CAD Unplugged (Cadalyst Labs Review)1 Aug, 2007 By: Ron LaFon
Get the job done anywhere with mobile workstations.
The current generation of laptop computers offers enough power, expandability, and battery life to let their users take even resource-hungry CAD applications on the road. Although the performance might not be quite as high as a desktop system, you may find that the beefiest new laptops actually fall into the category of mobile workstations, allowing you to be as productive with them despite being away from your familiar CAD seat.
As I've noted in the past, the gap between laptop and desktop performance is diminishing. With the powerful mobile processors and high-performance mobile graphic subsystems, the newest laptop systems are proving to be very useful adjuncts for design professionals. This progression is also aided by continually developing battery technology that lets users work longer, even with applications as demanding as CAD and digital content creation (DCC).
While many think of laptops as a means of taking work with them, systems powerful enough to be called mobile workstations are allowing a growing number of users to use them as their primary system. This trend is most noticeable in the emergence of laptop systems with screen sizes in the 19" to 20" or larger range, which begin to stretch the term mobile. These systems also weigh more to accommodate all of the powerful technology increasingly housed in these systems. Although the weight and size is trending upward, it's not a return to the Compaq luggables of the past.
What We Requested
For this roundup review of mobile workstations, Cadalyst requested systems that had the fastest available processors, either AMD or Intel. We requested that the systems have at least 2 GB of RAM, at least 60 GB of total hard drive storage space, and a CD-RW optical drive. Mobile workstations had to have Windows XP Professional preinstalled, and the Windows XP CD and appropriate driver disks needed to be included for each system.
Mobile Workstation Report Card
We received three systems, but the Polywell PolyNote V512iD did not meet our minimum resolution requirements and was moved to a sidebar and out of the side-by-side comparison. All three of the submitted systems were built around Intel processors. Generally, Cadalyst includes more mobile workstations in this roundup article, but a number of new technologies were being introduced as our deadlines for this article came around, so several familiar vendors didn't have systems that were ready for evaluation. HP, for example, ordinarily has a system for inclusion here, but the two new mobile-workstation-level systems that the company is introducing in the near future weren't quite ready for testing. I expect to look at them in stand-alone reviews in the coming months.
If a manufacturer defines a category of notebook computer as being a mobile workstation, I feel it should be tested as if it were a conventional desktop workstation. I ran all of the Cadalyst benchmark tests on these mobile workstations at a screen resolution of 1,280 x 1,024 and also tested at the native resolution, although the latter figures are not included in the accompanying feature table (www.cadalyst.com/0807mobile-table). I ran the Cadalyst C2006 benchmark (www.cadalyst.com/c2006) on each system, using AutoCAD 2008, without any supplemental Heidi drivers, and using only the default hardware acceleration drivers that ship with AutoCAD 2008. Testing was done using both OpenGL and Direct 3D using the native drivers. All tests were done under Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 2 installed. Where the base video driver for Windows allowed optimization settings for AutoCAD, I applied those settings for the test.
I used 3ds Max v9 for the MAXBench4 benchmark test. Where the option was available, I set the base-level Windows driver for 3ds Max, and if an accelerated driver for the application was available, I tested with this driver. I actually ran three tests for this benchmark — the first using the native OpenGL driver, the second using the native Direct 3D driver, and the third using any accelerated driver, if one was available.
The last component of the benchmark tests was the ProE-04 viewset from the SPECviewperf 9.03 benchmark (www.spec.org). This benchmark tends to follow the performance of the included graphics card heavily, although the base-system configuration certainly is a factor in the final score. This particular version of SPECviewperf is significantly more demanding of graphics drivers than previous versions, although I didn't encounter the same graphics driver problems I found the last time I tested mobile workstations.
After the tests were complete, I calculated the results and generated a total weighted index score based on these criteria: The Cadalyst C2006 v.4 benchmark received a 3x weight factor for the total weighted index, the MAXBench 4.0 test results received a 1x weight factor, and the SPEC-viewperf v.9.03 ProE-04 viewset test results received a 1x weight factor.
The mobile workstations included in this roundup were evaluated based on meeting the minimum configuration requirements, the benchmark results, price, features, warranty, and documentation. The online feature table for this article lists the particulars for the two tested systems, and a report card accompanies this article.
Whether it's practical to use a mobile workstation depends not only on its ability to run major design applications at a reasonable speed, but also on whether it can run them for long enough to get any significant amount of work done. Battery life is an especially important concern for these powerful mobile workstations. I ran battery life tests to get some basic figures about how long batteries actually last in the kind of usage I posit. I performed two run-down tests, each starting with the installed battery showing a 100% charge. The first battery test was a simple test in which the computer was idle and allowed to run down to hibernation. The second test was a run-down test during which the Cadalyst C2006 benchmarks ran in a continuous loop. As one might expect, the batteries typically ran down substantially faster in the active run-down test.
To maximize battery life, components such as wireless polling and Bluetooth polling were turned off to avoid excess battery use during testing. Turning the monitor brightness down to its lowest would have given longer battery life, but it's my feeling that in most real-world scenarios, this option is not a factor — battery run-down usually results from either actively using the system until the battery runs down or allowing it to idle, such as during a meeting. Run-down also can result from intentionally putting the system into hibernation to preserve battery life.
In real-world usage, the life of the battery charge that you get from one of these mobile workstations will likely fall somewhere in between these two figures, both of which test extremes in demand on the tested computer. These battery-life tests generally produce shorter times than those specified by the individual vendors, due in part to the tests being done after a variety of applications (and background processes) have been installed on the system. In this way, I feel that the results are closer to what users might typically expect of a given mobile workstation in a working environment. I probably could have generated longer battery run-down times with some effort, but I opted for common usage as a more reasonable criterion for how such systems are typically used.
As these capable mobile workstations show, you truly can get good performance when untethered from your desktop system. And with enough battery life, you can be productive with your away-from-home workloads. Both systems earned Cadalyst's Highly Recommended rating.
Xi PowerGo 2Duo XT
The Xi PowerGo 2Duo XT laptop is a mobile workstation for those with decidedly large laps, because it measures 15.6" x 11.5" x 2.3" (H x W x D) and weighs 8.9 lbs with the lithium ion battery installed. The PowerGo is decidedly geared toward high-performance mobile computing. The unit Cadalyst received for review was based on a full-blown, dual-core processor — the Intel Core 2 Duo E6700 — running at 2.66 GHz, rather than a chip specifically intended for mobile systems. @Xi Computer noted that the system is also available with the Extreme Edition of the processor that runs at 2.93 GHz, but that such a system — while offering approximately 6% better benchmark numbers — is roughly $850 more expensive due to the premium price that Intel charges for this processor.
As requested, the Xi PowerGo 2Duo XT system arrived with 2 GB of DDR2 800-MHz RAM installed and included an 80-GB Hitachi hard drive. The system is available with hard drives as large as 200 GB and will accommodate as many as three hard drives in total. It supports SATA-150. The Xi PowerGo has a built-in four-in-one Flash memory reader (SD/MMC/MS/MS PRO), and a USB external 3.5" 1.44-MB floppy disk drive is an available option. This system supports RAID in 0/1/5 modes.
The system I received was very attractive and well-designed, finished in high gloss (Piano) black and matte black, and featured a wide-aspect-ratio 17" screen with a native resolution of 1,680 x 1,050. The display panel provided excellent quality and was very crisp and bright. In this case, the display was driven by an NVIDIA GeForce Go 7950 GTX graphics card with 512 MB of memory installed. The installed NVIDIA graphics driver was dated 1/5/2007 but was unnumbered. Other graphic card options are available when ordering this system. The system supports dual graphics cards in an SLI configuration.
There are lots of amenities incorporated into the Xi PowerGo 2Duo XT system: a built-in camera, a Kensington Lock Port, Intel Pro Wireless 802.11a/b/g, a 56K V90 modem, Bluetooth interface, and a 10/100/1000 Ethernet connection. The system was quiet in operation but did generate some heat, as one would expect in a mobile system that uses a conventional microprocessor rather than one intended specifically for mobile systems.
The conventional microprocessor paid off in terms of performance when I ran the various benchmarks on the Xi PowerGo 2Duo XT system. Using AutoCAD 2008, I ran the Cadalyst C2006 benchmark in two different configurations — OpenGL and Direct 3D — using the default AutoCAD drivers. The C2006 total index score with the OpenGL driver was 176, and the system generated a speedy C2006 total index score of 289 with the Direct 3D driver. These are the best performance numbers to date for a mobile workstation system in Cadalyst Labs.
I ran the MAXBench4 benchmark with Autodesk 3ds Max 9, testing in two different configurations (no accelerated driver is available for the GeForce line of graphics cards) and testing both OpenGL and Direct 3D performance using the native 3ds Max drivers. Here, too, the Xi PowerGo system showed its muscle, producing a combined average high/low score of 110.55 for the OpenGL component of the test and 171.09 with Direct 3D.
The Xi PowerGo 2Duo XT has a wide-aspect-ratio 17" screen with a crisp, bright display. Using a conventional microprocessor, it generated the best performance of any mobile workstation tested in Cadalyst Labs.
The final benchmark was the ProE-04 Viewset of SPEC-viewperf 9.03, in which the GeForce graphics card produced a decidedly slow weighted geometric mean score of 2.688 — typical of this line of graphics cards.
As might be expected when powering a mobile workstation based on a conventional microprocessor (dual-core or otherwise), the run-down times for the lithium ion battery included in the Xi PowerGo 2Duo system were not as long as one might wish for. But the tradeoff is that you get more work done in less time, so things even out to a degree. That said, the idle run-down time — with polling services such as Wi-Fi disabled — was 1 hour, 30 minutes. Running a continuous loop of the Cadalyst C2006 benchmark, the active run-down time was 1 hour, 18 minutes — not substantially less.
As configured, the Xi PowerGo 2Duo system I tested carries an estimated street price of $3,099. Other configuration options — and there are many — will cause the price to vary from this figure. This pricing includes a 36-month warranty on parts and labor only, though other warranty coverage options are available. Highly Recommended.
Dell Precision M90
Early last year, Dell introduced the Precision M90 — the latest version of its workstation-level laptop computer. For this roundup article, Dell sent an M90 that had been updated with the latest processor and memory technology. The M90 is targeted toward engineers, animators, and other workstation professionals who need a powerful system. The Dell M90 can accommodate as much as 4 GB of high-speed DDR2 memory to handle large models or datasets, though the system Cadalyst received — at the magazine's request — was equipped with 2 GB of DDR2 667-MHz RAM.
The Dell M90 that Cadalyst received was based on an Intel Core 2 Duo T7600 2.33-GHz microprocessor and included a 100-GB 7,200-rpm hard disk. It supported a 667-MHz front-side bus speed. The system arrived with Microsoft Windows XP Professional preinstalled, along with Service Pack 2. The M90 is also available with Windows Vista preinstalled.
The Precision M90 features a 17" wide-aspect ratio (16:10) WUXGA resolution, active-matrix TFT screen that is both bright and crisp, with a native resolution of 1,920 x 1,200. The system has extensive connectivity options, including six USB 2.x connectors and a mini FireWire connector. The dimensions of the M90 are 11.3" x 15.5" x 1.6", and the weight is a moderate 8.6 lbs with the battery installed. The battery for the M90 is a nine-cell 85-WHr Smart lithium ion model that features ExpressCharge.
The Dell Precision M90 provides good battery life, performance, reliability, and extensive connectivity options, including six USB 2.x connectors and a mini FireWire connector.
The housing for the M90 is an attractive industrial-design gray-on-gray that is well engineered and well designed. The controls and connections are well situated. The default input device is the incorporated standard two-button mouse touchpad.
The M90 is available with several different graphic-card configurations, but the model that Cadalyst received included an NVIDIA Quadro FX2500M with 512 MB of integrated memory installed. NVIDIA graphics drivers v.220.127.116.1122 were preinstalled and used throughout testing.
After all of the software and benchmarks were installed on the M90, it was time for testing. For the AutoCAD section of the tests, I used the Cadalyst C2006 benchmark running at 1,280 x 1,024 under AutoCAD 2008, testing both OpenGL and Direct 3D with the AutoCAD-native drivers. Using OpenGL, the M90 produced a C2006 total index score of 195; with Direct 3D, the system generated a C2006 total index score of 247.
Using Autodesk 3ds Max 9, we ran the MAXBench4 benchmarks in three different configurations that used Max's native OpenGL driver, Max's native Direct 3D driver, and the NVIDIA MAXtreme 9.01 D3D accelerated driver. Each configuration was tested several times, and the highest numbers were selected. The combined averaged high/low scores for the native OpenGL drivers were 75.10. With the native (and default) Direct 3D drivers, the combined averaged high/low score was 137.38. With the NVIDIA MAXtreme 9.01 D3D accelerated driver, the averaged high/low scores jumped to 163.57.
The final benchmark I ran on the M90 was the ProE-04 viewset from SPECviewperf 9.03. This benchmark produced a weighted geometric mean score of 34.62, the best of the systems tested here.
I performed our battery run-down tests with polling services such as Wi-Fi disabled, testing battery life with the system both idle and running a continuous loop of the Cadalyst C2006 benchmark in AutoCAD 2008. The idle run-down time for the M90 was 3 hours, 13 minutes, and the active run-down time was 1 hour, 58 minutes. Both of these figures are quite good for battery life and provide users with enough time between charges (or electrical outlets) to get a significant amount of work done.
The Dell Precision M90 is priced from $1,929, with pricing varying depending upon the options selected. The system I tested carried a price tag of $3,414 and included the Dell Economy Plan base warranty that provides a 36-month warranty on parts, labor, and on-site service. Other warranty coverage options are available at the time of purchase. As with all Dell systems, a broad array of options is available for customizing the Precision M90 to specific user needs.
If you need to take your CAD or DCC work on the road with you, the Dell Precision M90 is certainly up to the task, as it offers good performance, reliability, and good battery life — not to mention very good warranty coverage. Highly Recommended.
Light, compact system offers a low price and an excellent warranty.
By Ron LaFon
For this roundup article, Polywell Computers submitted its V512iD system, a compact and lightweight laptop computer that is housed in a white, silver, and black case. Upon my initial examination of the system, it immediately became apparent that the system didn't meet the minimum specifications for inclusion in this roundup — specifically, the screen resolution was 1,280 x 800, below the minimum 1,280 x 1,024 that we use as a standard for testing all systems. In discussions with Polywell, we agreed to include the V512iD as a sidebar, so the test results don't appear in this article's feature table.
The PolyNote V512iD is a very compact system that weighs only 5.28 lbs and comes with a low $1,499 price.
The Polywell PolyNote V512iD system that Cadalyst received was based on an Intel Mobile Core 2 Duo T7500 microprocessor (4-MB cache) running at 2.2 GHz. The system used the Intel GM965 Express chipset and supported as much as 4 GB of DDR2 533/667-MHz RAM. The system included 2 GB of 800-MHz memory.
Measuring only 13.5" x 9.5" x 1.2" (W x D x H), the PolyNote V512iD is a very compact system that weighs only 5.28 lbs (2.4 kg) with the battery installed. The 14.1" screen, as noted earlier, offers a maximum resolution of 1,280 x 800. The unit that Cadalyst received for this evaluation included a Hitachi 80-GB SATA 7200RPM drive and had Microsoft Windows Professional with Service Pack 2 installed.
An NVIDIA GeForce 8400M-GS with 512 MB of graphics memory installed accommodated graphics on the V512iD. NVIDIA drivers v.18.104.22.168 (4/4/2007) were preinstalled and used for the testing. The system included one FireWire connector and four USB 2.x connectors. Other features included an SD card reader, a fingerprint reader, a 2.0-megapixel camera, and a DVD-RW drive.
I installed the test applications and benchmark suites and ran a series of tests on the Polywell PolyNote V512iD. While the system ran all the benchmarks to completion, performance was consistently and substantially lower than the other systems included in this roundup, which limits its usefulness for CAD and DCC applications away from the office.
The V512iD incorporates a six-cell lithium ion battery that, once polling processes such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi were disabled, allowed an idle battery run-down time of 3 hours, 13 minutes. With the Cadalyst C2006 benchmark running in a continuous loop, the active run-down time was 1 hour, 58 minutes.
As equipped upon arrival, the Polywell PolyNote V512iD was priced at a low $1,499 and included an excellent five-year parts and three-year labor warranty (onsite coverage is an available option when purchasing the system).
Although the Polywell PolyNote V512iD has much to offer, the small, relatively low-resolution screen and weak performance numbers will limit its usefulness for those who want to take their CAD and DCC applications on the road, even though it offers enough power to for limited usage. For other purposes, the PolyNote V512iD should do quite well — the low price and excellent warranty are certainly good selling points.
Ron LaFon, a contributing editor for Cadalyst, is a writer, editor, and computer graphics and electronic publishing specialist from Atlanta, Georgia. He is a principal at 3Bear Productions in Atlanta.