Sasquatch's Annual "What Computer Should I Buy For Pro" Recommendations

Document created by tpcolson Champion on May 31, 2019
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I frequently get hit up for hardware advice when folks suddenly find them selves in possession of an account that they need to zero out (quickly). I also like to have some Dell e-quotes on hand if I happen to be one of those people. In years past I send (or reply) to some email threads on this topic, figure I'd share the good stuff with everyone this year. 


In most organizations, there is a seasonal budget cycle where capital purchases (such as GIS workstations) fall into a pretty narrow window. As a GISer, you have to compete with other needs (A snowplow is more important than a GIS workstation), so I try to be reasonable when spec'ing out a GIS computer, and consider what the person using the computer really needs versus what the organization considers that person's productivity metric considering their job description. My "picks" are based on the user requirement that the workstation will be able to run ArcGIS Pro for a minimum of three years and limp along running Pro at up to five years with hardware upgrades. Every thing listed below is what I got with last years workstation buy, so is based on testing and experience. We only had one "Budget Workstation" be DOA, however, IT is not  happy with my Thunderbolt Dock recommendations, as we have had 4 of them have to be replaced, and the replacements are still hokey. 


Not gonna lie, all of these builds have a little bit of sticker shock. Emphasis on what I confidently think will meet your production-GIS-shop needs to run Pro for three years. 


For all builds I didn't customize any peripherals, because, as a GIS person, you should be getting Carpal-Tunnel Friendly  mouse and Keyboard that Dell doesn't make. 


Budget Laptop

I targeted this one for public-safety folks (SAR, Fire), as feedback I've gotten from them is they want small and light, due to their frequent travel. My goal was to stay under 3000$. If you have some extra loot, I'd add two more sticks of 16 GB RAM (this has  4 slots, making it a good candidate to upgrade next fiscal year). If you have a lot of extra money, upgrade to the P2000 video card. I see no advantage to going to a faster hard drive or processor, as that 8850 gives you 12 virtual cores. If this is your first new laptop in a few years, the 300$ Thunderbolt dock is a must have. This is a good laptop if you're a college student getting into GIS. 


Power GIS Laptop

Targeted for full-time GIS folks that want to do all of their work on a laptop. What sets this one above the Budget Laptop is the screen size, the beefy video card which will take advantage of some Pro CUDA capability, and the memory. The only place I see adding more to this build is more memory. I have last years version of this laptop, and love it (but hate the &**(*(*!(*@&%$$!%^&!  Thunderbolt Dock). Based on experience, you will not be getting any work done on this laptop in the economy row on a plane. It simply doesn't fit. 


Budget Workstation

Targeted for folks that do some GIS as part of their job, and for GIS folks that support these folks. I really built this one to make me happy, not the user! This results in less help desk support a GIS person has to provide the non-GIS person and here's why: The I7, the video card, and the Class 40 drive will run your basic Pro project quite nicely. You'll note I added a serial riser card to be able to connect, for example, those old Hobo Sondes. To be honest, I wouldn't put any more money into this build given the audience that's going to use it. This build worked out quite nicely for us, as it resulted in some improvement with other software that these folks use (e.g STORET, Wildlife GPS Collar Software, etc..). However, if you're full-time GIS and on a budget, this will run Pro for the next three years. 


GIS Workstation

This is for full-time GIS folks that have an understanding supervisor. If you support either a)a lot of users that need your services or b)a product line that includes GIS making money for your org, then your chain of command will support the 4000$ price tag. I put a lot of thought into this one, and in my opinion, this is the minimum you need to run Pro and meet the use case in a) and b) for the next 3 years. Let me exemplify a few use case scenarios on this build, as this is going to be the most common one for the audience of this post:

  • You frequently run some kind of model that produces output used in a management decision (NEPA compliance)
  • You frequently produce complex packages of many maps (e.g consultant that does 404/401 Wetland Permits). Arc Hydro will run nicely on this build!
  • You have ADHD and run 4-5 Pro projects at once, each project has 10 maps and 20 layouts, and you connect to several different portals at once (don't forget to vote up, and essentially, you frequently get nothing done.
  • You frequently do some kind of raster "stuff" such as working with Landsat to do some kind of classification (e.g burned area severity), feature extraction, or cutting contour lines from Lidar Point Clouds. This will also run the LAS tools nicely, as well as ERDAS. 
  • You work in Geotech and do 3D "stuff" such as bore hole extrusion. 

There's a lot of places you can add and remove things. I'd bump up the ram and the video card if your work includes more use of 3D or Spatial Analyst. 


Money Means Nothing To You

This one was kinda fun to build, I initially picked the most expensive of everything, and landed at 80,000$, but I kept it real for the audience. I got something slightly less expensive last year, and here's how I justified it:

  • I frequently run very complex models using several software tools (R, Maxent, Pro) that output data and maps that satisfy legislative requirements on short notice
  • I frequently produce complex map and data packages that need to get pushed out to a large audience on short notice (e.g printed maps as well as Avenza PDF maps)
  • This was cheaper than paying my salary to watch the blue circle spinning
  • I deal with "Big Data" (I went with a cheaper source for the extra hard drives, not Dell)
  • I wear many hats, and need to be able to rapidly respond to enterprise issues (e.g all the GIS servers need to be upgraded NOW, says IT in response to a CVE alert)
  • I frequently produce non-GIS content such as video/photo production/editing that is consumed by a large audience (Story Maps)
  • I produce a lot of Tile Packages (e.g 1800 at a time)
  • You attend Lan parties (I don't, but imagine wheeling this into your WOWC meeting on a dolly, which is the only way you're moving this)
  • You like the sound of jet planes taking off. On reboot, this is what it sounds like

What set this build aside from what I got last year is the 128 GB of RAM and the 16 GB video card. If you're looking at this build, I really like that combination as it really opens up interesting windows for you to use Pro like a champ. I also built this one to run Pro for the next four years, and you're not likely to justify the cost every 3 years. In context, I had to get 6 years out of my last Money Means Nothing To You workstation. If money really means nothing to you, I'd go with dual P5000 video cards and RAID 5 the Class 50 drive(s). You'll note I added the USB-3 riser card, as I'm seeing a lot of USB-3 devices now, and the extra ports come in handy for a power GIS user. 

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