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What Computer Should I Buy to Run Zemax OpticStudio?

This article explains how to choose a workstation for running Zemax OpticStudio.


Don Dickinson
Frequently Asked Questions

What Computer Should I Buy to Run Zemax OpticStudio?

One very frequently asked question goes like this: "I am going to buy a new workstation, which will mainly be used for running Zemax. What is the optimum specification?"

Well, there's no optimum, in the sense that bigger and better hardware always traces rays faster. OpticStudio will run on quite modest hardware (see the minimum specification here). But it is also a big number-crunching application capable of handling extremely large problems, so there are sensible choices you can make to spend your budget wisely.

1. Choose the 64-bit version of Windows. OpticStudio 16 and above requires it, as it can take advantage of additional RAM and CPU cores. 
2. Chose a CPU with as many cores as possible. OpticStudio is extremely well multi-threaded, which means it can split calculations up over all the CPU cores in your computer. At this time the most performance improvements seem to fall between 8 and 32 cores. See the OpticStudio hardware recommendations page by local computer vendor Puget Systems. It has some useful benchmarks. 

As of May 2018, OpticStudio is capable of using up to 64 CPU cores simultaneously. We will extend this in the future as CPUs with more cores become available and they can be tested thoroughly. Note that if you have more than 64 cores, Windows splits the cores into multiple groups, and OpticStudio makes use of the first group only. For example, if you have 72 cores, Windows would create two processor groups, so OpticStudio would use 36 cores.

Note that Intel's Hyperthreading adds virtual cores for the operating system to use. If your CPU has 36 physical cores, hyperthreading doubles that to 72. If you have questions on maximizing your CPU usage with OpticStudio, contact Zemax Support.  

3. Get as much memory as possible. Each core needs a copy of all the data needed to trace rays, so the memory required scales linearly with the number of cores. We recommend 1 to 2GB RAM per core in high performance applications. In general 16-64GB should be sufficient for even complex optical systems.

4. Use a graphics card with DirectX 11 support and 512 MB VRAM minimum. Zemax OpticStudio offloads many data presentation tasks such as the 3d shaded model to the GPU, but raytracing and optimization is handled by the CPU. Therefore, there is no need for a very expensive graphics card, unless you need something more powerful for other applications. Low to medium cost AMD Radeon / Firegl or NVIDIA Geforce / Quadro cards will be adequate.

Note that Intel graphics cards are not recommended currently. Their drivers have multiple issues with OpticStudio (though we have workarounds for many of them). If you have a laptop with both an Intel and another graphics card, you can configure your system to use the other card. See the article Setting OpticStudio to use an advanced graphics card for more information. If you must use an Intel graphics chip built into your CPU, see this list to see which Intel graphics chips support Directx 11.

No matter which card you have, we recommend it be on the Windows Hardware Qualified List. 

5. Make sure you have adequate disk space. We recommend having a few hundred gigabytes of space or more available on your primary (C:) drive. This allows room for OpticStudio's temporary files and Windows page files. A Solid State Drive (SSD) is also very useful as it makes all of Windows much more responsive. Of course, it's also recommended to regularly backup your Opticstudio data files to another drive. That ensures you can avoid losing work due to a drive failure.
Zemax OpticStudio also supports the 3DConnexion SpaceMouse, and these are recommended for the most efficient experience in interacting with Zemax OpticStudio's 3D modeling capabilities.