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
Of course, I couldn't just ignore the bread-and-butter audience for this sort of system. So I also ran the prerequisite SPECviewperf 10 OpenGL performance benchmarks (64-bit version). In each case, testing was conducted under Windows Vista Business (x64 Edition) with Service Pack 1, using the latest driver and utility stacks from Dell and HP. See the Lab Notes blog for test results.
Dell Precision M6400
The Dell Precision M6400 Mobile Workstation is a sturdy workhorse with technical specs to die for and a few annoying quirks. Taking a kitchen-sink approach toward standard equipment, the M6400 resurrects the concept of the three-spindle notebook; only in this case, that third spindle is used for a second internal hard disk (as opposed to a floppy disk drive), allowing the M6400 to deliver a two-disk RAID (0 or 1), plus an integrated optical drive (DVD/CD-RW). Competing systems, including the HP EliteBook 8730w reviewed below, force you to choose between RAID and optical, with the latter relegated to external status when you go for that second disk.
Another no-compromises spec: support for up to 16GB of RAM. Nowhere did the previous generation of mobile "workstations" belie the name than in their lack of memory expansion capability. Dell targeted this limitation directly when it fused a high-performance desktop north bridge (memory controller and bus) with a traditional, Centrino-based south bridge (I/O controller and peripheral ports), giving the M6400 four separate DIMM sockets. The current Centrino specification calls for just two DIMM sockets.
Configured with 4GB DIMMs, these additional sockets allow you to expand the M6400 to the aforementioned 16GB, though at a cost of nearly $4,000 above the base price. More important, the four sockets also let you equip the M6400 with 8GB while using the currently much cheaper 2GB DIMMs, though you'll have to rip and replace in order to expand beyond that level. Still, it's a nice bit of flexibility in a product category (laptop PCs) where wiggle room is typically quite rare.
Other noteworthy features include a nearly full-size, backlit keyboard with a separate numeric keypad and a "jog shuttle" trackpad that supports custom gesture profiles for applications like audio and video editing. An Nvidia Quadro FX 3700M (1GB) video card drives an LED-backlit screen with true 36-bit color representation. There's also an optional edge-to-edge, glass-covered display (very bright and also very smudge-prone), an optional slot-load DVD/CD-RW drive, and of course 802.11 wireless networking in the flavor of your choice. The whole package is held together by a wraparound, anodized aluminum shell that gives the M6400 a sleek, industrial look while protecting it from many of life's little mishaps. Combined with the edge-to-edge glass -- and optional bright-orange Covet finish -- it's definitely a head turner at the local café or airport lounge.