Take Your Work Anywhere

30 Jun, 2004 By: Ron LaFon

For some time, I've considered workstation-level performance as just that, whether the system is a desktop system or a notebook computer. Certainly some workstations are faster than others, but system performance must reach a certain level to distinguish itself from the basic personal computer that is a relatively low-priced commodity.

For this roundup, Cadalyst requested mobile workstations with the fastest available processor and a minimum of 1GB of system RAM installed. Systems needed at least 60GB of hard disk storage, a CD R/W drive, and Microsoft Windows XP Professional preconfigured with the Classic interface.

Outside of the regular review, I also looked at a state-of-the-art Tablet PC, the Fujitsu LifeBook T3000, and a notebook computer that differs from all the others, the Sharp Actius RD3D AutoStereo Notebook.

What's New

As it happens, Intel introduced the Pentium M Dothan microprocessor just as I started this roundup. The Dothan is a new version of the Pentium M processor for mobile computers, which previously topped out at 1.7GHz. The Dothan incorporates 2MB of cache and currently runs at speeds as fast as 2GHz. Manufactured using Intel's new 90nm technology, it offers higher performance, better caching, and better power consumption characteristics than previous Pentium M chip models. Though 2GHz marks the high end of the speed range, at least for the moment, Intel also announced slower and more economical versions of its new chip that should be released in the near future.

In addition to basic components that use energy more wisely, battery life has improved since the last time Cadalyst Labs tested mobile workstations in August 2002. It came as no surprise, though, that the faster systems depleted the batteries more quickly, despite the improvements.

Graphic subsystems also show improvement in terms of available refresh rates, wide-screen displays, and higher resolutions. For the systems tested here, default display resolutions above 1280X1024 at 32-bit color were the norm, and at least one of the systems offered a refresh rate of 160Hz as a selectable option. Be aware that to get an onscreen image without any distortion, you need to use wide-screen display modes. For example, if you use a resolution of 1280X1024 on a screen that normally supports 1920X1200, the image appears squashed. The information is all there, but the proportions of the display don't match the proportions of the selected display size.

Although other options are available, the built-in touchpad is still the standard as far as input technology goes. Fortunately, the USB ports on these systems let you easily attach a wireless or tethered mouse. Operating AutoCAD from a touchpad is not something I'd want to do on a regular basis.

The Tests

Because this category of notebook computer is advertised and marketed as a mobile workstation, I tested these machines as I do conventional desktop workstations.

I ran the Cadalyst Labs C2001 benchmark tests using AutoCAD 2005 at a resolution of 1280X1024 at 32-bit color. Because the native resolution of the mobile workstations tested was higher than the typical benchmark test resolution, I also tested at the native resolution for comparison purposes. Additional tests included the proe-02 component of the SPEC ViewPerf 7.1.1 test suite and the MAXBench4 benchmark using discreet's 3ds max 6 with service pack 1 installed.

The only tests specific to the mobile workstations were the battery life tests. I made two run-down tests. Each started with the installed battery showing a 100% charge. The first was a simple test with the computer resting idle. The second was a run-down test with the Cadalyst Labs C2001 benchmarks running in a continuous loop. As you'd might, the batteries drained substantially faster in the active run-down test.

The life of the battery charge in real-world use of one of these mobile workstations will likely fall somewhere in between these two figures.

Do any of these mobile workstations match the performance of the fastest desktop workstations? No. For the first time, however, I'd say that these speedy portables have reached workstation performance levels, although they fall on the slow end of the workstation range. A portable computer that can perform well with, for example, the latest versions of AutoCAD and 3ds max without almost immediately depleting the onboard batteries is a great improvement over previous mobile workstations.

Add to these capabilities the latest in connectivity such as WiFi and BlueTooth, along with clean, compact designs, and you have a valuable tool that you can take with you. Such systems are still a little heavier than is ideal, but considering the performance and battery-life improvements found in the latest versions, lugging a bit more weight is well worth the trade-off.

The changes in mobile workstations have largely been evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, but the net result is a remarkably powerful generation of portable computing options that are capable of handling major design, engineering, and visualization applications.

On the near horizon are mobile workstations equipped with PCI Express, the new input/output specification. They should follow the release of traditional workstations equipped with this technology in a couple of months. Though little is likely to change in the basic form factor of mobile workstations, removing the screens from the notebook systems is at least one potential change that might make an appearance. For the most part, however, CAD users will find little in the way of enhanced performance with PCI Express-at least until applications specifically address some of the capabilities of this new technology. If the throughput of your video subsystem is a bottleneck for what you do, you'll benefit from PCI Express. AGP cards will continue to be improved and manufactured for some time, but you should consider the advantages of PCI Express when you purchase a new workstation-mobile or otherwise.

Precision M60 Mobile Workstation


Star rating: 5 stars out of 5

Price: $3,893

The Dell Precision M60 mobile workstation we tested is based on the Intel Pentium M Dothan processor running at 2GHz-its current maximum speed. The chipset supports a 400MHz front-side bus that speeds system operation, and the microprocessor incorporates a 2MB L2 cache. I tested the Precision M60 with 1GB of RAM.

The Dell Precision M60 mobile workstation's video subsystem is based on the Quadro FX Go 1000 graphics chipset. For these tests I used NVIDIA video graphic driver v6.14.10.5382, which supports OpenGL v1.4.1. The Precision M60 video subsystem is AGP 4X and includes 128MB of dedicated DDR video memory. I tested the machine at 1280X1024 at 32 bits to produce a C2001 Total Index score of 80.66. I ran one test at the native wide-screen format of 1920X1200 at 32 bits, but found it to be noticeably slower, coming in at 57.58.

Other scores for the Dell Precision M60 included a combined high and low frame rate average of 45.60 for the MAXBench4 benchmark and a score of 26.08 on the proe-02 test suite of the SPEC ViewPerf 7.1.1 benchmarks. These are all quite good scores, and well within the range of low-end desktop workstations. For a mobile workstation, these scores are excellent.

Dell's M60 mobile workstation features a sleek new design and Intel's new Pentium M Dothan microprocessor.
Dell's M60 mobile workstation features a sleek new design and Intel's new Pentium M Dothan microprocessor.

Note that the 1920X1200 native resolution of the Dell Precision M60 mobile workstation is a wider aspect ratio than the more usual 1280X1024 or 1600X1200 ratios found on desktop workstations. When these conventional resolutions are used on a wide-screen display, objects on the screen appear squashed or flattened-not a good thing for CAD or engineering applications. To avoid this distortion, select and use resolution aspect ratios that are proportional to the native 1920X1200 resolution display of this system.

Measuring 14.2" X 10.9" X 1.5" (wXdXh) and weighing 7.4lb with a CD-ROM and a 9-cell battery installed, the M60 is slightly larger and heavier than the others in this review. Even though it's less thrifty with its power consumption, it's significantly faster across the tested range. Our battery tests with the M60 showed a life of 3 hours, 11 minutes with the system idle, and 1 hour, 54 minutes with the system running a loop of the Cadalyst C2001 test using AutoCAD 2005.

The new Silver Ion design of the Precision M60 is extremely clean and almost deceptively simple, making the system as attractive as it is speedy. The Dell Precision M60 is priced at $3,893 as tested; a base station and dock are available as options. As befits its placement as a high-end system, the M60 excels in connectivity, offering an array of wired and wireless connections.

With good looks and high performance, there's much to like about the Dell Precision M60 mobile workstation.

Highly Recommended .

HP Compaq Mobile Workstation nw8000


Star rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

PRICE: $4,299

The HP Compaq Mobile Workstation nw8000 is based on the newly introduced Intel Pentium M Dothan microprocessor that runs at 2GHz. The Dothan has a 2MB L2 cache and supports a 400MHz front-side bus, both of which add to the performance of the system. I tested the nw8000 with 1GB of RAM installed; it supports a maximum of 2GB of RAM in two 1024MB DIMMS.

Graphics on the HP Compaq nw8000 are based on the ATI Mobility FireGL T2 (9600) chipset that, on this system, produces a native resolution of 1600X1200 at 32-bit color. It uses ATI video drivers v7.91.4-030724a-010495C, which provide OpenGL support for ATI v1.3.3847. Selectable synchronization options range from 60Hz-160Hz, with 60Hz as the default. [Editor's note: As we went to press, HP reported that it now ships ATI video drivers v7.962-031202M1-012957C with the nw8000.]

The HP Compaq Mobile Workstation nw8000 is impressive. It's among the first generation of portable systems that I consider to have workstation performance, although it's slow by current desktop standards.

The Hewlett-Packard nw8000 Mobile Workstation is excellent for CAD and engineering applications.
The Hewlett-Packard nw8000 Mobile Workstation is excellent for CAD and engineering applications.

The integrated optical drive leaves an extra slot available for use with an additional peripheral or battery. The integrated optical drive supports DVD+RW and CD-RW (24X/10X/24X/8X).

Test results for the HP Compaq Mobile Workstation nw8000 were good: on the Cadalyst C2001 Test (1280X1024 at 32 bits and 60Hz), the Total Index score was 58.94. At native resolution (1600X1200 at 32 bits and 60Hz), the nw8000 achieved a C2001 Total Index score of 50.94. These are respectable performance numbers.

Other performance figures for the HP Compaq Mobile Workstation nw8000 include a combined high/low frame rate average of 37.25 for the MAXBench4 benchmark and a score of 13.8 on the proe-02 test suite of the SPEC ViewPerf 7.1.1 benchmarks. This relatively low score could be a driver or a chipset revision level problem, both of which I've encountered on systems that use ATI chipsets. [Editor's note: HP says that with the new ATI video driver now installed in this mobile workstation, it achieves ViewPerf scores of 27.09.]

Before running the battery tests on the nw8000-both in idle and in active modes-I disabled the Wi-Fi and BlueTooth features via a special key located at the top center of the nw8000's keyboard. This prevents a draw on the voltage from two components that can dissipate a battery's charge. I also opted not to use a wireless input device for much the same reason.

Battery tests for the nw8000 showed run down times of 4 hours, 11 minutes with the system idling under Windows XP Professional, and 1 hour, 55 minutes with the system actively running a loop of the Cadalyst C2001 benchmark test in AutoCAD 2005.

The HP Compaq Mobile Workstation nw8000 is an attractive and ruggedly built system-not an easy feat for a portable unit. At 12.8" X 10.8" X 1.6" (wXdXh), this relatively compact system weighs in at 6.5lb (with weight saver) or 7.1lb (as tested with the CD-RW drive). The LCD screen is a 15" TFT SXGA panel with a wide viewing angle. The system is covered by a three-year parts and labor warranty.

As you might expect, connectivity options are extensive, offering everything from the aforementioned WiFi and BlueTooth to USB 2.0 connectors, FireWire, InfraRed, and more. An optional, integrated Smart Card reader can also serve security functions.

The HP Compaq Mobile Workstation nw8000 as received for testing is priced at $4, 299, including the optional SpaceTraveller for Mobile Workstation ($ 499 ) and wireless mouse ($49).

LifeBook T3000 Tablet PC

Fujitsu Computer Systems Corp.

PRICE: $2,049

As part of our mobile workstation review, we decided to check on the current state of the Tablet PC, a mobile alternative that debuted last year. Tablet PCs are basically notebooks that incorporate a touchscreen for pen-based input. The LifeBook T3000 Cadalyst Labs received from Fujitsu runs Windows XP Tablet PC Edition version 2002 with service pack 1 installed. Measuring 11.5" X 9.3" X 1.1-1.4" (wXdXh) and weighing in at about 4.2lb, the LifeBook T3000 is certainly compact and portable.

The system is based on a 1.4GHz Intel Pentium M processor with 1MB of ondie L2 cache, and the review unit was equipped with 504MB of RAM, which is expandable to 2GB (256MB minimum). Front-side bus speed is 400MHz. Default video resolution was 1024X768 at 32-bit color, running driver Sync rates of 60-100Hz are possible at this resolution. Maximum resolution is 1600X1200.

In operation, the Fujitsu LifeBook T3000 is a convertible system that you can use as a conventional notebook computer with the incorporated keyboard or, by pivoting the screen and folding it down on the keyboard, as a tablet PC. A pen bay is tucked into the bezel of the 12.1" LCD screen. Engineering of the system is excellent throughout, as are the finishing touches.

The Fujitsu LifeBook T3000 Tablet PC also functions as a conventional notebook computer.
The Fujitsu LifeBook T3000 Tablet PC also functions as a conventional notebook computer.

Certainly, the Tablet PC has uses in design and CAD offices-for example, when using @LastSoftware's SketchUp and Corel's Grafigo 2. As they currently exist, however, Tablet PCs are underpowered for handling major CAD applications such as AutoCAD. Though it's theoretically within the tablet PC's abilities to run such applications, the low horsepower of the systems precludes a variety of productive work.

Connectivity options include an integrated Ethernet LAN, a modem, and Wi-Fi certified wireless LAN (802.11b) connectivity. An antenna is mounted in the display panel to achieve the highest data transfer rates and connection reliability.

The Fujitsu LifeBook T3000 Tablet PC is priced at $2,049, with the port replicator available for $149 and a carrying case for $99. An optional battery-powered external DVD/CD-RW drive ($349) is amazingly compact. This drive is highly functional, but it's not recommended for continuous use (such as playing an audio CD or viewing a DVD) while on battery operation. A separate AC power supply is included with the drive. An optional external USB floppy disk drive is also available. The LifeBook T3000 is available with either a 40GB or 60GB hard drive.

A Kensington lock slot is incorporated in the LifeBook T3000, as are two USB 2 slots, an RJ-11 modem port, and an RJ-45 Ethernet port. An IrDA-compatible 4Mbps infrared port is included, along with headphone, microphone, external monitor, and docking ports.

The LifeBook T3000 operates on a lithium ion battery that provides up to 4.5 hours of operation. A bridge battery allows warm-swapping of the primary battery, providing up to five minutes of data protection during battery exchange.

Software bundled with the Fujitsu LifeBook T3000 Tablet PC includes the Adobe Acrobat Reader, PowerQuest Drive Image Special Edition, Fujitsu Display Controls, Fujitsu Hot Key Utility, Microsoft Internet Explorer, MS Reader, NewsStand Reader, Zinio Reader, and a 30-day trial version of Franklin Covey Tablet Planner.

The Fujitsu LifeBook T3000 Tablet PC is a precision instrument capable of serving as an adjunct to the CAD workstations typically found in design and engineering firms.

Sharp Actius RD3D AutoStereo Notebook

Sharp Systems of America

PRICE: $2,999

On first appearance the Sharp Actius RD3D AutoStereo Notebook appears to be simply a somewhat large, thick, and heavy notebook computer. Once you look at the on-screen image, however, the difference is eye-popping. This is a stereo notebook that uses Sharp's TFT 3D LCD technology to produce 3D images that are directly viewable without requiring special glasses or goggles.

A relatively large 3D button at the top of the keyboard indicates something out of the ordinary. Once you boot the system into Windows XP, press the 3D button to toggle the RD3D's screen between conventional 2D mode and a 3D mode for specially written applications or specially produced graphics. You won't, for example, get a 3D Excel spreadsheet or 3D e-mail by toggling from one mode to another.

The Actius RD3D uses a parallax barrier, toggled by the 3D button, to divide light from the LCD screen so that different patterns reach the viewer's right and left eyes. Because each eye sees a slightly different image, the potential exists for specially produced graphics to produce the illusion of 3D.

The Sharp Actius RD3D, an autostereo 3D notebook, presents 3D images you can view without special glasses.
The Sharp Actius RD3D, an autostereo 3D notebook, presents 3D images you can view without special glasses.

To best view the 3D image, it's important to have your head aligned fairly accurately with the center of the RD3D's screen. If you're a little to one side or another, you see a little banding. If you're substantially off-axis, you lose the 3D effect. In practice, it proved to be easy to stay in the right area. I just had to move slightly to keep the alignment for the maximum 3D effect.

A software bundle included with the Sharp Actius RD3D supports its 3D and multimedia capabilities. Among the titles are Sharp Smart Stereo Photo Editor/Slide Show, TriDef Movie Player from Dynamic Digital Depth, and Personal CAChe-a chemical molecular modeling application. For those inclined toward a bit of 3D entertainment, it includes a collection of 3D movie trailers. You can buy feature-length 3D movies on DVD-ROM that are produced using DDD's proprietary 3D TriDef format.

EON Reality recently announced that it has completed integration of its EON Studio 5.0 and EON CAD with the Actius laptop, which means you can now use EON CAD's automatic conversion capabilities to turn existing 3D models into stereoscopic-enabled data.

The Actius RD3D is currently available with 512MB of RAM (capable of scaling to 1GB), which falls below our requirements for this roundup, but the system offers enough unique features that we though it would be of interest to you.

Priced at $2,999, the Actius RD3D has a 15" TFT 3D XGA (1024X768) LCD screen that is driven by the NVIDIA GeForce 4 440 GPU (graphic processing unit) with 64MB of dedicated graphics memory. The system is based on an Intel Pentium 4 2.8GHz processor and features a 60GB hard disk.

The RD3D includes a multifunction DVD drive (DVD-R/RW/RAM and CD-R/RW) and two speakers mounted under the LCD display. The Actius RD3D supports 5.1 channel virtual surround with the addition of two external speakers.

As you might expect, the Actius Rd3D offers many storage and connectivity options, including various memory card slots, four USB 2 ports, and a FireWire IEEE1394 port. A floppy disk drive is built in, as is a 56kbps (V.90) fax modem and 100Base-TX/10Base-T LAN for wired networking. External display options include analog RGB, mini D-sub 15-pin, and S-video outputs.

Sharp's remarkable Actius RD3D offers unique features that may prove valuable for design presentations.

IBM ThinkPad T42p


Star rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

PRICE: $3,849

IBM's ThinkPad T42p is an elegant yet rugged mobile workstation. Based on the new Intel Pentium M Dothan Processor 755 running at 2GHz and boasting a 2MB L2 cache, the test system arrived with 1GB of onboard RAM installed.

The ThinkPad T42p is a compact system, measuring 13" X 10.6" X 1.2"-1.4" (wXhXd) and weighing a relatively lightweight 5.5lb. The 15" UXGA TFT screen offers a native resolution of 1600X1200. The display is driven by an ATI Mobility FireGL T2 graphic subsystem with 128MB of DDR memory. The T42p as reviewed is priced at $3,849 and covered by a three-year labor and parts warranty, with one year of coverage for the battery. A Thinkpad Dock II is available for an additional $399.

Pointing options for the IBM ThinkPad T42p include the built-in UltraNav TouchPad and the TrackPoint Press-to-Select system. This system includes a remarkable number of extra-value features on both the hardware and software sides, many of which I disabled to avoid their impact on system performance or battery life. For those who take their work on the road, there's a lot of extra value here, such as Rescue and Recovery with Rapid Restore, access connections, and the Active Protection Service.

IBM ThinkPad T42p mobile workstation posted impressive times in our battery run-down tests.
IBM ThinkPad T42p mobile workstation posted impressive times in our battery run-down tests.

Battery tests for the IBM ThinkPad T42p yielded impressive rundown times of 5 hours, 17 minutes with the system idling under Windows XP Professional-more than an hour longer than the next nearest system. The battery lasted 2 hours, 6 minutes with the system running a loop of the Cadalyst C2001 benchmark test in AutoCAD 2005, about 11 minutes longer than its nearest rival.

The IBM ThinkPad T42p is more miserly with its existing resources than either of the other two mobile workstations tested here. On the flip side, it's not the speediest system-faster performance drains batteries more quickly.

The IBM ThinkPad T42p also had problems running the Maxbench4 benchmarks under 3ds max 6-it wouldn't run at all without the accelerated drivers. For its Maxbench4 performance figures, the number represents performance using the special max driver.

Aside from the SPEC ViewPerf score, performance figures for the IBM ThinkPad T42p are comparable to the similarly equipped Hewlett-Packard nw8000 mobile workstation. For the Cadalyst C2001 benchmark, its score was 61.77, and it averaged a high and low frame rate of 43.85 for the MAXBench4 benchmark.

I completed all tests using ATI drivers v6.14.10.6444 at a screen resolution of 1280X1024 at 32-bit color. I tested the ThinkPad T42p at its native resolution, 1600X1200 at 32-bit color, and achieved a score of 52.84 for the C2001 Total Index.

Sleek, attractive, and lightweight, the IBM ThinkPad T42p offers good performance and excellent design for those who take it on the road with them.

About the Author: Ron LaFon

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