Workstation: laptop only or desktop+laptop for grad school?


Hi all,

I'm an incoming graduate student at USC this fall and I'm considering options for a workstation: -should I get a really powerful workstation laptop that can do everything from 3D modelling to rendering?

-or should I get a so-so gaming laptop just for 3D modelling + a powerful desktop for other hard-load tasks?

Thank you in advance for your ideas!

May 19, 13 9:53 am
Go all out on the desktop, then take a look at mid-level laptops for photoshop, conceptual massing, etc.

Gaming laptops are obsolete in two years, your desktop can be upgraded as needed.
May 19, 13 11:47 am

My only concern in case of the "all out on the desktop" option is that I've heard that working in studios is much better than working in our private room, as this is the place for many potential interesting academic discussion. And while we spend more time in studios than at home, we also work more on the laptop than the desktop, isn't it?

May 19, 13 11:54 am

I went the "powerful laptop" route when I was in school. A few months after buying it, a new model came out that was a bit better. I still use the same laptop to this day--it is far from outdated since I upgraded at purchase--but LITS4's comment is to be taken seriously. While I did envy the power of a desktop, portability is amazing. I worked in studio a lot early on and then gradually more at home and in the library. Speaking for myself, I wouldn't want to be transferring files back and forth or deal with two machines. Even when my battery was depleted and I had to plug it in 100% of the time (almost two years), I still enjoyed bringing it with me everywhere and even laying on the floor with it while doing yoga. 

May 19, 13 12:57 pm

Hi tiorted,

It's good to hear that you have been ok with a "powerful laptop". Could you share your experience with the rendering tasks? Having never rendered on a laptop before, I'm a bit worried about the risk of burning my cpu if doing that, given the cooling capacity of a laptop...

May 19, 13 1:14 pm

I second the powerful laptop suggestion.  I did the same as tiorted because of my need for portability.  I purchased the best laptop I could at the time and I'm also still able to use the same machine, which I've had for four or five years.  I will probably need to upgrade need time I update software.

May 19, 13 1:44 pm

With regards to rendering, at my school most people used laptops, and would either render while they slept, or set up a render, and farm it out to a school computer.  I've had 3 of the schools desktops running individual renders while working on board layouts on my laptop.

the new line of intel processors (haswell) comes out next month, I suggest waiting until then to start shopping.  either you'll get a better machine or a better deal.

May 19, 13 3:23 pm

Thanks all, especially Joseph for your info about the incoming intel processors. I'll wait for them to come before placing any ordering.

While waiting for the Haswell chips, I've looked at these two options from Dell with virtually same prices:

-One is a Precision 4700 with a professional graphic card Quadro K1000M+very good 15-inch monitor.

-The other is an Alienware 17X with non-professional graphic card GeForce® GTX 660M but has much stronger quadcore CPU and a larger 17-inch monitor. Its price also include a promotion gift card which is enough for a nice ultrasharp monitor.

What is your opinion? Should I trade off all the pros of the Alienware (larger monitor, stronger CPU...) for the Precision 4700 to benefit from its Quadro K1000M? Does the GTX 660M perform as well as the Quadro K1000M in 3D softwares like Rhinoceros and Revit?

Here are their specific tech infos:

Dell Precision 4700:

3rd Gen Intel® Core™ i5-3360M Processor (2.8GHz, 3M cache, Upgradable to Intel® vPro™ technology)
Operating System
Windows 7 Professional,w XP Mode, Media, 64-bit, English
Hardware Support Services
3 Year Basic Hardware Service with 3 Year NBD Onsite Service after Remote Diagnosis
8.0GB, DDR3-1600MHz SDRAM, 2 DIMMS
15.6" UltraSharp™ FHD (1920x1080) Wide View Anti-Glare, Premium Panel Guarantee, USH
Camera / Microphone
Integrated noise reducing array microphones
NVIDIA® Quadro® K1000M with 2GB GDDR3
Primary Storage
750GB 2.5" 7200rpm Hard Drive

Alienware 17X:


3rd Generation Intel® Core™ i7-3630QM (6MB Cache, up to 3.4GHz w/ Turbo Boost 2.0)

Operating System

    Windows® 7 Home Premium, 64bit


    17.3-inch WideHD+ 1600 x 900 60Hz WLED


    6GB5 DDR3 SDRAM at 1600MHz

Hard Drive

    750GB 7,200 RPM SATA 3Gb/s

Video Card

    2GB GDDR5 NVIDIA® GeForce® GTX 660M


    Intel® Centrino® Wireless-N 2230 With Bluetooth 4.0

Security Software

    McAfee SecurityCenter, 15-Months

Primary Battery

90WHr 9-Cell Primary Battery

May 20, 13 2:15 am

You should really have at least 8gb of ram, but the i7 is a WAY better cpu.

As for the Graphics card... I have a 2 year old gaming laptop (Asus G73) and it has a GTX460M which works just fine with rhino and revit.

May 20, 13 10:08 am

Yeah, 8gb is the lowest you want these days. 10 years ago I built a desktop that came with 256mb, which I upgraded to 512mb. 5 years ago I bought my laptop with 4gb. Following that trajectory, go big! You won't regret it. 

rrnkenshin -- I have a macbook pro and have done some renderings using windows and autodesk software. It sucked, to be honest... the CPU was very hot and it slowed everything down. So, I started rendering using Rhino for Mac. Sure, it's not Vray, but with fine-tuned settings it gets close. Plus I do almost all of my renderings in Photoshop, post-production. So, all of this to say: you will be absolutely fine rendering with the above spec computers, or better ones. They key to rendering is size. If the image is not for final, you can probably stick to 2000 pixels wide. If you are doing final renderings, that's when you want to render 5000 pixels or more. 

May 20, 13 12:21 pm

I recommended a Lenovo a couple months ago, and a Clevo before that (much higher end).  

In the price range you're looking at, I'd say the magic number is...

I7, 16gb RAM, Dual SLI 2gb Graphics drives, topped off with 16gb of SSD to go with your 1 TB hard drive? Hell, I might not even bother waiting for haswell after seeing this thing at $1150.

May 20, 13 10:29 pm

Wow, those specs for $1150 is great. Apple really needs to push more performance out of their product if I'm going to consider dropping $2000 for a machine similar to my own, whenever if breaks. 

May 21, 13 12:29 am

depends on how much cash you have... If you have to borrow money, I say get a good laptop (not necessarily the top of the line because prices of newly released laptops are usually high and you don't need the absolute best.  I'm sure your school has a computer room with the best desktops for student to use like Macs etc.  Make use of that for any heavy rendering work.

May 21, 13 12:31 am

Thank you all for your answers!

@natematt and tiorted

Yeah, surely I'll get at least 8GB of RAM. It seems that we use the same Revit and Rhinoceros as main programs.

I've always doubted that the cooling capacity of laptop is not strong enough for rendering. If so, should we necessarily get a quad-core processor or we should better save that amount for a better graphic card instead?

@Joseph Wassell

Thank you for your suggestion, I've read your post in which you suggested the Clevo.

Could you give the name of your "magic number" that you've just mentioned, as when I click you that link is says "the page you're looking for can't be found". That specs is truly stunning for that price.

I'm actually also looking at a Lenovo W530 with an i7-3630QM, NVIDIA Quadro K1000M and 8 GB DDR3 at about $1,295. It's ~$180 cheaper than a Dell Precision M4700 with same specs. Lenovo is quite cheaper than all other brands like Dell and HP. My only concern with Lenovo is the monitor quality,whereas those that made by Dell are very good. But maybe that is not a big deal as, with that ~$180, we can get a decent standalone ~21,5inch Ultrasharp with IPS panel, isn't it?


I have ~$1600 at most. I would ideally spend ~$1200 for the laptop and the rest for additional parts for a rendering desktop (I'll bring along the CPU+mainboard+RAM+HDD of my actual and still new PC to the States). My school does have a computer room with good desktops, but having a desktop of our own is always better and more independent.

So in both cases, there are desktops for rendering. Therefore, I think the top priorities for a laptop now would be:

-strongest graphic cards possible---> Quadro K1000M or the Geforce GTXs?

Anybody has experience over the Quadro K1000M, or the Mobile Quadro family in general?

For Revit and Rhinoceros, which one is better: a Quadro K1000M or a high-end gaming card like GTX 660M? Is the difference, if any, significant?

Thank you all again.

May 21, 13 10:56 am

Oh Joseph, is it correct that you are talking about Lenovo IdeaPad Y500 Gaming Laptop? I'm looking at them now, being totally stunned by the specs and prices!!!

May 21, 13 11:15 am

Here are two customized Lenovo, one is with Quadro K1000M+8gb and the other is with GeForce GT750M+12gb (~$300 cheaper) . How do you think?

Specs details:

Thinkpad W530

• Intel Core i7-3630QM Processor (6M Cache, up to 3.40 GHz)
• Windows 7 Home Premium (64 bit)
• 15.6" HD+ (1600 x 900) LED Backlit AntiGlare Display, Mobile Broadband Ready
• NVIDIA Quadro K1000M Graphics with 2GB DDR3 Memory
• 8 GB DDR3 - 1600MHz (2 DIMM)
• Keyboard Backlit - US English
• UltraNav with Fingerprint Reader
• 720p HD Camera with Microphone
• 500GB Hard Disk Drive, 7200rpm
• 9 Cell Li-Ion TWL 70++
• Bluetooth 4.0 with Antenna
• Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6205 AGN


IdeaPad Y500 Laptop - 59371969

• 3rd Generation Intel Core i7-3630QM Processor( 2.40GHz 1600MHz 6MB)
• Windows 8 64
• 12.0GB PC3-12800 DDR3 SDRAM 1600 MHz
• 15.6" FHD LED Glossy Wedge 1920x1080
• 1TB 5400 RPM+16GB SSD
• 6 Cell Lithium-Ion
• Intel Centrino Wireless N-2230
• Bluetooth Version 4.0
• Integrated HD Camera
• HDMI (Out)

May 21, 13 11:29 am

My apologies for the link, I should have tested it on a different computer first, but it looks like you were already on the right track.

I was referring to the y500, but the next level up from the one you selected, the 59371963, which will move you up to 16gb ram and include a second graphics card.

The quadro is supposed to be a better graphics card when it comes to these types of programs..  something to do with OpenGL vs. Direct3D, I think?

More RAM and SSD, or optimized OpenGL performance? decisions decisions..  I want to say you'll gain more from extra RAM and SSD, since its effects won't be limited to just those few design programs.  

May 21, 13 1:10 pm

Here is the cheaper alternative.

Get an ASUS G75VW-NS71 from ROG family. It cost about $1,300

Here is the spec

Intel Core i7-3610QM 2.3GHz


500GB Hard disk

You can read detail on newegg. I assume newegg version is the best version for arch. community.

And then get a samsung solid drive to run the programs, and make the original one to store your data. That machine comes with two slots for the hard disk. What a cool thing! Solid state is the only way to go for programs like Adobe, CAD, 3Ds Max, IES and Rhino..etc. It merely takes 4 seconds to load the64 Bit Adobe programs.

Finally don't forget to get another 4GB ram.

Now you're good to go. It will cost you nearly 1600. But I can grantee that you won't regret it.

It is a bit of extra work you have to do but it is fun to know the machine you're using. Besides the machine comes with two fans. One for CPU and the other for GPU. It is also easy to open and add new things as you wish.

I used to believe the mythical power of Quadro and I have a desktop with Quadro. But I don't see the any significant differences from Geforce yet. The GW75 comes with Geforce. It works very very well.

If I have to get a machine today for school.

I'll try to get

1. i7 at least

2. 16 GB

3. Sold drive! Sold drive! Sold drive!

4. dedicated graphic card ( Quador or Geforce)

5. Dell Premium 6-Button USB Laser Scroll Mouse - J661D.

May 21, 13 11:42 pm

Thank you Tee002 , thank you Joseph!

I'm really torn between the SSD and the Quadro now. I decided to get either a laptop and a desktop, a decision that limits my budget to ~$1300 max for the laptop.

Probably I'll go for the Quadro for the laptop, while making sure that the machine is ready for an SSD to be added later. So far, I'm quite leaning towards the Precision M4700.

Thank you again!

May 22, 13 10:03 am

The asus might be a good call too. I have the older G73, and it works great for arch stuff, and for what you get in them the cost is hard to beat.

Cooling depends on the laptop. I use 3ds max for rendering, so i have had stuff running 100% of my CPU for 20 hours. I've had 3 different laptops that I've done this with, 2 lenovos and my current asus. all of them were fine. You're best off propping up some laptops (like the lenovos) so that they don't sit flat on a surface and cook, a little air flow underneath does wonders (also you could get one of those cooling pad things they make for laptops) Most of the really serious gaming laptops won't be a problem, the cooling on my asus is great.

May 22, 13 1:30 pm

Just got ALIENWARE 18 for architecture masters at TU Delft in Holland. I have an Intel core i7 4800MQ and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 770M, which I figured would be more than perfect for Rhino, Grasshopper and also for demanding fluid dynamics software like REALFLOW. So far have seen zero improvements in performance from my ASUS G73J  which has a 6 year old i7 processor and AMD Radeon video card. 

I am now spending an annoying amount of time to read blogs and support pages in order to configure my system to get better performance while using my favorite software 

I strongly recommend to spend a few hours reading the support pages from the software websites you intend to use and focus on buying the appropriate hardware to suit your preferred software. 

If anyone has tips on improving performance in Rhino with the setup I mentioned, please let me know so that I can make the world more awesome even faster.

Sep 18, 13 7:04 pm

I feel like hardware has now surpassed software for most of the arch stuff. Sure you can still utilize all of your CPU or all of your RAM, but you probably wont need to very much, and in the end having a machine that is top of the line is probably not going to help you much over one that is just "good" 

Then again some people don't realize the difference between "ok" and "good"

Sep 18, 13 8:00 pm

i would rather suggest you to go with a laptop only with high configuration

i am talking about powerful processor and graphics card and enough RAM and hard disk.

all the best.

Sep 22, 13 1:51 am

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