In Part One I talked about how 17-inch mobile workstations aren’t really mobile, but rather desktop workstation replacements that you bring to a stable destination, plug in and go to town. In this post I want to cover the features that I would look for when selecting my 17-inch mobile workstation. Most of these points also apply to 15-inch mobile workstations, so read on!
Recommended CAD Mobile Workstation Features
1. Dual vs Quad Core: If you are doing rendering (e.g., SolidWorks RealView), go with a Quad Core. RealView takes advantage of all cores. If you are not doing rendering, I would probably look for dual core models, which typically have higher clock speeds. Clock speed will matter more than cores for applications that are not multi-threaded and you get much better heat dissipation, which is a real issue in a small package.
2. RAM – Minimum 6 GB: Most 17-inch laptops have 4 DIMM slots so you can buy less expensive DIMMs to get to the RAM you need (e.g. 4 x 2GB DIMM as opposed to 2 X 4GB DIMM).
3. Workstation graphics card: This is mandatory and fortunately standard in both HP and Dell workstation. Just a caution. Don’t select the low-end default graphics card (usually the Quadro 2800M). You will come to regret it.
My bias is strongly FirePro Mobility. Both the 17-inch HP Elitebook 8740w and the Dell Precision M6500 offer the FirePro M7820. Why you care (besides great performance in CAD, great support for games [the result of DX11optimization], lower energy consumption and actually lower cost) is the integrated Eyefinity technology— the ability to drive as many as four displays from your laptop. I’ve tried it with two, and I’ve talked to a few hardcore industrial designers who have tried it with three, and I can tell you that once you try it, you will not want to live without it. Given you get this capability at no extra cost, for me the FirePro is a no brainer. Check out this video showing using a three-display configuration driven by a single laptop and then tell me you don’t want it.
Also keep your drivers up to date. FirePro drivers for example, have seen a 50% performance improvement over the last year or so. And the pace keeps accelerating. So update!
(Quick aside: Fortunately, I don’t think anyone is still offering a workstation laptop with an integrated graphic chip plus a workstation graphics card. But back with the Thinkpad W500 series, if you were running on battery the laptop would go into power saving mode, downshifting to the integrated graphics chip. SolidWorks would immediately crash.)
Get the Right Display
4. Built in display: If you can afford it, go with the 1920X1200. The screen is big enough to make that resolution viable (no tiny, tiny text) and screen real estate is always useful when you can’t hook up to your two or three external displays. If color accuracy and no grayscale-banding-when-rendering, matters to you, go with the pricer, but definitely “worth it” Dell RGBLED or HP DreamColor display. The standard WLED/LED displays are fine for Office tasks and non-shaded CAD or architectural drawings (but verify they are at least 8-bit and not 6-bit displays).
So that covers some basic of the 17-inch desktop replacements. But what do you choose if you really want to be mobile — as in working on the go wherever you are? That is for Part Three.
Do you have any tips about purchasing a mobile workstation? Have you used Eyefinity? Add your tips, comments and experiences to the comments section.
Author: Tony DeYoung
One of the most common questions I receive from readers is a variant on “I am looking to purchase a laptop that will run X,” where X is a CAD application like SolidWorks, AutoCAD or Pro-E. Then they add, “But I also want to be able to play the latest 3D games and do some occasional PhotoShop imaging. What should I get and what are the tradeoffs I have to make?”
The simplest, marketing-driven advice would be: “Buy the most powerful mobile workstation you can afford.” But I hear a different story from readers who do CAD or architecture for a living. According to them (as well as my own experience), the best advice is: “Decide what you mean by mobile and then choose the specs that offer you at least 80% of the functionality you would ideally want.”
What’s Out There
Pretty reliably every year, workstation laptop vendors (most notably Dell and HP) role out new models with the size of the screen correlating with the power and features of the machine. So I’ll start with the 17-inch powerhouses but some of the points will also apply to the 15-inch and smaller models.
The 17-inch Desktop Replacements
Fact: Mobile workstations with 17-inch screens are an amazing feat of miniaturization that, when settled on a desk and plugged into a power outlet, provide almost the full CPU and GPU performance of a full-sized workstation, with support for all peripherals — all in a self-contained package.
That said, do not delude yourself or fall for the marketing hype — they are not mobile devices that you can carry around and use on the go. To use them you need to settle in and nest.
On the Plane
Everyone always plans to do work when they fly cross-country. For me the airplane means 5 hours with no emails or meetings! But here’s the reality. When I pull out a 17-inch laptop in economy, I have to swivel myself and the laptop at an angle to even open the screen and get at the keyboard. If there is anyone sitting next to me, I am out of luck. If the person in front reclines at all, I am out of luck.
Now in the rare cases when I get upgraded to business class, then I can open up the laptop (and not intrude on the person next to me eating lunch). However even then, there are some limits. If I am doing anything remotely CPU/GPU intensive, such as pushing around a bunch of 3D polygons, then I can expect my battery to last about 45 min. Better plan on carrying your power adaptor and hope your airline and type of plane supports your particular adaptor! Also be sure to shut down other apps, turn off WiFi, etc. Keep your focus on CAD to get that whopping 45 min!
Essentially you’ve got this Ferrari, but you have to drive it at 10 mph when you go mobile.
Don’t get me wrong though — if you look at your 17-inch workstation, not as a mobile device, but rather as a portable workstation that you simply setup at each final destination, then it is an awesome choice. It has a full size screen, lots of USB ports for devices, multi-drive support and lots of memory.
With that in mind, what would I look for in a 17-inch mobile(-ish) workstation? I’ll detail this out in Part Two of this post.
Do you have any experiences with 17-inch mobile workstations for CAD use? If so, I would like to hear your experiences and where you have found you need to make compromises when compared to a desktop workstation.
Author: Tony DeYoung
Longitude Media, publisher of Cadalyst, developed the CADspeed blog through a partnership with Dell and AMD. This content-rich blog is devoted to helping CAD users, CAD managers, and IT personnel optimize hardware for CAD applications. Blog posts will be developed by a variety of contributors who are experts in the area of professional hardware, 3D CAD software, or other related topics, including current bloggers, consultants, software resellers, freelance writers, and even CAD users/managers/IT personnel themselves.
Our upcoming blog roll includes contributions from:
- Ron LaFon, contributing editor and hardware reviewer, Cadalyst magazine.
- Mark Shaw and James Ecklund, co-owners of StoredTech, IT support and services.
- Tony DeYoung, developer and blogger on FireUser.com.
- Plus, many more!
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