True CAD Portability—Are We There Yet?

Technology, software and software delivery methods have changed rapidly in the last few years. These changes have not left the CAD market untouched. Software vendors have been in a race to keep up with the new devices, many of them portable, and new software.

It used to be that CAD-capable hardware was stationery—the workstation plugged into the wall. However, as computers get more capable, IT departments and business owners/operators are increasingly asking what trade offs there are with mobile computing—if any. While a true mobile, or “full-figure,” workstation, featuring a 17-inch screen and brimming with RAM, storage and ports is a known desktop workstation killer, how do the latest ultramobile computers, ranging from tablets to super-thin and -light laptops, compare? With this article, we will attempt to see how close to real portability the new generation of mobile devices has come for the CAD user.

We will examine several different form factors of computers, using a representative computer in each form factor.

  1. Tablet device—Apple iPad Pro 12.9 inch
  2. Tablet/keyboard system—Microsoft Surface Pro 3 and 4
  3. Lean mobile workstation—HP EliteBook Folio G1
  4. For comparison, a “full-figure” mobile workstation—BOXX GoBOXX 17 MXL


Traditionally, CAD workstations have been big black boxes that sit on a desk or floor, able to warm your feet during cold months or your coffee. They would vacuum up dust bunnies, dirt and shop residue into the filter, vents and fans. These devices were loaded with RAM, one to two hard drives, a professional grade graphics card powering two or more monitors, a slew of USB ports for all the connected devices and the fastest CPU we could afford. If that wasn’t enough, some users over-clocked and water-cooled their CPUs. A massive power supply was required. We would spare no costs to get the high-quality components, shunning the “consumer” grade.

Some users went as far as to create custom workstations, building the fastest, hottest, power-hungry workstation. We understood that time was money. We were far too important to have to wait for computers to calculate.

Freed from the Office

With the traditional workstation, we were bound to the office. Some with a cooperative IT department, or for those who took matters into their own hands, a VPN access let us use our workstation from home, but that was the extent of portability.

However, these days, real portability is in high demand. Our connections are being made wirelessly. We are more accustomed to tools that allow us to do whatever we need to do in the coverage of a radio tower. Computers have shrunk down to pocket size, and are more likely to be called “devices.” CPU and GPU power has increased. Input devices disappear as we interface with our devices using touch. The cloud brings a new level in portability as we can shift the hard work of CPU and GPU to a bank of servers in the cloud.

Engineers are being freed from the office.

Mobile versus Portable?

What type of computer—or device—can be used for CAD and engineering? What types of devices are cost effective? With the traditional view of CAD workstations undergoing a change, now including much smaller, portable devices, let’s take some time and go over how these changes may affect your next investment in a mobile CAD workstation.

We will first define mobile as the ability to move from place to place. That definition doesn’t mean that the movement should be simple and easy—just that it needs to be movable. Mobile doesn’t provide a good enough definition. I’d like to recommend that we use the term “portable.” Portable, per Merriam-Webster, is the capability “of being carried or moved about.” A portable CAD workstation, by this definition, is one you can pick up and carry with you onboard a flight.


Here’s my quick list of requirements for a portable CAD workstation. The device must:

  1. Be portable
  2. Have a screen for viewing
  3. Have an input device for navigation and precise input
  4. Be able to support external monitors

Software Requirements

We can take a quick look at some of the software requirements. These may be different than you are expecting, but keep in mind that software is being delivered to the end user differently these days.

In today’s CAD market, you will find that most of the main software players are providing customers with several ways to access and license their products. Companies like Onshape, a relative newcomer to the CAD market, has developed a complete CAD-in-the-cloud solution that uses a subscription-based licensing and has all data stored in the cloud. Autodesk, as of earlier this year, has moved to a subscription-only model (for new purchases). It too, offers a CAD-in-the-cloud option with Fusion360. PTC, Siemens PLM and Dassault Systèmes are now offering subscriptions along with perpetual licensing, giving customers an option as to how they want to purchase their software.

All CAD vendors are now offering, or have in beta, some form of “CAD in the cloud” and local software installation (perpetual licensing).

Siemens PLM offers a variation on the theme with a “roaming” profile for its Solid Edge product. This roaming profile allows your CAD license to be used across many different devices and have your personal settings follow you from device to device using a cloud-based profile.

Define Terms

With these different options, hardware requirements can range from a $300 tablet for CAD in the cloud to upwards of $4,500 for a “full-figure” standalone portable workstation. But let us first narrow down our choices.

While one might wonder if the many different tablet devices running on Android, Linux, etc. would be useful for CAD, they are, by and large, devices on which to consume content rather than create it. Very little authoring or creation is done on these devices.

Notice the use of “standalone.”Here we are talking about a single device doing all the CAD, GPU and simulation processes on a single device.

Now let the fun begin.

Tablet Device Representative: Apple iPad Pro

The Apple iPadPro 12.9-inch model by itself does meet our minimum requirements for a portable CAD workstation—but just barely.Despite the commercial success of the iPad, it is foremost a consumer’s device. The iPad Pro 12.9-inch model fares a little better when configured with a stylus and keyboard. Still, its primary use is to consume and run lightweight applications. It is not a true creator tool like the Surface line of products.

image001iPad Pro 12.9 inch shown with optional pen and keyboard. (Image courtesy of The Verge.)

This device has the following specs:

  • Screen size: 12.9-inch touch screen, with 2732×2048 resolution
  • Weight: 1.57 lbs(713g)
  • Storage: 256GB solid-state drive
  • Architecture: A9X chip with 64‑bit architecture Embedded M9 coprocessor
  • RAM: Apple doesn’t advertise RAM in its devices— reports 4GB DDR4 in teardown
  • OS: iOS X
  • Battery: Built‐in 38.5‐watt‐hour rechargeable lithium‐polymer battery
  • Ports: USB 3.1/Thunderbolt 3 Microsoft Surface Pro 3
  • Price, with stylus and keyboard: $1,267

Tablet/Keyboard System Representative 1: Microsoft Surface Pro 3

The Microsoft Surface Pro 3 was replaced by the Surface Pro 4 about a year ago, but stock remains with a few resellers. Bargain hunters will delight in getting last year’s model at big discounts while taking only a small hit in performance. Microsoft did little to improve specifications with the Surface Pro 4.

  • Screen size: 12-inch touch screen, with 2160 x 1440 resolution
  • Weight: 1.76 lbs (800g)
  • Storage: 256GB solid-state drive with microSD card for expansion
  • Architecture: Intel Core-i5-4300U Processor (1.9Ghz up to 2.90GHz) and Intel HD Graphics 4400
  • RAM: 8GB
  • OS: Windows 10 Professional 64-bit
  • Battery: Built-in 38-watt-hour rechargeable lithium-polymer battery
  • Ports: Full-size USB 3.0, microSD card reader, 3.5-mm audio jack, Mini DisplayPort
  • Price as configured, with mouse and keyboard: $1,164

Tablet/Keyboard System Representative 2: Microsoft Surface Pro 4

Hardware options for CAD have been noticeably downsized since Microsoft starting delivering its Surface products.

  • Screen size: 12.9-inch touch screen, with 2736 x 1824 resolution
  • Weight: 1.73 lbs (786g)
  • Storage: 256GB solid-state drive with microSD card for expansion
  • Architecture: Intel Core-i5-6300U Processor (2.4Ghz up to 3.00GHz) and Intel HD Graphics 520
  • RAM: 8GB
  • OS: Windows 10 Professional 64-bit
  • Battery: Built-in 38-watt-hour rechargeable lithium-polymer battery
  • Ports: Full-size USB 3.0, microSD card reader, 3.5-mm audio jack, Mini DisplayPort
  • Price as configured, with mouse and keyboard: $1,599

Lean Mobile Workstation Representative: HP EliteBook Folio G1

The next device is the HP EliteBook Folio G1.

  • Screen size: 12.5 inch, with 1920×1080 resolution and full HD
  • Weight: 2.14lbs(971g)
  • Storage: 128GB solid-state drive
  • Architecture: Intel Core M5-6Y54 (1.1Ghz up to 2.70GHz) and Intel HD Graphics 515
  • RAM: 8GB with options for 4,8 or 16GB
  • OS: Windows 10 Professional 64-bit
  • Battery: Built‐in 38‐watt‐hour rechargeable lithium‐polymer battery
  • Ports: (2) USB 3.1/Thunderbolt 3 and 3.5-mm audio jack
  • Price as configured: $1,219

Full-Figure Mobile Workstation Representative: BOXX GoBOXX17 MXL

  • Screen size: 17.3-inch, full-HD LED, with 1920 x 1080 resolution
  • Weight: 8.6 lbs(3,901g)
  • Storage: 512GB M.2solid-state drive with PCIe
  • Architecture: Intel Core-i7-6700 (4.0Ghz) Quad-Core processor and NVIDIA Quadro M3000M 4GB
  • RAM: 32GB DDR4-2133
  • Battery: 82-watt-hour smart lithium-ion
  • OS: Windows 7 Professional 64-bit
  • Ports: Full-size USB 3.0 eSATA, (3) USB 3.0, (1) USB 3.1/Thunderbolt 3, (1) HDMI, (2) DisplayPorts, 6-1 card reader, (4) 3.5-mm audio jacks, gigabit Ethernet LAN
  • Price as configured: $3,942

Hardware Assessment

This section will look at hardware-related components of the various form factors.

Service and Upgrade

This area looks at how easy the devices are to service, upgrade and access components. You will see right away that new devices are thin and very compact. They are generally sealed devices, and the internal components can be glued to the shell. The GoBOXX was the only device to be deemed easily serviceable. But that is to be expected of a traditional laptop. The Folio was a little worse. With Surface Pros and the iPad, the access is mostly denied due to a sealed touchscreen and glued-down components. These devices are not repairable except through a professional. The iPad is a little better than the Surface Pros because it utilizes more fastening hardware than glue.


How configurable are these devices in terms of choosing different CPUs, RAM and hard drive options? The tablets and Folio are the least configurable. Once again, the form of the device dictates what you can put inside it. The GoBOXX wins hands down because it allows you to pick and choose hardware components. The Surface Pros are in the middle of the pack.


The tablets all have similar CPUs. CAD users might be surprised that CAD programs still run, for the most part, using a single core. Because of this, the number of cores only benefits specific types of tasks like rendering and simulation. For general CAD use, a single core with a high clock speed is beneficial. These devices all run a lower powered CPU to extend battery life and to keep the heat down. Lower power also means slower clock speeds. This is the reason the GoBOXX, sporting the i7-6700 CPU,wins. Unlike the BOXX desktop workstation, the GoBOXX runs at its rated clock speeds rather than being overclocked, which is still faster than the same processor in other vendors’ mobile workstations, which get “throttled down” to lessen the heat produced.


GPUs and CPUs are combined in many of the devices. Most of the devices utilize the CPU to do the graphics processing. This is required because of the space limitations and cooling requirements of the GPUs. To be honest, we were surprised how well tablet devices handled the rigors of CAD graphics. In this category, we see a leveling of the scores for the majority of the devices. The GoBOXX does manage to pull ahead because of its GPU, however.

Device Connectivity

Any measure of device connectivity should include both physical ports for connecting peripherals and Bluetooth connectivity. The iPad does the worst in this category as it has a single USB 3.1/Thunderbolt 3 port and Bluetooth connectivity. The issue with this device is that you cannot utilize the port if you are charging it. They are the same port. All devices must be connected using Bluetooth. Adding more peripherals will require an adapter, which just adds to cost and requires extra storage.

The Folio doesn’t fare much better, having a total of two USB 3.1 ports. But, like the iPad, you will more than likely need to purchase adapters.

The Surface Pros proved much better for connecting peripherals compared to the iPad and Folio. The Surface Pro devices include a USB 3.0, MiniDisplayPort and MicroSD card slot. This pairing of ports allows for multiple monitor outputs via the MiniDisplayPort, with use of most devices via the USB 3.0 and, more importantly, the microSD card slot for expanding disk space.

The GoBOXX, being a full-sized device, sweeps the series with three USB 3.0 ports, one USB 3.1, one HDMI video output, two DisplayPort outputs and a 6-1 card reader. I’ll also add that all the devices include a 3.5-mm audio jack. But the GoBOXX has dedicated jacks for headset, microphone and S/PDIF digital output.

Display Outputs

The portable CAD device will generally have a small screen, and in the design world, screen space is king. Here we have some issues. The iPad Pro will connect with an Apple TV or use an adapter out of its single Thunderbolt (USB 3.1) port. You better work fast if you plan on using your iPad with an external monitor because it quickly drains your battery. You can buy a Apple TV to mirror your screen.

The Folio, like the iPad Pro, is limited and will require an adapter to connect to an external monitor.

The Surface Pro devices utilize the double signals of the MiniDisplayPort and connect to other DisplayPort monitors. The right configuration of monitors allows you to connect two monitors by a daisy chain method and extend your display across three screens (your laptop screen and two monitors).

Finally, the GoBOXX offers up two DisplayPorts and HDMI output from it’s NVIDIA Quadro M3000M graphics card. It also has a 17-inch display. However, being users of touchscreen devices ourselves, we did find ourselves touching the screen a lot.


The iPad Pro, Folio and Surface Pro devices are equal across the board. These devices are lightweight based on their designs. As would be expected, with a 17-inch screen and all of its features, capabilities (will cover next) and individual components, the GoBOXX is large enough to get you a few snickers and chuckles at the coffee shop.


This score is one of the more critical requirements for a portable device. Once again, the iPad Pro, Folio and Surface Pros are equal. By comparison, the GoBOXX is a beast. The screen size is driving the size and weight of this device. It weighs in at 8.25 lbs with a battery and 10.65 lbs with the power brick.

CAD and CAE Functionality Assessment

CAD and CAE functionality is driven directly by the CPU and availability of RAM. CAD in the cloud reduces the demand on local CPU.


All devices were able to manage 2D CAD. Most of the CAD vendors have provided 2D CAD tools across the different devices and operating systems.

3D Visualization

Most CAD visualization software allows the user to define whether they want the software to utilize CPU or GPU for visualization effects. The iPad Pro and Foliodid the worst. The Surface Pro devices are hitting, once again, mid-range. Software original equipment manufacturers have been working directly with Microsoft to optimize their software with the Surface product lines.

3D CAD (Local)

The ability to handle 3D CAD is of great value to many engineers. Running 3D CAD locally means the ability to run CAD on the device itself—without requiring an Internet connection to the cloud. Here, RAM, CPU and GPU reign supreme. The machine with the highest quantity of RAM and the fastest CPU will win. But we will see something else is also a factor.

The iPad Pro scores the lowest when running 3D CAD. This is due largely to the OS. There are few CAD programs that run on the iPad. iPads run on a phone OS and not a “traditional” OS, leaving most options as 2D-based CAD apps.

With dedicated graphics and a whopping 32GB of RAM, the GoBOXX wins, yet again.

3D CAD (Cloud)

Here, the iPad Pro gets a reprieve. Due to the ability to run CAD in the cloud with Onshape and the ability to run CAD in a browser using the Frame environment, you can run Solid Edge and SOLIDWORKS on the iPad Pro. Here, the quality of your Internet is most important. All devices were equal but the iPad Pro suffered for the lack of a mouse. CAD functionality requires precise control to navigate menus, pop-ups, etc. Onshape has done a decent job in providing the user with a “swipe” experience, but other CAD software still requires more than touch input. Apple does provide its Pencil at extra cost for the iPad Pro. The Surface Pro devices have the pen. The Folio provides a touchpad. The iPad Pro is alone in not being able to connect a mouse. Yes, the iOS is hurting the iPad Pro, again.


The other main hindrance we found was the inability to hook the iPad Pro up to a local area network. You would require, yes, another adapter, and when using the adapter, you lose access to power.

The Folio and Surface Pros also will require adapters to connect to local networks, but unlike the iPad Pro, you have multiple ports to choose from.

The GoBOXX has a dedicated Ethernet port.


Rendering is CPU and GPU intense, utilizing multi-threading (multiple cores). RAM is another significant requirement. The Surface Pros render using the integrated GPU but can get overheated, leading to a “throttled-down” CPU, which can cause rendering to take longer to complete. Because of its dedicated graphics card and its 32GB of RAM, the GoBOXX is the choice for those doing serious rendering.


Finite element analysis (FEA) is also a CPU-intense function. The most RAM and highest performing CPU will score the highest. This is also a function that the cloud-based tools are starting to leverage. The GoBOXX did the best, with the Surface Pro 4 next.

Large Assembly

Size of assemblies is limited by RAM and how well the tools embedded in your CAD software leverage RAM utilization. Large assembly management and 3D visualization go hand in hand.

Here we used an assembly that contained over 400 unique components, with a full component count of over 1,400. Yes, nuts, bolts and washers count and add up quickly.

Most devices handled this well, although rotation did lag on the Surface Pro 3.


Has any manufacturer captured all the requirements of CAD in a truly portable workstation? I’d say we’re only about 60 percent there.

If you’re a one-man engineering shop that requires FEA, simulation and rendering along with the general CAD, then you still have to go with a full-figure mobile workstation like the GoBOXX17 MXL. Its performance won’t fail to please the most demanding engineer. Along with the ability to swap out hardware components, the GoBOXX even offers the ability to customize the color of the backlighting on the keyboard. This device’s 17-inch display can make do when you have to set up with just one screen. The only thing you need to add is a good mouse.

image005Author’s setup with Surface Pro 3 and two large monitors running Solid Edge.

Microsoft’s Surface Pros are decent devices that will meet the needs of all but the most demanding CAD. Opt for more memory (8GB or 16GB of RAM). The devices’ ability to run multiple monitors using the MiniDisplayPort and connecting to a LAN with a USB to Ethernet will make it work as well as, if not better than, the workstation you will replace.

The laptop form factor exemplified by HP’s Folio may be more suited for traditional business use than CAD. The lack of USB ports will make it hard to set up in a CAD user environment.

While the iPad Pro rules in terms of portability, its lack of mouse input and single USB connector limits its prolonged CAD use. Also, since iOS has not been ported to by many CAD vendors, using CAD on it will be confined to browser-based CAD products (like Onshape and Fusion360).

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