2011 Hardware Advice from My Buddy Matt Stachoni

Over the past couple of weeks as people have realized what a game changer C3D-64 could be, they’ve started looking at the absolute dogs in their office, and a couple have asked me what I’d recommend for new systems. Confession, I’m not a hardware wonk. Haven’t been a chipset junkie ever, barely was a processor guy, and only vaguely give a fig about the graphics card; as long as the job’s getting done, I’m happy. The only hardware that generally gets me going has an apple on it, and that’s not really what I want to tell people as a stock C3D workstation.

One of the caveats of being a consultant is valuing other consultants. Know what you don’t know, that sort of thing. When I need to know hardware, I ping my buddy Matt. Matt was part of the old T5 back in the day, might still be for all I know, and Matt’s a hardware wonk. So, what’s Matt buying these days? Make the jump to find out.

I pinged Matt last week and asked what sort of system he was throwing together these days. He’s an AEC techie with Cadapult in Deleware, and he knows the sort of system I was looking for. Here was his quick spin on the subject:

  • Windows 7-64
  • Core i7-860 (2.8 Ghz)
  • 8GB RAM (4x2GB or 2x4GB if you plan on upgrading to 16GB later)
  • nVidia Quadro FX 1800
  • DVD/RW

Matt likes Dell. Autodesk is buying HPs these days. I’m running on a Mac Book. Brand is really up to you. I would suggest you go ahead and look for a machine with lots of memory slots (it’s cheaper to buy 8 2GB sticks than 4 4GB sticks,) and a warranty that makes you happy. Oh, and don’t buy memory from the manufacturers unless you compare them to Crucial.com first.

So, what’s your hardware choice these days? Agree with Matt? Have a beef? Sound off below.


  1. Tony Carcamo says:

    There are lots of gaming systems that use AMD precossors and I have alwasy used them for my home PC. My new PC at home has a phenom II 945 processor and man is it incredibly fast.

  2. Aaron Vera says:

    The system Matt suggests is very close to what I now use. I have a Xeon 5560 @ 2.80 GHz, 12 GB of RAM, and the FX 1800. I just have two comments:

    First, I thought the i7 required RAM in “threes” so you’d use 6GB or 12GB (not 4, 8 or 16).

    Second, while this system will run just fine isn’t it a little overkill. Aside from multitasking can’t you save cash by using a dual core processor? Last I knew AutoCAD didn’t take advantage of multiple processing cores.

    Don’t misunnderstand me, I love this system and it works great, but if I had to shell out the money for it I would have done it a little differently.

    • Sure you could, that’s why I asked for your opinions!

      I guess my thought would be that while C3D isn’t going to use the quad, the other stuff you use might. And the cost at that speed is relatively low. Regarding RAM, while that might be the recommendation, Dell etc are still selling in blocks of four. I know we debated an internal req’t that would suggest 9GB of RAM for 2011, but decided it was just too confusing.

    • Drew Smith says:

      You are thinking of the the 9xx series of core i7 processors. The i7 9xx series uses the X-58 chipset and triple channel DDR3 RAM across 6 DIMM slots.

      The i7 8xx series uses the P-55 chipset and double channel DDR3 RAM across 4 DIMM slots. I just went through a similar exercise for my new home PC build.

    • Bryan Tanner says:

      Aaron, the Core i7 CPUs don’t require RAM in sticks of 3, but it utilizes them much better so that you get more performance for your money. Adding a 4th stick of RAM will still be an improvement over the first 3, but not as much as one might think. Also, as far as the utilization of multi-core chips go, Civil does only use a single core of the CPU for processing. However, with the “Turbo Boost” technology they are loading into the Core i7 and i5 chips, the power used by the multiple cores is shifted to a single one when extra performance is needed. This will grant a moderate gain in processing speeds in Civil 3D with the i7 when necessary, but also allow you to run Outlook, a web browser, and a document management system on your machine at the same time without putting a drain on Civil 3D processing.

      I hope I explained that adequately without being confusing.

  3. Looks like the Indy Drafter had the same thought as I did, but got considerably more geeky about it.


    Good on ya, Bryan! Guess I didn’t think very many people bothered to build their own anymore, but I like his thorough discussion.

    • Bryan Tanner says:

      Thanks for the link, James. I wish I had seen this post first so that I could have simply expanded on it instead of starting from scratch. Matt Anderson had a good idea, and one I think all of us agree with, that it would be nice to have a Civil 3D-specific hardware test. This seems like it would be a huge feat, but I’m curious what everyone’s ideas are on what could be done by the Civil 3D community to accomplish this. We all run different setups, but I’m curious if we could come up with some decent results with some sort of standardized test with a common drawing/model.

  4. Stephen Bourquein says:

    Believing that the next C3D version would be 64 bit, I built a system earlier this year that is 64 bit. I ordered the components from various suppliers and assembled it in about 45 minutes. The base components are:
    MB: ASUS P6T Deluxe V2
    CPU: Intel i7-920 (2.66 GHz)
    Memory: Corsair 1600DDR3 12g (matched set of 6x2gig sticks)
    Video: GeForce 9800 GTX+
    PS: Corsair 1000HX (1000 watt PS)
    Windoows 7 Ultimate 64 bit
    Antec 902 box (yea, its ugly and has blue LED lights, but it has a lot of cooling fans. That’s why I bought it.) If you like big and silver, go with the Coolermaster ATCS 840 Silver.
    Zalman 9900LED (Add’l air cooling on the CPU,)
    DVD Reader
    DVD RW
    Western Digital 300 GB Velociraptor (10,000 rpm)

    I have built several of my workstations over the last 10 years. When I select components, I never buy the latest or fastest. It’s just too expensive. I buy one or two step down and feel that I get a bigger bang for my buck.

    I over-clocked the processor to nearly 4 GHz (stable). This is fairly easy to do. There are a ton of instructions out there to do this. That compares to 2.66 GHz stock. Any higher and it gets unstable and overheats.

    If you are going to build a system, or have a “Beige-Box Builder” build one for you, make sure that your base components (MB / CPU / Memory / PSU) are compatible and match up. Not all memory is “certified / recommended” for the i7 chip, and try to get matched sets. Sometimes you have to ask specifically for this and it costs a little more. If the person you are talking to does know that you can get matched sets, walk away.

    By the way, I won’t use a Dell if you gave it to me. HP is alright. But, several years ago I bought an HP as a “quick fix” and went through 4 before I found one that actually booted up. However, I just recently bought an HP for some other tasks not C3D, and have not had any problems.

    My daughter needed another computer (Apple) for her work as a video editor and 3D Visualization artist (she does 3D videos for my projects). I purchased a G5 Intel based system and had it ready to go in less than 10 minutes.

    If I could put C3D on an Apple without going through “boot camp” or similar virtual scheme, I would switch to Apple in a heart beat.

  5. Nick Zeeben says:

    Welcome back to the Hardware WONK!

    • Hey, thanks for the blog post! I feel like a star! 🙂

      Just to put the whole memory / i7 issue to bed:
      The introduction of the on-chip memory controller is responsible for a lot of the huge performance increases seen in the i7 (‘Nehalem’) architecture. There are also a lot of cool internal technological advances which make the chip really spiff.

      As someone else posted, the i7-8xx series (code named “Lynnfield”) of processors has a dual-channel memory controller on the CPU itself. That means that memory must be installed in pairs. This means i7-8xx systems are usually more mainstream types, with up to 4 memory slots. Thus, your choices of RAM configurations are 4GB, 8GB, or 16GB, depending on size of RAM chip. With 2GB chips being so cheap, 4x2GB configurations are popular. By the time 4GB chips become as inexpensive, we will probably have moved onto the next generation of processors and chipsets.

      The i7-9xx series (code named “Bloomfield”) was the first Nehalem line out of Intel’s door in 2009, was very expensive compared to existing dual- or quad-core designs. It has a triple channel memory controller, which means that memory MUST be installed in threes. Accordingly, systems are most often built with 6 RAM slots, and RAM configurations are 6GB, 12GB or 24GB.

      The Lynnfield has shown to be an excellent value for two reasons. First, Intel took some of the new features in the Nehalem architecture and tweaked them to all get-out. This includes a feature called Turbo Boost, which internally overclocks the processor core depending on load. While Turbo Boost exists in Bloomfield, it’s nowhere close to being as efficient or powerful as it is in Lynnfield. Even through there are some “dumb-downs” in Lynnfield to make it more palatable price-wise, benchmarks show that Lynnfield goes toe to toe with Bloomfield per clock speed.

      Secondly, Intel’s subsequent processor line, the i3 and i5 lineup, perform HORRIBLY compared to Lynnfield. They rate a little faster than the older Core 2 Quad CPUs, but considerably lower than the i7-860 – even when clocked higher. They’re great for laptops, as they sip power, but anyone who considers specifying one for a workstation is nuts.

      Lastly, my opinion is that Dell is decidedly “meh.” Precision Workstations are built like tanks, but I would steer away from a Dimension or Vostro machines. My company is a Dell Premier partner so we can purchase them for our customers at a significant discount. That’s nice. I can get them quickly, and for the most part, can get what I want. However, their Premier portal for specifying and ordering machines is BEYOND STUPIDLY BROKEN. And the online configurations are needlessly limiting, so I always have to call my sales rap and ask for a custom combination of RAM or video card or some other thing to make it a proper system.

      However, I recently got to play with Dell’s U2410 24″ LCD monitor, and it is hands down the nicest screen out there. They now make a 27″ screen of the same type which I heard was excellent as well.

      I like them better than HP, though. I tried to specify HP machines for a customer and gave up after 27 frustrating minutes of web-induced Hell. How HP sells a single system online I will never know. We have a lab of 8 HP laptops for training, and there’s always something wrong with one of the systems – today it was a screen that kept dimming on the hapless student. Oh, and their keyboard layout really sucks.

      A good alternative, in terms of flexibility in components, is Xi Computer, but I think their prices are pretty high for off the shelf components.

      My opinion is to check out NewEgg, and research purchase your components from there and build it yourself. Better yet, see if you can find a local computer show. I did this myself and got my i7 system for less than I could have from NewEgg.

  6. Tony Carcamo says:

    I personally think Intel processors has always been over priced, that why I get AMD processors. Anyways my PC is an HP Elite gaming computer with 3.0 ghz, 8 GB DDR3 soon to be 16, 1 GB NVidia gt 220, 1 TB hard drive, Windows 7-64 bit hooked up to a 50″ plasma. Keyboard and mouse are Bluetooth. I also mostly use Asus motherboards. My PC is great because I can watching live TV with windows media center and run C3D, Outlook, internet explore, and listening to music at the same time without any problems. I have built several Home PC’s in the past several years. I think its just cheaper, and more fun to build them. Anyways I added some great website below about CPU benchmarks. On top of that, for those super geeks like me, I love to go to geek.com. and other websites when I need PC parts.

    I also want to add that buying workstations with a Intel core i5 and i7 would really bust the budget for lots of small firms. For example my company is looking at upgrading but that means upgrade all the PC, buying windows 7-64 bit and they having to upgrade the server. We could be looking to spend $500 to $1,000 per workstation. I agree that RAM is cheap.
    I think HP produces great workstation. I totally agree that if you are going to run C3D 2011 that having at least 8 GB RAM is a must. I would use any video card 512MB or higher. This all depends on what kind of projects you are doing. If you are doing lots of street designs and large surface drawings, then I would upgrade to a 1 GB video card. If you projects are only small commercial site with only driveways and parking then you really don’t need to go all out.


  7. Michael Chiles says:

    Video Cards: (no one has really touched on them)
    So since 08 or 09 we have had the ability to use DirectX instead of OpenGL workstation cards. We can buy the same cards for less money now which is nice. The questions that I have never gotten a good answer for even at a few cad camps, is will SLI/crossfire dual video cards actually speed up performance since you can use the directX driver? Do the expanded memory models of the video cards add any advantage other than gaming texture buffers? ATI eyefinity could provide some really nice screen real-estate but can I trust their drivers? I saw the use of the 1800fx quardo above, on newegg that is a $400 card that has 64 stream processors. The Ati 5850 has 1440 stream processors and is $320. I am just wondering aren’t I getting alot more card for the money in the 5850?

    Also on the memory issue since C3D seems to be such a ram hog won’t having a tri-channel memory controller be faster? Forgive my terminology(I really don’t have time to go look it up) but won’t it pull up and down an additional instruction for each clock cycle?

    • Gerry Alderliesten says:

      Lot of great information here. Thanks everyone. However, I’m still a little confused about workstation vs gaming video cards for C3D. In the past we’ve always used workstation cards. However last fall we upgraded systems and moved to 2010. Workstations have the following specs:
      CPU: i7 860
      8GB RAM
      Win 7, 64 bit
      ATI Radeon 4870, 1GB
      Syncmaster 2343 and Syncmaster 920Nx

      As far as processing is concerned it’s plenty fast. However, regen times are surprisingly slow. Was the vid card a mistake? The Syncmaster 2343 has an ususally high resolution of 2048×1152. Any chance that’s a problem?

  8. Tony Carcamo says:

    wow very interesting about the tri-memory controller. That could come in handy for large subdivision design with massive street design and detention.

  9. HI,

    We are working for C3D 2010 on Z400 Intel® Xeon® quad-core W3565 Processor (3,20 GHz 8 MB L2 cache 1066-MHz front-side bus)
    12 GB (6 x 2 GB) DDR3 1333-MHz ECC ongebufferde DIMM’s and FX3800
    Windows 7 64
    But wat is the best Processor for C3D 2011 a i7 i3 i5 or Xeon W3565 E5620 …………. ore wil a cheap i5 whit turbo boost faster

    We are gona test on the Z400 of HT on will provide more power voor 3CD

  10. OK, I’ll chime in a little mo’…

    Intel vs AMD: Today, AMD simply cannot compete with Intel on a performance level. Yes, AMD produces good stuff for cheap. And yes, Intel chips can go as high as $1500. And no, nobody sane would ever buy one. But you can still get completely wowser performance for a $300 Intel chip which will last well over 4 years. That’s a tough deal to deny.

    For all Autodesk apps, the i7-860 really does represent the best value available today. Faster CPUs are only incrementally faster but are MUCH more expensive

    Still really like AMD over Intel? Great. Go buy them. You win. 🙂

    Graphics cards:

    SLI/Crossfire is a complete non-starter. CAD applications don’t push the same kinds of pixelated boundaries that Crysis and other insane games do. CAD simply doesn’t need that bandwidth. Besides, many of today’s latest GPUs are multi-core, negating any advantage that multiple video cards had in the past.

    Workstation graphics: Yes, all of our CAD apps use DirectX instead of OpenGL. However, I don’t think this automatically means you can drop consideration for the high-end cards like the Quadro and FirePro cards in favor of the $39 Best Buy cheapies. For one thing, Autodesk apps are VERY finicky about graphics card drivers, and gamer card class DirectX drivers tend to rather sketchy under the best of circumstances.

    One the reasons an FX 1800 cost whats it does is because nVidia and Autodesk work together with their driver programming “A” team to certify the card and its drivers will work in high end graphics apps. I view it as a cost that I don’t have to deal with again. BTW, the FX 580 is actually a lot cheaper and a better performer in some respects.

    My personal taste always has run on the nVidia side of things, but recently I switched over to the dark red side, when I picked up an ATi 5750 card. Yuck. I tire of its driver-of-the-month program, the driver installer program apparently written by a bunch tweeners amped up on on Red Bull, and it manages to completely suck at Revit to boot.

  11. Stephen Bourquein says:

    The discussion here has been really good. I wish there was this kind of discussion when I was researching what to build. I tried to open such a discussion on the Autodesk forums and only got one committed response. His ideas were good and helped me in my decisions.

    I agree the the i7-860 is probably the best value today. I wish it had been released when I was building my system.

    I just today got an email from the people at 3dats about a forum they started in the last few months. Andy Lynn is hosting the forum on workstations at 3dats and has some good discussions on configurations. While 3dats is primarily aimed at the architectural / 3dMax side of things, there is a lot of overlap with hardware C3D needs today. He also discusses the graphics card issue mentioned above.

    I agree about Dell’s monitors. Good performance and good price.

  12. Bryan Thorp says:

    Matt, I am trying to put together 3 workstations from the Dell online configuration and it is very confusing. What I have so far, and it can change, is the following:

    C2 Mother board
    Windows 7 64-bit
    Quad core Xeon E5630 processor
    12 GB, 1066 MHz, DDR3 ECC memory
    ATI FirePro V8700 graphics card
    160GB SATA, 10K RPM hard drive

    Any feedback would be appreciated. Should the ATI be changed out for the nVidia 1gig card?

  13. Tony Carcamo says:

    There is only one problem with all these high performance PC everyone has spec’d out: budget budget budget. The total cost could be from $8,000-$20,000 for upgrades or new workstations. With the economy down and the budgeting being tight, it could really handcuff lots of firms. Anyways i think we all want high performance computers at work that will never crash or lag for whatever types of projects we do. In addition, I think where ever you go you will always get different opinions on what workstation is better, with Intel, AMD, Nvidia, PNY, ATI, Dell, HP, down to memory sticks. Its almost like compare cake or pie, Coke or Pepsi, Ford or Chevy?

    Anyway, when will we get C3D on the new iPad?

  14. Omar Arosemena says:

    I think that civil 3d instead of making change that had more impact in the pc hardware, need to do change to make the software more stable and robust to avoid the pc hang up when process files with middle size surface.

  15. While I agree with Matt’s suggestions entirely let me chime in a few things here:

    The i5 is a smoking chip being the “cellar dweller” in the price point for the new Intel series. Team it with 8GB RAM in the new T1500 Dell with a good nVidia graphics card and Civil 3D is as solid as Mt. Rushmore. I burned the machine in doing some serious corridor modeling … somewhere along the lines of 100 miles @ 5′ sample rates and it actually completed the corridor without crashing out like my Core2Duo 4GB Laptop. Both machines running Win 7-Pro 64

    The latest machine I put out the door had the i7-850 chip and I didn’t see it being much faster despite the “premium” price.

    Sorry but paying $1800 for a workstation that includes 2 24″ US monitors wouldn’t break the bank for most companies.

    And as far as preferences go here they are:

    Chevy lol

    I feel that people still complaining about stabilility in C3D haven’t been trained to use it properly, but that’s just my soapbox speech.

  16. Bryan Thorp says:

    Question…has anyone used the Ready Boost to use a flash drive as memory in windows 7 and running C3d?

  17. Andrew Stewart says:

    Hi everyone, long-time listener first-time caller. I and a few other power users in my office have 8 GB installed on our machines, but several of the more casual Civil 3D users have 4. Most people have XP-64, but I think a few have XP-32.

    I’ve managed to research my way thru my own ignorance about anything hardware to decide that 2011 is a great year to update and actually use all of that nice RAM that I have. I know I’m going to hear about the cost of upgrading everybody to 8 GB when I suggest the update, because the hardware specs call for 4 GB minimum and 8 GB recommended, and I think the higher ups have considered upgrading everyone to 8 GB as part of the cost of updating. My assumption is that you can still use 2011 with 4 GB, but the only real value to you will be updated/new features to the software. Am I correct? Or will we experience more software crashes for the users with only 4 GB if they update?

    Thank you.

  18. Gene Heath says:

    Looking for a good laptop to run 2011 Revit Architecture suite,any recommendation?

  19. Mike Whitfield says:

    I’ve been looking for reliable AutoCAD benchmarks as well, as we’re about to build the first of several new AutoCAD machines. The only hard info I’ve found puts the AMD Phenom II considerably ahead of Intel in AutoCAD – although in almost nothing else does AMD reach parity. Unless I find hard info otherwise I’m going to buy the Phenom II, although I use Intel at home because I’m a gamer. Here’s the links I found.

  20. Brian Fryhover says:

    I know this is a bit late, but thought it would be interesting for others to see what our IT wonks have chosen for use with Civil 3D.

    – Windows XP Pro 32-bit
    – Dual Quad Core Intel Xeon Processors E5540 (2.53GHz,8M L3,5.8GT/s,turbo)
    – 4GB, DDR3 Memory, 1066MHz, ECC (4 DIMMS)
    – 1.5GB NVIDIA Quadro FX 4800
    – (2) 146GB, 3.0Gb/s, SAS, 3.5 inch, 15K RPM Hard Drive, Raid 1
    – 16X DVD+/-RW
    – No display monitor included

    All for a little under $6k. Each department uses C3D is required to budget for and purchase these machines. Only one machine type is available (see above), no modifications / no exceptions allowed.

    • Wow all that horsepower only to be limited by XP 32 … your IT dept should be hung by toe nails and beaten with cat tails.

      Change that OS to Win 7 64 and go 4X the RAM and that machine may be invincible.

      I do find it interesting that Civil users are moving away from the ATI Fire line of cards. In the last few years nVidia really has the market for CAD cards, which to me is a shame as I always had better luck with 3D on ATI Fire series cards. Oh well I like my nVidia card for occasional heavy lifting in C3D