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.

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.

Unfortunately, Dell may have gone a bit overboard in the style department. For example, the wraparound aluminum case works great until you start typing. Depending on the angle of your wrist, you'll either find the front edge (which reaches right up to the palm-rest level) or the left front corner (a by-product of the offset keyboard layout). The keyboard itself is quite spongy, and the matte plastic finish of the palm-rest area is somewhat smudge prone. Don't munch on potato chips while using this machine.

Basically, the Dell Precision M6400's ergonomics are subpar compared with its competitors and even previous Dell units (the M90 and the M6300 come to mind), which is a shame because in almost every other category -- performance, expandability, price point -- the new Precision is a winner. Performance, in particular, is stellar. Equipped with a quad-core CPU (QX9300), 8GB of RAM, and a pair of 120GB, 7,200-rpm disks in a RAID 0 configuration, it blew through my mixture of engineering, database, and software-development workloads with aplomb, outpacing the HP 8730w by margins of 9 to 23 percent. When you factor in the available RAID 0, you end up with as much as a 200 percent performance advantage on disk-intensive workloads. If your primary concern is raw performance, this is the machine for you.

Not surprisingly, the Dell did lag the HP in battery life. In a simple rundown test -- a script driving a continuous loop of Microsoft Office tasks, with regular pauses for "thinking time" -- the Dell lasted 1 hour, 57 minutes, compared with 2 hours, 38 minutes for the HP.

Returning to the topic of ergonomics, I have to say I'm not happy with the trend toward putting all the ports and connectors on the sides of the unit. Yes, I understand that many users will opt for a true docking station and a port replicator when in desk-bound mode. However, I still prefer the ports in the back, something the M6400's predecessor, the M6300 (see review), got very right by providing rear access to four USB ports (out of six total), network, modem, and both DVI and RGB D-SUB video connectors. By contrast, the M6400 places its three dedicated USB ports and one shared USB/e-SATA port on either side where, along with the RGB D-SUB, DisplayPort, and Gigabit Ethernet connectors, the attached cables interfere with any external mouse or digital input devices you may wish to attach.

I also miss the M6300's dedicated media playback buttons, but these are minor nits. In fact, outside of some chafing and a few muttered curse words when the keyboard gets smudgy, the M6400 is the ideal portable workstation for a hard-core power user like myself. Sleek, powerful, and even luggable (at 9.5 pounds as tested), the M6400 is the ultimate mobile mainframe for the übergeek in all of us. And at less than $5,100 in the test configuration, including the 8GB of RAM and RAID 0, it's the best deal going.

HP EliteBook 8730w
If the Dell Precision M6400 is the kitchen sink of mobile workstations, then the HP EliteBook 8730w Mobile Workstation is more like a designer culinary studio. Sleeker and more refined than the Dell unit, the HP 8730w suffers from none of the Dell's ergonomic quirks, save for the side-mounted I/O connectors. The case is generally smudge-free and sports well-rounded edges, as well as a more comfortable typing angle than its competitor. It's also a full pound lighter on the shoulder (8.5 pounds as tested), which may be a big deal depending on your usage model. After hauling both units during an extended overseas jaunt, I definitely noticed the difference.

Of course, those weight savings come at a cost in terms of internal expandability. For example, the 8730w supports just the Centrino standard 8GB of RAM -- as opposed to the Dell's mind-bending 16GB. It's also a two-spindle design, meaning that to get RAID-style performance or reliability, you'll have to swap out the media bay drive (a tray-loaded Blu-ray/DVD-RW drive in my test system) for a second hard disk and hang your optical unit off an external adapter cable.

Other standard features include a nearly full-size keyboard with a dedicated numeric keypad and excellent tactile feedback (but no backlighting); an optional integrated Web camera; integrated Gigabit Ethernet and modem ports; three dedicated USB 2.0 ports and one shared USB/e-SATA port; a four-pin FireWire port, compared with the full-size six-pin port on the Dell; and the universally accepted HDMI and RGB D-SUB ports for connecting to an external display.

Like the Dell, the HP offers the Nvidia Quadro FX 3700M (1GB) video card and an LED backlit display option (HP calls it DreamColor) for true 36-bit color support. And, of course, you can choose from the full range of wireless networking options, including the latest Intel 5300 Series 802.11a/b/g/Draft-N card. Other goodies include the now mandatory eight-way SD/Memory card reader and a nifty business card scanner that uses the Webcam and special software to capture information from business cards. And if remote management is required, you'll like that the unit is Intel vPro compliant.

In terms of performance, the HP 8730w lagged behind the RAID 0-configured Dell M6400 in my more disk-intensive tests. For example, when creating a snapshot of a 1GB Windows XP virtual machine under VMware Workstation 6.5.1, the HP took more than twice as long as the Dell, while cloning a VM took 48 percent longer. In the Clarity Studio multiprocess database simulation -- copying several SQL Server tables and running various queries -- the HP took 23 percent longer. And in the Clarity Studio workflow workload -- copying roughly 25MB of mixed message and attachment data from a single source folder to multiple target folders -- the HP trailed the Dell by more than a factor of two.

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.

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