Going Mobile — Which Tablets Could Work for Engineers?

The ability to access and modify information quickly anytime and anywhere has led to the use of mobile devices on the manufacturing shop floor, in warehouses, in the field—even in-flight.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4
Microsoft Surface Pro 4

Design firms are slowly moving toward mobile design tools, although this transition is not as fast as the transitions in other manufacturing industries. While computing power is no longer an issue with mobile devices, the ability to view and design on a small screen will always hinder detailed design tasks. However, the improvements that are being made continue to entice design firms as well as professionals and encourage them to transition to these devices.

Large-enterprise design departments may never convert their desktop or tower workstations fully to mobile workstations. Many designers and engineers who work with large assemblies and massive amounts of data, constantly rendering or running simulations, will cling to their machines. However, improvements in CPU and graphics performance have led several designers to consider high-performance laptops or mobile workstations, inspiring many—especially those who need to work in more than one location—to abandon their desk-bound computers.

More and more power is coming in yet smaller and lighter devices. Even the latest, thinnest laptop, such as the Lenovo ThinkPad X1, can look like a monster compared to the company’s recently introduced tablet/keyboard combo, the Yoga P40. The power and portability of some of these new devices are leading many engineers to question the need for super power in a box that stays in one place or their laptop — which suddenly looks large and feels heavy. Maybe a super tablet or convertible would be good enough most of the time?

In this article, we examine a few of the very mobile computers that are available now — or will be soon.

How Mobile Is Mobile?

While the “mobile” label can be applied to any computer that can be deemed portable (up to and including 20-pound behemoths with 19-inch screens and power supplies as big as bricks) let us look at what is truly mobile and functional enough for engineering. For this article, mobile means devices you can pick up and carry over to show a coworker something — without breaking your back.

Power and mobility such as this is offered by some of the new, larger tablets and a fast-growing class of mobile hardware, such as the tablet/keyboard combination or “convertibles,” currently being led by the Microsoft Surface Pro 4.

Android Tablet
Android Tablet

Can a Tablet Be Your Only Computer?

The transition to tablets for engineering and designing can be impeded by the size of the tablet screen. For example, the iPad Air 2 with a 9.7-inch (diagonal) screen may be fine for viewing and mark-up, but you couldn’t work on it all day. Tablets are getting bigger, however. The iPad Pro has just burst onto the scene with a 12.9-inch screen. The Panasonic FZ-Y1 tablet is the biggest of all in this article with a 20-inch screen and could be conceivably be looked at all day—though for most full-time CAD and CAE use, a single screen would be considered a graphical downgrade. A tablet should at least include a docking device to which larger or multiple screens could be added. Still, we will include them here for all the following advantages:

  • Rough sketching – Freely sketching to communicate with a customer or to start a design idea such as a product shape, color, etc. or sketching floor plans in the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry.
  • Annotations and mark-up – Annotating an existing design to make changes to the detailed design later or to add material or function-based notes on a machined part.
  • Calculation – Calculating wall thickness of parts, drilling location from edges or wall thickness, measuring perimeter, area, etc.
  • Collaboration – Collaborating and communicating within teams or offsite with suppliers and on the manufacturing floor to relay design changes quickly.
  • Re-use and overlaying – Design firms of all sizes also report that they are able to replace and reuse components from a library of parts into assemblies during design meetings. Overlaying features in assembly to check with new or existing parts in assembly has also has proven productive for many designers.

You Can Touch This

Mobile tablet features such as touch and a pen or stylus come in handy to navigate through the design. Over time, these features have been introduced on laptops that may or may not have a detachable tablet attached to a keyboard.

Where Are the Apps?

Most CAD vendors have released viewers, sketching and light design-editing applications on the popular iOS (iPad/iPhone), Android and Windows platforms. CAD vendors have to work with the limitations imposed by the hardware performance and software of Apple’s iPad that restricts the free release of productive features. On the other hand, the Android platform caters more toward a phone-based operating system. It may surprise engineers to learn that the iOS platform ranks highest in the number of light design applications released. The Android applications are currently only at 70 percent of the number of iOS applications.

Most heavy-duty engineering applications, such CAD and CAE, are still based on Microsoft Windows.

The Tablet/Keyboard Combo

Recognizing the portability and popularity of the tablet, a number of companies has sought to add to those features that engineers found lacking. Chief among them were a real keyboard, a mouse (or at least a touchpad), bigger or multiple screens and graphics horsepower—these would be necessary before engineers could totally ditch their deskbound workstations.

The Microsoft Surface Pro 4 has opened the door for CAD vendors to improve features and replicate workstation functions and a laptop-like experience on a powerful, affordable tablet/keyboard combination. Now in its third design iteration, many reviewers are saying that it is finally worthy of being considered a laptop and even a desktop replacement—though that might take a bit of accessorizing. Its specially designed keyboard includes a touchpad. A docking accessory lets you add big monitors and a mouse. Graphics performance for large assemblies still needs to be tested before it can be branded a workstation killer, but Microsoft seems to be the closest to doing so.

Such success from a company known almost entirely as a software vendor has not escaped the notice of hardware companies that seem intent in not letting Microsoft steal the show.

What’s Available in Truly Mobile Devices for Engineering Use

The following table provides an overview of the available options of computers that enable mobility for serious designers. The list does not cover smartphones with their small screens, or laptops and mobile workstations, as all of them are meant to be used while stationary.

The vendors in this list may offer cheaper or more expensive options, other than what is included here. This list does not provide a comparison of different CAD mobile devices. It aims provide an overview of various devices that have been tested or certified by design professionals for mobility as well as ability to perform detailed design functions.

Vendor and Product




Apple iPad Pro


12.9-in. retina display; runs iOs; A9X, third generation 64-bit; 6.9 mm thin; 1.57 lbs.; optional keypad and “Apple Pencil”; Apple does not offer a mouse or trackpad or docking station for multiple or large monitors Starts at $799 to $1,079 for cellular and 128GB memory; keyboard is $169

HP Spectre x360


Windows-based; 13.3-in. screen; 1920 x 1080 resolution; 12.79 in. x 8.6 in. x 0.63 in. (32.4 cm x 21.8 cm x 1.6 cm); 3.26 lbs. (1.47 kg); 15.9 mm thick; 12.5 hours of battery life Starts at $899

Lenovo ThinkPad P40 Yoga (new)


Windows-based; 2560 x 1440 WQHD+ (3200 x 1800); 3.9 lbs.; 19 mm thick; up to 9 hours of battery life $1,399

Google Pixel C (not yet available)


Android; 10.2-in. screen; 2560 x 1800 resolution $499 (32GB); $599 (64GB); $149 for keyboard

Dell XPS 12


Windows OS; 12.5-in. screen; up to 3840 x 2160 resolution; starts at 1.75 lbs.; 16 mm to 25 mm thick; docking station for mouse, large monitor (available 2016) Starts at $999

Microsoft Surface Book


Windows OS; suitable for 3D modeling; up to 16GB memory – i5/i7; NVIDIA GeForce graphics (GPU); Detachable screen to use like a clipboard; rotate and reattach the screen to use the full hardware Starts at $1,499

Panasonic FZ-Y1 Performance Model


Windows OS; 20-in. 4K display; supports OpenGL to handle 3D modeling applications; specifically targets 3D and CAD engineers; Intel Core vPro processor; AMD FirePro M5100 graphics; 12.5 mm thick €5,200

8Microsoft Surface Pro 4


Windows OS; 3D modeling with i7 models; 12.3-in. screen; 2736 x 1824 resolution; smaller in size than Surface Book; m3 Intel HD graphics 515; i5 Intel HD graphics 520; i7 Intel Iris graphics; 1.69 lbs. Starts at $1,599 for i7 models; $129.99 for keyboard; $59.99 for pen



Windows OS; 13.3-in. screen; up to 2560 x 1440 resolution; pen stylus and 4G LTE; Intel Core i7-6600U processor (2.6 GHz up to 3.4 GHz, 4 MB); 3.5 lbs.; 19.3 mm thick; up to 11 hours of battery life Prices not available

About the Author
Sanjeev Pal is an analyst and software architect with his firm, Neovion Group. He has more than 20 years of experience in the field of product development (CAD/CAM/CAE-PLM) and enterprise technologies. Previously, he worked as a research manager with IDC, in services and R&D at Dassault Systèmes and as a design professional at Timex watches.

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