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 percent 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 percent a year and lots of new systems available."

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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 laptop. 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.)

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-inch and weighs 7.0 pounds, 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 pounds, the same as the ZBook 15's. Like the other two computers reviewed here, the Racer 3W requires a three-prong grounded outlet.

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 115.2GBps 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-inch 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 percent lower than the class-leading HP ZBook 15.

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 percent 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-inch 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 pounds

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 48GBps, less than half the bandwidth of the Eurocom Racer 3W's K5100M.

The ZBook relies on HP's DreamColor 15.6-inch 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

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