CAD on the go

17 March 2009

As a man constantly on the road, Rob Jamieson knows a thing or two about mobile working. Stopping short of strapping a workstation to a trolley, he shares his top tips for CAD on the go

For ultimate power on the job then a desktop workstation is the only way to go, but if you are like me and need power on the move you have to make some compromises. But exactly which compromises do you make to fit the needs of the job in hand?

If it’s just email on the move you can use one of the myriad of blackberry type devices or now a netbook. I use a Blackberry every day but for viewing of larger files and PDFs I find it hard to see. Netbooks are good as they have a full keyboard and bigger screens, but as they generally use low power CPUs they are fine for web-based mail but full applications can tax them.

Viewing or using full 3D or even 2D applications can push them to the edge, but soon to be released updated versions will feature faster CPUs and graphics. If you think about it, PDAs died out because phones became more featured but CAD viewers have not really moved to general phones. The cost point for netbooks has also been quite low which has defined a new market space and feature set. Because of the price point you tend to find Linux is a more popular operating system but it can be harder to find CAD viewer software for. I have an older netbook I use for when I’m travelling light, on which I can use PowerPoint but its power for 3D or photo editing is limited. As a result my preferred option is a workstation laptop.

One time I got out a 17-inch mobile workstation on a plane and half of my laptop was on my neighbouring passenger’s tray. If ever there was a case for me to fly business…

Workstation laptops come in three varieties: 14-inch, 15-inch and 17-inch. This is based on screen size, but resolutions can change. There are not many 14-inch laptops available and they have fairly low-resolution screens and because they have the smallest form factor they are restricted on CPU and GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) power. They are fine for 2D CAD or viewing 3D and email but you will most probably need a desktop workstation to do serious work.

The next category is the 15-inch laptop. These are still portable, but of course have a bigger screen and can have the fastest CPUs and upper mid range GPUs. This is the most hotly contested area for manufacturers so there is quite a range to choose from.  The external power supply units (PSUs) are similar in size to the 14-inch models and fairly portable.

The top size is a 17-inch laptop and they are classed as desktop replacements. They have top CPU options, mid- to high-end GPUs and very large form factors. They also have very big external PSUs to match. As they have lots of options they use lots of juice, which limits the battery life. Six cell batteries are typical in most laptops but the 17-inch models normally come with nine cells. All of this makes 17-inch laptops very heavy so they are targeted at replacing desktops - desktops that can be moved. One of the big problems with 17-inch laptops is using them on the move. Battery life is one thing but the physical size makes them hard to use on the bus or plane. One time I got out a 17-inch mobile workstation on a flight and half of my laptop was on my neighbouring passenger’s tray. If ever there was a case for me to fly business.

So what is my ideal? I’d go for a well specified 15-inch laptop with a fast CPU and high resolution screen, good graphics and a large drive. In my view this is as powerful as the 17-inch but is portable enough to be carried and used on plane etc. The screen is good enough to be used at my desk and unlike the larger format laptops it doesn’t give me a sore shoulder.
On the options list you can add a small PSU. Lenovo offers these as well as non OEM companies like Targus . Options such as extra connectors to charge blackberries and phones, can be added. Plane/car 12-volt adapters are included. My current Laptop is a Lenovo ThinkPad W500 and a PSU that is around 14mm thick, which is not only lighter, but a lot easier to carry. As a fairly new laptop it has a Display Port adapter which you can get convertors to HDMi (TV) and DVI. I store all my passwords in the fingerprint software, which saves logging on.

Like most corporations my company does not want you installing unnecessary applications on the encrypted drive. Having two hard disks is one option but since the USB memory sticks have become so large and cheap (16GB are now £20) I use this as a second boot device with another OS on. I installed a TV tuner for local watching and use a Slingbox from home. The Slingbox sends my TV over the internet so I can watch satellite while I’m away on business in my hotel room. The only downside is that my wife sometimes changes channel half way through, typically when I’m on the Discovery channel.

Laptops are a growing market and increasing in volume compared to desktop workstations so its market value and share is key for large manufacturers. All offer slightly different features but in the end a laptop has to be robust and reliable because it soon becomes the hub of everything in our mobile world. Never scrimp, buy quality and buy what fits your needs.

Rob Jamieson is marketing manager for workstation graphics at AMD. He realises there’s a thin line between enlightening readers and getting busted by his IT department for installing unauthorised software. The opinions expressed in this article are not those of AMD.
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