Revised: 1/24/2015 (added info on Windows 10)
I've attempted to write this series of posts in a way that will be accessible to everyone. It may seem a little boring and geeky, but you'll be better prepared in making purchasing decisions, or when asking questions or for advice. Also please note that the recommendations given here for specific products are not exclusive - there are too many usage scenarios to cover every option.
If you're getting a new computer, you'll need Windows 8.1 or Windows 7 64-bit. Revit 2014 and later is officially supported only on Windows 8.1 and Windows 7. Revit 2015 is 64-bit only. As far as I've heard, Revit 2014 should still work fine on Vista and XP... I haven't heard anything about 2015 yet. Revit 2013 (with the latest updates) should also work on all of those versions of Windows.
There’s a "Pro" (or Enterprise or Ultimate) and a standard (or "Home") version for Windows 8, 7, Vista and XP. There are no speed or stability differences between the editions. Unless you work at home or a small office, and are sure you don't need any of the features of Pro mentioned below, it's best to get Windows Pro. There are three main advantages of Pro:
1. It allows for "domain" log-ins, which is often used in office network environments.
2. If you need to log into your computer with Remote Desktop, the "host" computer you're logging into needs to be running Pro.
3. Pro versions support more RAM, though Windows 8 makes this a non-issue:
Windows 8 (64-bit): 128 GB
Windows 8 Pro (64-bit): 512 GB
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit): 16 GB
Windows 7 Professional (64-bit): 192 GB
Note on Windows 8: There's been quite a bit of controversy surrounding Windows 8's user interface changes, which I'm not going to wade into here - there is plenty of information available on the web - I'll only say that, as someone who was very unhappy with the initial W8 release, I find W8.1 with the latest updates to be very usable though annoyances remain... YMMV. Suffice it to say, Revit runs exactly the same on W8 as it does on any other version of Windows, and by most accounts, W8 is the fastest and most stable version of Windows yet. Most PCs are now shipping with W8.1 as a default (and W8.1 is a free update from W8 if you have that). If you are purchasing a new system that is only available with Windows 8/8.1, but you'd rather use Windows 7, there are two possibilities. First, contact the manufacturer or supplier about any available options to "downgrade" to W7 for free. Second, you can still purchase an OEM version of W7 through retail channels and install it yourself.
Note on Windows 10: Windows 10 is the upcoming version of Windows (they decided to skip "9"). It's been released as a "Technical Preview", which is a fancy name for "beta". The final release is expected in late 2015, which is expected to be a free upgrade from Windows 7/8/8.1. I've done some minimal beta testing of Revit 2015 in Windows 10, and it seems to be working okay... though I stress the word "minimal". It is not recommended to use beta software for critical production work.
Get Windows 8.1 Pro or 7 Pro 64-bit (I recommend W8.1 at this point in time, and strongly encourage it for systems with a 4K or HiDPI display - see below)
See this post!
See this post!
VIDEO GRAPHIC CARDS
See this post!
The minimal supported display resolution is 1280x1024 - anything less than that (at least in the horizontal direction) and the Ribbon UI will not completely fit on the screen.
The higher the resolution, the more drawing area you'll have, the better the user experience. Many laptop displays have relatively low resolutions, but this is quickly changing with the advent of 4K/HDPI displays. Revit will still run fine, but low resolutions will make it more challenging to see much of your actual drawings, while high resolution displays can result in very small text and icons.
While certainly not required for Revit use, having more than one display can offer a productivity boost. Revit has limited multi-display support at this time. You can drag some tool palettes and dialogs out of the Revit application window and onto another display, but you can’t drag drawing views outside of the Revit application window. However, you can stretch your Revit application window across multiple displays, but you'll want to make sure your displays are the same size and resolution for optimal layout.
Another thing to keep in mind is that many displays have “glossy” screens. This is especially difficult to get away from in laptops. While sometimes not as much of an issue with smaller screen laptops, with large external displays, the glossiness can create a lot of reflections that can make it challenging to use in direct light. Many users prefer anti-reflective matte screens often used in "professional" displays.
4K & HiDPI & Retina Displays
4K displays (3840 x 2160 pixels) have just been introduced recently, and are usually only found as external computer displays (or TVs). These "first generation" displays come with all the caveats of a new technology, and you should do your research before purchasing one.
HiDPI (or HDPI, i.e. High Dots Per Inch) and Apple "Retina" displays (typically 2560 x 1440 or greater) refers to very high density pixel displays generally found on laptops. On laptops, a HiDPI display is generally any display with 200+ DPI (DPI is more literally pixels per inch), which generally translates to a resolution of 2560 x 1440 or greater on a 13"+ sized screen. A 4K display can also loosely be termed an HiDPI display.
The purpose of such displays is not necessarily to increase the screen real estate (though in a sense they can be used in that way), but rather to make everything on the screen extra sharp by scaling up screen elements to a normal size using twice the number of pixels. For example, a 3800 x 1800 resolution would show the same sized screen elements as a 1900 x 900 screen, but those elements would appear twice as sharp because they're using twice the number of pixels.
However, and this is a very significant caveat, Windows and the applications that run on it, weren't originally designed to use HDPI screens. The way Microsoft addresses this is through Windows Display DPI scaling. Windows can scale the size of elements on screen to be more readable. Windows has had some form of DPI scaling since Windows XP, though the results have always been rather mixed. Microsoft has continued to refine the way DPI scaling works, and with the latest changes in W8.1, and the increasing popularity of HDPI displays, developers are finally beginning to take notice. However, presently most software still does not work very well when a very high DPI scaling is used.
Users new to a HDPI display will usually find one of two things when they boot up their new computer: either no DPI scaling is used and everything looks so tiny on their screen that it's almost unusable, or everything looks normal, but applications behave oddly, including Revit.
The solution is to dive into the Windows Display DPI scaling settings. Since each version of Windows handles this a little differently, you may have to do a little googling. In Windows 8.1 (which is strongly recommended for any system using a 4K or HiDPI display), you can find the settings in Control Panel > Display. You'll see a "Change the size of all items" slider from Smaller to Larger. Depending on the resolution of the display(s), there will be between one and four settings, starting at 100% (Smaller), 125%, 150%, 200% (Larger). Revit does pretty well up to 150%. 200% will "break" Revit - weird Ribbon and dialog box graphic issues will become visible and make Revit unusable. So you'll have to find a compromise between a high DPI scale factor and comfortable sized screen elements.
Here's a very thorough (and somewhat technical) article on the current state of affairs.
For desktop displays, there's really no excuse for anything smaller than 24", and 27" or larger is recommended - you'll really appreciate the extra screen real estate. While there are many great displays available, the Dell Ultrasharp line is one of the most popular due to their high quality display components and anti-reflective matte screens.
You'll probably want an external display for a laptop as well for extended use, but if you plan on doing extensive Revit work on the laptop display as well, get at least a 15" or preferably 17”+ display (if you’re willing to sacrifice some portability).
You might want to hold off on the desktop 1st gen 4K displays until prices come down and they work out some of the Windows support issues. The HDPI displays on laptops are recommended with the caveat that, for the time being, there may need to be a compromise with the DPI scaling.
STORAGE (HARD DRIVES & SSD)
Storage drives are so big and fast these days, almost anything will work just fine. If your computer will be used in a multi-user office connected to a separate file server where all your Revit project files are stored, you probably don't need anything more than a 250+ GB drive for Windows and your apps. If you're storing all your files on the drive in your PC, then you'll want something significantly bigger - 500+ GB depending on how many projects you have and how long you keep them on your computer. And don’t forget to back up your data! Keep in mind that those recent Autodesk software suites can take up a lot of room. And if you do individual installs, the download, unpacking of the installation files, and then the installation itself can take up a 100 GB, even if only temporarily until the install files can be safely deleted.
Most traditional desktop hard drives are 7.2K (or 7200 RPM - the rotational speed of the discs inside the drive - the higher the number, the faster the drive), while laptops may have 5.4K or 7.2K drives.
There are also high-speed 10K and 15K drives. However, with even large capacity SSDs becoming affordable, they only make practical sense in rare configurations - I'd strongly recommend considering a SSD instead.
SSD (Solid State Drive)
SSD is the new kid on the block relatively speaking. SSDs don't have mechanical discs like a hard drive – they’re made up entirely of special memory chips. They are extremely fast, much faster than traditional hard drives, but they're still kind of spendy (relative to equal capacity HDDs), and the storage capacities are more limited - though they've finally reached a price point where there's no excuse not to have one. What does the extra expense get you? The OS boots faster, apps open faster, copying and moving large files is faster, and often gives an unquantifiable zippier "feel" to the computer (this may sound trivial to some, but trust me, it makes a huge difference). They're made by a variety of different manufacturers, some are better than others. I would suggest at least a 240+ GB drive (especially if you have one of the larger Autodesk suite of apps). A not uncommon practice is to use the SSD for the OS and apps, and a secondary hard drive for data. SSDs should no longer be considered a "luxury" component - they really make a noticeably difference in the computer's overall performance.
FAQ for storage drives
"Will a faster drive make Revit run faster?"
Aside from actually launching Revit, it will not perform faster – once the application and data are loaded into RAM, the drive speed doesn't really come into play much.
"How about speeding up Revit file opens and saves?"
It does affect it somewhat, but the speed of opening and saving files is largely based on the CPU and RAM, not the drive. In informal tests between a traditional hard drive and a super fast SSD, I found opening files a little bit faster, but saving Revit files to be pretty much the same in most scenarios. A fast drive will launch Revit noticeably faster though. File servers with heavy user traffic can benefit from faster drives. However, if you have time to go get a cup of coffee every time you “Save to Central”, it’s probably an issue unrelated to the drive performance.
"Should I get a second hard drive to use as a dedicated page (swap) file?"
No - this is crazy talk.
"Should I get a 5.4K or 7.2K HDD drive for my laptop?... and how about those "Green" drives?"
You should get an SSD! But if you get a HDD, it depends... if the HDD will host Windows and your apps, then 7.2K will be appreciated. If it's primarily used for secondary storage, then 5.4K is often fine and you probably won't notice much of a difference (and they're quieter as well). "Green" drives (i.e. environmentally "green" because they use less energy) are really just a marketing term for desktop drives that operate at the slower 5.4K speed.
Get a SSD 240 GB or larger, and I would definitely encourage 480 GB or larger if you can swing it. Add another SSD or a traditional hard drive if you have additional storage needs.
For Local Area Networks (LAN), Revit will work with just about any networking. For wired connections, you'll want a gigabit (1 Gb) connection (or better), which is standard on almost all computers. For wireless connections, you'll want an 802.11n (Wireless "N") network (or better).
Where you need to pay closer attention is on wired connections to routers and switches (hubs). For instance, many routers still only have 100 Mb ports, so I recommend getting a 1 Gb switch and plugging servers and workstations into that, then plugging the switch into the router. The computers on the network can connect to each other at 1 Gb speeds while bypassing the router (aside from actually connecting to the Internet where 100 Mb connections are typically far faster than the actual Internet connection).
For Wide Area Networks (WAN), typically networking from a remote office (or home) to another office, VPN is known to work, but can be rather clumsy and slow. Services like DropBox are inadequate and will not work. Look into Revit Server or third party products such as Riverbed Steelhead.
HP, Dell, Lenovo, Sony, Acer, etc. are all fine. If you can find a reputable local system builder, that's a great way to go as well. There may be some differences in build quality and overall reliability, but they all have pretty much the same components inside, so it mostly comes down to personal preference, available system configurations, budget, etc. Some users working solo or in small offices may choose to build their own computers, buying all the components and assembling the computer themselves, which can be a "fun" way to go, but keep in mind what will be your support options if something in the computer stops working.
REVIT ON THE MAC (OS X)
See this post!
UPGRADING YOUR COMPUTER
Upgrades, i.e. replacing older parts of the computer with newer parts can sometimes bring new life to an older computer. Upgrading RAM is very common and generally easy to do. Upgrading a video card on a desktop computer is fairly easy to do, though it can be tricky to know whether the PSU (power supply unit in the computer) can support it - definitely check before buying a new video card. Replacing or adding a hard drive or SSD is generally pretty easy to do. Upgrading the CPU and/or motherboard on a desktop is quite a bit more difficult and involves more tech know-how – not to be attempted by the faint of heart.
However, before you start upgrading, think bigger picture. Don’t start down the path of throwing good money into a system that really should just be replaced with a new one. I’ve seen this way too many times, and it rarely turns out well even after the money is spent.
If your system is two years old or older, most often going with a brand new system makes far better sense than trying to upgrade one part at a time.
Don't be cheap - your business depends on your computers. Spending a bit more money is peanuts compared to your computer holding you back from getting work done. When specifying the components of a system, think about value and bang for your buck. When deciding on a budget, think about how long you expect to have the computer and look at the cost of ownership per year over that time period. It often makes more sense to spend a little less money but upgrade more often than to spend a lot of money and be forced to hold onto a computer past its prime.
Two years on the short end, two to three years is probably considered the sweet spot; anything more than that and you're probably losing productivity.
I've been a computer enthusiast for over twenty years. I know a lot, but I don't know everything. Drop me a PM with suggestions, or if you spot any errors, or think something needs further clarification, or feel free to take it up with me in the forums. And please post those questions, requests for advice, and solutions!