Optimizing Microsoft Surface Pro 3 for CAD
Andrew Wheeler posted on March 24, 2015 |
What’s bigger than a smartphone but smaller than a desktop?

The Microsoft Surface Pro was built to close the gap between a mobile device and a laptop.  Though it can be used in the field with CAD programs similar to SolidWorks, Solid Edge, and AutoCAD, the Surface Pro 3 is definitely not for every CAD application. 

Configuring the Surface Pro 3 is much easier than configuring most desktop or laptop workstations, as it only comes in 5 different configurations.

If you are a student or an engineer who is out in the field for large and small projects, and you use CAD programs mainly for part modeling, assemblies and drawings, this may be a good fit.  For now, we will leave rendering and simulations out of the equation. 

In this post, we’ll take a look at optimizing the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 for lightweight and mid-range users.  First we’ll check out of the specs, and then we’ll choose the best configurations for SolidWorks, Solid Edge and AutoCAD. 

When thinking about optimizing a mobile device for CAD, I immediately thought about one thing: GPU’s. I immediately thought that they would be an issue because if you check the System Requirements for programs like AutoCAD, SolidWorks and Solid Edge for example, none of the recommended or certified graphics cards are mobile cards, which I initially thought was going to be very problematic.  However, it's important to remember that the SP3 uses only the DisplayPort capabilities, which allows you to drive multiple monitors with a single cable.  If you are using a laptop, you aren't going to be able to utilize multiple outputs.  Instead you will get a single dvi or vga video output.   Some laptops do use displayport connectors but they may not be the newer displayport features like on the SP3.

Surface Pro 3 Features:

Screen Size

12 inches

Bundled OS

Windows (8.1)


Intel CPU i-series: Core i3, i5, i7


Intel HD 4200, 4400, 5000

System RAM

4 GB or 8 GB

Internal Storage

64 GB, 128 GB, 256 GB, 512 GB

Maximum Battery Life

Up to 9 hours


11.5 x 7.93 x 0.36 in



1.76 lb

Docking station port:


Integrated webcam:


Built-in Connections

USB3.0 (1 port(s))

You can’t go any higher than 8 GB of RAM, but 8 GB is sufficient to meet the recommended system requirements of our selected CAD Programs.  The Surface Pro 3 is obviously not going to be as configurable as a desktop or laptop system, but two of the processors pack enough power to handle light to mid-range CAD workflows.

Intel Haswell Low-voltage Dual Core Processor:


1.5 GHz

3 MB cache

11.5 W


1.9 - 2.9 GHz

3 MB cache

15 W


1.7 - 3.3 GHz

4 MB cache

15 W

Right away, I’m going to eliminate the i3 with 4 GB configuration, because it just doesn’t have enough processing power to handle our selected CAD programs, no matter how lightweight it is.  I would also advise against the i5 and 4 GB configuration, as the majority of CAD programs require or recommend at least 8 GB of RAM for smooth functionality.

Of the following configurations, we are only going to consider the bottom 3 for CAD users engaged in part modeling, drawings and assemblies. 

5 Configurations:






Intel Core i3

64 GB

HD 4200



Intel Core i5

128 GB

HD 4400



Intel Core i5

256 GB

HD 4400



Intel Core i7

256 GB

HD 5000



Intel Core i7

512 GB

HD 5000



With the i5 8GB of RAM choice, you’ll notice that by choosing these, you get 256 GB of internal storage.  With respect to your CAD workflow, working or working well is a distinction that is entirely dependent on the size & complexity of your model.  None of the GPUs available on the Surface Pro 3 (Intel P4200, P4400 and P5000) pack too much power, and you can be sure that the i5 and i7 will reduce the 9 hour average battery life when they are maxing out.

A CAD/PLM Administrator from the Minneapolis, MN area, who is responsible for several plant locations, commented on his MSP3, saying,“I opted for the i5 with 4GB of memory primarily for the fact that most CAD systems don’t utilize more than one core for most functions. The cost of the i5 to the i7 didn’t make sense for me. Now, if I had a chance to purchase new I would go for an i5 with 8GB of RAM. That gives my CAD programs more to work with. Moving from an the i7 to an i5 can bring your entry point down to nearly $1,000 and easily replace the 12-15 pound over the shoulder, roast your leg i5 or i7 laptop.”

Benefits of CAD Viewing & OneNote:

One pairing worth mentioning is OneNote with the Surface Pro.  OneNote can be used for a wide variety of things such as creating training materials, libraries, and notes or you can create an engineering workbook, or even a design review template.  It seems to occupy a middle ground between word and PowerPoint, i.e. - you can copy and paste images from websites with their hyperlink intact, grab screenshots with the button on the stylus and so on.

 The PLM/CAD Administrator (who preferred to remain anonymous) commented further, saying, “For CAD viewing I would pair up the CAD viewer and OneNote. Once again you can take screen captures and send to reports (MS Word based), drop into a OneNote template page or execute a workflow via some sort of web application or your PLM product.

Now that Siemens PLM has introduced Solid Edge in the Cloud, you can get really, really mobile and bring your costs down. Using Solid Edge in the Cloud, you really only need a tool capable of running a web browser.”

Optimizing the MSP3 for SolidWorks, AutoCAD, and Solid Edge:

It’s always important to manage the ratio of minimal investment vs. loss of productivity.  The Microsoft Surface Pro is only outfitted for 1 CPU, and 1 GPU.  It's the combination of CPU, GPU(s) and RAM that can be calibrated to your common operations that will yield best balance of expense vs performance.

Optimizing CPU:

Programs like SolidWorks (in particular) are pretty picky about GPUs, and you will run into problems with the i5 CPU, 8GB RAM and 4400 HD GPU.

Part Modeling: The Intel i5 will cover part modeling, which is a single core task that cannot be split up among both of its cores.  The processor base frequency of 1.9 GHz is pushed to a maximum single core frequency of 2.9 GHz, which is as much as you can expect a mobile device to pack. 8 GB of RAM on average will be more than sufficient for these tasks.

Assemblies:  Assemblies are similar in respect to CPU load, but there are a few things to keep in mind. Your tablet has to have enough to load your parts from your hard drive into RAM.  The 8 GB of RAM and i 256 GB SSD drive should be able to handle average to large assemblies with sub-assemblies and thousands of parts.

Drawings: Drawing programs start using multi-threaded loads.  Each drawing view in your active drawing sheet is assigned a core, and because most drawing sheets have 4 views or more, a quad core CPU is needed for optimum functionality. That said, both the Intel i5 and i7 have 2 cores, so we begin to run into problems with the Surface Pro 3 compared to a laptop workstation.

Optimizing RAM:

Most CAD files load directly onto RAM when opened, and the more complex and larger a model is, the more RAM is required.  With the Surface Pro 3, you should really use a CAD program without running any other applications and take into account the size and complexity of your parts, assemblies and drawings.  The most you are looking at is 8 GB, so it’s not really a tough decision.

Optimizing GPU: 

Of the three selections, I would choose either of the i7 combinations for medium workloads.  For students and lightweight users I would take the i5, 8 GB RAM, HD 4400 combination.

Things To Remember When Using AutoCAD, SolidWorks or Solid Edge on the Surface Pro 3:

AutoCAD: You can run AutoCAD LT without a problem and even programs like Revit Structure 2011 without any issues.  If you run AutoCAD 2011-2015 the software may not work properly if you set a DPI (Desktop Scaling) over 150%.  However, you can just turn off the graphics hardware acceleration if you run into problems.  Using your fingers or the stylus to draw may require creating “cancel” and “enter” buttons on your ribbon if you elect not to use the mouse.

SolidWorks:  SolidWorks is pretty good about reducing model quality for less capable machines, but not every feature is going to work smoothly.  Also, some of the menu items don’t fit and are move away from the text box. 

Solid Edge: You can run design sessions that include large assemblies and complex parts, share design ideas with customers, and use mobile viewer to look at your designs without a problem.  ST 7 runs very well on the Surface Pro 3, as machine designer Bob Mileti told us last week


USB 3.0 connector:  This is a noteworthy feature that allows for super-fast data transfers and allows you to connect any extra peripheral device such as an SSD hard drive to your SP3, which would extend your disk storage a great deal. 

MicroSSD card:  This allows users to extend your hard disk to whatever option you can afford, making the SP3 a bit more flexible to suit your particular needs. 

Caveats: The Surface Pro 3 has tiny fans for cooling, and they will overheat with a heavier workflow.  The CPU will slow down from 2.6GHz down to 2GHz, so don’t expect the Turbo Boost frequencies won’t be sustainable sometimes, and it will heat up with large drawings and assemblies.  But remember to optimize your CAD software to suit your specific needs, it's not only about optimizing hardware. 

Who it is great for:

Engineering students and engineers who spend a lot of time on site or traveling.

Minimum Configuration for Engineering Students: i5 CPU, 8 GB RAM, 256GB SSD

Maximum Configuration for Engineers: i7 CPU, 8 GB RAM, 512 GB SSD

Who it is not for:

Mid-Range to Heavy Duty CAD users with workflow that includes simulations or rendering, period.  In no way is the MSP 3 a replacement for a desktop workstation.  If your home is a desk or a cubicle, this is not necessarily the best option.   




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