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Power to the portable: 3 high-performance mobile workstations

While most laptops are reasonably priced and powered, sometimes you need a little extra. We test three high-end Windows mobile workstations.

January 28, 2014 06:30 AM ET

Computerworld - Sales of PCs have fallen by 11% since 2012, according to statistics compiled by Gartner analysts. However, there is one niche market that is still doing well: mobile workstations. This category has seen an upsurge with increasing sales.

"It's been doom and gloom for PCs for several years," observes Lloyd Cohen, director of market analysis at IDC. "But it's been anything but declines for mobile workstations. It's the bright spot of the computer business, with sales growth of 5% a year and lots of new systems available."

Mobile workstations are heavy-duty tools that allow engineers, designers and professionals to get the job done out of the office. They can be used for a variety of graphics-heavy applications: geological simulation software that peers 3,000 feet under an oil drilling rig; architectural software that virtually moves a wall on a floor plan at a construction site; or special effects software used to alter a sequence on a film set.

From the outside, a mobile workstation looks like any other lalptop. But "look inside," says Cohen, "and you see that these are machines that excel at graphics and computation. They have the best of everything."

This can include a Core i7 processor, 16GB or more of system memory, the latest graphics chips and at least 2GB of dedicated video RAM.

Because they define the top shelf of the PC business, mobile workstations can cost five times or more than a typical mainstream laptop. They are also a throwback to a heavier and bulkier era of mobility. Mobile workstations can barely fit onto an airline's economy class tray table and can weigh double that of a consumer laptop.

In this roundup, I've reviewed three of the newest mobile workstations from Eurocom, HP and Toshiba (which is, surprisingly enough, a newcomer to the mobile workstation market): The Eurocom Racer 3W, HP ZBook 15 and Toshiba Tecra W50.

What I looked for

Graphics is key to this genre. As a result, these mobile workstations pack a lot of video punch.

All three systems come with dual graphics systems. First, they all contain Intel's embedded Graphics HD 4600 system, which economizes on battery power and provides basic graphics for things like writing memos or working a spreadsheet.

For higher performance, they offer a second, more powerful graphics processor. While the Toshiba Tecra W50 and HP ZBook 15 use Nvidia's Quadro K2100M graphics chip with 2GB of dedicated video memory, the Eurocom Racer 3W goes all out with the more powerful Nvidia Quadro K5100M graphics engine and a whopping 8GB of video memory.

There is a downside to all this graphics performance, though: Power consumption. The Quadro K5100M uses 100 watts, nearly twice the power consumption of the K2100M's 55 watts. (To put this in perspective, a typical mainstream laptop consumes about 40 watts of power, total.)

To separate the mobile workstation wheat from chaff, I stressed each of these machines by running a series of general and specific benchmarks. I also worked with each laptop on my own, and checked such factors as its warranty and certification. (See the sidebar directly below.)

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Certification

Success in this genre has as much to do with software as hardware. Theoretically, any Windows system should be able to run the gamut of software required of mobile workstations. But many applications used by businesses today demand intense graphics and/or other computationally difficult features. These range from computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) and digital media to high-end math calculations for simulations, video editing and special effects processing.

As a result, many workstations go through a certification process so that purchasers can be assured that the systems will be able to handle the high-end software that is needed. "ISV (independent software vendor) certification is the key to success in the workstation market," says IDC's Lloyd Cohen. "It's as close to a guarantee that the system will work well with the company's software as you can get. You don't have to take chances."

Each manufacturer provides a list of which software its products are certified to operate. Of the systems tested in this article, Toshiba is still currently in the process of qualifying its system for certification while Eurocom uses the certification supplied by Nvidia for its graphics hardware. By contrast, HP sends its systems out for certification with the major software vendors and has an extensive list of compatible programs.



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