When it comes to courses of study, civil engineering is one of the most rewarding majors for a college student. That being said, it can also be one of the more challenging and varied. As a person who is working on his third year in structural engineering at a major university, I can attest that while the major is fun, it also requires some very specific computer hardware requirements. Whether you’re looking for a good machine for your favorite college student or are a civil engineer major who wants to purchase his or her own dedicated computer, wading past the hardware jargon can be tough. This is why I created this guide so that you can more easily find the best laptops for civil engineering students.

Software Requirements

The different disciplines of civil engineering will all need excellent software to enhance the learning process. Each of these software suites will require a different laptop and computer configurations for the optimal performance conditions. With this in mind, let’s take a look at some of the top civil engineering design software and their requirements so that you can have an idea of what type of machine you’ll need for civil engineering.

  • AutoCAD 2017 (and Autodesk Revit has similar requirements):

    • Operating System: Windows 7 or above
    • Processor: 1 gigahertz (GHz) or faster 64-bit (x64) processor
    • For 2 GB for 32-bit AutoCAD 2017, 4 GB for 64-bit AutoCAD 2017
    • Hard Drive Space: 6 GB of storage
    • Graphics Processor: Graphics card with 1360×768 for base with True Color capabilities, 1920×1080 for AutoCAD 2017.1 Update, and a graphics processor capable of 4k resolutions of 3840×2160 or better for higher-end civil engineering work
  • AutoCAD Civil 3D

    • Operating System: Windows 7 or above
    • Processor: 1 gigahertz (GHz) or faster 64-bit (x64) processor
    • RAM: 4 GB (8 GB or more recommended)
    • Hard Drive Space: 10 GB of storage
    • Graphics Processor: Graphics card with 1360×768 with pixels of resolution and True Color capabilities
  • MicroStation

    • Operating System: Windows 7 or above
    • Processor: Intel® or AMD® processor 2.0 GHz or greater
    • RAM: 512 MB at base, but 2 GB required
    • Hard Drive Space: 8 GB of space for current software
    • Graphics Processor: 256 of dedicated video RAM at base

It’s important to note that these are mostly base system requirements and for a truly performant civil engineering system, you’ll need some beefier stats.

Processor

A multi-core unit, I prefer an i5 or better yet, the i7 for any rendering or computation-rich applications. A few good processors right now are i7-7300HQ, i7-7500U, i7-6700HQ and i7-7700HQ.

Memory

8 GB of RAM, in my opinion, should be your base level. Though most applications can run with lower, this will give you some wiggle room and will ensure that you’re ready for future versions of the software. Also, if it’s very common to find 16 GB in laptops above $1,000. From that point on memory is not an issue.

Solid State Drive

Best case scenario – you get a computer with a large SSD which would be enough for all your engineering needs. Sadly, truly large SSDs come at a high price. At the same time, I would recommend a much smaller SSD instead of an HDD storage just because SSDs are that much more faster and more reliable than older HDDs. SSDs are silent, cool, have no moving parts, are more resistant to damage and they cannot be matched in performance.

These days, if you get an i7 processor, 8 – 16 GB RAM and an SSD drive – you’re set for years! This is the basic “killer setup” for nearly anything you can imagine.

Depending on your budget, you should have some reasonable expectations of what you can get:

  • [~$600] 256 GB SSD
  • [~$1,000] 256 GB SSD + 1 TB HDD
  • [~$1,200] 512 GB SSD
  • [~$1,400] 512 GB SSD + 1 TB HDD
  • [~$1,700] 1 TB SSD
  • [~$2,400] 1 TB SSD + 1 TB HDD
  • [~$3,200] 2 TB SSD

Graphics Processor

If you want quick architecture previews and fast rendering speeds for your projects, I suggest grabbing a dedicated graphics card in your new laptop. The most performant models on the market are Nvidia’s GTX series of laptop processors in the Pascal (1000+) series. Right now, GTX 1050 and GTX 1060 get the best results for a reasonable price. But if you want the very best laptop for civil engineering – I’d go for GTX 1070, GTX 1080 or an Nvidia Quadro graphics chip.

Nvidia Quadro & AMD FirePro cards are considered professional as they’re tested and optimized for when developing professional software. They also come with a slightly different set of drivers (software that controls the GPU) which is a bit more suited for professional work. But for the most part, they’re just a tuned version of their much cheaper GeForce counterparts. They’re based on the same hardware architecture and they even use the same models. They’re still better for professional use than gaming-oriented GPUs, but if you don’t have an unlimited budget, you might get aswell go for a GeForce card that performs 2 times over what you’d get from a Quadro card at the same price point..

There’s another problem apart from them being 2-3x more expensive than “consumer-grade” Nvidia GeForce GTX cards. The problem is that Quadro cards are released later than GeForce cards and it takes a lot longer for them to reach the market. And that means there are very few options that can match the latest GeForce releases (1050, 1060…). The older Quadro cards come with M****M naming pattern, for example Quadro M2000M. Meanwhile, the latest and fastest are named in P**** pattern, for example P4000.

TL;DR

If you can’t afford a laptop with at least Quadro M2000M ($1,700 and up) – you’re better off with an Nvidia GeForce card, preferrably 10th-gen card such as GTX 1050, 1060 or 1070.

The Rochester Institute of Technology has a pretty good hardware recommendations page for their civil engineering majors.

Other Things to Consider

Meeting these hardware requirements is very useful, but there are also other things to consider in your new laptop. These features will make your life more convenient as a civil engineering major who has to complete assignments and go to and from classes.

Display

In a perfect world, I would recommend purchasing a larger display on your laptop, but the chief problem with this is that larger displays tend to make laptops somewhat heavy. With this in mind, I recommend the happy medium of a 15-inch screen or so. I have selected a 17-inch model in our reviews, but you’ll see that the majority of the laptops selected are around the 15-inch sizing option.

In addition to size, resolution and visual performance is also important. You’ll have noticed by now that some software that’s popular for civil engineering has a bass resolution of 1360×768. In most situations, I believe that students of civil engineering can use much higher resolutions. Shoot for a full HD or above resolution of 1920 x 1080, and if you can, go for an Ultra HD format of 3840×2160 for the most details.

Finally, for civil engineering, an in-plane switching display (IPS) is also very useful. It gives great viewing angles, which means that you can look at your sketches from different angles rather than just head-on, vivid colors, and a good level of overall contrast.

Battery Life

As a student, you’ll be moving from class to class, and not all lecture halls have outlets that are readily available. This is where a laptop with a good battery life really shines. I think that most students can use a battery that can last greater than eight hours. It’s also important to remember that CAD software is going to tax your system, so a machine’s standard battery life probably won’t apply when you’re really pressing the hardware’s capabilities. With this in mind, really try and purchase one that can last through a whole day of encoding and encryption.

Weight

You don’t want to carry a brick on your back all day, right? As you might expect, lighter machines are easier to tote around on your back all day. Shoot for a laptop that’s around six pounds or less and your back will thank you.

Laptop Reviews

[~$750] Dell Inspiron i7559-763BLK

This Dell Inspiron i7559-763BLK is a great option for those who want a more budget-friendly laptop that can complete resource-intensive civil engineering assignments. First, its screen is an IPS model, which means that it will easily display crisply and sharply from different viewing angles. Its processor, the i5-6300HQ is a quad-core unit that has a good amount of power for most assignments that you can expect as a civil engineering student.

I also like that Dell provided a num pad on this machine, which is very useful so that you can quickly enter figures and also have access to the ALT symbols that are available on this pad. My biggest problems with this laptop are its weight, which is 5.7 pounds and its poor battery life; it only has about four hours of life doing relatively non-demanding work.

[~$1,300] ASUS GL753VE-DS74

As I mentioned, I like a larger display for my class assignments and this ASUS GL753VE-DS74 packs in a 17-inch model that is perfect for this preference. Just remember – when you have a larger display you are sacrificing portability. In fact, this laptop is almost seven pounds in totality.

Performance-wise, this is a nice machine for civil engineering students. First, it’s a quad-core laptop with a processor that has eight threads and a processor core frequency of 2.80 GHz. While you won’t see much difference between an i5 and an i7 for most casual applications, when you’re doing hardware taxing work, you’ll appreciate the better performance of the i7 line. It also sports a dedicated graphics chip – the Nvidia GTX 1050, which has a lot of rendering potential. If you need to build a visualization of CAD data, a powerful GPU is advantageous.

[~$1,500] HP ZBOOK 15U G3

I really like how portable the HP ZBOOK 15U G3 is. It’s only about four pounds, so it’s a very easy to transport machine. It has an okay battery life of a little more than five hours and it only has a dual-core CPU.

Despite this, the display uses a 4K screen, which provides a lot of project detail. It is important to remember that not every piece of civil engineering software supports this resolution. Once again, this is a laptop that incorporates a num pad, which is very useful for civil engineering students.

Since you’ll need space, HP has provided a half of a terabyte of solid-state storage, which is pretty good for storing your sketches and 3D modeling files. Finally, the icing on the cake is that this laptop sports a CAD certified GPU – the FirePro W4190M.

[~$1,700] Lenovo Thinkpad P50

Our last two laptops are a bit more high performance; and as a result, they aren’t what I’d call budgetary laptops. One of the standout features of this laptop is its Nvidia Quadro M2000M, which is designed with graphical applications like CAD software in mind rather than gaming. Additionally, the Xeon E3-1505M is a highly performant quad-core CPU that has eight threads and a base clock speed of 2.80 GHz. The combination of these two features makes this a great laptop for just about any task a student might throw at it.

I also like the fact that the keyboard is backlit; I can’t count the number of times that I’ve had to work on an assignment in the dark while my roommate was asleep. Finally, this laptop has a great battery life; expect it to last more than eight hours on a charge.

[~$2,000] Dell Precision M5510

The king of our best laptops for civil engineering students is the Dell Precision M5510. Costing $2000, you can assume that Dell has provided some great features for those who need a little more performance. Firstly, the GPU is fully CAD-certified – the Quadro M1000M that has 2 GB of video memory. This chipset is perfect for speedy renders and an overall professional-grade quality.

Its processor is the i7-6820HK, which has a clock speed of 2.70 GHZ, eight threads, and a quad-core architecture, which renders and encrypts at high rates; you can even overclock it. This is also another machine that has a full-sized keyboard that’s complete with a num pad, which allows for fast numerical entry.

My chief issue with this laptop is its somewhat short battery life (4h 30min). This is probably because of its high-end components, but I wish it would last a little longer than two lectures.

Wrapping it Up

Civil engineering is a demanding major for both your scholastics and your computer. The models that I’ve selected here will serve just about any civil engineering need, but if you have any questions about these machines or other alternatives, leave me a comment below. I’ll get back to you as quickly as I can. In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed my reviews of the best laptops for civil engineering students. Now go ahead and make some prime real-estate!

6 thoughts on “Top 5 Best Laptops for Civil Engineering in 2017

  1. Hi, your info is good.
    I am a structural engineer.plz suggest me a laptop that satisfies the requirements of software such as SAP, STAAD, and finite element related softwares. But budget is also limited.

    Thank you

  2. Its a really nice article for me as a structural engineer. I need to use Autocad, sap2000, safe, Orion, bluebeam…etc. What configuration you will suggest to me.
    Thank you.

  3. as we have microsoft and mac version of software types… So which is more superior for civil engineering students… And which one should i choose mac or microsoft….. And please suggest me a laptop on mac book series

  4. My son is going to start college for civil engineering. Are MacBooks good for this? I’d rather not get the Mac but wondered your thoughts on those? His mom seems to think that’s the only computer there is.

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