A guide to personal computer buying for surveyors and engineers.

The personal computer (PC) has been around for more than 20 years and, still, the most common question I get from surveyors and engineers is, “which PC should I buy?” One would think that in this Internet age the answer would be a no-brainer. But it isn’t—if anything, PC selection has become more complex due to the vast selection available to the potential buyer today. Buying a PC for your family to use is relatively easy. Users just decide how much they want to spend and then call Dell or Gateway and pick out the best PC they can get for their budget. And honestly, if that’s all you’re looking for, don’t read the rest of this article. You can’t go wrong by doing just that. But if you want a “real” surveying/engineering system, then read on!

Buying a PC for general use is just as easy as I described above, but purchasing one that you are going to use for a good portion of the day and depend on for your livelihood is a bit more involved. While it is possible to get a PC for as little as $400, purchasing what I call a professional-quality Engineering/Surveying PC System, or ESPC, will cost you a bit more. Buyers should plan to spend between $4,000 and $20,000 for a complete system. Why so much? While PC prices have dropped dramatically, the cost of putting together a complete professional system hasn’t. The capabilities and power of today’s PCs continue to increase, but the total cost of an ESPC has remained the same over the past 10 years or so. Let’s now take a look at what a complete ESPC system includes.

The ESPC System

An ESPC is more than just a beige or black box—it is a complete system. Just like a total station needs a data collector, a tripod, reflectors, stakes, hammers, etc. to be complete, an ESPC needs hardware, software and a few other extras that most people don’t initially take into account.Hardware
Purchasing PC hardware used to be the hardest and most expensive part of this equation, but now it is probably the easiest and cheapest part. Buyers simply buy the fastest processor (2 Ghz or greater), and the most memory (512 Mb or greater), a big hard drive (100Gb or greater) and a good size monitor (18” or greater). Before you buy a new PC make sure to take a good look at what you currently own, and what your business needs are and will be in the near future.

It is extremely important (and cost-effective) to evaluate whether using your existing infrastructure with your new PC is a possibility. Most PCs today come with two or more USB ports, but if you need to connect your instrument or data collector to your new PC via a serial port make sure the PC you buy has one (which today isn’t necessarily a given). If you currently own a 21” monitor, make sure it will work with your new PC’s graphics card. In other words, do your homework.

Those are basic specifications for the hardware portion of the ESPC; now let’s take a closer look at the components.

The Processor
In my opinion, you can’t go wrong with any Intel Pentium 4 or AMD Athlon XP 2000 Processor. I suggest getting one near the top end of the speed range (a few extra tenths of a gigahertz won’t get you much extra performance, say the difference between a 3 Ghz and a 2.4 Ghz). Save the money on the top of the line processor speed for more memory or a good chair.

I recommend buying a minimum of 512 Mb of memory, which is about twice as much as what generally comes on the average PC. If you can afford it, get a gigabyte of RAM instead. You can never have too much memory and it is generally the cheapest way to add performance to your system.

Disk Drives
As with memory, I recommend buying the biggest and fastest hard drive you can. Hard disk sizes seem to be changing almost everyday but I recommend getting at least a 120Gb 7200 rpm drive. Next, make sure to get a 1.44 3.5 inch floppy drive (still good for data collector files), a CD/DVD drive and an additional CDRW drive. Having two CD drives will allow you to create CDs and copy them, too. The CD writer also makes a good backup device.

Just about any Nvida or ATI graphics card with 128 Mb of video memory will do, but you can spend a bit more and get one that supports both analog or digital monitors and allows the use of dual displays. Another thing to remember is that 2D performance is more important than 3D performance so you don’t need the top-of-the line graphics card that hard core PC gamers want. Also make sure to get an optical wheel mouse.

That should take care of the basic computer box. Now, let’s look at the elements of a display.

Monitors come in all shapes and sizes these days. Although they can be expensive, I highly recommend getting an 18” or 19” flat panel LCD. While LCDs cost more than the equivalent tube-based monitors, they will save a great deal of desk space and use about 25 percent less electricity (plus, they are “cool”). Another thing to consider is rather than getting one big conventional monitor (21” or bigger), you could consider buying two 15” or 17” flat panels. You may end up being more productive this way. Just make sure your video card supports dual monitors.

Be sure to get a minimum of four USB 2.0 ports along with at least one Firewire port. While you may not need these ports at the moment, they will come in handy in the future. Also don’t forget to get a 10/100 Ethernet card so that you can connect to a network or high-speed Internet connection.

Now comes the $64,000 question: How much will all of this cost? The system I have described above can be purchased (depending on brands) for about $2,500 to $3,500. This is if you buy the two monitors for about $500. I know this is a bit more than the average PC you see advertised today, but you truly get what you pay for. This PC will last you a good three to five years.

Printers and Plotters
Just because you have a PC doesn’t mean you have all the hardware you will need. Since the A/E/C world is still paper-based, you will need a way to get your electronic data from your computer to paper. To do this you will need a printer and a plotter. Good A-size (8½” by 11”) laser printers can be purchased for less than $200. This is the good news; the bad news is that you will need a printer that will print (or plot) on B-size or 11” x 17” paper. These are much more expensive, running between $500 and $1,000. If you buy a B-size inkjet printer you will be able to get color output as well as black and white. Just remember the ink costs of an inkjet can be much more than for a laser printer. If you can get by with just B-size output, it will probably be the only output device you will need. Unfortunately, most surveying offices need to print larger sheets (D- and E-size) which require a full-size plotter. There are several plotters from manufacturers that cost between $2,500 and $10,000, so choose the one that best suits your needs and budget. Just be sure whatever you buy is supported by your hardware and software. (Don’t take a manufacturer’s word for this. Make sure you see it work and that you get the guarantee in writing.) Again, do your homework. I believe everyone should have a B-size printer/plotter, if you purchase a D-/E-size plotter, make sure you do enough full-size plots to justify the expense. Not only is the hardware expensive but the consumables (paper, ink, time) are too.

The total for the basic hardware (1/3 of a complete system) is:

        PC and monitor          $3,000
        B size laser printer         $1,000
        D size inkjet Plotter          $5,000
        Hardware total:          $9,000


The second component of the ESPC system is software. You need an operating system plus the following basic software: an office package, CAD software and, of course, surveying software. Which operating system should you buy? In today’s PC world, you basically have only one choice: Microsoft Windows. The problem is which version to use: 98, NT, 2000 or XP. In a perfect world, you would just choose the latest and greatest and everything would work fine. Unfortunately, we all know this isn’t a perfect world. If you are starting out and buying everything new, then XP would be the way to go. If this isn’t your first system and you have some “legacy equipment,” be it a plotter, a data collector and/or software, make sure that your existing stuff will work with the operating system you choose and that the proper system drivers for your hardware exist. Right now my choice would be Windows 2000 as it is the most mature of the current versions of Windows. Stay away from the Windows 98 family and NT 4.0 unless you are currently using them.

To be productive you will need some additional software. First, you need an office suite (word processor, spreadsheet, database, etc.) The easiest, safest (but not the cheapest) is to purchase the latest addition of Microsoft Office. Don’t forget there are many office software products out there ranging from Star Office (free and downloadable) to WordPerfect Office, (which comes bundled with many PCs), and that all of them can handle the basic office correspondence and spreadsheets of the typical surveying office. A good rule of thumb with software is to use what the majority of your clients use, or use what the client wants you to use.

When considering a Computer Aided Design (CAD) package, it can get interesting (and really expensive). The two big players in this arena are AutoCAD (Autodesk, San Rafael, Calif.) and MicroStation (Bentley, Exton, Pa.). Both are excellent programs that at retail will set you back approximately $4,000 not including yearly support (approximately $400 a year) and any add-on software you may need. COGO and/or surveying software come to mind and can set you back an additional $1,000-$10,000. Here are a few hints that might help you decide which one, if any, to buy:

Do you do enough business to justify $10,000 for CAD software?

  • What do the majority of your clients use? Since you will want to exchange data with them, it helps to have the same software.
  • Take stock of the software you currently use. You don’t want to be incompatible with yourself. Also remember that you need a current license for every PC.
  • Do you need add-on packages? If you only do simple plats that you draw once and never reuse, then probably not. If you do subdivision design or highway design, then you probably do.
  • If you have a staff, what programs are they experienced in?
  • What does your surveying software do? And what is it compatible with? For some surveyors, a package like Foresite or Survey CAD may be all that is needed.

      There are a lot of low-cost CAD packages that do an excellent job without all the bells and whistles. Be sure to give them a good look before deciding. Packages like TurboCAD, IntelliCAD and AutoCAD LT may do everything you need at a substantial cost savings.

      Let’s see what adding the software does to the cost of our ESPC:

               Hardware (from above)        $8,500
              Office Suite         $500
              AutoCAD or MicroStation         $4,000
               Design/surveying software?          $5,000
              Hardware and software         $18,000

      Notice that the software for an ESPC cost as much or more than the hardware. Now we are two-thirds of the way done in completing the full system.


      The last part of the ESPC system and the one that is generally the most over looked is the infrastructure to support it. First, you need a sturdy workstation, or desk, to put your system on. Your workstation should be big enough to not only hold your ESPC system, but give you plenty of room to work and lay out plans, sheets and the like. There are many workstation and computer desks available today in a wide array of prices, so select the one that best fits your work habits and budget. In addition, you might want to pick up a few six- or eight-foot folding tables to set next to your work area so you can lay out your plans and plots. While you are deciding on a workstation, don’t forget to get a good, professional-quality chair. I have never figured out why companies will spend big bucks on computers and workstations yet buy bargain basement chairs. If you are going to make a living sitting in front of a PC for two to eight hours each day, you had better be comfortable. (The best chair I have ever sat in is the Herman Miller Areon chair. Unfortunately, it costs between $600 and $1,200 dollars, depending on where you buy it.)

      Another thing that I would advise purchasing is an uninterruptible power supply (UPS). While most people think a surge protector is all they need to protect their computer from power surges, a UPS can help eliminate most electrical problems before they start. Next, make sure you have some type of backup system. If you get anything else out of this article, heed this! At some point, your PC will fail and your data will be lost. It is not a matter of if but a matter of when. Be sure you have a backup system. At a minimum, you can use a CD writer for backups and archives. I would suggest buying a couple of external USB or Firewire hard disks as a simple and effective backup system.

      So what is the final cost of the ESPC system?

               Hardware (from above)         $8,500
               Office Suite         $500
              AutoCAD or MicroStation        $4,000
               Design/surveying software         $5,000
               Office Infrastructure         $2,000
              ESPC Total Cost         $20,000

      There you have it—the perfect ESPC system. Hopefully, you now see that there is a slight difference between purchasing a PC for general use and purchasing an ESPC. Is it worth it? That is where professional judgment comes into play. There is an old saying that “you get what you pay for” and with an ESPC I think this is especially true. At the beginning of the article I said if you were buying a PC for the family just figure out how much you wanted to spend and get the most features you can for the money. If you have all of the “extras” already then you can probably get away doing just that. But if not and you plan to be in business for a while then the complete ESPC will serve you well today and several years into the future. Always remember that it is the brains in front of the machine and not the machine that truly make a PC an ESPC. Having the proper knowledge and right tools can make all the difference in the world.