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.

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.

Eurocom Racer 3W

Aiming for ultimate performance, Eurocom's Racer 3W spares no expense, leading to a mobile workstation that can plow through the most complex graphic tasks. The version I reviewed had a pricetag of $4,582.

The laptop measures 14.8 x 10.1 x 1.6-in. and weighs 7.0 lb., midway between the lighter Toshiba Tecra and heavier HP ZBook. However, because the Racer's 1.8-lb. AC adapter is the heaviest of the bunch, the laptop's travel weight is 8.8 lb., the same as the ZBook 15's. Like the other two computers reviewed here, the Racer 3W requires a three-prong grounded outlet.

Eurocom Racer 3W

Built around a sturdy magnesium frame, the case is made of aluminum; it has a rough surface I found less pleasant to touch than the other two units.

The Eurocom Racer 3W includes the most powerful mobile processor that Intel currently makes. The quad-core Core i7-4930MX cruises along at 3.0GHz -- 300MHz faster than the HP or Toshiba systems -- and can punch up to 3.9GHz when needed.

The Racer 3W starts with 16GB of RAM, but can be outfitted with as much as 32GB. It can house up to four storage drives, holding a maximum of nearly 4TB. The review unit came with a 1TB hard drive as well as a 240GB mSATA SSD; these were set up as separate drives (as opposed to the HP ZBook 15's hybrid arrangement). The laptop also came with a DVD-RAM optical drive.

Customization is king at Eurocom; the company offers users a choice of five Core i7 processors (including the review unit's Core i7-4930MX), three displays and six different Nvidia graphics processors. Unlike the other systems in this roundup, the processor and graphics chips can be upgraded.

With the latest Quadro K5100M graphics engine and 8GB of video memory, the Racer 3W that I looked at is about as well equipped as a laptop gets these days. The graphics chip has 1,536 processing cores as well as a 256-bit bus that's capable of moving 115.2GB/sec. of data, easily outperforming the video processors on the other two systems.

On the other hand, the K5100M uses 100 watts of power, nearly double the power draw needed by the other laptops' graphic systems.

The Racer 3W's 15.6-in. screen offers 1920 x 1080 resolution. According to Eurocom, the company calibrates it with a color meter to make sure it is putting out accurate colors; the laptop comes with an ICC profile. To my eyes, the display wasn't as bright as the HP ZBook 15's display but its colors were spot on.

When it came to zooming, rotating and panning 3D CAD models, the Eurocom Racer 3W did well, delivering smooth video. It left enough resources available to write or work a spreadsheet in an adjacent window.

Unlike the HP ZBook, the Racer 3W's keyboard is not backlit. The 18.7-millimeter keys and the area around them have a rough feel, and the wrist rest attracts dust and lint. It has a touchpad, but not the pointing stick included with both the ZBook and the Toshiba Tecra. It also has a fingerprint scanner, but lacks the security-minded Trusted Platform Module (TPM) of the other two workstations.

The Racer's audio is top of the line. It comes with Creative Labs' Sound Blaster X-Fi3 MB3 audio software, Realtek High Definition Audio hardware and a pair of Onkyo speakers (located above the keyboard). There's also a subwoofer on the bottom of the laptop. The result is rich sound with very satisfying volume levels.

There's a good assortment of ports on the Racer 3W, including three USB 3.0 slots and one USB 2.0. It also offers DisplayPort, Mini DisplayPort and HDMI ports for video. There is no VGA port for using an older monitor or projector, however.

There are also eSATA, FireWire 400 and audio ports. It includes wired Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0, but the system lacks the docking station option that the HP and Toshiba workstations have.

Test results

The best equipped of the three, the Racer 3W scored the best performance. Its score of 87.9 frames per second (fps) on CineBench's graphics test was more than one third better than either of the other two mobile workstations. Its processor score also led the group by a narrow margin.

Its results on the more mainstream PerformanceTest 8.0 benchmark were a little less stellar, with a score of 3,089.4 -- 5% lower than the class-leading HP ZBook 15.

At a Glance

Eurocom Racer 3W

EurocomPrice: $1,699 (base unit); $4,582 (reviewed configuration)Pros: Top performance, excellent configuration options, FireWire port, subwoofer built in, good access to components, upgradeable processor and graphic systemCons: Short battery life, expensive, only one-year guarantee, lacks TPM options

The downside of all this graphics power is the drain on the Racer 3W's battery pack. Its 5,200mAh battery was able to power the system for 1 hour and 43 minutes of continuous playback of video from a USB drive. That's two full hours short of the Toshiba Tecra W50's test results, but probably will be enough for at least three hours of stop and go computing.

On the other hand, it's very simple to swap batteries if you need to. If you want to change the processor or graphics chips, the Racer has a pair of hatches that provide good access to its components; you just need to loosen six screws to get inside.

The system has two massive fans to keep it cool. (In fact, the copper heat pipes on the Racer 3W are so beautiful that it's a shame to keep them hidden inside.)

The review unit of the Racer 3W came with the latest Windows 8.1 version installed; you can order the system with Windows 7 if you wish. The system comes with Eurocom's Desktop Control Center, a utility that can help to optimize performance and make sure you have the latest drivers installed.

Certification

Rather than certifying its mobile workstations with the software vendors - as is the case with HP and Toshiba - Eurocom relies on Nvidia to test the graphics with each program. The K5100M works with everything from Adobe's Creative Suite 5.5 and Autodesk's AutoCAD to Dassault's Solidworks and MathWorks's MATLAB.

While the other two systems reviewed here provide three year warranties, Eurocom covers the Racer 3W for a single year. It costs $295 for an additional two years of coverage.

Bottom line

If all-out performance is what counts for you, the Eurocom Racer 3W is a mobile workstation that pours out the power, although at $4,582, the reviewed version can bust a company's IT budget wide open.

HP ZBook 15

According to HP, the company is the leader in mobile workstations, with 42.5% of sales for the second quarter of 2013. That may be because it offers laptops such as the ZBook 15, which is powerful and well designed, and offers extras such as a Thunderbolt high-speed port for external drives.

The system comes in a rounded black case that has soft rubber edging, making it comfortable to carry. Its footprint matches that of the Eurocom Racer 3W at 14.8 x 10.1 in., but the ZBook 15 is 0.2-in. thinner. At 7.5 lbs., the laptop is the heaviest of the three; with its AC adapter, it has a travel weight of 8.8 lb.

HP ZBook 15

The $3,191 ZBook that I looked at is built around Intel's quad-core Core i7-4800MQ processor. The chip runs at 2.7GHz and can sprint at up to 3.7GHz. Other ZBook 15 models are available; you can choose between the slower and less expensive Core i7-4700MQ, Core 97-4600M or Core i5-4330M processors.

Like the other laptops covered here, the review unit came with 16GB of RAM and can hold up to 32GB (you can also go as low as 4GB if you wish). The unit also came with a Blu-ray optical drive and a 500GB hard drive bolstered by an optional 32GB SSD for caching the most used items to streamline its operations. You can also purchase the system with a 320GB, 500GB or 750GB hard drive or a 128GB, 180GB or 500GB solid-state drive.

For graphics hardware, there's the choice of Nvidia's Quadro K610M, K1100M or K2100M processors. The K2100M video engine that came with my test machine had 2GB of dedicated memory and a 128-bit bus that tops out at 48GB/sec., less than half the bandwidth of the Eurocom Racer 3W's K5100M.

The ZBook relies on HP's DreamColor 15.6-in. screen that offers 1920 x 1080 resolution; to my eyes, it was the brightest and richest of the three workstations. It is calibrated to produce a broad range of standard colors; in a previous demo, I saw it being used with HP's DreamColor LP 2480zx 24-inch external display and was impressed with the quality of the image.

In tests, the ZBook was able to show CAD models quite well and smoothly zoom, pan and rotate them. This can be done while writing a memo or working a spreadsheet in an adjacent window.

The system's backlit keyboard has 18.6-millimeter keys and is surrounded by smooth plastics. I found it more comfortable to work with than the Toshiba Tecra's striated surface or the Eurocom Racer 3W's roughened case.

As with the Toshiba Tecra W50, the HP ZBook 15 comes with both a touchpad and a pointing stick. The system's speakers are located above the keyboard; for audio, it uses DTS Studio Sound HD. Unlike the Eurocom Racer 3W, it doesn't have a subwoofer, so while the audio was fine, I felt that the sound wasn't quite as rich as that of Racer 3W.

The ZBook comes with one USB 2.0 and three USB 3.0 ports. There's also DisplayPort and VGA ports for use with a projector or monitor. It has an Express Card slot as well as audio jacks, but no HDMI connection; however, it worked well with an inexpensive generic DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapter.

The ZBook 15 also has something the others don't: a Thunderbolt port. When I tested it with an external 1TB LaCie Little Big Disk drive, the high-speed connector had a throughput of 95.0MBps compared to 31.4MBps for a USB 3.0 drive, a greater than three-fold improvement.

Unfortunately, the system's optional $250 docking station doesn't have a Thunderbolt port. What it does do, however, is tilt the system to 10 degrees for more comfortable use. In addition to containing space for an additional hard or solid-state drive, the docking station provides five USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, two DisplayPorts, a pair of DVI ports and a VGA connection. There's access to audio, wired Ethernet and a bunch of legacy ports: a parallel, a RS-232 and a pair of antiquated PS/2 ports.

The laptop itself has up-to-date security hardware, including a fingerprint scanner, a SmartCard reader and a Trusted Platform Module. The system has Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0.

Test results

With its hybrid storage system, the ZBook 15 review unit led the pack when it comes to its ability to perform everyday business tasks. Its PassMark PerformanceTest 8 score of 3,258 was the best of the bunch.

Its other results were more on a par with the Toshiba workstation: a CineBench processor score of 675 points and 65 frames per second on the graphics tests.

At a Glance

HP ZBook 15

Hewlett-PackardPrice: $1,699 (base unit) $3,191 (reviewed configuration)Pros: Easy access to components, Thunderbolt port, good performance, well-equipped docking station, calibrated DreamColor screen, certification for a variety of applicationsCons: No built-in HDMI, heavier than usual

On the battery test, the system's 5,200mAh battery pack was able to power the ZBook 15 for two hours and 53 minutes of a continuous workload. That's 50 minutes shorter than the Toshiba Tecra's battery life, but more than an hour longer than the Eurocom Racer 3W's runtime. This means it should be capable of five to six hours of on-and-off work.

As is the case with the other three laptops, it is quick and easy to change batteries on the ZBook 15. In addition, the entire bottom panel of the case can be slid off of the machine, providing access to its components and fan. You won't even need to loosen a screw.

The review unit of the ZBook 15 came with Windows 8 Pro installed, but can be ordered with Windows 7. I was able to update it to Windows 8.1.

I really liked the computer's Performance Advisor software, which can help optimize the system's performance as well as get the display just right.

Certification

HP has the software vendors test and certify that its ZBook 15 will run a variety of specialty software. The ZBook 15 has been certified with the major programs in digital media, CAD, engineering, geographic information services as well as oil and gas development. Neither the Toshiba Tecra W50 nor the Eurocom Racer 3W can match this.

As Toshiba does with the Tecra W50, HP backs the ZBook 15 with a three-year warranty.

Bottom line

It may not have the power of the Eurocom Racer 3W or the seductive price tag of the Toshiba Tecra W50, but the $3,191 HP ZBook 15 does everything well at a reasonable price. It's a workaholic of the mobile workstation world.

Toshiba Tecra W50

Although Toshiba is a newcomer to the mobile workstation market, its Tecra W50 can teach the established players a thing or two about delivering a thin and light system on a tight budget (the base unit starts at $1,899; the review unit costs $1,999). Unfortunately, it lacks the configuration options that the others have.

Toshiba Tecra W50

At 14.9 x 9.9 in., the Tecra is slightly wider than the HP ZBook 15 and the Eurocom Racer 3W. It is 1.4-in. thick, 0.2 in. thinner than the Racer 3W. The lightest of the three at 5.9 lb., it has a somewhat bulky AC adapter that brings its travel weight to 7.5 lb.

Rather than having a smooth surface, the Tecra W50's black plastic system has a striated surface on the wrist rest and screen lid that takes a while to get used to.

Like the HP ZBook 15, the Toshiba Tecra W50 is powered by Intel's quad-core Core i7-4800MQ processor, which runs at 2.7GHz and can be pushed to 3.7GHz.

The system I looked at -- the pre-configured W50-A1500 model -- includes 16GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive. You can also purchase a configurable model; however, the only items that can be customized are system memory (up to 32GB), storage (you can opt for a 1TB hard drive, a 256GB SSD or a 512GB SSD) and security (a fingerprint reader or a SmartCard reader). The configurable system also offered a wider range of warranty choices.

The laptop comes with an optical drive and Nvidia's 128-bit K2100M graphics card with 2GB of dedicated memory and a memory bandwidth of 48GB/sec. -- the same card the HP ZBook uses. (An interesting fact: Because the K2100M uses 55 watts of power compared to the 100 watts used by Eurocom Racer 3W's Quadro K5100M, it doesn't need as much battery power.)

While all three of these mobile workstations have 15.6-in. screens with 1920 x 1080 resolution, the Tecra W50's display didn't look as bright as that of either the Racer 3W or the HP ZBook 15; I felt that its colors looked washed out.

As far as graphics work goes, it is more than powerful enough for most tasks and delivered smooth motion when zooming, panning and rotating my CAD models. It handled a heavy graphics workload while still leaving enough resources available to write in an adjacent window.

Like the HP ZBook 15, it has both a touchpad and a pointing stick. The keyboard has 19.2-millimeter keys that are smooth and more comfortable to use than the Eurocom Racer 3W's.

The system comes with DTS Studio Sound audio and it has speakers are in the Tecra W50's front lip. The sound lacks the richness and bass of the Racer 3W's subwoofer; in fact, it sounded a bit muffled at times.

Ports include two USB 3.0, two USB 2.0, and one that can be used either as a USB 2.0 or as an eSATA connection for an external hard drive. It also has HDMI, VGA and audio ports.

If you need a docking station, Toshiba's $176 Port Replicator III can consolidate the system's connections. However, because it can be used with several of Toshiba's systems, the dock has three different marks to line up different models; it took me a bit of time to master the process. On the other hand, the dock does provide a comfortable 10-degree angle and has a mechanical release lever. It delivers four USB 3.0, two USB 2.0, two DisplayPort, and one each of HDMI, DVI and VGA video. There's also an Ethernet and audio jack.

The Tecra W50 includes a variety of security features, including a Trusted Platform Module, a Smart Card reader and a fingerprint scanner. It also has an ExpressCard card slot for adding ports or an SSD. Its communications potential matches the others, with Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0.

Test results

Benchmark results were a mixed bag, with a PassMark PerformanceTest 8 score of 2,654, 19% less than that of the HP ZBook 15.

At a Glance

Toshiba Tecra W50

ToshibaPrice: $1,899 (base unit); $1,999 (reviewed configuration)Pros: Reasonable price, lightweight, good battery life, versatile dockCons: Lack of high-end options, limited access to components, less-than-optimum performance

The system redeemed itself with a score of 672 on CineBench's processor test and 66.3fps on its graphics test.

The Tecra W50's battery life under constant use was excellent. Its 5,700mAh battery ran for 3 hours and 43 minutes on a charge, two hours longer than the Eurocom Racer 3W's runtime. That should translate into a comfortable full day of on-and-off use.

It's easy to swap batteries on the Tecra W50. It has a hatch underneath that is held in place with two screws, but it affords access to only its hard drive and memory modules. It is cooled with a single fan that is not easily accessible for cleaning.

The system came with Windows 8 Professional, but can be ordered with Windows 7; I was able to update it to Windows 8.1. Toshiba's excellent Service Station software helps tune performance as well as show when new software needs to be loaded.

Certification

When it comes to ISV certification, Toshiba is a little behind others, possibly because it is such a new machine. The Tecra W50 has been certified for Autodesk Inventor and SolidWorks; AutoCAD and other programs are expected to follow in the coming months.

Toshiba warrants the pre-configured Tecra W50 for three years.

Bottom line

At $1,999, the pre-configured Toshiba Tecra W50 is the blue-light special of mobile workstations. (If you go for the self-configured version with 32GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD, the price jumps up to $2,748, still not a back-breaker.) It should be fine as a general purpose mobile workstation for those on a tight budget, but I wish that it had more options than it currently has so that I could customize it to the work at hand.

Conclusions

I found it hard to choose among these three well-designed and well-built workstations.

For example, while I loved the all-out performance of the appropriately named Eurocom Racer 3W, I found its relatively short battery life and lack of a Trusted Platform Module to be definite negatives. More to the point, at $4,582 the review unit is close to a luxury item -- and even if you opt for a less option-packed version, it will require an extra $295 to bring the unit's warranty up to three years of coverage.

At the other end of the price-performance spectrum is Toshiba's Tecra W50. The laptop is thin and light (at least compared to other mobile workstations), performed well and could run for more than 3.5 hours of continuous use on a charge. On the other hand, it is only now getting certified with key software vendors, and there aren't enough configuration options.

That leaves HP's ZBook 15. While it is a little overweight, I found no serious faults with it. The system did well on the specialized workstations benchmarks, ran for nearly three hours of continuous use and has one of the best docking stations available.

In the final analysis, software certification counts for a lot in the genre of mobile workstations and HP has worked with just about every specialty software vendor of importance to insure that it can get the job done. It doesn't matter if you're going to use it to edit video, design and manufacture products or even explore for oil and gas deposits, the ZBook 15 has the right stuff to get it done.

3 mobile workstations: Specs

*Review unit specs; alternatives are available

How I tested

To see how these three workstation laptops compare, I stressed them with a combination of everyday work activities, high-end graphics work and a variety of benchmarks and performance-oriented tasks.

After measuring each system, I weighed them on their own and with their AC adapters. I opened the back of each system to see how hard it is to get to its components to perform maintenance, repairs or the inevitable upgrades. I noted how many fans each had and how hard it was to change the batteries.

To benchmark the systems, I started by running PassMark's PerformanceTest 8.0. This suite of tests exercises every major system component, including processor, memory, hard drive and graphics. It then compiles the results into a single score that represents its performance potential. I ran the software three times and averaged the results.

I then ran CineBench R15, which gives the processor and graphics system a workout by rendering complex video. Its processor test employs roughly 280,000 polygons, uses a variety of algorithms and can take advantage of multi-core processors. The software's OpenGL rendering test uses a photorealistic car chase scene that contains approximately 1 million polygons, high resolution textures and a variety of special effects. It runs for 30 seconds and measures the frame rate the system is capable of delivering. I ran the test three times and averaged the results.

While it ran the graphics test, I found the system's hottest spot and measured the temperature with a Fluke 62 Mini IR noncontact thermometer.

Next, I tried out each workstation's graphics ability with two CAD scenarios using Dassault's SolidWorks eDrawing software, which can display complicated CAD models. I worked with 3D models of a transmission and a leaf blower. After highlighting a section, I zoomed in and out and rotated each image, while looking for choppiness, incomplete shading and lack of sharpness. I then set SolidWorks eDrawing to continuously play two sequences of zooms and rotations of models.

Although these monster machines were designed to spend most of their lives running off of AC power, they do come with batteries. To see how long they can run on battery power, I fully charged each and played a sequence of six high-definition videos while monitoring the battery's charge level. This test was repeated three times and the results averaged.

Even the most technically minded need to work with spreadsheets, write memos and do research on the Web. With that in mind, I set the SolidWorks software to continuously pan, rotate and zoom on a model in one window while writing and manipulating a worksheet in another. All the while I watched for delays and lost data.

Finally, since getting large amounts of data into and out of a workstation is a key quality, I connected each to a Thunderbolt-based LaCie 1TB Little Big Disk and measured the throughput by timing how long it took to move 25 folders filled with more than 15,000 files that added up to 18GB of data. If the system didn't have a Thunderbolt connection, I used USB 3.0 instead.

3 mobile workstations: Test results

*With video running constantly; not indicative of normal usage

This article, Power to the portable: 3 high-performance mobile workstations, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

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

Read more about laptops in Computerworld's Laptops Topic Center.

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