Hardware

Power! Speed! Action! Mighty Mobile Workstations are Packed and Ready for Adventure! (Cadalyst Labs Review)

1 Jul, 2008 By: Ron LaFon


Mobile workstations have enough power — and battery life — to let you take your design applications with you and get work done wherever you roam. The performance might not be quite as good as what you can get with your desktop workstation, but the newest mobile workstations are powerful enough to let you be truly productive away from your familiar CAD system. This comparative review looks at three new mobile systems.



With the gains in processing power afforded by new microprocessors and high-performance mobile graphics subsystems, mobile workstations are providing useful tools for design professionals on the go. Whether it's the ability to reference or update building designs onsite or present visualizations to a client, these new mobile platforms are valuable extensions to what we've traditionally thought of as workstation-bound applications. The evolution of battery technology has made it possible to let you work longer and productively, even with applications as demanding as CAD, digital-content creation (DCC), and engineering applications.

The trend towards larger, higher-resolution screens has added to the popularity of these powerful portables because they provide enough information onscreen to be able to clearly see the tasks at hand. Although both the weight and size of mobile workstations has been creeping upwards steadily, many consider it a good trade-off for the benefits they provide. Indeed, an increasing number of users are using these mobile workstations as their primary system.

Whatever your specific needs in terms of a portable computing system, you now have more and better choices than ever before.

What We Requested

Earlier this year, Cadalyst sent invitations to several vendors requesting mobile systems that had the fastest available processors — be they from AMD or Intel. We requested systems that had at least 2 GB of onboard RAM, at least 60 GB of total hard drive storage space, and a CD-RW optical drive. Submitted systems had to have Windows XP Professional preinstalled. No additional accessories were requested, and although some mobile workstations have provisions for accommodating a second battery, only a single battery was installed in each.

Cadalyst received three systems, all based on Intel processors — one each from @Xi Computer, Lenovo, and Polywell. Hewlett-Packard usually sends a system for this annual review, but the company is about to refresh its lineup, and the new systems weren't ready for evaluation. Dell, also a regular contributor to this roundup review, was going thorough personnel changes and wasn't able to send a system in time for evaluation (Cadalyst will, however, be looking at one of Dell's high-end 64 bit notebook systems in an upcoming standalone First Look review).

Testing Procedures

I test notebook computers the same way I test conventional desktop workstations, using the same software and benchmarks but adding battery tests to determine how long these systems can be used in the field. All benchmarks are run at a screen resolution of 1,280 x 1,024, although most are capable of higher resolutions these days. Typically, I do spot tests at the native resolution as well, but I haven't included the testing figures in the online feature table (www.cadalyst.com/0708laptop-table).

I ran the Cadalyst C2008 benchmark using AutoCAD 2008 on all systems. As we go to press, AutoCAD 2009 is becoming available, and I expect Cadalyst will be using it for the next series of system tests. All testing was done using with the native AutoCAD drivers, both OpenGL and Direct 3D. All tests were conducted under Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 2 installed. Where the base video driver for Windows allowed optimization settings for AutoCAD, I applied and used those settings for the benchmark tests.

The 3ds Max benchmark, MAXBench4, was run under Autodesk 3ds Max 2008. 3ds Max 2009 is nearing release but was not available when I began the benchmark tests for this article. Where the option was available, I set the base-level Windows driver to use the optimized settings for 3ds Max, and if an accelerated driver for the application was available, I also tested with that driver. This typically resulted in three benchmark series being run — the first using the native OpenGL driver, the second using the native Direct 3D driver, and the third using any available accelerated driver.

The final benchmark series was a run of the full SPECviewperf 10 benchmark (www.spec.org). All the results for the various viewsets are listed individually in the online feature table (www.cadalyst.com/0708laptop-table). The various subsets of this particular benchmark give performance indications for a variety of commonly used design applications.

When all tests were completed, I calculated the results and generated a total index score based on the following criteria: The Cadalyst C2008 benchmark received a 3x weight factor for the total weighted index, the MAXBench 4 tests results received a 1x weight factor, and the SPECviewperf test results received a 1x weight factor for the total weighted index. These numbers are all reflected in the single performance score, which carries a weight of 7x in the overall ratings.

Pricing for the system carries a weight of 4x in the overall ratings, and battery life has a weight of 3x. The system warranty and the vendor return policy each carry a weight of 1x in the overall ratings. All mobile workstations included in this roundup were evaluated on meeting the minimum system requirements.

Battery Life

The practicality of using a mobile workstation is dependent upon both its ability to run major design applications at a reasonable speed and to run them for long enough to get a significant amount of work done, so battery life is an important concern for these mobile systems. We typically run two types of battery life tests to get some basic figures about how long batteries actually last. Each system started with a battery that indicated a 100% charge. The first battery test was a simple test, with the tested computer being idle and allowed to run down to hibernation. The second test was a rundown test with the Cadalyst C2008 benchmark running in a continuous loop until the system went into hibernation.

To maximize battery longevity, components such as wireless network polling and Bluetooth polling were turned off when possible to avoid excess battery drain during testing. Although turning down the monitor brightness would tend to give longer battery life, I feel that in most real-world scenarios this situation is not a factor — battery rundown typically is a result of either actively using the system until the battery runs down or of sitting idle.

In the real world, the life of the battery charge you'll get on one of these mobile workstations will likely fall somewhere between these two longevity figures — both of which test extremes in demand on the tested system. Cad- alyst's tests generally produce shorter times than those specified by the individual vendors, partly as a result of testing after a variety of applications (and background processes) have been installed on the system. Cadalyst test numbers are closer to what one might expect of a given mobile workstation in a working environment. My objective was not to get the absolute maximum battery life but rather to simulate common usage for a more reasonable criterion of what might reasonably be expected. There is, unfortunately, no free lunch — the more powerful the system and the harder it gets used, the shorter the battery life.

Mobile Workstations Report Card
Mobile Workstations Report Card

Depending upon your needs, you can get good performance while away from your desktop workstation and have enough battery life to be productive. Although there's still a performance gap between desktop and mobile systems, these new portables have enough horsepower to get the work done anywhere.

Xi PowerGo Duo XT

@Xi Computer
800.432.0486
www.xicomputer.com
Price: $3,299


@Xi Computer is no stranger to making speedy computers, and the Xi PowerGo Duo XT mobile workstation submitted for this roundup is no exception. Based on an Intel Core 2 Duo E6850 processor rated at 3.0 GHz with a 4-MB L2 cache, the system arrived with 2 GB of DDR2 800 MHz RAM installed, although it will accommodate 4 GB when fully populated.



Graphics on the Xi PowerGo Duo XT are handled by the capable NVIDIA Quadro FX 1600M, which features 512 MB of integrated onboard memory. The system, as requested, came with Microsoft Windows XP with Service Pack 2 preinstalled and included NVIDIA drivers v.6.14.11.7433, dated March 5, 2008. This system configuration is almost identical to the one submitted by Polywell, although Polywell elected to use older drivers that didn't provide the level of performance that newer drivers obviously are capable of producing. The display is a 17" wide-aspect ratio glass view panel with WUXGA resolution of 1,920 x 1,200, although the benchmark testing was done at a resolution of 1,280 x 1,024.

The Xi PowerGo Duo XT was, at 15.6" x 1.8" x 11.5" (W x H x D), decidedly on the large side and, at 11.8 lb, also on the heavy side. It's not the largest or heaviest mobile workstation I've ever seen, but I would be conscious of its size and weight after carrying it around for a while. The given weight includes the lithium ion battery. The system is relatively quiet in operation and features one FireWire connector, one Bluetooth 2.0, and four USB 2.x connectors.

The Xi PowerGo Duo XT mobile workstation is big but powerful. It weighs in at 11.8 lb but makes up for its bulk with A+ performance.
The Xi PowerGo Duo XT mobile workstation is big but powerful. It weighs in at 11.8 lb but makes up for its bulk with A+ performance.

With the Cadalyst C2008 benchmark running under AutoCAD 2008, I tested the Xi PowerGo Duo XT in two different configurations. With the AutoCAD 2008 native OpenGL drivers, the C2008 total index score was 223, completed in 93 minutes. With AutoCAD 2008 configured to use the native Direct 3D drivers, the C2008 total index score was 267, and the test ran to completion in 74 minutes. With the Direct 3D drivers, I tested two concurrent sessions of AutoCAD 2008 side by side, with each running a separate version of the C2008 benchmark. The combined C2008 total index score was 551, and the time for completion was 75 minutes.

Next, I ran the MAXBench4 benchmark under Autodesk 3ds Max 2008 with several iterations in three different configurations. With the native OpenGL drivers, the averaged high/low score was 94.39. Using 3ds Max 2008's native Direct3D drivers, the averaged high/low score was 178.98. Finally, with the NVIDIA MAXtreme 10.00.03 accelerated driver, the averaged high/low score was 190.35.

The full SPECviewperf 10 benchmark was run with Xi PowerGo Duo XT, which produced the following results: 39.01 for 3ds max-04, 44.67 for catia-02, 30.65 for ensight-03, 105.07 for maya-02, 39.69 for proe-04, 63.95 for sw-01, 15.26 for tcvis-01, and 13.55 for ugnx-01. These scores, in addition to the AutoCAD and Autodesk 3ds Max scores above, earned the Xi PowerGo Duo XT an A+ for performance.

Battery performance was generally good for the Xi PowerGo Duo XT system, with an idle rundown time of 1 hour, 43 minutes, and an active rundown time of 1 hour, 22 minutes running a continuous loop of the Cadalyst C2008 benchmark under AutoCAD 2008. As is usually the case, the higher the system performance, the shorter the battery life.

As configured for this roundup review, the Xi PowerGo Duo XT mobile workstation carried a price of $3,299, which included a three-year warranty for parts, labor, and onsite service. @Xi Computer also has an excellent return policy — 30 days with no restocking fee.

Although the Xi PowerGo Duo XT mobile workstation is decidedly on the large and heavy size, if it's performance you want, this system delivers. Aside from the A+ scores for both system performance and return policy, the Xi PowerGo Duo XT earned the highest point score for any system in this roundup. Highly Recommended.

ThinkPad T61p

Lenovo
866.96.THINK
www.lenovo.com
Price: $1,536


For this roundup review, Lenovo submitted its ThinkPad T61p system, a compact mobile workstation measuring only 14.1" x 10.0" that varies from 1.2" to 1.4" deep, depending upon where you measure the case. The ThinkPad T61p weighs a trim 6 lb as configured for this review, making it the lightest of the systems reviewed.

The ThinkPad T61p features a 15.4" wide-aspect screen that has WUXGA native resolution of 1,920 x 1,200. The display is driven by an NVIDIA Quadro FX 570M graphics module that features 256 MB of integrated onboard memory. All benchmark tests were conducted under the preinstalled Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 2 installed and NVIDIA drivers v.6.14.11.5679 dated October 29, 2007.

Inside the box, the Lenovo ThinkPad T61p that Cad- alyst received for evaluation was based on an Intel Core 2 Duo 2.20-GHz processor that featured an 800-MHz system bus and a 4-MB Shared L2 cache. The system arrived fully populated with 2 GB of PC2 — 5300 667-MHz DDR2 RAM and included a 100-GB, 7200-rpm hard disk. Connectivity options included a FireWire connector, three USB 2.x connectors, and Bluetooth connectivity. Other features included a 4-in-1 multicard reader, a fingerprint reader, an integrated modem, an Ethernet connection, and an ExpressCard PC Card.

I ran the usual benchmark suites on the ThinkPad T61p, including the Cadalyst C2008 benchmark running under AutoCAD 2008 with Service Pack 1 installed. With the native OpenGL driver selected, the T61p produced a C2008 total index score of 172 and completed the tests in 124 minutes. With the same software but using the native AutoCAD 2008 Direct 3D driver, the C2008 total index score was 208, and the tests were completed in 98 minutes. As I typically do with multicore processors, I then ran two concurrent side-by-side instances of the C2008 benchmark, each using a separate version of the benchmark test. The combined C2008 total index score for the concurrent sessions was 366, with a completion time of 108 minutes.

The Lenovo ThinkPad T61p is an affordable mobile workstation that earned A+ grades for pricing and battery life.
The Lenovo ThinkPad T61p is an affordable mobile workstation that earned A+ grades for pricing and battery life.

Next, I ran the MAXBench4 benchmark with Autodesk 3ds Max 2008 — first with the native OpenGL drivers, which produced an averaged high/low score of 65.86. After changing to 3ds Max 2008's native Direct3D drivers, I obtained an averaged high/low score of 129.67. Finally, I tested with NVIDIA's MAXtreme 10.00.03 driver, which typically gives a higher performance score to one degree or another, and generated an anomalous averaged high/low score of 118.31.

Next, I ran the full SPECviewperf 10 benchmark, which produced the following results: 30.11 for 3ds max-04, 38.89 for catia-02, 33.31 for ensight-03, 114.72 for maya-02, 37.76 for proe-04, 54.71 for sw-01, 15.88 for tcvis-01, and 14.80 for ugnx-01.

After the software tests were complete, I began the battery life tests. With the battery fully charged and the system idle — and with polling processes disabled wherever possible — time to hibernation was 4 hours, 30 minutes. With the Cadalyst C2008 benchmark running in a continuous loop, the time to hibernation was 1 hour, 45 minutes. These battery longevity scores were excellent and earned the ThinkPad T61p an A+ in this category.

The ThinkPad T61p as configured upon arrival was priced at $1,536, making it the least expensive system in this roundup and earning it a second A+ in this category. The Lenovo T61p is covered by a three-year warranty for parts and labor for the laptop itself and a one-year warranty for the included lithium ion battery. Both 24-hour replacement part and 24-hour telephone support are included in the warranty coverage.

The Lenovo ThinkPad T61p doesn't have the fastest performance numbers, but it does handle Cadalyst's CAD and DCC benchmark suites without any problems, and it is certified for a broad range of applications. Its ability to run design software — coupled with its light weight, substantial battery longevity, and high-quality construction — will make the ThinkPad T61p a very attractive choice for many users.

PolyNote C719ND

Polywell Computers
800.999.1278
www.polywell.com
Price: $3,599


Polywell Computers sent its PolyNote C719ND system, which is based on an Intel E6850 3.0-GHz dual-core processor that features a 4-MB L2 cache. The system Cadalyst received was fully populated with 4 GB of DDR2 800-MHz RAM and 200 GB of total hard disk space that consisted of two 100-GB hard drives in a RAID 0 configuration; a third hard disk is an available option for the PolyNote C719ND.



Graphics on the PolyNote C719ND were accommodated by a speedy NVIDIA Quadro 1600M mobile graphics card that featured 512 MB of integrated onboard RAM. NVIDIA drivers v.6.14.11.6909 were preinstalled and used for running all the benchmark tests in the Cadalyst current test suite. The drivers supported the 17" WUXGA screen at a native resolution of 1,920 x 1,200, though a resolution of 1,280 x 1,024 was used for testing purposes.

The large screen certainly contributed to the overall size of the PolyNote C719ND, which measured 15.88" x 11.92" x 2.13" and weighed a beefy 11.88 lb — definitely not a lightweight system. Connectivity options included a FireWire connector and four USB 2.0 connectors. An S-video output was provided, with a TV tuner card that supported HDTV available as an accessory. A USB docking station is available as an accessory as well. A 12-cell 6,600-mAh lithium ion battery provided power for the PolyNote C719ND.

I ran the Cadalyst C2008 benchmark under AutoCAD 2008 with Service Pack 1 installed. Using the native AutoCAD 2008 OpenGL drivers, the PolyNote C719ND produced a C2008 total index score of 225 and completed the benchmark in 91 minutes. With the AutoCAD C2008 native Direct3D drivers, the C2008 total index score was 271 and was done in 74 minutes. Next, I tested with concurrently running AutoCAD 2008 sessions, each running a separate installation of the Cadalyst C2008 benchmark, which is how I currently test systems based on multicore processors. The combined C2008 score for these two benchmarks was 463, and the tests were completed in 1 hour, 35 minutes.

Polywell's PolyNote C719ND mobile workstation comes with a five-year warranty for labor and one-year warranty for parts — and enough performance to meet CAD and DCC user needs.
Polywell's PolyNote C719ND mobile workstation comes with a five-year warranty for labor and one-year warranty for parts — and enough performance to meet CAD and DCC user needs.

Next up was MAXBench4 running under Autodesk 3ds Max 2008. I first ran the benchmark iterations using the native OpenGL drivers and produced an averaged high/low score of 93.84. Changing to the native Direct3D drivers, the averaged high/low score jumped to 177.85. Later, I installed NVIDIA's MAXtreme 10.00.03 accelerated Direct3D driver and generated an averaged high/low score of 185.28.

I ran the complete SPECviewperf 10 benchmark and obtained the following results: 39.01 for 3ds max-04, 44.67 for catia-02, 30.65 for ensight-03, 105.07 for maya-02, 39.69 for proe-04, 63.95 for sw-01, 15.26 for tcvis-01, and 13.55 for ugnx-01. All the benchmark numbers were generally good; however, compared with the virtually identical system from @Xi Computer, the performance numbers are slower — primarily as a result of the drivers that Polywell elected to use for this roundup. As is often the case, performance can be significantly improved by the choice of graphics driver.

On the battery longevity tests, the PolyNote C719ND ran down to hibernation in 1 hour, 35 minutes when idle and 1 hour, 23 minutes when running a continuous loop of the Cadalyst C2008 benchmark under AutoCAD 2008.

As configured upon delivery, the PolyNote C719ND is priced at $3,599, making it marginally the most expensive system in this year's roundup and earning it an A– in the pricing category. Warranty coverage is a very good five years on labor and one year on parts, earning the system its only A+, although buyers should be aware that Polywell's return policy is 30 days net with a 15% restocking fee. An extended warranty is available as an option.

The PolyNote C719ND is on the heavy side, and I feel that performance could be improved significantly with the choice of other graphics drivers. But the good performance and overall quality ultimately outweigh the downsides. Highly Recommended.


About the Author: Ron LaFon


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