The Best Hardware for Today's Engineering Students
Chris McAndrew posted on December 20, 2016 |
A review of the best hardware options for today's engineering majors.

Slide rules and punch cards are for real engineering. That’s what you might hear if you ask a seasoned engineer what tools they used during college. Today’s days humanities majors carry around more computer power than whole engineering departments of 40 years ago. But engineers still need hardware, and there are lots of options for which route to take. So what computer hardware is best for today’s engineering students?

What Do Engineering Departments Require for Student Hardware?

Engineering schools still boast access to computing power for research, but in order to get coursework done, students need their own personal hardware. Just like slide rules, the software tools of today’s engineers are still niche, requiring dedicated machines. What works for texting friends and researching English papers does not always work for acing an Advanced Circuitsor Mechanical Design final.

Visualization engines, development environments and CAD/CAM/CAE tools all may be required for students depending on their coursework. has also previously covered popular engineering software for students. Unfortunately, not everything is supported across Mac, Windows, Linux, Android and iOS. That means that nearly every accredited university now requires some form of personal computer for students, beyond just their smartphones.

The upside is that software is easy to come by for engineering students. Companies like Autodesk and SOLIDWORKS support schools with discounted licenses in order to help train the next generation of engineers. But visualization and simulation programs are graphics and processor intensive, which means that while an economics major may be able to make it through four years of school with an iPad, a mechanical engineer will in all likelihood not, and departments recognize this by setting standards.

UCLA is at least one school that tries to take an impartial approach to hardware needs, urging students to make a personal and informed choice. MIT takes a different approach, and identifies minimum requirements that are clearly slanted toward a desktop or traditional laptop model.

While most major engineering vendors support multiple operating systems, it is clear that the preference for Windows still persists in academic engineering. Again, UCLA notes: “Mac users have many options for running Windows software (e.g., Parallels, Fusion, and Remote Desktop connections to a SEASnet server).  We do caution students in fields like mechanical engineering that they may not be satisfied with the performance of graphics-intensive applications on a Mac machine running Windows.”

While departments still focus on hardware needs, the move to the cloud by many vendors may change things. For software engineering, it is possible to leverage the burden of resources with cloud services. Both Google Cloud Platform and Amazon Web Services offer access to their cloud servers and provide learning and course material that can supplement traditional coursework.

Some major software vendors, including OnShape and Autodesk, are opening up engineering tools that are remotely hosted. This again blurs the lines of what is required as now anything that can run a web-browser is sufficient, which makes laptops like Chromebooks a possibility.

How Will In-School Hardware Needs Translate Post-Graduation?

While it is important to get coursework done and adhere to a budget, that is not the only things students must consider when choosing a machine. Sure, there are work-arounds that may allow you to complete a degree while running with just an iPad Pro, but doing so may put you at a disadvantage in the market.

An undergraduate or graduate degree is designed to provide the skills and knowledge needed to succeed beyond school. This preparation is where academic departments have a hard time keeping up with specific technologies. They must balance the need for learning fundamentals with the mindset and adaptability to innovation required for commercial organizations to succeed.

So what does the industry really need? For the most part, the skills needed are platform agnostic. Employers want the fundamentals and hopefully some experience in specific programs.

Take a look through some job listings; you’ll find that most listings call out terms like “Solidworks Simulation Experience” and “AutoCad Drafting.” What you will not see are things like “Ability to work on a tablet” or “Understanding of Working with a Desktop.”

Organizations understand that the nuances of their cultures will need to be taught to new employees. And smaller organizations, start-ups and tech companies look for candidates who know how to solve a problem, not necessarily those who know which apps to download (though that might be helpful).

What Are the Best Hardware Options?

We still have not answered the question of what the best hardware for a student is. In short, the answer, as with many in engineering, is “it depends.” Here are a few of the more common options with a handful of pros and cons.


Normally, I would say this is a nonstarter. You cannot get through an engineering program with just a smartphone, but that may not necessarily be true. The major drawback to a phone is the input and display size, which is what keeps it from being the primary source of technology for a lot of people.

In order to get all the visualization and simulation needed, a phone will not support most of the higher-end packages. In order to do that, though, most smartphones these days have the ability to run a VNC server to another machine. Both Android and iOS devices have readily available apps in their app stores that make this possible.

So, as long as there is a virtual machine that you can setup on a campus server, it’s possible to use a smartphone as a gateway to a department’s computing network. This is not the most efficient way to accomplish this, but if anyone is considering doing so, there would certainly be a number of organizations and media outlets interested in knowing how you go about doing this.

Chromebooks and Tablets and Surface Pro

Chromebooks tend to be less expensive than other machines but come with their limitations. Similar to the smartphone, a workaround is likely needed when using a Chromebook to access some of the more robust engineering packages. Again, the ability to remotely connect to another device is a possibility.

Some other tablets re options as well, with the one major limitation being the iPad. iOS is still a bit of a closed system, and the legacy of most engineering tools being built for Windows still lingers.

No doubt tablets and mobile devices have the benefits of being able to serve multiple functions. Students may not see the same benefits from a tablet that other design engineers would, but as John Hayes wrote, engineers are more productive when given a tablet.

Workstations and DIY

The trusty workstation is still an option for engineering work. As an upside, they are often less expensive than tablets and laptops, but that, of course, comes at the cost of portability. For many, though, having a dedicated work space where you can bang out projects is perfectly acceptable. Coupling a workstation with a smartphone or a stripped-down tablet for in-class note-taking still might be the best option, and no doubt many students will choose this route.

As an engineering student, the workstation must also be considered for the ability it gives you to tinker. Hardware engineering is, of course, part of the curriculum, and having a dedicated machine to take apart, add components and rebuild is a great way to put class teachings into practice. Not to mention industries like virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), which are always pushing the resources of hardware, as covered previously on this site. So, if you want to get into those fields, you may want to consider a workstation that is easier to upgrade.

More ambitious students may even go so far as to build their workstations into tablets and mobile devices. Single-board computers, like the Raspberry Pi, are a great way to learn about engineering and computing, and are small enough and cheap enough to build into a variety of form factors.

In the end, my advice, if you can afford it, is to get a variety of devices. If you are just entering school and deciding on what to use for the four years of your education, contact your school’s department and see what they suggest, and just go with that. But if you have a little bit more money to go around, then use it to tinker, explore and self-educate by trying out various form factors and seeing where the limitations are.

If you run into a problem while you are training to be an engineer, just go ahead and find a solution. 

To learn more about SOLIDWORKS education programs, follow this link. If you are a researcher looking for access to SOLIDWORKS, click here.

SOLIDWORKS has sponsored this post. It has provided no editorial input. For more information, go to

About the Author

Chris McAndrew (@CbMcAndrew) is a product development and marketing executive with nearly a decade of experience bringing concepts from the idea stage to market release in a variety of industries. He is a trained mechanical engineer, with a B.S. from Tulane University, and received his MBA from UCLA Anderson School of Business. His writing on engineering, technology and product development can be found across the web, including at his site


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