best laptops for architects

Best Laptops for Architecture


Every now and then we get the question about which laptop is suitable for architects and designers who have to do a lot of computer-supported drawing and image processing, yet also spend quite some time on the road for site meetings and inspections.

If you’re doing a lot of CAD operations and 3D modeling tasks, you may want to get a laptop with the necessary specifications and features needed to make those operations smooth and seamless.

There’s nothing more frustrating and time-consuming than slow and poorly working software when you’re trying to do your job. A laptop is a productivity tool. Your time is expensive, so you don’t want to spend it waiting for models to render or programs to load because you wanted to save $200 on RAM.

Saving just ten minutes a day may not seem like much, but when you charge $60, these daily savings compound to $200 per month. Month after month.

Below, we share the most important criteria to take into account when selecting a new laptop, along with the best laptops in the market today.

By taking these tips into account, you can make sure the software required to do your job as an architect will work well for you, so you can focus your energy on your job instead of yelling at your PC :)


Article Overview


Don’t feel like reading the entire article?
Here are our top 5 laptops for architects and architecture students:

dell xps 15 - Above-average performance at an affordable price - laptops for architects Above-average performance at an affordable price
DELL XPS 15
Starting at $1,999 / ~$2,199 for fully configured version
Read more ↓
dell precision 5540 - Powerful lightweight laptop for architects Powerful lightweight laptop for architects
Dell precision 5540 Mobile Workstation
Starting at $1,299 / ~$3,000 for fully configured version
Read more ↓
Best Mac laptop for Architects - Macbook Pro 16 Best Mac laptop for Architects
Macbook Pro 16
Starting at $2,900 / ~$4,500 for fully configured version
Read more ↓
Great overall choice for architecture - MSI WS65 Mobile Workstation Great overall choice for architecture
MSI WS65 Mobile Workstation
Starting at $3,000 / ~$3,899 for fully configured version
Read more ↓
Great 17″ mobile workstation - Lenovo ThinkPad P73 Great 17″ mobile workstation
Lenovo ThinkPad P73
Starting at $1,800 / ~$5,000 for fully configured version
Read more ↓

Desktop or Laptop?


Architects need a powerful computer, with a high-quality graphics card, a powerful processor, a high-resolution screen, and sufficient RAM. 

Architects — often on the road to client meetings or site inspections — also need a portable solution to get the most out of their time. A portable solution allows them to use it for fieldwork or job site meetings, and to access their files and documents on-the-go.

That’s why most architects still choose a powerful laptop (aka “mobile workstation”) that they can hook up to a monitor at the office or at home.

what is a mobile workstation - do architects need a mobile workstation

A mobile workstation is a laptop computer with high-end computing features not typical to laptops. As we will see below, you need a powerful processor, a fast graphics processor, and ample RAM to smoothly run your powerful graphics software. Because of the extra features, mobile workstations often weigh a bit more than standard laptops.

Keep in mind, though, that laptops are still more expensive, more restricted, less expandable, and less ergonomic. They’re often relatively heavy and large. And while they may be powerful, they’re not always as powerful as a desktop with the same specs. Read more on laptops vs desktops over here.

So, don’t forget to look at the alternatives. For example, an office desktop, combined with a tablet with a portable keyboard that you can use on the road, is definitely a setup to consider. Looking for a tablet? Check out this guide.

This setup (desktop + tablet) would assume that your data and files are available via the cloud so you can easily switch between desktop and tablet as you move between the office and the field. Here are some examples of cloud-based software for architects.

Let’s assume you’re going for a powerful “mobile workstation” laptop. Now, let’s take a look at the criteria to keep in mind (which are the same criteria for desktops, for that matter), and then check out the best laptops for architects today.


Criteria to Take into Account When Buying a Laptop


CPU | RAM | Storage | GPU | Screen Size | Screen Resolution | Battery Life | Weight


When considering and choosing the best option, your decision should obviously be based on the system requirements of the programs you will be using. So it’s important to read about and understand these different criteria and analyze whether the laptop you’re considering has the requirements needed to smoothly run the programs you need.

Don’t try to cut corners on important factors like CPU, RAM, or the graphics card. I guarantee you will regret it down the road — when you lose time and get frustrated that your programs work slowly.

Let’s take a look at the most important criteria to consider.

recommendations for architects looking for a new laptop


1.Processor (CPU)


The processor is the heart of your machine, and it does all the computing work.

When it comes to the CPU (Central Processing Unit), there are three main specifications that define its capabilities.

The number of cores is how many physical cores there are within a CPU. This defines how many operations the CPU can run simultaneously.

The frequency directly affects how many operations a single CPU core can complete in a second (i.e., its speed). There’s the base frequency that pertains to all cores, and a maximum turbo boost frequency that can be achieved by a single core. The faster the turbo-boosted frequency, the faster the primary application (CAD / 3D modeling software in the case of architects) runs. I would recommend at least a 4.5-GHz turbo clock speed.

Finally, there is the cache and hyperthreading of the processor. Only processors with high amounts of cache (12 MB or more) and hyperthreading should be considered. That rules out i5 processors. You’re left with the highest-frequency Intel i7 and Intel i9 processors, with the latter being preferred.

Whether a higher frequency or higher core count is faster depends on how well a program is designed to take advantage of multiple CPU cores. In the case of CAD or 3D modeling software, for example, the majority of the software is only single-threaded, so it’s able to utilize only a single core of the CPU.

Given this single-core affinity of CAD or 3D modeling software, it is better to have fewer, faster cores than more, slower cores.

Fewer cores and higher clock speeds win the race when choosing CPUs for CAD and 3D modeling productivity today.

This means, for example, that it doesn’t make sense to pay more for an Intel Xeon processor with up to 56 cores.

Here you can find a comparison of the relevant Intel and AMD processors:

laptop for architects what is the best processor

Important: the processor is the one thing you can’t upgrade later, so don’t cut corners here — get the higher-speed Intel i9 or AMD Ryzen 9.


2. RAM


RAM (random access memory) is essentially the core of your computer. It can be considered just as important as your processor, or hard drive.

It’s your system’s short-term data storage; it stores the information your computer is actively using so that it can be accessed quickly. The overall performance of your computer is determined by how well your CPU and RAM work together. You should install the highest-speed RAM the processor can utilize. You can find this info on your processor vendor’s website. For example, the maximum RAM supported by the i9 9920X is 128 GB, as you can see here.

The more RAM your CPU has access to, the easier its job becomes, which enables a faster computer. More RAM will allow you to work with more programs at once and open bigger datasets.

architects time is expensive invest wisely

While architectural software will account for a big chunk of your RAM, particularly when multitasking, often you don’t need more than 16GB for CAD modeling, animation, and rendering. I would recommend 32GB or more — just in case you need to deal with more advanced workloads with very large models, or in case you need to have a large number of files open at the same time.

Here again, RAM is cheap and your time is expensive, so the most economical thing to do is max out your RAM.


3. Storage


To begin, let’s explain the difference between HDD (Hard Disk Drive) and SSD (Solid State Drive). Their purpose is the same: preserve your programs, files, documents, music, and more. But the technology behind them couldn’t be more different. An HDD is an old-school storage device that uses mechanical platters and a moving read/write head to access data. An SSD drive is a newer, faster type of device that stores data on instantly-accessible memory chips.

With the falling costs associated with SSDs, we recommend using an SSD to run your operating system and programs, because it’s fast and reliable.

The difference between a hard disk and a new-generation SSD is about a factor of 30X, for only a $200 to $300 upgrade.

Same story, SSD is cheap and your time is expensive… 

Our recommendation: select a 1-TB SSD as the boot disk, so all operating systems, software, and current project files are loaded smoothly from a fast SSD.

You could also combine an SSD for running your operating system and programs with a cheaper HDD for storing all your data and files that you don’t need to access all the time. A 512-GB SSD with a 1- or 2-TB HDD offers a good combination of speed, storage, and price.


4. Graphics Card (GPU)


One of the most common mistakes architects make when shopping for laptops is buying the wrong graphics card.

The graphics card controls how fast the results of your modeling activity are rendered on the display. If your models often lag when you rotate it, for example, that means your graphics card is not powerful enough.

Graphic software like Rhino, 3ds Max, ArchiCAD, Revit or Vectorworks require a performant graphics card in order to run loaded 3D applications smoothly and have a smooth screen experience. You might also want to check if the GPU is certified for your particular software applications in order to reduce configuration glitches and problems. See here for Autodesk software, for example.

If you’re rendering and editing 3D models, we recommend getting at least 4 GB of dedicated GPU for smooth processing. More could be required if you need real-time animation and visualizations.

I recommend Nvidia Quadro and AMD Radeon Pro because they are specifically designed for CAD, 3D modeling, and rendering works.

Using a monitor? Make sure that the GPU can handle common resolutions like full HD (1920 x 1080) or 4K (3840 x 2160).

Are you tight on budget? Make sure to allocate your budget to RAM and SSD, instead of GPU. Don’t go for an expensive GPU if you don’t have at least 32 GB of RAM and a 1-TB SSD. That said, it’s important to know that it’s not possible to update a laptop’s GPU later on.


5. Screen Size


A laptop with a screen size between 15 and 17 inches is required for architectural rendering.

Don’t worry too much about the screen size, though, because a laptop can still connect to an external display and support the size of any monitor, screen, or projector.

A monitor with a 23-inch display is much bigger than even the largest laptop screen, and you can buy a decent one for less than $150. This way, you’ll have the best of both worlds: a huge workspace for your work in the office, and a small and handy portable computer when you’re on the road.

Moreover, small screens on average have longer battery life.

Conclusion: assuming you’re using an external monitor at the office, I wouldn’t buy a laptop that’s bigger than 15 inches. You want to keep the best balance between battery life, usability, and portability. It’s better to invest in a big external monitor, as CAD and modeling work require a lot of zooming around.

advantages of a smaller laptop screen


6. Screen Resolution


Screen size isn’t everything.

The screen resolution tells you how many pixels your screen can display horizontally and vertically. It’s written in a particular form, such as 1,920 x 1,080. In this example, the screen can show 1,920 pixels horizontally, and 1,080 vertically.

If you buy a bigger screen but keep the resolution the same, you won’t actually be able to fit anything extra onto that bigger screen. The total number of pixels is the same — everything just looks a bit bigger.

Higher resolution (the one with more pixels) means you will be able to see more of what you’re working on, so you don’t have to scroll so much.

Typically, for CAD and 3D applications, a large number of toolbars may take up a large part of the screen. So make sure that the screen supports working in high resolution. 

So what are the options?

It is now possible to buy high-definition (1,366 x 768), full high-definition (1,920 x 1,080), wide ultra-extended graphics array (1,920 x 1,200), and even ultra-high-definition monitors (3,840 x 2,160) — also known as 4K (meaning 4,000 pixels wide). Full HD should do the job, but going for UHD (4K or even 5K) will help a lot if you need a panoramic view, for example.

The LG 27″ UHD display is one of the best separate displays you can buy.

Summary: a larger screen and higher resolution means less time spent on navigation and more time for designing and modeling

larger screen and higher resolution


7. Battery Life


If you’re using your laptop for meetings and site visits, instead of a tablet with a keyboard, then sufficient battery life is crucial.

A laptop that will last through the day without a recharge is a must-have. So, look for a laptop with at least six hours or more of battery power on a single charge.

Nothing is more frustrating than having to look for an outlet everywhere you go. Or worse, because of a dead battery, having to switch back to pen and paper, with no access to your files and plans.

Your time is valuable, so don’t be stingy on this. If you charge $70 per hour and invest, say, $140 for a laptop with more battery life,  your investment will be paid back after only two hours of time savings.


8. Weight


The most ideal weight for anyone on the move would be around 3lb. Unfortunately, mobile workstations with dedicated graphics cards and fast CPUs start at 3lb. The lighter, the more expensive.


Below are the most commonly used CAD, 3D modeling, and graphics software, together with links to the 2020 system requirements for each:


Software


Lots of programs such as Autodesk AutoCAD, VectorWorks, ArchiCAD, Cinema4D, Artlantis, SketchUp, and Unity are available both on Windows and on OS X, and they operate fairly identically. Others are available only on Windows and will require apps to run Windows on Mac.

1. MS Windows

In many cases, a laptop with Windows is a good choice.

One important advantage of Windows is more software has been designed for Windows than for any other system. With a few exceptions, any software for architects is available on Windows.

Another advantage of Windows computers is that they are more reasonably priced, and there is a huge range to choose from.

2. macOS

Apple is known for its top quality, great graphics, and beautiful design, but it’s important to make sure you know your options.

If you can stick to software that is available for Mac OS, like AutoCAD, ArchiCad, Vectorworks, Sketchup, Rhino, and the like, you can get through with a Mac just fine.

Revit and 3ds Max, though, are not available for Mac OS, but you can use parallels programs (like Parallels Desktop or VMWare Fusion) to run Windows alongside OS X, and install the software on Windows.

If you don’t want to buy a parallels software, you can also run Windows directly off the Mac using Bootcamp. This is really useful; however, it is more difficult to switch between the two, and you essentially have to shut down the machine as you go from OS X to Windows. You can read more about BootCamp here.

If you’re going for Apple, the Macbook Pro is a great option. The workstation version is the Mac Pro.

Mac Mini and Macbook Air are not suitable for CAD, because of the weaker graphics card and the very restricted expand possibility. 


Best Laptop Selection for Architects


We hope that the consideration above helps you select the best laptop for your budget. Now, let’s take a look at some laptops that should do the trick for architects and designers. These laptops are tested and selected by a team of laptop experts in the architecture field. We’ve done the heavy lifting for you, so just sit back, check out our selection, and take a pick.


DELL XPS 15 – starting at $1,999 / ~$2,199 for fully configured version

Above-average performance at an affordable price

DELL XPS 15

Specifications (read more here):

  • RAM: up to 64GB
  • Storage options: up to 2 TB SSD
  • Processor: up to Intel Core i9 (8 cores, turbo boost up to 5 GHz, 16 MB Cache)
  • Screen size: 15.6 inches
  • Screen resolution: 4K UHD (3840 x 2160)
  • Graphics card: Nvidia GeForce 4GB
  • Operating system: Windows 10 Home, 64-bit
  • Battery Life: 10 hours, depending on your tasks
  • Weight: 4.5lbs (2kg)

This laptop is very portable for the power it has, and it has decent battery life.

However, it’s not a workstation. The most important spec that separates the Dell XPS 15 model from a full-blown workstation laptop is the graphics cards. It doesn’t have a Quadro or Radeon graphics card, so don’t expect it to handle rendering tasks for very complex projects.

If you’re not an architecture student and you can afford a higher price, then I definitely recommend going for one of the laptops below.


Dell precision 5540 Mobile Workstation – starting at $1,299 / ~$3,000 for fully configured version

Powerful lightweight laptop for architects

Dell precision 5540

If you’re looking for a performant laptop that’s designed for the most demanding workloads, and that’s still lightweight for comfortable traveling, then Dell Precision 5540 will be your best bet.

Specifications (read more here):

  • RAM: up to 64GB
  • Storage options: up to 2 TB SSD
  • Processor: up to Intel Processor i9-9980HK (8 Core, 16MB Cache, up to 5.00GHz turbo boost)
  • Screen size: 15 inches
  • Screen resolution: 4K OLED display
  • Graphics card: Nvidia Quadro T1000 or T2000, with 4GB of dedicated VRAM
  • Operating system: Windows 10 Pro (64-Bit)
  • Battery Life: 6 to 8 hours, depending on your tasks
  • Weight: 3.93 lb (1.78kg)

The Precision 5540 is very similar to an XPS model, with a few workstation twists, like the option for a Quadro GPU, along with being certified for a lot of creative and engineering software.

The Dell Precision 5540 is a great laptop for CAD because of its ultra-high-end hardware. It is a fast machine, with a stunning 4K OLED display.

64 GB RAM for a thin and light mobile workstation like this will benefit many users.

While the 5540 pricing starts at $1,240, a fully configured unit (with i9 processor, NVIDIA Quadro T2000, 32 RAM, 1 TB SSD) prices out at just over $3,000. The Dell Precision 5540 is one of the best workstation ultrabook mobile workstations money can buy right now.

For architects on a tighter budget, it may be worth investigating the DELL XPS or DELL Inspiron series.


Macbook Pro 16 – starting at $2,900 / ~$4,500 for fully configured version

Best Mac laptop for architects

Macbook Pro 16

The Macbook Pro, just like all Apple products, is well known for its beautiful design and excellent quality and durability. The latest MacBook Pro 16 bundles all the right essentials one would expect in terms of graphics, productivity, storage, and portability.

Specifications (read more here):

  • RAM: up to 64GB
  • Storage options: up to 8TB SSD storage
  • Processor: up to Intel Core i9 processor (8 cores, turbo boost up to 4.8GHz, 16 MB Cache)
  • Screen size: 16 inches
  • Screen resolution: Retina display with 3072 x 1920 Resolution
  • Graphics card: Radeon Pro 5300M with 4GB DDR6 Graphics
  • Operating system: macOS
  • Battery Life: 8 to 10 hours, depending on your tasks
  • Weight: 4.3 pounds (2.0 kg)

We didn’t recommend Macbooks as the top choice for architecture, as there is not a Mac version of some AutoCAD products (for example Revit). But even then, as explained above, it’s possible to run most AutoCAD products, be it native Mac or via Parallels. So the MacBook Pro should work decently well with AutoCAD products.

It is powered by a 6-core Intel Core i7 processor (up to Intel Core i9 processor) that you can pair with 16GB, 32GB, or even 64GB of RAM. As far as the graphics on this work machine is concerned, it comes with 4GB of dedicated AMD Radeon Pro 5300M. All these powerful specs should help handle demanding requirements easily. It also comes in a chassis that weighs just 4.3 pounds, gaining it an upper hand when compared with other laptops in its segment.

The retina display (with resolution 2x the resolution of full HD displays) along with the IPS technology will give you a high-quality color reproduction. Not sure what IPS stands for? Read this article.

We all know Apple products are rather expensive. For the 32-GB RAM version, the Intel Core i9 processor (8 cores), and 1-TB SSD storage, you’ll pay around $4500.

MSI WS65 Mobile Workstation – starting at $3,000 / ~$3,899 for fully configured version

Great overall choice for architecture

MSI WS65

Specifications (read more here):

  • RAM: up to 64 GB
  • Storage options: up to 2TB SSD storage
  • Processor: up to Intel Core i9 processor (8 cores, turbo boost up to 4.8GHz, 16 MB Cache)
  • Screen size: 15.6 inches
  • Screen resolution: FHD (1920×1080) or 4K (3840 x 2160), IPS level display
  • Graphics card: up to Nvidia Quadro RTX 5000 with 16GB VRAM
  • Operating system: Windows 10 Home or Pro
  • Battery Life: 6 to 8 hours, depending on your tasks
  • Weight: 4.3 pounds (2.0 kg)

MSI is a brand that you can trust for top quality and great value for money.

The MSI WS65 is a great workstation laptop for CAD work. It boasts an impressive list of high-end specs and state-of-the-art hardware components, in a light and compact military-durable chassis.

A 9th Gen Intel Core i9 processor and ultra-fast SSD offer a smooth, stress-free work station, which provides excellent computer capabilities. You can rest assured you will be able to work seamlessly on large-scale computations and graphically intensive applications with ease.

Together with its gorgeous 4K display and solid battery life, this is one of the most impressive workstations around for professional architects.

MSI Mobile Workstations are ISV-certified systems, which ensures that both hardware and software are fully stable and compatible with professional experience.

For the 32 GB RAM version, the Intel Core i9 processor, an RTX 5000 graphics card, and 1-TB storage, you’ll pay around $3,899.


Lenovo ThinkPad P73 – starting at $1,800 / ~$5,000 for fully configured version

Great 17″ mobile workstation

Lenovo ThinkPad P73

If you often need to work without an external monitor, and if you’re expecting top performance, and if you’re willing to pay for it, then this 17″ mobile workstation is probably the best choice.
Specifications (read more here):
  • RAM: up to 128 GB
  • Storage options: up to 6TB of SSD storage
  • Processor:
    • Up to 9th Generation Intel Core i9-9880H (with 8 cores, turbo boost up to 4.80GHz and 16 MB Cache)
    • Intel Xeon E-2276M (with 6 cores, up to 4.70GHz turbo boost, and 12 MB Cache)
  • Screen size: 17.3 inches
  • Screen resolution: 4K UHD IPS Display
  • Graphics card: Up to Nvidia Quadro RTX 5000 with 16 GB VRAM
  • Operating system: Windows 10 Home, Pro or Pro for Workstations (when using Xeon processor)
  • Battery Life: 9 to 11 hours, depending on your tasks
  • Weight: starting at 7.5 lbs (3.4 kg)

The Lenovo ThinkPad P73 is a customizable, power-driven, ISV-certified mobile workstation that can be outfitted with an impressive set of components. It will excel in any resource-intensive professional application thrown at it.

Weighing in at over 7 pounds with a 17-inch screen means that this isn’t the most portable device, so you’ll need a hefty laptop bag to lug this thing around. Lenovo certainly is focused on power over mobility with its new workstation.

The laptop comes with a 17.3-inch UHD 4K display to provide an excellent viewing experience.

The powerful NVIDIA Quadro RTX 5000 graphics card will make it better for 3D modeling and sketching than any consumer graphics card.

Combined with 128 GB RAM, and an Intel Core i9-9880H or Intel Xeon E-2276M vPro processor, you’ll have a beast of a machine. Don’t be surprised, though, by a price tag of around $5,000 for the top version.

Outfitted with 32 GB RAM, Intel Xeon processor, the NVIDIA Quadro RTX 5000 graphics card, and 1-TB storage, it will cost you around $3,300.


best laptop for architects - comparison table


Conclusion


We hope this information is useful to you and that it will help you select the right laptop for you.

Wrapping up:

Your decision should be based on the system requirements of the programs you will be using. So it’s important to read about and understand these different criteria and analyze whether the laptop you’re considering has the requirements it takes to smoothly run the programs you need.

Processor (CPU), RAM, SSD, and graphics card are the most important criteria. Don’t try to cut corners on these.

If you can, go for a smaller laptop (15-inch max) that you can hook up to a monitor at the office or at home, instead of buying a 17-inch laptop that is hard to lug around and that has short battery life.

A laptop is a productivity tool. It will not make you a better designer or help you make better models, but a quality laptop will help you save time — time that, with a suboptimal laptop, you’d lose on opening programs, rendering models, or zooming and navigation, for example. So don’t think about saving $500 on a workstation with suboptimal RAM, GPU, and processor. You’ll get frustrated and lose hours of your valuable time. As mentioned, saving only ten minutes per day may not seem a lot, but if you charge $60, these daily savings compound to $200 per month. Month after month after month.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to us at support @ archisnapper dot com should you have any questions about this!

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