Skip the navigation

A buyer's guide to laptops -- from mighty mites to mobile monsters

By Brian Nadel
May 13, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Mobile workstation

Let's say you have to do some CAD design work, analyze the data from an oil exploration project or simulate a complex scientific concept hundreds of miles from your office. Today's mobile engineering workstations can do all this in a hotel room, a construction trailer or a tent in the Amazon.

Dell Precision M6400 Covet
The Dell Precision M6400 Covet. Click to view larger image.

This class of notebook stretches the concept of portable, with cases that are wider and heavier than any other variety. They offer the best of everything, including the fastest Intel Core 2 Duo Extreme or Quad CPUs, and feature 64-bit operations.

While 2 or 4GB will suffice for all other systems, these are RAM hogs with room for 16GB. These machines have plenty of storage potential with a pair of 500GB hard drives, either to offer a terabyte of file space or the ability to mirror everything so that nothing is ever lost to a dead drive.

Visualization is what counts, but rather than pushing games, movies and TV, they excel in CAD, animation and graphing large data sets. Look for a graphics engine that can handle the rigors of workstation graphics, with at least 1GB of dedicated video memory.

A big step forward is Nvidia's Compute Unified Device Architecture (CUDA), which is used by Dell's Precision M6400 Covet. With parallel processors that can incorporate dozens of computational cores, it excels at fast and accurate video.

Lenovo ThinkPad W700ds
The Lenovo ThinkPad W700ds. Click to view larger image.

Screens for this type of machine begin at 17 inches and have extra-high resolution, but that's just the start. Lenovo's ThinkPad W700ds has a second pull-out 10.6-inch screen that can either operate independently or extend the base display to create a 3200 x 1968 resolution composite screen, although there's an annoying black plastic strip between the displays.

If you have to ask how much, chances are these super-systems are out of reach. There are models that start at about $3,500, but with the right amount of video memory, RAM and hard drives, figure that $10,000 -- about the price of 20 budget notebooks -- is closer to the mark.

Mobile workstations at a glance

Target audience: The ultimate power tool, a mobile workstation can help an engineer churn through complex tasks or an animation artist create detailed work.

Pros: Top performance and graphics are essential for CAD, scientific and other computationally heavy tasks; some add a second screen.

Cons: These mobile workstations are huge and can weigh over 10 pounds, and because they have the best of everything, their price tags are in the stratosphere.

Typical size / weight: 16 x 12 x 2 in. / 10 lbs.

Screen size: 17 in. (one model with second 10.6-in. screen included)

CPU / RAM: 2.5 to 3.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, Core 2 Duo Extreme or Core 2 Quad / 2 to 16GB

Storage: Single or dual hard drives with up to 1TB storage

Ports and connections: 4 to 5 USB ports; VGA, DVI or DisplayPort; audio; Ethernet; and eSATA; sometimes FireWire

Price range: $3,500 to $10,000

Examples: Dell Precision M6400 Covet, Lenovo ThinkPad W700ds

Buying tips: Load it up with as much video memory as you can afford for superior screen action.

Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld and the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

Laptop categories

Read more about Hardware in Computerworld's Hardware Topic Center.

Our Commenting Policies