Mobile Workstations 2005-Power to Go

30 Jun, 2005 By: Ron LaFon

Tools to Take CAD on the Road

The last time Cadalyst looked at mobile workstations, we were surprised that the performance numbers just about matched those of a year-old desktop system, a substantial improvement over previous performance. This time we found that not only has performance significantly advanced, but the speed comparison is now equivalent to a desktop workstation that's only a few months old.

 Mobile workstation report card
Mobile workstation report card

Though the shattering of old performance records is not uncommon in our periodic hardware roundups, the degree to which they were exceeded in this case is unusual. One mobile workstation posted a score of 144.3 on the Cadalyst C2001 Benchmark—performance that would be welcome in the desktop workstation category, let alone on a mobile workstation. Battery life has generally improved, though batteries are still a significant contributor to the weight of mobile workstations.

With the current crop of mobile workstations, you really can take your CAD system on the road or to the construction site.

What We Requested

For this roundup of mobile workstations, we requested systems with the fastest available processor, either AMD or Intel, with a minimum of 2GB of system memory installed. Systems had to have at least 60GB of total hard drive storage space and a CD-RW drive. We asked vendors to preload Microsoft Windows XP Professional and include the CD-ROM and all appropriate device driver software. No additional accessories were requested. Though most of the mobile workstations had provisions for accommodating a second battery, only a single battery was installed in each of the review systems.

Testing Procedure

Because these types of notebook computers are advertised as mobile workstations, we essentially tested as we would conventional desktop workstations. Our testing procedure for all these systems varied a bit from previous testing, as did our last workstation roundup, reflecting the release of AutoCAD 2006 and Service Pack 1 for 3ds max 7. All tests were run at a screen resolution of 1280x1024 and at native resolution, though the latter figures are not included in the feature table. We ran the Cadalyst C2001 benchmark on each system, using AutoCAD 2006 and its default hardware acceleration driver, WOPENGL8.HDI. We did not use any supplemental Heidi drivers. All tests were done using Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 2 installed. Where the base video driver for Windows included optimization settings for AutoCAD, we applied those settings for the test. As we've noted previously, AutoCAD 2006 is in general somewhat faster than AutoCAD 2005 on the Cadalyst C2001 benchmarks, without any special adjustments or configuration changes.

We used 3ds max v7 with the newly released Service Pack 1 installed for the MAXBench 4 benchmark test. We just received 3ds max v7.5, but haven't had sufficient time to test it with the MAXBench test suite. We do anticipate using it for the next such Cadalyst roundup. Where the option was available, we set the base-level Windows driver for 3ds max. If an accelerated driver for 3ds max was available, we also tested with this driver. This latter number is reflected in the performance figures in the online feature table.

The final component in our benchmark tests is the proe-03 Viewset benchmark test from the SPECviewperf 8.0.1 benchmark ( This benchmark tends to closely reflect the performance of the system's graphics card, though the base system configuration certainly is a factor in the final score.

Once the tests were completed, we calculated the results and generated a total weighted index score by assigning the Cadalyst C2001 v3.1 benchmark a 3X weight factor and the MAXbench 4 and SPECviewPerf v8.01 proe-03 Viewset test results a 1X weight factor.

Mobile workstations are evaluated based on meeting the minimum configuration requirements, performance benchmark results, price, features, warranty and documentation. An extra-credit option is available to cover any outstanding feature not specified in this grading scheme.


The only tests specific to mobile workstations are the battery life tests. Two run-down tests were done, each starting with the installed battery showing a 100% charge. The first battery test was simple—the idle workstation was allowed to run down to hibernation. The second test ran the Cadalyst C2001 benchmark in a continuous loop. As you'd expect, the batteries depleted much more quickly in the active rundown test.

Components such as wireless polling and Bluetooth polling were turned off to avoid excess battery use during testing. Though turning monitor brightness down to its lowest setting would result in longer battery life, we believe that in most real-world scenarios, this option is not a factor. Battery rundown usually results from using the system actively, although it can occur when a system sits idle during a meeting or is put into hibernation to preserve battery life.

In real-world use, the life of the battery charge that you get on one of these mobile workstations will likely fall somewhere between these two figures, both of which test extremes in demand.

Our battery life tests generally produce shorter times than those specified by the vendors, partly because the tests are performed after a variety of applications (and background processes) have been installed on the system. Our results are closer to what one might typically expect from a given mobile workstation in a working environment.

Dell Precision M70

Cadalyst Labs Grade: A
Price: $4,505

Anyone with lingering concerns that the term mobile workstation is a misnomer has obviously not used the Dell Precision M70 mobile workstation. This is the fastest mobile workstation Cadalyst Labs has every tested, turning in a total index score of 144.30 on the Cadalyst C2001 benchmark and an averaged high/low score of 94.92 on the MAXBench4 benchmark under 3ds max 7 with Service Pack 1 installed. On the proe-03 viewset test of the Specviewperf 8.01 benchmark, the Dell Precision M70 scored 43.62—not the fastest in this particular roundup, but a speedy score nonetheless.

Just as performance is excellent, so is the overall design. It combines clean lines with lots of attention to detail and thoughtful engineering. The Precision M70 is easy on the eye. It also features a solid feel and responsive keyboard.

Based on an Intel Pentium M 2.13GHz microprocessor, our test system was equipped with 2GB of 533MHz DDR2 SDRAM and the Intel 915PM graphic chipset with 256MB of graphics memory installed. The display, a 15.4" UltraSharp WSXGA+ panel, is capable of a maximum resolution of 1680x1050. Our review unit came with a 60GB Hitachi Travelstar hard disk drive.

The Dell Precision M70 measures 1.67" × 14.2" × 10.3" (h×w×d) and weighs 6.69lb as configured for our tests. The Precision M70 has all the expected ports, as seen in the online feature table, including four USB 2.0x ports—an exceptional number. Input is accommodated by the Dell DualPoint pointing device (both touchpad and track stick), though a mouse can be attached easily for those, like me, who dislike using the native input system.

A single Sanyo 9-cell battery came installed in the Dell Precision M70. On our battery tests, the system posted an idle rundown time of 2 hours, 48 minutes with no activity. When running a constant loop of the Cadalyst C2001 benchmark, battery rundown time was 1 hour, 18 minutes. This is with Bluetooth and wireless network polling disabled. These numbers will likely vary from the battery life supplied by the vendor. They are meant to indicate the range within a known set of parameters.

Dell's Precision M70 combines an appealing design with sizzling performance.
Dell's Precision M70 combines an appealing design with sizzling performance.

The Precision M70 comes with a three-year limited warranty that covers next-business-day on-site parts replacement and on-site labor. As equipped for our testing, the Dell Precision M70 costs $4,505. Pricing for other configurations will vary. Accessories include a docking station ($279), a port replicator ($179), a monitor stand ($49) and a notebook stand ($69). Software certifications include Autodesk Inventor, Bentley MicroStation, CoCreate OneSpace Designer, ESRI Arc Info/View, Fluent CFD, NewTek LightWave and Softimage XSI.

D900T Phantom

Cadalyst Labs Grade: B+
Price: $5,739

With the D900T Phantom mobile workstation, Eurocom has taken a different, less traveled path, producing a highly configurable mobile workstation based on conventional Pentium 4 microprocessors instead of the mobile M microprocessors. It also features a generous 17" high-resolution display. Measuring 15.6" × 11.7" × 1.9" (w×d×h) and weighing in at 12.8lb with a single 12-cell lithium-ion battery, the Eurocom D900T Phantom obviously is not compact or lightweight. Its configurability and large screen size may well make up for this if you need an upgradable and flexible system for fieldwork with your choice of hardware components.

The Eurocom D900T incorporates standard workstation components, which pay off in performance but tax battery life.
The Eurocom D900T incorporates standard workstation components, which pay off in performance but tax battery life.

The Eurocom D900T Phantom that we tested arrived with a 3.8GHz Intel Pentium 4 570J microprocessor installed, supported by the Intel 915P+ICH6 chipset. The D900T had 2GB (four 512MB chips) of DDR3 533MHz RAM installed, out of a possible 4GB maximum. At times I found myself thinking of the Eurocom D900T Phantom as a desktop workstation disguised as a laptop.

The display on the Eurocom D900T is a 17" screen that is capable of WSXGA+ at a resolution of 1680x1050 or WUXGA at a maximum resolution of 1920x1200. In our test system, the display was driven by an upgradable NVIDIA Quadro FX Go1400 with OpenGL. Based on PCI Express architecture, the graphics card incorporates 256MB of DDR3 video memory (soon upgradable to 512MB).

In terms of performance, the Eurocom D900T ranks right behind the Dell on the Cadalyst C2001 benchmark, producing a total index score of 128.47. MAXBench 4 scores were quite high at 101.47 for the combined high/low scores, and the viewperf proe-03 test score of 48.92 is similarly high. The performance figures of the Eurocom D900T are excellent, if the size, weight and relatively short battery life don't outweigh them for your particular needs.

Because it's based on more conventional system components, the Eurocom D900T generates a fair amount of heat for a laptop system, and the less-than-low-wattage components get great performance at the cost of battery power. The 12-cell lithium-ion battery is nominally rated for 1.5-hour life under optimal conditions. We ran our battery tests with both Bluetooth and wireless network polling disabled, but the installation of our test applications introduced some background processes. That said, we clocked an idle rundown time of 1 hour, 10 minutes with no activity. When the system ran a constant loop of the Cadalyst C2001 benchmark, battery rundown time was only slightly less—1 hour, 8 minutes. These numbers almost certainly vary from the vendor-reported battery life and indicate the range to expect within a given set of parameters.

I was less than thrilled with the D900T's slot-based 8x dual-layer multi-DVD burner, which I found both slow and excessively noisy. The drive would not read my AutoCAD 2006 CD-ROM, which necessitated copying the CD to the hard disk and installing from there—not an ideal situation. Eurocom notes that all slot-based drives are a bit louder than the tray-based ones because their vibration is much higher. Eurocom carries both slot- and tray-based optical drives so that customers can choose the drive they prefer. Upgradable options on the Eurocom D900T Phantom include the graphics GPU, processor, memory, hard drives and optical drives. Other innovations include RAID 0, 1; dual SATA HDDs support; and dual-channel DDR2-533 RAM.

The company provides 64-bit drivers for the EUROCOM D900T PHANTOM (Windows XP Pro 64) and it plans to soon launch another version of D900 Phantom called D900K Phantom with 64-bit AMD FX55 Athlon64 processors.

HP Compaq nw8240

Cadalyst Labs Grade: A-
Price: $4,157

The HP Compaq nw8240, a third-generation mobile workstation, is trim, compact and well engineered. It's the most frugal in this roundup in terms of battery power consumption. The nw8240 we received for testing was based on an Intel Pentium M 770 processor with a rated speed of 2.13GHz, 2MB of L2 cache and a 533MHz front-side bus. The test system was configured with 2GB of DDR II SDRAM (533MHz). It measures a noticeably thin 1.1" × 14" × 10.4" and weighs from 5.8lb to 6.2lb, depending on the configuration. The engineering and attention to detail on this system is superb.

The HP Compaq nw8240 delivers the longest battery life of mobile workstations in this review.
The HP Compaq nw8240 delivers the longest battery life of mobile workstations in this review.

The HP Compaq nw8240 features a 15.4" WUXGA wide-viewing angle screen with a relatively high native resolution of 1920x1200. We ran our benchmarks both at the usual 1280x1024 resolution and at the native resolution.

The video system supports OpenGL and is powered by the ATI Mobility FireGL V5000 with 128MB of video memory. Initial tests with the included ATI graphics driver v6.14.10.6521 proved problematical when we ran the Cadalyst C2001 benchmark, but beta release driver v6.14.10.6546 solved our problems, though a cosmetic-only glitch remained at lower resolutions. That should be rectified by the time the beta driver is released. The newer driver had no effect on performance.

Performance figures were good, though not the fastest in this speedy field of mobile workstations. This likely reflects the performance of the ATI video subsystem more than anything else. On the Cadalyst C2001 benchmark, the HP Compaq nw8240 produced a total index score of 98.88. The MAXBench 4 score based on the averaged high/low scores was 80.73. The proe-03 test suite of the SPECviewperf 8.01 benchmark returned a score of 42.33. This test typically reflects the performance of the graphics card or video subsystem.

The HP Compaq nw8240 includes a single 8-cell, high-capacity lithium-ion battery. According to HP, the battery lasts for 4 hours, 15 minutes running MobileMark 2002 and for 3 hours (worst case) playing a DVD movie. Time to charge the battery to 90% is 1 hour, 30 minutes. With Bluetooth and wireless network polling disabled, we achieved an idle rundown time of 3 hours, 55 minutes, and an active rundown time (running a constant loop of the Cadalyst C2001 benchmark) of 2 hours, 20 minutes. Though these numbers don't quite match the optimal scores quoted by HP, they are the longest of any mobile workstation in this roundup by a significant margin. A travel battery can be added to effectively double battery life. The shape of the travel battery tilts the keyboard to a more comfortable working position As equipped, the HP Compaq nw8240 costs $4,157, making it the least expensive workstation in this roundup.

Warranty coverage is 36 months on-site, with 24-hour replacement parts and 24-hour telephone support included.

Table: A Comparison of Mobile Workstation Features

Sidebar: Maximum Mobility: CAD options for Windows CE devices

About the Author: Ron LaFon

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