Hardware

Cadalyst Labs Review: You Can Take It with You

1 Aug, 2006 By: Ron LaFon

Hit the road with the right mobile workstation


If you need to take your work with you, laptop computers powerful enough to be called mobile workstations let you bring along your preferred design applications. The gap between laptop and desktop workstations is diminishing, with powerful mobile processors and speedy graphic subsystems helping to bridge the gap. Better batteries in concert with more energy-thrifty technology combine to keep you going longer than at any time in the past.



A growing number of people are using mobile workstations as their primary system or for serious work when away from their design firms. This trend is reflected in the recent emergence of laptop systems with larger screen sizes—Acer is shipping a laptop with a 20" screen, and Dell introduced a new laptop with a 20.1" screen. Such large systems typically are heavier and bulkier, so they're not for everyone. Currently, the market for such jumbo-sized laptops is an unknown, but a segment of the market apparently can put the technology to work. With the size of those systems, the laptop computer moniker may go out the window.

What We Requested

For this roundup of mobile workstations, Cadalyst requested systems that used the fastest available processor, be it AMD or Intel. We required at least 2GB of RAM, at least 60GB of total hard drive storage space and a CD-RW optical drive. The mobile workstations had Windows XP Professional preinstalled and arrived with the Windows XP CD and appropriate driver disks.

 Mobile Workstations for 2006
Mobile Workstations for 2006

No additional accessories were required. Although most mobile workstations have provisions for accommodating a second battery, each review system arrived with a single battery installed.

We received four systems, but two had only 1GB of RAM installed. One system—the Polywell PolyNote M719NC—ultimately was moved to a sidebar because of driver compatibility problems. Three of the systems were built around Intel processors, and the remaining system was powered by an AMD chip. Screen sizes ranged from 17" through 19". We had expected to look at the HP Compaq nw9440 mobile workstation, but it arrived too late to include in this review. A First Look review of this system should appear in next month's Cadalyst.

Testing Procedure

If a manufacturer defines a notebook computer as a mobile workstation, Cadalyst feels it should be tested as if it were a conventional desktop workstation.

Cadalyst labs report card
Cadalyst labs report card

All the Cadalyst Labs benchmark tests were run on these mobile workstations at a screen resolution of 1280x1024 and also at the native resolution, though the latter figures are not included in the online feature table at www.cadalyst.com/0806mobile/. I ran the Cadalyst Labs C2006 benchmark (www.cadalyst.com/c2006/) with AutoCAD 2005. I used no supplemental HEIDI drivers, only the default hardware acceleration driver—WOPENGL8.HDI—that ships with AutoCAD 2005. All tests were run under Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 2 installed. When the base video driver for Windows allowed optimization settings for AutoCAD, I applied those settings.

I used 3ds max 8 with the newly released Service Pack 3 installed for the MAXBench4 benchmark test. When the option was available, I set the base-level Windows driver for 3ds max. If an accelerated driver for the application was available, I tested with this driver. The accompanying feature table (www.cadalyst.com/0806mobile/) lists the averaged high/low performance numbers from MAXBench4. The initial figure represents the results with the default video driver, and the second figure indicates performance with an accelerated driver, if one was available.

The final component of the benchmark tests was the ProE-04 viewset from the recently released SPECviewPerf 9.0 benchmark (www.spec.org). This benchmark tends to closely follow the performance of the system's graphics card, although the base system configuration certainly is a factor in the final score. This particular version of SPECviewPerf is significantly more demanding on graphics drivers than previous versions, and I ran into compatibility problems with one system for this particular test.

After completing the tests and calculating the results, I determined a total weighted index score based on a 3x weight factor for the Cadalyst Labs C2006 v.4 benchmark and 1x weight factors for the MAXBench 4.0 test results and the SPECviewPerf v.9.0 ProE-04 viewset results.

Batteries

The practicality of using a mobile workstation depends not only on whether it will run design applications at a reasonable speed but also whether it can run long enough to get the work done. Thus, I ran battery life tests to get basic figures on how long they last. Each test started with the installed battery showing a 100% charge. The first test simply ran the idle computer down to hibernation. The second test was a run-down test with the Cadalyst C2006 benchmarks running in a continuous loop. As you'd expect, the batteries typically ran down much faster in the active run-down test.

Components such as wireless polling and Bluetooth polling were turned off to avoid excess battery use during testing. Although turning the monitor brightness down to its lowest setting extends battery life, in most real-world scenarios this is not an option. Battery rundown is usually a result of actively using the system.

In real-world use, the battery life you get on one of these mobile workstations will likely fall somewhere in between these two test figures, both of which represent extremes of demand. The battery life tests generally produced shorter times than those specified by the vendors, due in part to the tests being done after a variety of applications (and background processes) have been installed on the system. Because of this, I believe the results are closer to what a user might typically expect of a mobile workstation in a working environment. Could I have generated longer run-down times? Most probably, but I opted for common usage as a more reasonable gauge.

Whatever your personal criteria are for selecting a mobile workstation, many excellent choices are available. If you need top performance or a larger screen or a system that is both compact and lightweight, you'll find systems here that will handle your demands.

Dell Precision M90

Dell
800.999.3355
www.dell.com
Price: $2,089 and up


EARLIER THIS SPRING Dell introduced the Precision M90, the latest version of its workstation-level laptop computer. Cadalyst looked at the Precision M70 in last year's roundup of mobile workstations.



The Precision M90 sent for testing included 2GB of dual-channel DDR2 DRAM memory out of a maximum of 4GB. It incorporated a Hitachi 100GB 7,200RPM SATA hard disk, and drives with capacities as large as 120GB are available. The Precision M90 features a 17" wide-aspect ratio (16:10) WUXGA resolution screen that is bright, crisp and easy to live with. The system also provides extensive connectivity options, including six USB 2.x connectors. The M90 measures 11.3" x 15.5" x 1.6", and weighs a moderate 8.6lb.

The Dell Precision M90 incorporates the NVIDIA Quadro FX 2500M graphics card to provide excellent performance as measured by Cadalyst's battery of benchmark tests.
The Dell Precision M90 incorporates the NVIDIA Quadro FX 2500M graphics card to provide excellent performance as measured by Cadalyst's battery of benchmark tests.

The Dell Precision M90 offers a choice of OpenGL workstation-level graphics accelerators: the NVIDIA Quadro FX 1500M with 256MB of onboard memory and the speedy NVIDIA Quadro FX 2500M with 512MB of RAM. The unit we received for testing incorporated the Quadro FX 2500M, the first time we've had the chance to test this graphics solution.

Thanks to a combination of well-considered design, an Intel Core Duo T2600 dual-core 2.16GHz processor and the NVIDIA Quadro FX 2500M, the Dell Precision M90 produced the highest scores across the board of any mobile workstation in this roundup, earning it an A+ for performance.

The total index score for the Cadalyst Labs C2006 benchmark running at 1280x1024 under AutoCAD 2005 with Service Pack 1 installed was 148. The C2006 score breakdown shows that the system was the fastest in all components of the test—the Wire-frame Index, Gouraud Shade Index, Nongraphics Index and 2D Graphics Index—all with the default WOPENGL8.HDI driver that ships with AutoCAD 2005. The system posted a 68.99 averaged high/low performance on the MAXBench test with the default video driver v8.4.2.9. With the NVIDIA MAXtreme v8.00.03 accelerated driver for 3ds max, the combined averaged high/low score jumped to 155.51.

The ProE-04 benchmark from the newly released SPECviewPerf 9 benchmark produced a weighted geometric mean score of 31.56. All benchmark numbers for the Dell Precision M90 were outstanding. Users who want to run the system at the maximum onscreen resolution of 1920x1200 will be happy to note that the numbers dropped only very slightly at this higher resolution—for example, the C2006 Total Index Score was 140 at this setting.

With all that performance and the NVIDIA Quadro FX 2500M graphics card, you'd expect that battery life would be substantially diminished, but the 9-cell 85WHr lithium ion battery proved to be up to the tasks at hand. With polling services such as Wi-Fi disabled, battery run-down time with the system idle was 2 hours, 55 minutes. When running a continuous loop of the Cadalyst Labs C2006 benchmark, battery life was a quite good 1 hour, 58 minutes.

The Dell Precision M90 starts at $2,089, and pricing varies depending on the options you select. The system tested carried a price tag of $3,673, placing it in the midrange for the systems covered in this roundup. This pricing includes the Dell base warranty Economy Plan, which provides 36-month coverage of parts, labor and onsite service. As with all Dell systems, a broad array of options is available for customizing the Precision M90 to your needs.

With great performance, moderate price and good battery life, the Dell Precision M90 is sure to be popular. It easily earns a Highly Recommended rating from Cadalyst Labs. Highly Recommended.

Eurocom M590K Emperor

Eurocom
877.387.6266
www.eurocom.com
Price: $4,999


THE EUROCOM M590K Emperor is decidedly designed for large laps, featuring a 19" wide-screen WSXGA display that supports resolutions of 1680x1050. The system measures 19" x 13.72" x 1.2". There's a disparity between the weight provided to us by Eurocom—11lb with battery—and the information on its Web site, which indicates a weight of 14.3lb. Either way, the M590K Emperor is a hefty system that somewhat stretches the definition of mobile.

Built around an AMD Turion64 MT-40 2.2GHz processor, the Eurocom M590K Emperor Cadalyst received had 1GB of DDR400 RAM installed, out of a possible 2GB. The size of the M590K affords it space to incorporate a full-sized 102-key keyboard with a separate numeric keypad—a definite bonus. As tested, the system incorporated a 100GB Seagate 7,200RPM SATA hard drive, but it's available with drives as large as 160GB 5,400RPM SATA-2. Extensive connectivity options include both a multifunction DVD+RW/RAM burner and a 4-in-1 media card reader. There's also a built-in 1.3-Mpixel Web cam.

Eurocom's M590K Emperor has a 19" display and tips the scales at 11–14.3lb, making it a laptop that's best for bigger laps.
Eurocom's M590K Emperor has a 19" display and tips the scales at 11–14.3lb, making it a laptop that's best for bigger laps.

The 19" screen on the Eurocom M590K Emperor is impressive in both size and quality. In the test system, the graphics display was driven by dual NVIDIA GeForce Go 7800GTX GPUs (graphic processing units) in a SLI configuration. (It's also available with an NVIDIA Quadro FX 2500M card with 512MB video RAM or an NVIDIA 7900GTX VGA card.) The system is available with a single GPU, and the graphic subsystem is upgradable. NVIDIA doesn't certify professional graphics applications such as AutoCAD and 3ds max for use on any model of its GeForce products, including the 7800GTX subsystem in the M590K Emperor, and so won't guarantee that it will work or display accurately. This is not to slight the capable GeForce line, merely to note that its use with CAD and engineering applications is beyond its design intent. That said, performance levels were good, for the most part, in the tested configuration, which was run using NVIDIA drivers v.8.3.8.0.

Because the graphic drivers provide no optimization profiles for CAD and engineering applications—all the included profiles are for games or gaming benchmarks—I was unable to do anything other than turn off vertical sync, which I typically do for best performance on all systems.

On the Cadalyst Labs C2006 benchmark running under AutoCAD 2005 with Service Pack 1 installed, the Eurocom M590K Emperor produced a total index score of 106. With the MAXBench4 benchmark running under 3ds max 8 with Service Pack 3 installed, the system generated an averaged high/low score of 55.18. No accelerated driver is available for the GeForce. The final benchmark, the ProE-04 viewset of the recently released SPECviewPerf 9, produced a somewhat low weighted geometric mean score of 6.165.

Battery life on the Eurocom M590K Emperor was surprisingly good considering the dual GPUs and the jumbo-sized screen. After polling services such as Wi-Fi were disabled, the idle system ran down a fully charged battery in 1 hour, 25 minutes. After the battery was fully recharged, running a continuous loop of the Cadalyst C2006 benchmark drained the battery in 1 hour, 14 minutes, not significantly faster than the idle system.

The Eurocom M590K Emperor is priced at $4,999 as tested, making it the most expensive system in this roundup. Warranty coverage is an excellent 36 months for parts, labor and onsite service.

Although the performance is good and the larger screen a bonus, the Eurocom M590K Emperor is somewhat expensive, and I have some concerns about the use of the GeForce Go for any production work.

HP Compaq nw8440

Hewlett-Packard
800.888.9909
www.hp.com
Price: $2,099 and up


THE HP COMPAQ NW8440 DISTINGUISHED itself in several ways from the others in this roundup. At 5.95lb, the nw8440 is easily the lightest mobile workstation among those tested, and it's also the thinnest, measuring 1.1" (in front) x 14.1" x 10.2". With laptop systems creeping upward in both size and weight, users who want an easily portable system will be pleased with the HP Compaq nw8440.

The system Cadalyst received featured an Intel Core Duo T2600 2.16GHz processor with 2GB of RAM, out of a possible 4GB when fully populated. The graphics subsystem is the ATI Mobility FireGL V5200 card, which features 256MB of RAM. The 15.4" WUXGA wide viewing-angle screen provides a crisp and clean image. The VGA port on the system supports resolutions as high as 2048x1536 at 75Hz and lower resolutions up to 100Hz. A generous selection of connectivity options ensures that the nw8440 can connect to numerous devices, and a portfolio of security features safeguards user data.

 The HP Compaq nw8440 has superb battery life—4 hours, 21 minutes on idle and 2 hours, 20 minutes in active use.
The HP Compaq nw8440 has superb battery life—4 hours, 21 minutes on idle and 2 hours, 20 minutes in active use.

Performance numbers for the nw8440 were good to moderate. On the Cadalyst Labs C2006 benchmark running under AutoCAD 2005 with Service Pack 1 installed, the total index score was 106—not the best in this roundup but certainly enough to be productive with AutoCAD. A look at the breakdown of the C2006 scores shows particular strength in 2D operations—the nw8440 tied for the top number on this component of the test.

For the MAXBench4 benchmark running under 3ds max 8 with Service Pack 3 installed, the system generated an averaged high/low score of 50.18 using the preinstalled ATI drivers v8.222.0.0. I had to switch to drivers v8.223.4.0 to use ATI's MAXimum accelerated driver v2.0.5648, which produced an averaged high/low score of 77.72. On the ProE-04 viewset of the new SPECviewPerf 9 benchmarks, the nw8440 generated a weighted geometric mean score of 18.21. Although none of these benchmark tests are stratospheric, the nw8440 performs well with a broad array of CAD and engineering software and offers extensive ISV (independent software vendor) certifications.

Battery life for the HP Compaq nw8440 is superb. With polling services such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth disabled, the idle system rundown time was a remarkable 4 hours, 21 minutes. With a continuous loop of the Cadalyst Labs C2006 benchmark running in AutoCAD 2005, the rundown time was a substantial 2 hours, 20 minutes. This battery life longevity earned the HP Compaq nw8440 an A+ in that category, the only mobile workstation system to achieve that grade. By experimenting with the numerous settings for prolonging battery life, I probably could have eked out even more life, but I'll leave those tests for readers to do. If long battery life is a significant factor in your mobile workstation decisions, the HP Compaq nw8440 delivers.

Pricing for the HP Compaq nw8440 starts at $2,099. The system as configured for this roundup costs $3,449, which falls into the midrange for systems in this review. Many warranty coverage options are available, ranging from 12 to 36 months for parts and labor with no onsite service coverage. As with all HP laptop and desktop systems, a broad array of options lets you to customize systems to specific needs.

With its trim size, low weight, capable performance and phenomenal battery life, the HP Compaq nw8440 will be a popular choice for those who need to take it all with them. The combination of many positive factors earns the HP Compaq nw8440 a Cadalyst Labs Highly Recommended rating.

Matrox DualHead2Go

Device doubles your viewing pleasure.
By Ron LaFon
Matrox Graphics
514.822.6000, 800.366.1408
www.matrox.com/graphics
Price: $169




Even with the new jumbo-sized laptops, sometimes the screen you have just isn't big enough for what you want to do. You can't easily put a bigger screen on your laptop, but you can add Matrox's DualHead2Go, an external multi-display product that can be used in conjunction with the built-in display to power as many as three displays.

The Matrox DualHead2Go runs two conventional monitors from a Windows desktop on a laptop computer.
The Matrox DualHead2Go runs two conventional monitors from a Windows desktop on a laptop computer.

The Matrox DualHead2Go is a palm-sized box that is added to the VGA output on your laptop. It allows you to run your Windows desktop at up to 2560x 1024 in 16.7 million colors stretched across two conventional displays. Matrox has just begun shipping the TripleHead2Go, which can add a third external display (see Cadalyst's review in the July issue at www.cadalyst.com/0706matrox/).

Each screen can be used to display different information, if you desire. You could surf the Internet on one display while writing e-mail on the second, for example, or keep your toolbars, menus and palettes on one display while working on full-page documents in the other. A really big spreadsheet or similar document can spread across both screens so you don't have to keep scrolling.

Matrox DualHead2Go works with a wide range of devices, using your native graphics hardware for 2D, 3D and video without reducing the quality or performance. The device requires a single VGA output connector on a compatible system running Windows XP/2000. A graphics driver that supports 2048x768 (at 60, 75 or 85Hz) or 2560x1024 (at 60Hz) resolution is required. A visit to the Matrox Web site at www.matrox.com/graphics can help you determine if your laptop is compatible—you can download a free utility that checks compatibility.

Installation is simple and straightforward. It involves connecting the cable and installing some software. In addition to the Matrox DualHead2Go unit, a 2' VGA-to-VGA cable is included, along with a power supply with a U.S.-style power cable. A Quickstart paper and a CD complete the package. The CD includes the install package, PowerDesk SE (for adjusting image quality, center popup, window management and similar tasks) and an electronic product manual. I found DualHead2Go easy to use and capable without any apparent slowdown of the tested system.

Priced at an economical $169, the Matrox DualHead2Go is covered by a two-year limited warranty. If you need more monitor space or want to use your laptop as a PC replacement, the Matrox DualHead2Go is well worth investigating. If you need even more monitor space, Matrox offers the new TripleHead2Go, which provides the ability to add a third monitor. At deadline for this article, Matrox announced a software upgrade to the TripleHead2Go that offers greater resolution than previously available. These clever devices can expand your capabilities without a lot of cash outlay.

PowerCAD SiteMaster and Leica DISTO Plus Laser

Running CAD on a PDA.
By Ron LaFon
GiveMePower
888.977.6937, 403.287.6001
www.givemepower.com
Price: $2,000–$3,500




Cadalyst received a Dell Axim X51v PDA (personal digital assistant) with PowerCAD SiteMaster 2 CE preinstalled, along with a Leica DISTO Plus laser, all housed in a compact, foam-lined, high-impact plastic carrying case. The Dell Axim and the Leica DISTO communicate via a Bluetooth connection, so operation is wireless.

The Bluetooth-enabled Leica DISTO Plus laser transmits measurement information directly to a PDA, tablet PC or laptop system running GiveMePower's SiteMaster software.
The Bluetooth-enabled Leica DISTO Plus laser transmits measurement information directly to a PDA, tablet PC or laptop system running GiveMePower's SiteMaster software.

The PowerCAD SiteMaster 2 CE software is a capable CAD application with many of the expected design features but downsized to run on a mobile device. A PowerCAD SiteMaster 2 XP version is available for tablet PCs and laptops and is slightly more feature-rich, primarily the result of being freed from the memory constraints of the smaller device. Both the CE and XP versions support direct creation and sharing of data in AutoCAD Release 12–2002 DWG and DXF file formats. SiteMaster XP supports direct creation and sharing of data in AutoCAD 2004–2006 DWG and DXF file formats. SiteMaster XP also supports WYSIWYG printing and plotting with previews and can save printer/plotter configurations.

PowerCAD SiteMaster is an amazingly capable CAD application that also benefits from user-customization capabilities in many areas. PowerCAD SiteMaster 2 has more features and depth than I can cover here. If you're looking for a capable, sophisticated and portable design solution, you should take a look at the GiveMePower Web site (www.givemepower.com).

Pricing for the PowerCAD SiteMaster software can be found at www.givemepower.com/store/store_list.cfm?category=sitemaster. Numerous options are available, from software only (starts at $995) to packages that include the Leica DISTO Plus laser to bundles that include expanded licenses, both SiteMaster XP and CE, training and a PowerSymbols CD with 7,000 additional symbols.

GiveMePower notes that many users opt to purchase the specially priced SiteMaster Anywhere two-license bundles, which provides one CE license for mobile/handheld data collection and one XP license for collaborative desktop/laptop use back at the office.

GiveMePower sells SiteMaster with one year of support and one hour of online training from a certified training technician. During the course of evaluating SiteMaster in conjunction with the DISTO Plus laser, I went through the training with a trainer who was knowledgeable about both CAD practices and using the laser in conjunction with the software. We worked through a basic project, and he was able to answer the nuts-and-bolts questions that inevitably arose. This training is a worthwhile addition to the software, with or without the laser.

GiveMePower is working with several hardware vendors to develop Turn On and Go solutions—the first such implementation is the one I reviewed. Depending on what customers want—handheld, tablet, laser, eye gear, poles, carrying case and support with or without multiple license discounts—the pricing for these products can vary dramatically. At this time, GiveMePower anticipates that basic Turn On and Go solutions will range from the low $2,000s to mid-$3,000s, depending on the options.

This software is truly remarkable, both in its capabilities and its ability to perform so much in such small devices. The laser is equally impressive—it runs on two AA batteries for as long as three months. Users can perform a wealth of work accurately and in short order, saving time, energy and costly reworking. Around the time this article reaches print, GiveMePower will be introducing SiteMaster 3 XP and SiteMaster 3 CE with several new features (www.givemepower.com). If you need what GiveMePower's software offers, with or without a supplemental DISTO Plus laser, there's much here to recommend.

PolyNote M719NC

Check card certifications before you buy.
By Ron LaFon
Polywell Computers
800.999.1278, 650.583.7222
www.polywell.com
Price: $2,625




The Polywell PolyNote M719NC is based on an Intel Centrino Core Duo T2500 dual-core mobile processor and features a 17" wide-aspect ratio screen with a native WUXGA resolution of 1920x1200. The M719NC Cadalyst received included the GeForce 7900GTX graphics subsystem with 256MB of video memory. System RAM on this test system was 1GB, less than our requested configuration. The system also featured a 7,200RPM 100GB Seagate SATA hard disk.

The 15.6" x 11.5" x 1.125" Polywell PolyNote M719NC has a lot of connectivity options and a built-in Web cam.
The 15.6" x 11.5" x 1.125" Polywell PolyNote M719NC has a lot of connectivity options and a built-in Web cam.

The system is attractively designed with many connectivity options and a built-in Web cam. It measured 15.6" x 11.5" x 1.125" (WxDxH). System weight with the battery was a moderate—for this roundup—7.5lb.

I encountered some problems in completing the suite of benchmark tests, as described below.

During the process of preparing this article, I had several discussions with NVIDIA, which notes that it does not certify professional graphics applications such as AutoCAD and 3ds max for use on any model of its GeForce products and so won't guarantee that they will work or display accurately. That said, the M179C performed well on both the AutoCAD (C2006) tests and the 3ds max (MAXBench4) tests. It did, however, have problems running the ProE-04 viewset of SPECviewPerf 9, failing to display some of the test views and taking an inordinately long time to complete the test. As a result, I pulled the PolyNote M719NC from the main roundup.

The PolyNote M179NC is available with the GeForce Go 7900GTX graphic subsystem—which I tested—or the NVIDIA Quadro FX 1400, which is available for an additional $165. Unfortunately, Cadalyst received the system from Polywell late in the review process and didn't have adequate time to test the system with the Quadro FX 1400 card.

With the Cadalyst Labs C2006 benchmark running under AutoCAD 2005 with Service Pack 1 installed, the system produced a total index score of 113. On MAXBench4, the PolyNote generated an averaged high/low score of 47.58. No 3ds max accelerated driver is available for the GeForce GPU, so I could not complete that part of the test. Although the ProE-04 viewset of the SPECviewPerf 9 test ultimately did finish, it did not run accurately or reliably and took a substantial amount of time to finish, so I consider it incomplete.

The lithium ion battery in the PolyNote M179NC proved to have good durability. After I disabled polling devices such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and made sure that the battery was fully charged, the battery lasted 2 hours with the system idle and 1 hour, 50 minutes when running a continuous loop of the Cadalyst C2006 benchmark.

Equipped as tested, the PolyNote M719NC was priced at $2,625, which includes 36-month warranty coverage for parts and labor but no onsite service coverage.

Although the Polywell PolyNote M179NC has much to offer, I'm reluctant recommend it with the tested GeForce 7900GTX graphic subsystem. The Quadro FX 1400 might be a better choice, but I haven't yet tested that configuration.


About the Author: Ron LaFon


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