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Ask an Architect: What Computer Should I Buy?


Ask an Architect: What Computer Should I Buy?


Note: This has been adapted from Digital Sketching: Computer-Aided Conceptual Design (pp. 19-31), by John Bacus. John Wiley & Sons, 2021. Available for purchase on Wiley,, and Amazon.


Which computer would an architect tell another architect to buy? Well, first, he’d take a step back to look at how every component of a computer system works together to power your designs and enhance your experience.

In my book Digital Sketching: Computer-Aided Conceptual Design I give advice to fellow architects who want to add to or upgrade their computing technology. As the vice president of product management at Trimble and former product manager at SketchUp, I know there’s a lot to consider when choosing a computer.

Computers, while cheaper and more powerful than ever, are still a pretty big expense for most architects. Choosing the right one can be confusing. “Which computer should I buy” is one of the most common questions on user forums where architects gather to talk about technology.

I recommend focusing first on how you’re going to interact with your computer — the monitor, keyboard and mouse. The parts that you touch should be delightful and rewarding to use. These are typically the parts that will last you the longest.


Monitors Matter

Before you buy anything else, buy yourself a great monitor. Prepare to spend an uncomfortable amount of money on it. Spend money here because you’re going to be staring at it a lot. 

As an architect, you work visually more than anything else. Your work depends on a clear depiction of your designs. If your design work doesn’t look good on your screen, you can’t be sure it will look good anywhere else.

Consider these monitor characteristics:


  • Size. Plan for a monitor that can show you a full 1:1 representation of at least a tabloid sheet, with a little room left over for menus, toolbars, panels and whatnot. An ultra-wide monitor can help you feel more immersed in your work than a smaller screen. A 27” monitor is a great choice, but don’t go smaller than a 24” monitor. Plan on getting the biggest monitor you can stand having on your desk.

  • Resolution. Whatever size you choose, the resolution can have a much more significant impact on your work than you might realize. You can now buy a monitor capable of displaying graphics at resolutions previously only thought possible in print. Match the monitor to the type of work you do most often. For example, things that are meant to communicate like a drawing or page of text benefit from having a sharp, pixel-free presentation. Things that are intended to communicate more like a photograph with continuous tonal variation and few sharp high-contrast edges are okay on lower-resolutions displays.

  • Color. When you’re working on things like photographs (including photorealistic renderings), you should care about getting the color rendition right. All monitors have a color bias of some kind. If you are really sensitive to color in your work, you’ll want to spend time getting your monitor correctly calibrated for your particular workspace and needs.


Keyboard Upgrade

When you bought your first desktop computer, it probably came with a keyboard, which you have been using for years without even thinking about it. Keyboards are among the least considered components in a computer, and yet they are the part you touch more than any other component. Your keyboard is worth getting right. 

Here are some things to consider when upgrading your keyboard:


  • Feel. The keyboard is how you touch your computer — something that is otherwise a relatively cold and impersonal process. The touch, the feel of a thing, is somehow quite importantly human. Some keyboards are big, clacking and kinesthetically rewarding to hammer on. Some are wafer-thing and barely register a keypress when you touch them. Typing on distinctly clacky-y keys can help you feel like you’re accomplishing something with every keystroke — though they can be noisy.

  • Customization. Today, keyboards are capable of unimaginable customization, including programmable keys and easily switching from QWERTY to DVORAK layouts.


Pointing Devices

Pointing devices come in different shapes and sizes. But they all help you pick, click, and manipulate icons and windows in your operating system. See which might be the best fit for you.


  • Mouse 

    • No frills needed. Stick with something durable and simple. Don’t get a mouse with more than three buttons. Gaming mice peppered with shortcut buttons make sense for games where your fast-twitch response time can make the difference between winning or losing a battle are not that useful for daily work in design computation. A mouse with two buttons (left click, right click) and scroll wheel works the best for most work. 

    • Don’t break the bank. Expensive options aren’t necessarily better here; the cheapest ones seem to work quite well.

    • Skip the wires. Consider a mouse without wires. A Bluetooth device is your best wireless option. Look for a mouse that uses optical sensors (rather than a mechanical rolling ball) to sense position. 

  • Trackpad 

    • Bigger is better. A sideboard trackpad for a desktop computer is handy to have. And if you are typing a lot, you can save some extra movement of your pointing hand by using one. If you are considering a trackpad as your main pointing device, look for the largest one you can find. Tiny outboard trackpads that barely fit the tip of your finger have long ago been replaced by devices the size of an index card with plenty of space to spread out your hand.

  • Stylus and tablet

    • Best for drawing. A stylus is a clean, natural interaction device for drawing on a computer. They are, however, less useful in general desktop computing for basic operations. If you’re serious about digital sketching, you are almost certain to want a tablet computer like an iPad or Microsoft Surface. Whether you will make this your daily driver or use it as a sideboard device for a larger desktop computer, a computing device that lets you draw right on the display is invaluable.


Fast, Reliable Internet Connection

You should connect every computer you care about doing work with to the internet with the highest bandwidth you can afford. Access does vary from region to region. For most, though, fast and reliable internet access is available today through either your local telephone company or cable provider. Here are some things to think about when connecting to the internet.


  • Hardwired or wireless? Hardwired connections to the internet are still the best for all your computers. If you are setting up a home network for the first time, you may be tempted to use wireless networking (WIFI) for everything. This is certainly the most convenient way to work, and you will find that today's WIFI is very capable and easy to set up. If you want to use WIFI for local networking, buy yourself a dedicated WIFI base station that you can control, instead of using the router your service provider gives you.

  • A secure connection. When you connect an office of computers to the internet, you will be bridging between your (private) local-area network (LAN) and the public internet. Doing this the wrong way can leave computers that should be private exposed to anyone who wants to snoop them from the public internet. You’re right to be concerned about this, but in practical terms, all internet-connected routers are preconfigured to make it hard for attackers to break in from the outside. Your internet service provider has undoubtedly included a basic firewall inside your router.


Stable, Reliable Computer

I generally upgrades my technology about every three years, sometimes less often. Here's how to choose a computer that will keep up with you:


  • Speed. With all this talk about computer parts and hardware, what about all the megabits and gigahertz? Isn’t it important to get the fastest possible computer? Every computer on the market now has the processor speed and memory fast enough for almost anything you want to do. Local disk capacity is plentiful and fast as well. Spend your money on other things.

  • Operating Systems. You will need to pick a central processing unit (CPU), some memory, a graphics processing unit (GPU), and some persistent local storage. And you’ll need to pick an operating system to run it all. 

    • Which OS reigns supreme? The old argument of Mac vs. Windows (and even Linux) seems to matter less and less every year. Practically speaking, most of the software you’re going to be running as a designer is equally at home on Windows or macOS machines. Linux is still kind of a tough choice for professional work, but totally credible if you know what you’re doing. And there’s Google’s ChromeOS to consider as well, which is growing in capability all the time. The basic OS-supplied capabilities of modern operating systems aren’t that different from one another. They all connect reliably to the internet, load applications, and make them run. That said, Apple’s macOS is tough to beat, thanks to its simple, yet intuitive design and iOS ecosystem integration.

  • Storage. With more and more computation being done in the cloud, your local computer will increasingly become a simple terminal that taps into computation being performed elsewhere.


Beware of Gadgets

There are seemingly endless numbers of new tech gadgets coming out all the time. But they are almost always false friends. The real expense of gadgets isn’t in the actual cost of buying them. It is really in the time you spend learning how to use them and integrating them into your daily practice. 

Doug Brent, Trimble’s former vice president of innovation, gave great advice about gadgets. He said he never bought a new tech gadget unless in doing so he could replace two or more gadgets he already had. For example, a new smartphone is a great thing to buy because it can replace an old phone, camera, music player and GPS navigator. By adopting one new gadget, you could unload four others. This is a great principle to live by.


Don’t throw GAS on the Fire

Originally coined by musicians, gear acquisition syndrome (GAS) is the intense feeling of desire you feel when you see some new piece of tech that is just out of reach for you right now. 

GAS is like falling in love. You feel an emotional flush every time you see a new review posted online. Remember that you are buying technology to help you be more creative. You know that a new piece of gear will take time to learn, time to integrate and (ultimately) will not make you a new virtuoso right out of the box. 

There is a time and place for exciting new gear, but try to temper your initial enthusiasm.


Go Wireless

Is the back of your computer a rat’s nest of tangled cables full of dust bunnies? Cables can too easily become the bane of your computing existence, the kryptonite to your digital sketching superpowers.

You can’t avoid dealing with some cables. You will have to plug into some source of electricity with a cable. You’ll have to connect together every peripheral device you add to your system with more cables.

Take every chance you can to buy things without cables by making these wire-free swaps:


  • WIFI instead of ethernet

  • Cloud storage instead of instead of stacks of hard drives and other storage media

  • Cordless keyboard and mouse instead of their plug-in counterparts


Overall, think of tech as a tool to empower your creativity. Spend money where it counts and don’t get distracted by shiny new gadgets. 

The computer you buy should empower you as a designer. There are no other designers in the world exactly like you, and no one can tell you exactly what you should buy for your digital work any more than they can recommend the right sketchbook or fountain pen.

Creating is personal and so is your computer choice.

About the Author

John Bacus is a Vice President of Product Development for the Trimble Design & Engineering Solutions Group, where he works on new product strategies for the AEC industry. John has worked for over 18 years on the design and development of Sketchup, a 3D sketching tool for ensign. John has degrees in Architecture from The Cooper Union and Rice University, and is currently a lecturer in the ATLAS Institute at the University of Colorado.

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