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GIS: GIS Software & Tools

This guide is a space for all spatial data and GIS information at UNLV.


GIS software are great for producing, analyzing, presenting, and managing geographic information. Additional benefits include access to documentation, support networks, and a wide range of geospatial tools. ArcGIS and QGIS are the leading software options and choosing is dependent on access to learning resources, funding, and time. Keep in mind that it is recommended for members of an organization to use the same software the organization primarily uses.

  • Access to professionally trained technical support
  • Industry standard
  • Extensive range of tools
  • Can access desktop application on mobile device
  • Data entry can be created with float, text, or integers
  • Free
  • Open source
  • Available on Windows, MacOS, Linux, Android, and iOS
  • Faster start up time
  • Can have multiple versions installed at the same time
  • Requires a paid license
  • Proprietary software*
  • Available only on Windows
  • Some tools require purchasing additional licenses
  • Can only have one version installed at a time
  • Plugins and extensions are not centrally located and can be difficult to find
  • Lacks official training resources
  • Primarily a desktop program
  • Data entry only allows text, whole, or decimal numbers


*Proprietary software = Software owned by an individual or company that keeps it source code a secret.

GIS Software Locations

Click one of the links below to find out where to access GIS software.

GIS Software FAQ

  • What if I want an ArcGIS license on my own computer?

Contact UNLV OIT for ArcGIS Licensing help.

  • What if I want QGIS on my own computer?

QGIS is free and easy to download. Visit to download this powerful open source software. Check out our page on QGIS for more information.

  • I don't know how to use GIS software! Is there a way I can get training?

Yes! There are many ways to learn how to use GIS software. Check out our pages on ArcGIS or QGIS for online resources.


GIS hardware consists of the physical components on which the GIS software runs or geospatial data is collected through. It's important to double check any hardware purchased for GIS projects can support the software chosen. For example, ArcGIS only runs on Windows therefore it would be critical to use a computer that operates on Windows OS.


Choosing the right computer can be stressful since the choice is highly dependent on your everyday needs. This section will break down the basic computer specifications and include the minimum requirements for the occasional GIS user and optimal choices for regular GIS users. Please remember the following is general guidelines.

GIS Computer Requirements
Minimum Ideal
  • i5
  • Ryzen 5
  • i7
  • i9
  • Ryzen 7
  • Ryzen 9
  • 16 GB
  • 32+ GB
Hard Disk Drive
  • 512 GB SSD (1 TB HDD)
  • 1 TB SSD
Graphics Processing Unit

A discrete GPU is not necessary for beginners unless they are working with 3D models. Below are budget friendly options.

  • GeForce RTX 2000 Series
  • GeForce RTX 3000 Series
  • Radeon RX 6000 Series
  • GeForce RTX 4000 Series
  • Radeon RX 7000 Series
Display (Size and Resolution)


  • 14 in. Full HD


  • 24 in. Full HD


  • 15 - 17 in. QHD/WQHD


  • 27 in. QHD/WQHD
  • 30+ in. UHD
Display (Brightness)


  • 250 nits


  • 300 nits with anti-glare coating


  • 300 nits


  • 400+ nits with or without anti-glare coating

Processor (CPU) - 

Computer processors can be compared to brains. They handle all the calculations the machine is running and are important to the overall speed and performance of the computer. The main CPU makers are Intel and AMD but brand name shouldn't be the deciding factor in choosing a processor. Rather you should choose based on the level of computing power needed.

If you plan on using GIS software occasionally then the computer should at a minimum have a series 5 processor. Even if you don't use GIS often, you should consider a stronger processor if you find yourself multi-tasking a lot. If you regularly use GIS then you should work on a machine with a series 7 or 9 processor. Both companies have organized their processors into "series" which helps give the general consumer a broad idea of processing power.

Intel and AMD processor logos stacked in order of lower to highest level performance.

You might see the term "Generation" when reading about processors. Generations signify the year when a processor was released. Generally it is better to buy from the newest generation but there are times where it might be better to buy an older advanced processor so you can splurge on other computer specs that may be more important to you.

Note: In late 2020, Apple committed to selling computers installed with their own M processor. There is currently no way to install ArcGIS Pro on computers with a M processor.  If you wish to install ArcGIS on an Apple computer with an intel processor please contact the GIS specialist for more help.

Random Access Memory (RAM)- Temporary Memory

RAM is the main memory in a computer and is as equally important as the CPU. If the CPU is like a brain, then RAM is like the workspace you are in. The larger the workspace, the more items can be out in the open and your brain is able to think about things more clearly. RAM is sold in GB and ranges between 2GB and 64 GB. 16 GB is a good amount for both the occasional and moderate GIS user. If you intend on using GIS a lot or anything related to computer programming then 32 GB would be a better choice. Remember, a high performance computer will have a well-balanced combination of processor and memory.

Hard Disk Drives (HDD)- Permanent Storage

With cloud storage being more accessible and helpful with sharing data it's easy to understand why more laptops are being sold with small amounts of hard drive space. If you intend on using GIS then it is important to have a large hard drive. Hard drives are responsible for the computer's operating system which interprets keyboard and mouse movements, allows internet browsing, word processors, and video games. It's become increasingly common for laptops to have a SSD (Solid State Drive). SSD's are more reliable and faster than the standard HDD but are also more costly. Generally it is still better to purchase a smaller amount of SSD compared to a large amount of HDD. Additionally you can always buy more permanent storage to solve future issues. To run GIS programs, a computer should have a minimum amount of 512 GB SSD. Only people who multi-task with large programs often in addition to using GIS (video games, video editing, 3D modeling) should use computers with 1 TB SSD.

Diagram of a hard disk drive

Graphics Processing Unit (GPU)

The graphics processing unit is the main graphics processing chip that you cannot replace (nor should). The GPU is similar to the CPU but the difference is that the GPU is dedicated to supporting intensive calculations required to render images, videos, and animations while the CPU handles all the main functions of the computer. 

There are two types of GPUs: integrated and discrete. An integrated GPU is the one installed on the same chip as the CPU; these are commonly known as the less powerful of the two but are inexpensive. A discrete GPU is a separate graphics processor that is often in the form of a removeable graphics card (this has lead to the interchanges of GPU and graphics card). If you find your integrated GPU is failing or you're a serious video gamer or video editor then a discrete GPU will elevate your experience. Downsides to discrete GPUs are their costs and tendency to consume more power and generate excess heat. 

The rise of AI and machine learning and advances in augmented reality have caused the GPU market to expand. The two biggest competitors are NVIDIA and AMD, known for their main GPU products, GeForce and Radeon, respectively. GPU comparisons aren't as easy to compare with each other but a rule of thumb is the bigger the number, the stronger the GPU. Luckily most consumers don't really need to worry about their GPU choice; those who are serious gamers, video editors, animators, or 3D modelers will need to do more research comparing the most recent GPU releases. CPU and RAM play a bigger factor in GIS software but it is important not to neglect GPU especially if the intent is to create 3D maps.


Electronic displays are everywhere; in TVs, smartphones, and digital signs. When it comes to choosing a size, bigger screens are better when working with GIS. A bigger screen allows you to see more of your map even which is great when viewing small details over a wide area. Laptop screen size should be no smaller than 14 in. and desktop monitors should be at least 24 in. 

Other relevant display quality factors are resolution and brightness. Resolution is the number of pixels that can be contained on a display screen. The table below shows the most common resolution sizes and their names in both the computer and TV industry which are often interchanged. Generally, buying a screen with Full HD quality will be good enough for the average consumer.


Computer Industry Name

TV Industry Name

1366 x 768


1920 x 1080

Full HD


2560 x 1440



3840 x 2160



Brightness is measured in nits or candelas per square meter. For office spaces, 250 nits is an adequate brightness level. If you work in a room with a lot of natural light or outside then you'll want something brighter at around 400 nits at least. Anti-glare coatings can also improve visibility. 

GPS Units

You might want to choose a GPS unit as your data collection device if location accuracy is very important or your project involves being in the wilderness. There are three categories of GPS units: recreational grade, mapping grade, and survey grade.

Handheld GPS Unit

Recreational Grade: Recreational grade is the least expensive grade and generally accurate to within 20 feet (6.1 meters). It is also readily available at most general stores and online retailers costing anywhere from $100 to $600.

Mapping Grade: Mapping grade GPS receivers generally range from $1,000 to $3,000 and are generally less user-friendly. These are typically used when a consumer wants to achieve an accuracy range of 3 feet (1 meter).

Survey Grade: These receivers are the most accurate and the most expensive. They can achieve 1 centimeter positional accuracy and are often used by professional surveyors.

Professional surveyor with surveyor grade equipment

Mobile Devices

Relying on mobile devices can be convenient due to a wide range of factors such as: accessibility, user-friendliness, physical storage, versatility, and safety. Common disadvantages are inconsistent location accuracy, battery consumption, fragility, and costs associated with the storage and transfer of data.

  • If you're using ArcGIS, check out ESRI's Field Maps app.
  • Other popular free GPS apps are Avenza Maps and GPS Fields Area Measure.

-All of the suggested apps are available on iOS and Android. 


Digitizers are devices that capture, process, or transform raster and digital data. These devices include digitizing tablets, drones, and scanners. Digitizers are useful if you have a physical map and want to display it digitally or if you want to include an aerial photo in your map. 

digitizing tablet and tablet pen         

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