Workstation Round Up

As an engineer in Silicon Valley a big part of my career is using “workstations“ (computers that cost a fortune and run fancy software.) I often get asked what computer a team should use for a project. Below are my favorite computers.

If someone asked me to setup a team of engineers with computers, this would be my pick. The list is from personal experience, but also from asking technology professionals what they use. Some are portable, others expensive, a few are specific to workflows.

There are rigs for video editing, Linux development, web development, and CAD. One of the trickier workstations to build for is CAD or (Computer Aided Design). Popular programs including Solidworks crash constantly on macs, (because they were designed to run on very specific hardware).

Inside the world of CAD, you have computers that cost more than a car which are useful for rendering, simulation and all sorts for super-computing madness. Before we get into that, let’s take a look at some of the best laptops for Linux.

Travel Linux Laptop — Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition

Running Linux on laptops can be interesting. Everything usually works, but then there is the Wifi driver that might be working?, the sleep button that certainly is not. The Dell XPS 13 inch Developer Edition is a travel Linux laptop that works out of the box.

Dell ships the computer with a version of Ubuntu Linux, but some choose to wipe the computer and install other distributions. The computer is not going to train deep learning models on the fly, but if you need a small light powerful Linux machine, this is a great choice.

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Full Stack Web Laptop — Mac Book Pro 13

When developing full stack web applications, I typically grab my Mac Book Pro. The screen color on Macs is somewhat of a gold standard in the design world, and the Unix based OS plays nice with common web design tools.

Full stack web can mean different things, for many it includes containers and Linux. If Docker is part of your workflow, a MBP is probably ideal, as you can run VMware and develop both front and back-end on the same computer. 

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4k Video Editing — iMac Pro

If you are dealing with 8k footage from RED cameras and editing for production films, you probably need a very powerful and custom computer, for the rest of us, an iMac Pro is probably a good fit. Media production is a big space and there is no panacea solution.

The iMac Pro has a beautiful 5k screen, and works well with Final Cut and Davinci Resolve. For external video storage I would recommend a NAS, (Network-Attached Storage) Synology, and QNAP both make amazing products.

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Basic CAD Laptop — Dell Precision Mobile Workstations

There are many types of CAD, but most run on systems with NVIDIA Quadro, and a Xeon CPU is also nice to have, as is ECC memory. I have tried a number of laptops that have this configuration. One of my favorite is the Precision Mobile Workstations from Dell.

These laptops maxed out run around 3k and can usually handle fancy software like Solidworks and Altium without difficulty. Developers can plug into large monitors when they really need to get to work. Remember this is the base for CAD, and the sky’s the limit from here.

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Powerful Laptop — HP ZBOOK STUDIO

If you like the Precision Mobile Workstations, but want to have a bit more functionality, the HP zbook studio is worth taking a look at. The base models are about the same as other high end laptops, but these machines can become very powerful (and expensive) with certain options. 

A number of companies make desktop replacement laptops, Boxx has a couple, a few of the gaming rigs are impressive, but the ZBOOK line is made for professionals who need specific features. The ZBOOK studio supports an SSD Raid option, ECC memory and 6 core Xeon processor with Quadro graphics.

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Insanely Powerful Laptop — HP ZBOOK 17

Before getting too excited about this laptop, I should point out this computer is like carrying around a brick, and maxed out will cost over 10k. Having said that, there is a good reason many of the big engineering and design firms pick this system. It is one of the most powerful laptops you can buy.

Maxed out you get A Xeon 6 core CPU, 3840x2160 screen, Quadro with 16 GB of memory, 128 GB of DDR4 memory, and a 2 TB PCIe Raid 1 storage. 10k may seem nuts for a laptop, but if you build the same system as a desktop, the system is roughly 8k and has no monitor.

Rendering Box — Maingear Vybe Pro

If you do rendering, it is often as part of a software package such as Vray or Keyshot. These are typically some CPU GPU combo, but also have specific memory requirements. For Keyshot, everything is CPU based and some users just need as many cores as possible working as rendering nodes.

Main gear makes custom workstations and offers a build based on the AMD Thread ripper, which for many is the most effective way to get a ton of CPU cores (32) for cheap. For most CAD applications you want the dependability of Xeon, but for many cheap cores — take a look that the AMD RYZEN.

CAD Desktop — Digital Storm

If you know exactly what you want in a workstation, Digital Storm is a good place to start. They make some of the best high end computer cases and build fancy water-cooled systems. I typically start with a budget and a list of programs that will be running on the computer.

CAD uses a lot of everything, RAM, CPU, GPU, Memory, so it is best to make a well rounded system. Video editing will often benefit from more storage, rendering from CPU cores. Other applications such as simulation can benefit from dedicated hardware.

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Closing Thoughts

If you are planning to build a workstation yourself, take some time to go through the options on a site such as Main Gear, or Digital Storm. Most of these companies have done the hard work for you of figuring out which parts play nice together. 

For simpler systems this is fine. Things often get tricky when you have complex thermal control for multiple graphics cards and CPU’s. Companies such as Digital Storm and Boxx have spent years developing solutions and to a large degree this is the value they add.

My advice is to always start with the software and work backwards. You might think a 6k computer is more than enough for all applications, but if you start rendering video, or doing optics simulation, you will find your system embarrassingly slow.

Many applications are designed to only work properly with 32 cores, or a fancy graphics card, so it is worth sorting these things out early. Get the right tool for the job, but also don’t spend money on a computer that is needlessly powerful. Good luck, thanks for reading.