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

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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.

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.

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

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 48GBps -- 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-inch 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 percent less than that of the HP ZBook 15.

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.

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.

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.

This story, "Power to the portable: 3 high-performance mobile workstations" was originally published by Computerworld.

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