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What is the Perfect PC for CAD .. How about Mac?

16 July 99.

Can a Macintosh match what ZDNet is calling the Perfect PC for CAD? Can it match it on price? First, PC magazine says that if you are ...

  • "an engineer using CAD/CAE software to develop products"
  • "a designer working with 3D representations of complex objects."
  • "an architect who needs to draft and render designs and create 3D models for virtual walk-throughs."
  • "doing advanced 3D animation for the Web or videos."
  • "An audiovisual production specialist."
  • "a scientist building molecular models or simulations of the physical world."

Then you need the following PC with these specs:

  • Pentium III Xeon 550MHz processor (dual Xeons for 3-D workstation)
  • 256 MB RAM
  • 80 MB of 2D/3D OpenGL graphics card accelerator
  • 18 GB to 24 GB SCSI-2 hard disk (optional: dual 10 GB disks in RAID configuration)
  • 10/100 Ethernet
  • 21" monitor (0.27 mask pitch maximum, 1600x1200 resolution at 75-Hz refresh min.)
  • DVD-RAM drive
  • Slide out drives (doesn't say about if they are hot-swappable)
  • user-replaceable fans and power supply
  • Microsoft Windows NT 4.0

And their grand total cost for this "dream machine" is, according to PC Magazine, $9,000.00US.


Hey! What About Mac?

How can Apple fare against this "perfect PC" for CAD? What can you get directly from Apple? Let's build a machine to order from the Apple Store and go from there.

Here are the following custom Macintosh specs, ordered to compare with the ZDNet spec above: (all of this directly from the Apple Store)

  • 450 MHz PowerPC G3 processor (can't get a dual processor until the G4, unfortunately)
  • 512 MB SDRAM (256 isn't nearly enough for a "dream machine" - see the notes below)
  • RAGE 128 ATI built-in graphics acceleration, 16 MB (we'll add to this- see below)
  • Two 9 GB Ultra2 SCSI hard disks with dual channel SCSI card plus RAID config.
  • 10/100 Ethernet built-in (optional Gigabit Ethernet PCI card)
  • 21" Apple Studio Display (superfine 0.25-0.27mm aperture GP., 1600x1200 @75 Hz min.)
  • DVD-RAM drive with DVD video card
  • Mac OS 8.6

The grand total for the above Mac system is: $8,028.00US. This is an Apple BTO system. We have approximately $1,000 left to make it better.


A Few Notes About the Mac System

The Power Macintosh Tower design has the easiest-to-access case in personal computer history, making it easy to access drive bays and the power supply if need be. However, I don't know if it is easy to replace fans.Perhaps someone can write in and tell me.

In the system above I added an additional 256 MB of RAM to a grand total of 512 MB. If you are going to have a "dream machine" for CAD and rendering you need at least this much. StrataStudio Pro, for instance, will continue to improve its performance if you just keep giving it more RAM.


Power Mac G3

courtesy of Apple Computer Inc.

Where the Macintosh system falls down a bit compared to the PC system above is with the lack of dual processor abilities and graphics acceleration. You can add an additional ATI 128 graphics card to your BTO system, bringing the total graphics RAM up to 32 MB. That will cost you an additional $150. We are still way under $9 K.



For the ultimate performing CAD "dream machine", a Mac system with only one processor can't truly compete with a multiprocessor PC system running applications that take advantage of dual processing. And no amount of RAM or graphics acceleration will matter. The only thing Mac users can do at this point is wait for the G4 multiprocessor machines coming this fall or winter.

To make the graphics acceleration scream as much as possible you could add ATI's RAGE 128-powered Nexus 128 graphics card with 32 MB of memory, or two of those cards to bring the total memory up to 64 MB's. A problem you begin to run into though is the G3 towers limited PCI expansion ports, which in the system above would be filled with a SCSI card and DVD video card, leaving only two ports left, one being used by the built-in ATI RAGE 128 graphics card with 16 MB of memory. Adding Gigabit Ethernet becomes problematic because there simply isn't enough card slots available in the machine -- a criticism Apple has been hearing ever since the new Blue G3's were announced.

Nevertheless, it is possible to a get a truly kick-butt [Macintosh] "dream machine" for CAD or science for around the same $9000.00US price as the PC system, which has only one real true advantage -- dual processors. In the near future, G4 systems with multiple processors, more PCI expansion capability (hopefully), and improvements with OpenGL and other 3D software and hardware -- not to mention AltiVec-improved CAD and rendering applications -- will mean that for little under $9 K the Mac can be the ultimate "CAD dream machine"!


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