Buying a professional Laptop

04 March 2010

Constantly on the road, Rob Jamieson knows a thing or two about mobile workstations. From choosing the best CPU to how to travel in cattle class, he shares his top tips for buying a professional level laptop

Last month I commented on the change in work methods at modern companies and how individuals are working from home or in remote locations. For CAD users one of the enabling technologies for mobile computing must be the workstation laptop, but which one?

Every year (or so) a new generation of workstation laptops are released. They are generally split into three groups with the size of the monitor dictating the perceived use. This means you get 14, 15 and 17-inch screens with options for backlighting and screen use.

The big boys

17-inch laptops are considered more of a desktop replacement and can be quite heavy with separate, larger power supply units (PSUs). These offer the highest specifications with more options for memory, and multiple hard disks, and they have the fastest CPUs and professional graphics. The most powerful workstation laptops have the option of a four core CPU. Of course this costs more but if you have multithreaded applications, like stress analysis and thermo fluids, the extra cores will help.

While giving ‘desktop workstation’ levels of performance 17- inch laptops are compromised on portability and battery life. Because of their bulk it’s also hard to use them on a train or plane, unless you are in 1st class (not that I would know what that’s like).

One of the big problems with laptops is how to extract the heat produced from the CPU, GPU and hard disk. Putting four cores into a notebook requires good power and heat management. To solve this manufacturers use the smallest die chips and management routines that make cores idle if the machine perceives limited usage. It’s worth spending some time investigating these power saving modes as some multithreaded applications might not be flagged as ‘multi threaded enabled’ inside the management software and as a result not run all the cores.

The other issue is that the current highest clock speed processors available in laptops are dual core (this might change soon). Most CAD applications still prefer a high clock speed. In some recent tests carried out by a CAD distributor based on price the dual core chip out performed its quad core counterpart in graphics and compute, primarily because it had a higher clock speed. 

One of the primary reasons that workstation laptops exist is the support of the professional graphics card for CAD applications. These follow a certification process and offer features that CAD applications require. I’ve been asked before, “I have a Sony Vaio with a standard graphics card, why do I get artefacts in the background when running Showcase.” The answer is, driver support is paramount.

Larger format laptops can support multiple drives that can be ‘Raided’ or use a SSD (Solid State Drive) or a mix. Due to their design SSDs suffer less from movement where hard disks can crash. The down side is if there is a failure you lose all the data on the drive. They also have quicker read speeds.

Larger laptops have more memory slots, which is always useful as all applications love RAM. Many 17-inch workstation laptops now have 4 DIMM slots, whereas 14 and 15-inch models only have two. When weighing up the comparable cost of different sized machines it’s a consideration that 4 x 2GB DIMMs might be cheaper than 2 x 4GB DIMMs.

A good example of a 17-inch laptop with 4 x DIMM slots is the Dell M6500 with ATI FirePro M7740 and 1GB just for the graphics card. That’s a lot of power in a mobile workstation if you are prepared to carry it.

The compromise

For me I like mobility and a top spec so I compromise with 15-inch laptop. You can get the top speed dual core CPUs and save your shoulder from injury. I like the dual hard disk option so I’ve swapped out a CD/DVD burner for a SSD drive to store some data. I can also transfer this to my main desktop as a backup if you get a external SATA cable, and these are quite cheap as a option for desktops. I also carry a DVD burner with me so I can swap it with the SSD as and when required but I find I use it less and less now with the advent of USB drives.

The backup

One of the biggest problems with mobile computing is remembering to do a backup! Laptops can be lost or damaged quite easily. Who hasn’t gone to the pub for a swift drink after work and ended up rolling out at closing time. “Did I have my laptop with me?” we ask ourselves.

Docking stations and auto backup routines are a good way but we all know that the laptop becomes unusable while a backup is going on. If you do have a backup like this, test it by putting the data onto another machine. Countless times I’ve seen people backup rubbish or the wrong files. It took a colleague of mine a week to recover after having a damaged laptop drive.

I backup my PST (Outlook) and data files. If I have a major crash I expect to have to reinstall the applications from scratch. I find that imaging a system and then restoring it to a replacement system is always hard work.

I have a Lenovo W500 with 4GB RAM, 250GB hard drive, 160GB SSD and an ATI FirePro V5700 512Mb graphics card. I use the fingerprint recognition software and just about carry it everywhere. I’m a big fan of the build quality.

Thinking small

In my personal opinion, 14-inch workstation laptops aren’t worth the time. The screen is too small and there is not enough power in CPU or graphics to drive CAD. For a review laptop in the field it might work but for me they are not good. If I need to travel light I take netbook for browsing the web and doing a basic presentation. I’m lucky enough to have one, but not all of us have the luxury of two machines.

One of the biggest benefits of a notebook/laptop can also be one of the biggest problems. With a powerful mobile workstation you can work anywhere and this is not always good as companies expect you to do this! I’m not advocating skiving but sometimes time away from a problem means you can think clearly and solve it. When I work from home it’s often when I’m making or eating lunch that I solve a problem or have a new idea. For me it’s not just about mobility but your working practices to get the most out of your time.

Rob Jamieson is a marketing manager at AMD. In case you don’t believe that 17-inch laptops and standard class don’t mix, just ask the poor guy sat next to him on BA0285 a few years back. This article is his own opinion and may not represent AMD’s positions, strategies or opinions.
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