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
All these performance differentials can be traced directly back to the RAID 0 configuration in the Dell, which gives the unit a tremendous advantage during disk write operations. You could achieve similar results with the HP by configuring it with twin-disk RAID. When I shifted testing to a less disk-intensive benchmark -- SPECviewperf 10 -- the deltas were much smaller: roughly a 9 percent advantage in favor of the Dell across the eight components of the 3-D graphics rendering test suite. But unlike the disk-related deltas -- which had more to do with configuration choices than any real architectural advantage -- the SPEC results were most likely a product of the Dell unit's faster DDR-3 memory (1,066MHz versus 800MHz DDR-2 in the HP) and perhaps the slightly newer certified Nvidia driver stack (version 176.53 versus 176.06 for the 8730w) driving the same Nvidia Quadro FX 3700M video card with a full gigabyte of video RAM.
All of which brings us to the issue of cost. On paper, in similar configurations with 8GB of RAM, the HP 8730w will run you a cool $6,348, or $1,287 more than the Dell. However, a big portion of this price gap has to do with those nonstandard memory sockets in the Dell: Four sockets lets you configure the unit with smaller, cheaper 2GB SO DIMM modules and still achieve the 8GB sweet spot for 64-bit workstation memory. By contrast, the HP must use the ridiculously expensive 4GB DDR-2 SO DIMM modules to reach 8GB.
On the other hand, the Dell's four-socket advantage is a bit of a Faustian bargain, because any further expansion -- to 12GB or even the head-spinning 16GB level -- requires that you rip and replace the existing DIMMs. In fact, if you reconfigure the M6400 to use a pair of 4GB DDR-3 SO DIMMs to start, which is a prerequisite in order to allow for expansion beyond 8GB, the M6400 becomes more expensive than the HP by roughly $50. Add to this the generally more expensive nature of DDR-3 memory --currently twice as expensive as comparably sized DDR-2 modules -- and the HP's upgrade path suddenly looks a lot more attractive in the context of a large deployment.
The term "mobile workstation" used to be a misnomer, an inside joke among IT pros in the know. Not anymore. Today's offerings from Dell and HP put the "workstation" part of the equation first, supplementing the traditional high-end mobile graphics with the memory and disk options that true workstations deserve. Although the vendors take different approaches -- with Dell going for broke in the performance department and HP seeking the middle ground in balancing features with ergonomics and weight factors -- the net result is a pair of fairly evenly matched options that deserve a label that differentiates them from their (now more distant) business laptop cousins.