Mobile CAD Workstations Priced Under $2,500

18 Nov, 2014 By: Art Liddle

Cadalyst Labs Report: Break away from your desk with seven portable, powerful models that can keep you productive wherever you go.

The CAD work environment has long been dominated by the ubiquitous workstation sitting on (or below) the desktop, tethered to an electrical outlet. But as the rest of the world goes mobile, so must the world of CAD. Our last roundup of CAD systems, conducted two years ago, reviewed traditional (desktop) workstations; this time around, in the spirit of going mobile, we review seven mobile models. And who knows — if this trend continues, then two years from now we may be doing a roundup review of tablets for CAD.

View Individual Reviews of the Models Included in This Roundup:


 Xi PowerGo XT
 Dell Precision M4800
 Digital Storm Krypton
 HP ZBook 15
 Lenovo ThinkPad W540

View Table of Specifications for the Models Included in This Roundup:

Click here for Comparison Table

Review Standards

To have their workstations included in this roundup, vendors had to select units that met several criteria. The most important was that each mobile workstation must cost no more than $2,500, excluding shipping. We knew this would be a challenge; the average price of the mobile systems we've reviewed since September 2012 is $3,482. The prices for those five machines ranged from a low of $2,399 (14" display) to a high of $7,983 (17.3"). Several vendors obviously had to trim system configurations to meet our price point. If you are in the market for a mobile work-station, consider the reviewed models as a starting point, but don't hesitate to spend a little more if necessary to get a system that fully meets your needs.

Other requirements for the review units included the following:

  • certified for AutoCAD and optimized for full 2D functionality with support for light 3D modeling
  • loaded with a 64-bit version of Microsoft Windows
  • if applicable, the standard warranty fully covers an overclocked processor
  • submitted model/configuration must be available for purchase at the time this roundup is published and throughout the fall of 2014.

We evaluated the mobile workstations based on four categories, each weighted for importance. The categories, with their assigned importance factor shown in parenthesis, are CAD performance (x6), configuration value (x3), battery performance (x2), and warranty/return policy (x1). The configuration value rating was based on the quality of display, memory, expandability, storage, etc., for the given price. We also took into account the form factor (17.3" or 15.6" display) when considering the expandability capacity, as well as battery performance — that is, the larger systems should have more expandability capacity, but shorter battery life. None of these systems is perfect, but all offer good value in one form or another — it really depends on exactly what you need.

Trends and Differences

Although there are many differences among the seven systems in this review, there are also several likenesses across the group. All systems include 16 GB of system memory. All systems include a high-performance solid-state drive (SSD), or at least a standard drive with integrated solid-state cache. Plus, all systems have an NVIDIA Quadro K-series graphics card.

For vendors of CAD systems, NVIDIA appears to be the brand of choice when it comes to graphics cards. Three different NVIDIA K-series graphics card models are represented in this review, listed here in order from most powerful to least: K3100M (four systems), K2100M (two), and K610M (one). In all but two cases, Eurocom's K3100M and HP's K610M, the configured graphics card represents the highest-end option available from the vendor for the workstation in question.

As for display size, four of the systems have a 15.6" display and three measure 17.3". Five of the systems support a maximum resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 (referred to as FHD or full high definition) and two support the very high resolution of 2,880 x 1,620 (referred to as 3K). Note that this last standard, 3K, has precisely 50% more pixels horizontally and vertically than FHD, giving a total of 125% more pixels on screen. This is great for finer details, but adjustments must be made to render some text legible. Although optional for many of the systems reviewed, only one (Lenovo's ThinkPad W540) included a color calibration tool for the display — no doubt due to the cost cap.

All but one of the systems include a backlit keyboard (you can upgrade Dell's M4800 to include it), and several let users adjust and customize the backlight colors. Systems from three of the vendors (Dell, HP, and Lenovo) are certified to meet military standards for harsh environmental conditions. As for the operating system (OS), the group was split. Remarkably — and we believe, purely by chance — the OS divide matched display size. The three 17.3" displays ran Microsoft Windows 8.1 (one of those was 8.1 Professional), and the four 15.6" displays ran Windows 7 Professional. Per our requirements, all were 64-bit. It's interesting to note that as far as CAD performance goes, Windows 8.1 seems to have a slight advantage, although this last point is open to interpretation. (Although I hated the original release of Windows 8, I have become a big fan of the follow-up release, Windows 8.1.)

Mobile Workstation CAD Performance Results

Testing Procedures

For this review we ran a pair of benchmarks on each machine: our Cadalyst Labs c2015 v5.5 benchmark (with AutoCAD 2015) and SPECviewperf v11. We calculated a total benchmark score by adding the total index score from the c2015 test and the average of the eight subset scores of the SPECviewperf test. We ran all tests at a resolution of 1,280 x 1,024 with 32-bit color. As usual, we enabled hardware acceleration for AutoCAD and turned off vertical sync for the graphics card. We did our testing using AutoCAD's integrated graphics driver and the latest Windows driver from NVIDIA, the sole graphics card vendor represented in this review. You may want to download our benchmark test from to measure the performance of your current workstation for comparison purposes.

For those unfamiliar with our benchmark, c2015 reports a series of index numbers for the following categories: Total Index (average of the other four indexes); 3D Index (rotates 3D models using four of AutoCAD's standard rendering functions); 2D Index (runs a series of commands for creating, modifying, and viewing assorted 2D entities); Disk Index (reads and writes to the hard drive multiple times using several different I/O functions); and CPU Index (loops through a series of simple calculations thousands of times).

Mobile Workstation Report Card

Larger numbers are better, because the index numbers recorded by the test represent how many times faster the test workstation is as compared with the base workstation, which was a 1995 ALR Pentium Pro system. (Yes, the roots of the Cadalyst benchmark stretch back more than 19 years!) The SPECviewperf benchmark, created and managed by the Standard Performance Evaluation Corporation, consists of a set of tests designed to represent the operation of eight CAD/visualization programs. Again, larger numbers are better.

Battery Performance

Our battery testing protocol is designed to kill the battery as quickly as possible. We disable all power-saving modes and settings, set the display to full brightness, and leave all standard processes running in the background. Our goal is to measure how long the system can operate running our c2015 benchmark under real-world conditions. In contrast, if you want to know how long a system can sit around doing nothing while powered by the battery, refer to the vendor's specifications.

One last note of interest: Thanks to a new feature of the Task Manager in Windows 8.1, we could watch the CPU clock speed vary during our benchmark testing — making it easier than ever to spot the "stress" points in the tests.


About the Author: Art Liddle

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