Choosing A Computer for Architecture
A computer is an essential tool for architecture as the majority of our work is created and shared digitally. There are so many aspects to consider before making your choice so I want to help make the process as painless as possible.
Decision 1: Mac or PC
This is essentially the first decision you’ll have to make when choosing your computer. While there are countless reasons to love Apple products, they’re not always compatible with architecture and design software, forcing users to find workarounds. On the other hand, you may love PC’s but you might find that design software like Adobe CC can be much smoother to use on a Mac. It’s all personal preference, deciding which software you’ll be using, and whether or not you’re willing to compromise on your wants and needs.
PC’s are typically the go-to computers for architecture. They can run any architecture and design software without workarounds and there are hundreds of viable options to choose from.
Since Apple computers don’t natively run many architectural programs, you will need to use workarounds to run those programs.
Boot Camp: this is the free option you have available. Apple allows you to devote a portion of your hard drive to Windows so every time you reboot your computer you have the option to run either Mac or Windows. This is an irreversible change so before you buy your computer, be sure you account for enough space and memory to devote to each side. I don’t recommend this method if you’re using architecture programs unless you’re able to devote a minimum of 8GB of memory to the Windows side. Ideally you should have 16GB or more for Windows for programs to run smoothly.
Pros: it’s free, utilizes devoted hard drive, more reliable than Parallels.
Cons: hard drive divided, irreversible change, can’t run Mac and Windows at the same time, need to reboot to switch OS
Parallels: this is the $80 option that runs a virtual version of Windows over your macOS. This can be a great option because it allows you to keep your entire hard drive devoted to Mac and allows you to use macOS and Windows simultaneously. Working on a virtual OS can be finicky though and isn’t as reliable when running graphic heavy software like those used for architecture and design.
Pros: hard drive doesn’t need to be partitioned, Mac and Windows can be run at the same time, don’t need to reboot to switch between OS
Cons: costs money, not as reliable as Boot Camp, need to buy a Windows license, uses a lot of RAM and CPU power
Decision 2: Desktop or Laptop (or both)
Now you have to think about your work process and lifestyle. If you have the means and choose to get both a laptop and desktop computer, think about whether you want both to be Mac’s or both to be PC’s. Or maybe this is an opportunity to scratch your Mac itch with one computer while also having a PC for more of the architectural work.
You can also think about options where you can hook your laptop up to a larger monitor if you feel you need more screen real estate.
If you prefer to leave your work at work, and don’t need the flexibility of taking your work on the go then I’d recommend you get a desktop computer. These are designed to withstand heavy use, hold large amounts of memory, are much more stable (as they’re not being shaken around in a backpack all day), and often have much larger screens than a laptop. These are more permanent though, don’t transport easily, and take up a lot more space.
If you’re constantly working on the go or even just want the option to work from your couch or bed, then a laptop is definitely for you. As long as you choose the right specifications for your needs then your laptop should be able to handle whatever you throw at it! Laptops are much more robust than they used to be and can handle graphics heavy software provided you design your computer for your needs.
Decision 3: Specifications
Architecture and design programs are hefty to say the least. They can put a strain on even some of the best computers. When deciding on the specifications for your computer you have to consider the worst case scenarios. Think about when you have a bunch of architecture and design programs open at once.
I have (unintentionally) done experiments on my computer where I had Revit, Camtasia, Adobe Premiere Pro, Photoshop, Sketchup, and about 20 Chrome windows open on my desktop and I was just under my 16 GB of RAM. I often wish I had 32 GB or more of RAM just so I wouldn’t have to monitor it all the time. Anytime I have Revit and Chrome open on my computer (which is always), I’m automatically just over 8GB of RAM which is why I recommend at least the full 1x16GB.
I always recommend getting the highest specs you can afford since it will allow you to work more quickly, more efficiently and have a more reliable computer. That being said, I’m going to give you the absolute minimums for the specifications that you should have in your computer and then I’ll give you computer recommendations that can handle even the toughest users.
Screen Size: 15-inch
Processor: 2.6GHz 6-core Intel Core i7 processor
Graphics Card: Dedicated NVIDIA 4GB
Anything under these specs will likely cause lag and crashing in graphics heavy architectural and design programs. I recommend a minimum screen size of 15-inches because many programs have large side bars that take up valuable screen real estate. Be careful when reading RAM specifications. Some manufacturers will put 2x8GB RAM which in theory is equal to 16GB of RAM but doesn’t have the same performance and capabilities as 1x16GB of RAM. Remember these are the minimum requirements; I always recommend getting the highest specs you can afford since it will make your experience much smoother and more enjoyable.
Decision 4: Choosing a Brand
Some serious considerations when choosing the right computer are a company’s size and reputation. You want to be sure that when you buy a product, the company you bought it from will still be there in a few years when you have problems or need parts. The size of the company will dictate the level and quality of customer service, if there’s a local store near you where you can get assistance, or if there are sufficient resources about the computer you bought.
You want to buy a computer from a company that has a good reputation and stands by their products when there’s an issue.
I highly recommend getting your computer custom built for you. I’ve written a blog post explaining the programs I use and the components used in my custom built computer, designed to handle my specific work load. You can also view my KIT where you can purchase all of the components to build your own if your usage needs are similar to mine.
If you’re unable to get a custom built computer I would highly recommend getting either an Apple or Microsoft computer. Both of these companies are at the top of the industry and are making huge strides in pushing new technologies.
Apple tech is great because there’s such high quality control with their products since they have such a limited product line. They perfect what they have rather than making a ton of different so-so products to try to please everyone. Their customer service is great and they have stores all over the world where you can bring your computer if you need help. They’re also diligent about keeping your information secure which is a big deal these days. If you’re willing to sacrifice on a little bit of quality in using virtual software or sacrificing a little bit of space in partitioning your hard drive (explained above), or just choosing to use different software, this computer is a great option!
Microsoft is a lot like Apple in that they have a limited line of products that they’re working to improve and perfect but they’re doing much more to push the boundaries of what a computer should be. Their products are exciting, powerful, and very versatile. Where Microsoft has Apple beat is with the touchscreens on both desktop and laptop computers, the laptop that becomes a tablet, and the versatility of both the Surface Book 2 and Surface Studio desktop to perform as both computers and interactive design tools. [Full disclosure: I’m an affiliate for Microsoft so if you make a purchase using one of my links I will receive a commission at no extra cost to you. I recommend their products because I believe in them, not because of the small commissions I make if you choose to buy something. Thank you in advance for helping support The Student Architect’s free content.]
Display: 15” — Weight: 4.2lbs — Memory: 16GB — Processor: 8th Gen Intel Core i7 quad-core — Storage: 1TB SSD — Graphics: NVIDIA GeForce 6GB
The Surface Book 2 is a 2-in-1 laptop that can function as both a laptop and a tablet with a large, removable touchscreen display.
The Surface Book 2 has four working modes:
Studio mode: this is where you can take the screen off the keyboard base, flip it around, and fold it on top of the keyboard so it’s at a slight incline, perfect for sketching or writing.
Laptop mode: this is where the screen is facing forward and performs like a laptop.
Presentation mode: this is like backwards laptop mode where the screen is facing away from the keyboard. This is great for watching movies or giving presentations.
Tablet mode: here you can detach the screen from the base as simply use it as a tablet. This is helpful if you’re carrying it around so you don’t have the extra weight of the base.
Not only are the four modes awesome, but the accessories that Microsoft offers make it even cooler. The only bummer is that they don’t come with the computer, they have to be purchased separately. They’re well worth the extra investment though to make your experience much more interactive and enjoyable.
Pros: Versatility with 4 working modes, relatively lightweight, large screen, good amount of storage and RAM, good graphics card, has a touchscreen, can be used as a tablet or laptop
Cons: Pricey - check price, does not come with accessories, no number keypad
Display: 28” — Weight: 21lbs — Memory: 32GB — Processor: Intel Core i7 — Storage: 2TB SSD — Graphics: NVIDIA GeForce 8GB
The Surface Studio 2 is a powerful all-in-one desktop computer with a huge tiltable touchscreen. Like the Surface Book 2, the Surface Studio has a variety of work modes. It can be used in the upright position to function as a typical desktop computer or can be tilted to be used as more of a tablet or drafting table.
Pros: Versatility with 4 working modes, relatively lightweight, huge screen, large amount of storage and RAM, great graphics card, has a touchscreen, can be used as a stationary drafting tablet, all-in-one minimalist design reduces clutter
Cons: Pricey - check price, does not come with accessories
A much needed tool for taking notes, creating renderings, and getting the most out of your surface computer!
Besides the minimalist design, the coolest thing about this mouse is that it can be stored flat for travel.
If you’re not into Apple, Microsoft, or custom-built computers, here are some other recommendations to consider.
Just remember to get the highest specs that you can afford - future you will appreciate it!
Some of the links below are affiliate links.
Top Performance Laptops
Pros: Has a huge 17.3” screen, 32GB of RAM, powerful dedicated NVIDIA graphics card, Intel i9 processor, number keypad, and 2TB of storage.
Cons: Super expensive, has a thick roughly 2” build, and is heavy at 10.36 pounds.
Pros: High performance with Intel Core i9 processor, 32GB of RAM, 8GB dedicated NVIDIA graphics card, has a number keypad, huge 17.3” anti-glare screen, and up to 1TB of storage.
Cons: While it’s lighter than the ASUS ROG G703, it’s still almost 10 pounds and over an inch in thickness, and is expensive.
Pros: Has a decent sized 15.6” screen, 16GB dedicated NVIDIA graphics card, 32GB of RAM, has razor thin profile at just 0.69” and weighs just over 4 pounds.
Cons: It can get pretty hot and the fan is really loud when running at full capacity and doesn’t have a number keypad.
Pros: Large 15.6” screen, 16GB dedicated NVIDIA graphics card, 1TB of space, intel core i9 processor and light at 3.5 pounds.
Cons: No number keypad, gets hot with use, heavy at almost 8 pounds, only 8GB of RAM, and has a bulky build.
Budget Friendly Laptops
Pros: Intel i7 quad-core processor, large 15".6” screen, 16GB of RAM, 6GB dedicated NVIDIA graphics card, has a number keypad, and up to 1TB of storage.
Cons: loud fan, heavy at just over 7 pounds, and has a dim display.
Pros: 6-core Intel i7 processor, large 15".6” screen, 16GB of RAM, 6GB dedicated NVIDIA graphics card, has a number keypad, and up to 2TB of storage.
Cons: A little heavy at just over 5.5 pounds, and gets really hot with use.
Pros: 15.6” screen, dedicated NVIDIA 4GB graphics card, relatively light at under 5 pounds, and has a number keypad
Cons: divided RAM - 2x8GB RAM which could cause performance issues
Pros: large 17.3” screen, 16GB of RAM, good value for price, and has a number keypad.
Cons: graphics card is integrated not dedicated, only 256GB SSD, only Intel Core i5 processor, and a little heavy at 6.2 pounds.
Top Performance Desktops
Pros: 4.2 GHz processing speed, 5TB of space, and 64GB of RAM, 4.2GHz i7 Intel core processor, and 11GB dedicated to NVIDIA graphics card
Cons: Not a well-known company.
Pros: Intel core i7 processor, 2TB of space, and 32GB of RAM, 8GB dedicated NVIDIA graphics card
Cons: Bulky build, a little heavy at over 16 pounds.
Pros: intel i7 processor, 32GB of RAM, , and 2TB of storage.
Cons: 8GB split dedicated/integrated NVIDIA graphics card, very heavy at 26.2 pounds, bulky build
Pros: huge 27” touchscreen display, 16GB of RAM, 1TB of space, Intel i7 quad-core processor
Cons: heavy at 22.6 pounds, only 2GB dedicated NVIDIA graphics card.
Budget Friendly Desktops
Pros: 32GB of RAM, 1TB of space, Intel i7 processor, 6GB dedicated NVIDIA graphics card
Cons: heavy at 22 pounds
Pros: 16GB of RAM, 1TB of space, Intel i7 processor, 4GB dedicated NVIDIA graphics card
Cons: heavy at 22 pounds