Configuration Considerations for Modern Mobile Workstations7 Jan, 2016 By: Thomas A. Salomone
A mobile machine provides benefits that desktop models can’t offer — but only if it’s configured correctly.
In the past, desktop workstations — long considered the powerhouses of the industry — were thought to be the only machines capable of delivering the performance engineers need. Yet mobile workstations have proven increasingly capable of powering the resource-intensive applications engineers and other CAD professionals use every day, freeing them from the confines of the office and enabling them to execute demanding workflows wherever they are. But are these users truly getting the most out of their mobile machines?
In this article, we’ll explore mobile workstation configuration, and discuss those features CAD professionals often undervalue when configuring their systems. I’ll also offer suggestions for configuring a machine that offers the right combination of mobility, usability, and reliability for the CAD user.
Putting the “Mobile” in Mobile Workstation
With each new generation of mobile workstations, hardware developers realize a higher level of performance than what was previously achievable, in part thanks to smaller, more powerful components. For example, Intel’s mobile Xeon processors have enough power to handle the most demanding CAD and rendering applications, while NVIDIA’s latest Quadro line of graphics processing units (GPUs) — including the M5000M and M4000M — offers the ability to visualize more complex designs at dramatically increased speeds as compared to previous technology.
In selecting components, however, CAD professionals often use the same criteria that they would when selecting desktop machines, which is a mistake. By putting too much emphasis on speed and performance, they may be missing out on the greatest benefit of mobile workstations: portability. Mobile workstation technology enables users to take their work on the road, into the field, or onto the shop floor, and configuration choices should capitalize on this advantage.
So which features are most important for supporting and enhancing mobility?
Minimal weight. Despite the increasing performance of these machines, workstation engineers have managed to design mobile workstations to be thinner and lighter than ever before, making them easier to transport and carry. You’ll need a mobile machine that is powerful enough to handle your tough CAD workflows, but won’t break your back every time you carry the bag on your shoulder. Typically, 3.8 to 5.5 lbs. is ideal.
Extended battery life. Again, in this scenario, designers have traditionally treated their mobile workstations like desktop workstations and used them in the office, under the assumption that unplugging them will risk compromising their work when, all too quickly, the battery runs out. But workstation providers are designing systems to include extended battery life and power-saving features that eliminate worries about a system dying partway through the workday.
Road-worthy durability. Previously, laptops were fragile, breakable, and highly vulnerable to external dangers such as heat, dust, corrosion, and other environmental factors. And while these factors can still impact machine usability, mobile workstations have increasingly become more rugged and durable, able to stand up to the most rigorous conditions. Many mobile workstations are MIL-Spec tested for all of these environmental conditions and more, assuring engineers that they will be truly mobile machines able to handle the toughest environmental effects they can dish out.
But mobility isn’t the only benefit of mobile workstations. There are other features mobile workstation users need to consider when configuring their machines to make them ideal for use on the go.
Display, Color, and Usability
One of the most overlooked features of mobile workstations is the display. Since most CAD designs are typically displayed on large desktop monitors, engineers often assume that mobile workstations will offer inferior capabilities — but this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Mobile workstation displays have improved dramatically over previously achievable results, offering capabilities that enable engineers to better visualize and present their work. For instance, mobile workstations are now available with 4K Ultra-HD resolution and screens as large as 17”, yielding more finely detailed images and larger workspaces. Additionally, new tools such as the Pantone X-Rite color calibrator let designers maintain precise and consistent colors throughout the life of their machines for greater color repeatability. Users would do well to consider their systems’ display capabilities in any configuration scheme to ensure they capitalize on the advanced display features available.
But display is only one of the factors that affects machine usability. Factors such as keyboard layout and mouse functionality are essential parts of day-to-day use that often go unnoticed in machine configuration, but have a significant impact on productivity. Mobile workstations are designed to minimize weight and height — considerations that can negatively impact key size and keystroke travel in addition to mousepad size. Machines can be made smaller, but only to the point that they are still comfortable and easy to use.
This is where it becomes important to consider ergonomics and various use cases for the machine, to ensure that your machine will perform well for your purposes. For example, do you need a backlit keyboard for working in low-light conditions? Are the keys designed with a slight bevel to hold your fingers in place as you type?
Additionally, you’ll want to consider a mobile workstation’s docking capabilities in your configuration, because it’s likely that your mobile machine will see heavy in-office use as well. With more users transitioning to multiple screens in their work, effective docking capabilities can go a long way toward enhancing productivity. Docking should be designed so you can simply snap your workstation in place and remove it with ease, perhaps using just a single release button. Also, you should look for options that allow you to attach power cords, network cables, mice and 3Dconnexion devices, external drives, and multiple monitors through your docking station, saving time and effort by limiting the number of connect/disconnect actions in a day.
The Final Pieces of the Puzzle
Finally, we come to two of the most critical features in ensuring productivity.
The first of these is reliability. You need to be confident that your machine will continue to perform properly, even under the most intense workload. With the advanced components being packed into these systems, the danger of running too hot is a major concern. Heat is the enemy of electronics, and too much of it can cause electronics to degrade quickly. Intel Mobile processors can draw as much as 45 watts, and some GPUs can reach 100 watts (the higher the wattage, the more heat is generated). Given the confined space in a mobile workstation, this can make for very warm conditions if not cooled properly. Some mobile workstations are now being configured with cooling systems that give users the ability to push the system as hard as they want without the worry of heat-related failures. Cooling also enhances the processor’s ability to run at Intel Turbo Boost speeds, meaning Intel dynamically controls the processor’s clock rate and enables the processor to run above base operating frequency — but only if it is cool enough. So cooling is not just a reliability feature but a performance one, as it can not only kill your electronics, but also reduce your processor speed.
The other critical feature is storage. With file sizes increasing, it becomes absolutely imperative that your machine can access the data it needs in order to reduce lag and enable productivity. Consider components such as solid-state drives (SSDs) and M.2 drives, as well as others that offer PCIe connectivity for fast data access, and you’ll have a machine that will run at high speeds even when working with large files.
Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, we come to independent software vendor (ISV) certification. Because, at the end of the day, you need to know that the mobile workstation you configure will be able to handle the applications you use every day in your work. Many ISVs, such as SolidWorks and Autodesk, are verifying machines that have been tested and designed to run those companies’ most advanced applications, giving engineers the peace of mind to know that their mobile workstation will be able to handle the software without a hitch.
The various options and features being built into mobile workstations have made these machines attractive complements to their desktop counterparts, capable of enabling productivity in the field for engineers regardless of the environment.
When configuring a mobile workstation, make sure you’re factoring in all the features that are specific to this category of machines — those that enable greater mobility, usability and reliability — to get the most out of your investment.