Road warrior power trip: Mobile workstations worthy of the workstation name
The beefy Dell Precision M6400 and polished HP EliteBook 8730w squeeze high-end graphics and serious horsepower into large but luggable chassis
Among desktop computers, the term "workstation" refers to a high-end PC specially equipped for demanding tasks such as CAD/CAM/engineering, software development, audio and video processing, and heavy-duty number-crunching or data mining. But "workstation" typically loses its meaning when you attach the word "mobile."
Among laptops, so-called workstations are generally just beefed-up desktop-replacement models, separated from their more pedestrian, business-oriented siblings by the most tenuous of distinctions: a mobile version of a high-end graphics card, perhaps with custom video drivers certified for specific engineering packages. Basically, when you plunk down that extra cash for a mobile workstation, you're paying for peace of mind -- the knowledge that the thousands of dollars you spend on sophisticated software won't go down in flames because of substandard hardware and drivers.
[ What are the essential features of the perfect laptop? See InfoWorld's interactive Flash illustrations in "The best laptop money can't buy," and readers' choices in "The perfect laptop, take two." ]
It's been a tough pill for IT to swallow, paying those big bucks for a video card upgrade -- which is why the latest crop of mobile workstations is so intriguing. For the first time in recent memory, vendors are making a concerted effort to differentiate their offerings on multiple levels. From quad-core CPUs to massive memory capacity to speedy RAID options, today's mobile workstations are more than just glorified laptops. They provide true performance heft, with specifications that rival those of many traditional desktop workstations.
Suddenly, taking those beefy workstation projects on the road isn't such a jarring experience. In fact, given the horsepower available in this current crop of mobile workstations, a Dell Precision or HP EliteBook may be all the power you need, both inside and outside of the office.
Workstations aren't just for engineers anymore. Software developers, business analysts, creative media professionals -- all can benefit from the outstanding performance embodied in systems like the Dell M6400 and the HP 8730w. In an effort to explore performance outside the video adapter and paint a more comprehensive picture of performance on the bleeding edge of mobile computing, I threw a more diverse set of workloads at these systems.
For example, to see how quad cores affect complex, multiprocess workloads, I used the DMS Clarity Studio tool to configure a combination database/workflow scenario incorporating 20 discrete, parallel tasks. Because virtualization has become such a big part of the modern application-development cycle -- for hosting complex test environments without springing for a full hardware lab -- I also tested each system's speed at cloning and snapshotting large virtual machine images under VMware Workstation 6.5.1.