Summer has come to an end here in Los Angeles. Despite the unabated high temperatures, the days are becoming shorter. Gardeners are already planning the transition from the growing cycle of warm weather into the cooler autumn months in preparation to plant next year’s bounty. Vacation season has come to a close too, with students returning to school. In recognition of this seasonal transition, we’ll be focusing on a Back-to-School theme for September, specifically one from the perspective of the landscape architecture education and profession. We hope you’ll learn something from their lessons.

It’s ‘Back to School’ season, an opportune time to upgrade and improve your computer workstation for optimal productivity and highest quality graphics and CAD documents. Which system should you purchase? That all depends upon three major factors: your discipline, your role, and your workflow.

The most important components worth considering:

GPU – Graphics/Video Card
CPU – Processor
RAM – Memory
HD – Hard Drive
Other ports

Storage Capacity: Solid State Disk (SSD) vs. Serial Advance Technology Attachment (SATA)
Let’s begin from the bottom to the top. Nowadays, when it comes to hard drives you can choose from two options: SSDs and SATAs. SSDs are the newer, faster, and better performing option. On the other hand, platter-based SATAs are the standard, cheaper and more commonly available. A 1TB SATA drive costs around $50, while a 1TB SSD may cost around $300. Obviously price is a major drawback with an SSD drive, but they’re also noticeably faster. Please note SSDs are only faster when it comes to reading files from the hard drive; they are not directly responsible in the execution of programs or rendering faster per se (though they will launch faster), since these tasks are handled by the CPU and the GPU. Therefore, the hard drive’s role in executing production tasks is only minor.

Cloud-oriented users (e.g. Google Photos, Drive, Dropbox, OneDrive, etc.) may not even need a large capacity hard drive; with constant and reliable connection via wi-fi or Ethernet, the extra local storage space may be actually unnecessary. If your workflow relies upon cloud storage, a moderate capacity SSD somewhere in the range of 256 GB minimum and 500 GB might be more than sufficient. Even if you prefer to carry most of your stuff on a separate portable HD – let’s say a 1 TB USB 3.0 external hard drive – you may want to stick to a moderate capacity SSD.

It’s a different story if you work from a desktop workstation, where files are primarily kept locally, with little or no cloud integration (sometimes necessary for security purposes). In this case I’d recommend at least 1 TB of storage. The choice between a SATA or SSD drive may be determined by your budget, but upgrading capacity on a desktop is much easier than with a laptop. And this doesn’t mean that you have to dispense the use of cloud or external hard drives if the option is open; you can still use these online-accessible services to sync files remotely. It’s the best of both worlds and helps in practicing the recommended habit of backing up files.

Modern desktop machines like the Alienware Area-51 are outfitted with Gigabit Ethernet Ports, USB 3.1, and media card readers.

Other things to consider
Depending upon your workflow and work environment, there’s a multitude of options worth considering when purchasing a computer: a fast network network card, Ethernet port, USB ports (3.0+ preferably), Bluetooth, HDMI port, CD/DVD optical drive, audio/mic jacks, SD card, and a 3½-inch floppy drive (just kidding!).

Apple Mac users might also require a Mini DisplayPort (MiniDP or mDP) and Thunderbolt ports. But if you’re like me – terrible with Apple products – you won’t likely need to worry about either. In my next follow-up I’ll explore further details about Mac-oriented workflows and solutions.

How much RAM do I need?
As a rule of thumb, your system should have at least 8 GB. Minimum. Adobe Photoshop and Sketchup recommend 8 GB, but in reality I’d recommend 12 GB as a starting off point for serious work. If your work revolves around graphic production tasks, bump up to 16 GB of system memory. Computers use RAM to buffer files into the software, so it plays a central part in handling large files, whether they’re 2D or 3D. However, the role of RAM memory in conventional projects is relatively less important than the CPU and the GPU. Nonetheless, let’s not underestimate RAM’s role. Because you can have the best CPU available and the most killer graphic card in the entire world, but if you are trying to open a 300MB, high-poly 3D model of Downtown Manhattan with only 1 GB of RAM, your system will crash before even opening the file.

Which processor should I get?
This is where things start to get tricky. Some programs operate noticeably better with specific CPUs, while other programs simply aren’t as affected. That said, if graphic design is a large component of the workflow, the Intel Core i7 processor is highly recommended. But recommending the Intel Core i7 processor isn’t really specific enough, as there are numerous iterations of this CPU with the “i7” moniker available today. That said, I’d recommend an Intel i7 processor at 3.0 GHz+ or the AMD equivalent; go Xeon if your workflow requires it (a topic we’ll go into detail in a future follow-up).

The ASUS ROG Rampage IV Black Edition X79 Motherboard

A note about upgrading: it’s worth spending the time to research about hardware compatibility. I’ll share a little story illustrating this point. I recently upgraded my Alienware Area-51’s motherboard to an Asus Rampage IV Black Edition. The system was originally powered by a factory-installed Intel Core 980x processor (pretty decent at the time when I purchased the machine). Only while attempting to install the new CPU onto the new motherboard did I realize they weren’t compatible! I had to buy a newer CPU (an Intel i7-3960x) to fit onto the new X79 motherboard’s socket (LGA Intel 2011). The moral of this story is parts evolve and change. The killer CPU of today may be an incompatible part for the computer of tomorrow. So be sure to invest in relatively recent components that can be easily replaced and repaired, if necessary.

In next month’s follow-up, I’ll investigate the topic of choosing the right processor and video card, and answer questions like, “When to choose a Xeon CPU over i7?”, “What’s multi-core and hyper-threading?”, “NVIDIA or ATI?”, “Quadro or GeForce?”, “What about Mac workflows?”, and the best workstations optimized for specific software. Stay tuned!

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