storage bank. Any information the computer needs to have ready to recall is stored here. The more storage that is available, the more programs or documents or whatever else can be contained on the computer. Any program that is to be installed on the computer will have a requirement for minimum “disk space.” Make sure that the computer in question has enough space for all of the programs that  need to be put on it for the requisite coursework and then some. There are two main types of hard drives, the more traditional “disk drive” and the “solid state drive (SSD).” The technical difference between these two types is mechanical, but functionally a solid state drive is faster. Some programs will recommend a solid state drive because of the improved speeds. If there is a choice between the two, we would recommend getting a laptop with an SSD. Some laptops contain two hard drives, a large disk drive, and a smaller SSD. This is because large SSDs are expensive but even a small SSD can allow a computer to boot more quickly. This can be a good compromise where cost is concerned, and often there is enough space on the SSD for one or two of the more demanding programs. Just be ready to save large project files to the larger disk drive.

Graphics Processing Unit (GPU)

The GPU is something that the everyday computer user can often afford to overlook. As an engineer, however, this can be extremely important to getting good performance especially when using CAD programs, or even certain features of programs like MATLAB. There can be many things to consider when selecting a good GPU, and, like many of the topics above, entire articles could be written on this subject alone. Rather than get into the weeds with all the details surrounding a GPU, the easiest way is to make sure that you have a card that is listed as supported by your CAD or graphical software. There are a few other things to consider that are worth mentioning however. Most of the industry’s high quality GPUs are produced by AMD or NVIDIA and either is acceptable as long as they are supported. One keyword to keep an eye out for is CUDA. This is a function that is proprietary to NVIDIA, and if it is needed for the program or process in question (such as MATLAB’s parallel computing toolbox) then a compatible GPU from NVIDIA will be a requirement for the application to run. Another commonly asked question about GPU’s surrounds the use of gaming GPU’s for CAD and 3D modelling. This typically isn’t recommended. There are multiple reasons involving speed of the GPU, OpenGL support, and the like but what it comes down to is whether or not the card is supported by the software that it needs to run. Most CAD programs do not support gaming cards. That said if the software you want to use lists the GPU you are looking at, then you shouldn’t run into any issues. Additionally, If the only thing you need is a CUDA compatible GPU, than some of NVIDIA’s gaming cards (GeForce series) are CUDA compatible and should work fine.

Engineering Laptops and Workstations

The above is intended to give a pretty good idea of what to look for in a laptop for an engineering student. This is enough information to go out and start looking, but to make things a bit easier we’ve snagged a few options that we think represent the best choice for a student’s laptop given a couple of different use cases. Below we share our top picks for a graphics heavy machine, a computer built for maximum computational speeds, and best overall budget laptop.

Lenovo ThinkPad P1

Our top pick for a graphics processing heavy, CAD oriented laptop is the Lenovo ThinkPad P1. It has a lightweight form factor for a computer of its abilities. The Intel Xeon Processor is perfect for the specific demands brought by engineering CAD programs, and the NVIDIA Quadro series card is supported by most if not all of the most popular CAD programs. Top that off with 1TB of storage and 8GB of high-speed RAM and this laptop can handle just about anything that engineering course work can throw at it.

Dell XPS 15

For a laptop that excels in processing we recommend the Dell XPS 15. Another laptop that is lightweight for having so much power, what the XPS 15 lacks in the pro graphics area it makes up for with exceptional processing power. Intel’s i9 processor is top of the line tech for this sort of application. Combined with 32GB of RAM, this computer is more than capable of handling classroom computations.

Dell Precision 3530

The Dell Precision 3530 is our choice for best computer for a student on more of a budget. While still “high end” and expensive when compared to most laptops used for less demanding applications, the 3530 is somewhat cheaper than our previous picks. While it doesn’t have quite the power of those listed above, it still boasts a professional grade graphics card that is supported by most major CAD programs, and the Intel processor is more than powerful enough for most applications. Topping it off with 4GB of RAM, the 3530 is no slouch and is up to the challenge. At a lower price point than the other two options we list, this is definitely a great “bang for your buck.”

Final Thoughts

While many computers could be used for an engineering education, and many schools provide enough infrastructure to survive without one, the ever growing competitive nature of a university education demands more. The ability to get hands on experience with the grade of machine that is standard in industry, and will allow the student to explore all aspects of the software, is well worth the expense. We hope this article is helpful in demystifying the decision for students and helps to make the decision easier.

Resources and Sources:

AutoCAD system requirements

Dell Precision 3530

Dell XPS 15

LabVIEW system requirements

Lenovo ThinkPad P1

MATLAB System Requirements

NVIDIA CUDA

Revit System Requirements

Solidworks System Requirements

Visual Studio System Requirements