From ultrabook to desktop replacement, there’s a mobile workstation for every architect and engineer. Greg Corke delves deep into the CAD-class laptop.

Try and run 3D CAD software on a consumer laptop and you’ll most likely have a disappointing experience. Mobile workstations, on the other hand, are purpose built for 3D CAD. They offer the same workstation-class technologies you’d expect to find in desktop counterparts and many are tested and certified to run a whole range of CAD applications. Whether you’re looking for a workstation-class ultrabook or a desktop replacement here are some of the most important things to consider for CAD on the go.

Mobility

Mobile workstations, by definition, should be mobile, but finding the right balance between performance, screen size and portability can be hard.

Machines typically come in two sizes, governed by the size of the display. 15-inch models weigh between 2.5kg and 3.0kg, while 17-inch models range from 3.5kg to 4.0kg.

The laptop itself is one thing but you also need to take the power adapter into consideration. These are much bigger for mobile workstations than those for standard laptops due to the power hungry GPUs. Complete with cables and plugs, adapters typically weigh 0.7kg for a 15-inch machine and 1kg for a 17-inch machine. This not only adds to the overall weight, but can also make it hard to pack everything into a laptop bag.

17-inch models, often called desktop replacements, might be fine for the back seat of the car, but can be hernia-inducing if you take one on an overseas trip. 15-inch machines offer slightly better portability, but are still not much fun to carry around for the day. Consider a laptop rucksack.

For those who like to travel light there’s a new class of ultra portable mobile workstations. Thin and light, weighing between 1.6kg and 1.9kg, they are available with 14-inch and 15-inch screens.

 HP ZBook 14Dell Precision M3800Schenker W503HP ZBook 15Dell Precision M4800
Class Ultra portable 14-inch Ultra portable 15-inch Mid range 15-inch Mid range 15-inch Mid range 15-inch
Processor (CPU) Intel Core i7 4600U
(2.10GHz up to 3.30GHz)
(2 cores, 4 threads)
Intel Core i7 4702HQ
(2.20GHz up to 3.20GHz)
(4 cores, 8 threads)
Intel Core i7-4700MQ
(2.40GHz up to 3.4GHz)
(4 cores, 8 threads)
Intel Core i7-4700MQ
(2.40GHz up to 3.4GHz)
(4 cores, 8 threads)
Intel Core i7-4800MQ
(2.70GHz up to 3.7GHz)
(4 cores, 8 threads)
Memory (RAM) 8GB (1 x 8GB) DDR3L
SDRAM, 1600MHz
16GB (2 x 8GB)
DDR3L 1,600MHz
16GB (2 x 8GB) SO-DIMM DDR3L
RAM 1,600MHz Crucial
8GB (1 x 8GB) 1,600 MHz
DDR3L SDRAM
8GB (2 x 4GB)
DDR3L 1600MHz
Graphics (GPU) AMD FirePro M4100
(1GB GDDR5)
13.101.1
Nvidia Quadro K1100M
(2GB GDDR5)
326.8
NVIDIA Quadro K3100M
(4GB GDDR5)
327.41
Nvidia Quadro K2100M
(2GB GDDR5)
312.65
AMD FirePro M5100 Mobility Pro (2GB GDDR5)
12.104.2
Screen 14” LED-backlit FHD UWVA
IPS eDP anti-glare + PSR
(1,920 x 1,080)
15.6 inch LED Backlit Touch Display with Truelife and QHD+ resolution (3,200 x 1,880) 15.6” FHD
(1,920x1,080)
95% colour gamut panel
15.6” RGB LED-backlit HD DreamColor UWVA eDP anti-glare (1,920 x 1,080) 15.6” Dell UltraSharp (1,920 x 1,080) wide view, anti-glare, LED-backlit
Drives 256GB SATA
Solid State Drive
with SED technology
256GB Solid State Drive Full Mini Card + 500GB 5,400RPM Solid State Hybrid Hard Drive 500GB Samsung 840 EVO SSD +
DVD Multi recorder
750GB 7,200 RPM HDD +
32 GB mSATA SSD (cache drive using Intel Smart Response Technology) + DVD+/-RW SuperMulti DL
500GB Hybrid 2.5-inch, 6Gb/s SATA with 8GB Flash Drive + 8X DVD+/-RW Drive Slot Load
Keyboard / Mouse Spill resistant keyboard.
Multi gesture TouchPad with three buttons and Pointstick with three
additional buttons
Backlit full size keyboard
(no numeric keypad); Gesture
enabled multi-touch touchpad
with two buttons
Full size keyboard with
numeric keypad
Touch pad with multi-gesture
and scrolling
Spill resistant keyboard.
Multi gesture TouchPad with three buttons and Pointstick with three
additional buttons
Full size keyboard with number pad Multi-touch touchpad
with three buttons
Track stick with three buttons
Battery HP Long Life 3-cell (50 WHr) polymer/prismatic battery Dell 61 WHr 6-Cell
Lithium-Ion Battery
8-cell 77Wh Lithium
Ion battery
HP Long Life 8-cell (75 WHr)
Li-Ion battery
9-cell (97Wh) Lithium Ion battery with ExpressCharge
Wireless Intel Dual Band Wireless-N 7260NB 802.11a/b/g/n (2x2) WiFi Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 7260
+ Bluetooth 4.0
Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 7260 (with Bluetooth) Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6235 802.11a/b/g/n and
Bluetooth 4.0 Combo
Dell Wireless 1550 2X2 802.11ac + Bluetooth 4.0
Ports 4 x USB 3.0 (1 charging)
Secondary battery connector
RJ45 Gigabit Ethernet
3 x USB 3.0 and 1 x USB 2.0
(all with PowerShare)
2 x USB 3.0, 1 x USB 2.0
1 x eSATA / USB 3.0.
RJ45 Gigabit Ethernet.
Mini Firewire
3 x USB 3.0 (1 charging) 1 x USB 2.0.
Thunderbolt RJ45 Gigabit Ethernet
4 x USB 3.0 (1 with PowerShare)
1 eSATA / USB 2.0
RJ45 Gigabit Ethernet
Expansion / security Memory card reader, Smart Card reader, Fingerprint reader, 3-in-1 media card reader 9-in-1 memory card reader ExpressCard/54, Secure Digital, Smart Card Reader 9-in-1 media card reader, SmartCard reader, 54mm ExpressCard slot
Display outputs VGA, DisplayPort HDMI, mini DisplayPort DisplayPort, Mini DP, HDMi VGA, DisplayPort HDMI, VGA, DisplayPort
Docking Side docking port No dedicated docking port No dedicated docking port Docking port underneath Docking port underneath
Size (W x D x H) 339 x 237 x 21mm 372 x 254 x 8-18mm 376 x 256 x 35-43mm 381 x 257 x 31mm 376 x 256 x 36-40mm
Weight (machine + power adapter) Starting at 1.62kg + 0.38kg Starting at 1.88kg Starting at 3.1Kg + 1.05kg Starting at 2.82 kg + 0.95kg Starting at 2.88kg + 0.81kg
Operating System Microsoft Windows 7
Professional 64-bit
Microsoft Windows 8.1
Professional 64-bit
Microsoft Windows 7
Professional 64-bit
Microsoft Windows 7
Professional 64-bit
Microsoft Windows 7
Professional 64-bit
Warranty 3-year limited warranty for carry-in service. 3-year warranty
on HP Long Life battery
1-year Next Business Day On Site Service (optional 3, 4 or 5 year) 24 Month Collect & Return (inc parts, labour, support, shipping) 3-year limited warranty for carry-in service. 1-year battery warranty Standard 3-year next business day on Site Service after Remote Diagnosis
Website hp.com dell.co.uk/precision mysn.co.uk hp.com dell.co.uk/precision
Price (excl VAT) £1,857 £1,499 £1,531 £1,996 £1,152



 Lenovo ThinkPad W540Scan 3XS MGW-10Dell Precision M6800Workstation Specialists WS-M1760
Class Mid range 15-inch High-end 17-inch High-end 17-inch High-end 17-inch
Processor (CPU) Intel Core i7-4800MQ
(2.70GHz up to 3.7GHz)
(4 cores, 8 threads)
Intel Core i7-4800MQ
(2.70GHz up to 3.7GHz)
(4 cores, 8 threads)
Intel Core i7-4800MQ
(2.70GHz up to 3.7GHz)
(4 cores, 8 threads)
Intel Core i7-4800MQ
(2.70GHz up to 3.7GHz)
(4 cores, 8 threads)
Memory (RAM) 8 GB (1 x 8GB) DDR3 1600MHz 32GB (4 x 8GB) Corsair DDR3 Vengeance RAM 1,600MHz 16GB (4 x 4GB)
1,600MHz DDR3
32GB (4 x 8GB) PC3-1600MHz
High Speed DDR-3
Graphics (GPU) Nvidia Quadro K2100M
(2GB GDDR5)
332.21
NVIDIA Quadro K3000M
(2GB GDDR5)
332.21
NVIDIA Quadro K3100M
(4GB GDDR5)
327.62
NVIDIA Quadro K5100M
(8GB GDDR5)
331.82
Screen 15.5” 3K (2,880 x 1,620) IPS display with built in Pantone colour calibrator 17.3” HD
1,920 x 1,080 backlit
LED display
17.3” UltraSharp HD (1,920 x 1,080) Wide View Anti-Glare
LED-backlit
17.3” HD
1,920 x 1,080 backlit
LED display
Drives 256GB Samsung SSD
DVD Multiburner
250GB Samsung 840 Evo SSD + 1TB Hitachi Travelstar 7K10000 + Samsung DVD writer 750GB 2.5inch SATA (7,200RPM)
Hard Drive +
Slot load DVD+/-RW
240GB Intel 525 Series mSATA SSD + 750GB 7,200RPM high-performance SATA drive + 8x DVD-RW Drive
Keyboard / Mouse Spill-resistant, ergonomic keyboard with numeric keypad. TrackPoint pointing device and TrackPad with 5-point click integration Full size keyboard with
numeric keypad
Touch pad with multi-gesture
and scrolling
Full size keyboard with number pad Multi-touch touchpad
with three buttons
Track stick with three buttons
Full size keyboard with
numeric keypad
Touch pad with multi-gesture
and scrolling
Battery 6-cell (56 Wh) battery
(optional 9-cell)
8-cell (77Wh) Lithium
Ion battery
9-cell (97Wh) Lithium Ion battery
with ExpressCharge
8-cell 77Wh Lithium
Ion battery
Wireless Intel Dual Band
AC 7260 WiFi + Ericson N5321GW WWAN: Bluetooth
Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6235, 300Mbps & Bluetooth Dell Wireless 1550 2X2 802.11ac + Bluetooth 4.0 Optional mobile broadband mini card Intel 300MB/Sec ‘N’ Wireless Network Card +
Integrated Bluetooth 3.0
Ports 2 x USB 2.0 + 2 x USB 3.0
Thunderbolt
RJ45 Gigabit Ethernet
2 x USB 3.0, 1 x USB 2.0
1 x eSATA / USB 3.0.
RJ45 Gigabit Ethernet.
Mini Firewire
4 x USB 3.0.
1 x eSATA / USB 2.0.
RJ45 Gigabit Ethernet. -
2 x USB 3.0, 1 x USB 2.0
1 x eSATA / USB 3.0.
RJ45 Gigabit Ethernet.
Mini Firewire
Expansion / security 4-in-1 card reader
Express Card (SmartCard)
9-in-1 memory
card reader
9-in-1 media card reader.
54mm ExpressCard slot.
9-in-1 memory
card reader
Display outputs VGA, DisplayPort, Mini DP DisplayPort, Mini DP, HDMi HDMI, VGA, DisplayPort DisplayPort, Mini DP, HDMi
Docking Docking port underneath No dedicated docking port Docking port underneath No dedicated docking port
Size (W x D x H) 377 x 248 x 28mm 412 x 276 x 45-42mm 40 x 417 x 271mm 412 x 276 x 45-42mm
Weight (machine + power adapter) Starting at 2.53kg + 0.72kg Starting at 3.9kg + 1.1kg Starting at 3.57kg + 1.03kg Starting at 3.9kg + 1.1kg
Operating System Microsoft Windows 7
Professional 64-bit
Microsoft Windows 7
Professional 64-bit
Microsoft Windows 7
Professional 64-bit
Microsoft Windows 7
Professional 64-bit
Warranty 3 Year On-site 2 Years Collect and Return
(screen 1st year only)
Standard 3-year Next Business Day On Site Service 36 Months Standard Hardware Warranty with NBD Response
Website lenovo.com/UK 3xs.scan.co.uk dell.co.uk/precision workstationspecialists.com
Price (excl VAT) £2,349 £1,553 £1,659 £2,835

Display

HD (1,920 x 1,080 resolution) used to be a luxury but is now becoming quite standard on 14-inch, 15-inch and 17-inch mobile workstations. 1,600 x 900 resolution is also available, as is 1,366 x 768 on some 14-inch and 15-inch models.

Of course, there’s also a growing trend in ultra high-resolution displays, typically found on 15-inch models. The two common resolutions here are QHD+ (3,200 x 1,880) and 2,880 x 1,620.

Higher resolution displays are stunning and deliver exceptionally fine line detail, which is great for CAD. However, there are downsides.

Icons, menus, dialogue boxes and general text can be hard to read, even with Windows settings ramped up. 3D performance can also take a significant hit. At a resolution of 3,200 x 1,880 there are three times as many pixels to push around the screen compared to standard HD (1,920 x 1,080), which puts a much bigger load on the GPU. The drop in performance will depend on the application, dataset and viewing mode but can be as much as 30%.

In terms of image quality, there can be a lot of difference. IPS displays generally offer better colour reproduction and better viewing angles than standard TN displays. You may also have a personal preference for a glossy or matte finish.

Screens with a higher colour gamut are able to display more colours from a specified range. This can be very useful for colour-critical design, but you will need to calibrate your screen with a separate piece of hardware. The Lenovo ThinkPad W540 is the exception as it has an X-Rite colour calibrator built in.

Processor

Mobile workstations come with dedicated mobile Intel Core i5 or Core i7 processors. Two or four CPU cores are standard, with four more suited to accelerating multi-threaded ray trace renderers. Clock speeds are essential for CAD and typically range from 2.1GHz (with 3.3GHz Turbo Boost) to 2.9GHz (with 3.9GHz Turbo Boost).

Intel Turbo Boost works by increasing the processor’s frequency whenever you need it, as long as there is thermal and power headroom.

Power saving is also important and when running off the mobile workstation’s battery Intel SpeedStep technology switches both voltage and frequency down to conserve power.

The level by which the processor slows down varies between different mobile workstation manufacturers. It can be as little as 5% or as much as 75%! Throttling the processor is great if you want to prolong battery power but not so good if you want to run your CAD program at full speed.

Some mobile workstation manufacturers, including Dell and Lenovo, allow you to switch off Intel SpeedStep so the CPU is not throttled when running on battery power. However, this can only be done in the BIOS and not inside Windows, so it’s a bit of a pain. Other manufacturers don’t give you this option so your processor is always throttled when your machine is not plugged in.

Choosing a mobile processor

Currently, two of the most popular processors for mobile workstations are the Intel Core i7-4700MQ (2.40GHz up to 3.40GHz) and the Intel Core i7-4800MQ (2.70GHz up to 3.70GHz) both with 4 cores and 8 threads.

The Intel Core i7-4900MQ (2.80GHz up to 3.80GHz) and Intel Core i7-4930MX Processor Extreme Edition (3.0GHz up to 3.9GHz) are also available in some machines though expect to pay a hefty premium.

Ultra mobile workstations use low powered processors, such as the Intel Core i7 4600U (2.10GHz up to 3.30GHz) (2 cores, 4 threads), which draws a maximum of 15W compared to the 37W or 47W common in most other mobile processors.

Keep an eye out for the new Intel Core i7 4610M (3.0GHz to 3.7GHz) (2 cores, 4 threads), Core i7 4810MQ (2.80GHz to 3.80GHz) (4 cores, 8 threads) and Core i7 4910MQ (2.90GHz to 3.90GHz) (4 cores, 8 threads). These should be making their way into mobile workstations soon.

Graphics

For professional 3D CAD there are only really two serious graphics options - Nvidia Quadro or AMD FirePro. Mobile workstations also include Intel graphics and can automatically switch between the two to extend battery life when not using 3D CAD applications that demand 3D performance.

To conserve battery life GPUs can be automatically throttled or GPU cores switched off. The amount by which the GPU slows down varies between mobile workstation manufacturers. GPUs run at full power when the machine is plugged into the mains.

Nvidia has the lion’s share of the mobile workstation market and offers a massive choice — seven options in total ranging from the Quadro K510M (1GB GDDR5) for 2D and entry-level 3D CAD right up to the high-end Quadro K5100M (8GB GDDR5) for high-end 3D visualisation.

With 3D performance approaching that of a desktop workstation graphics cards power comes into play. The low-end Quadro GPUs consume up to 30W while the high-end Quadro GPUs can eat through 100W, more than twice as much as a typical mobile Intel Core i7 CPU.

AMD concentrates on the entry-level to mid-range with the FirePro M4100, M5100 and M6100, all featuring up to 2GB GDDR5 memory. AMD does not quote max power consumption.

If you have an ultra high-res screen, such as 3,200 x 1,880 or 2,880 x 1,620, you may need to consider investing in a high-end GPU to get the right level of 3D performance. Having to render significantly more pixels puts a greater load on the GPU so it may become harder to manipulate 3D models smoothly. This is dependent on application and datasets.

Memory

For CAD, BIM and design viz, memory is king, but with a maximum of four DIMM slots you can’t get the same capacities as you can with a desktop workstation.

32GB (4 x 8GB) is the maximum for most 15-inch and 17-inch models, with 16GB (2 x 8GB) all you can squeeze into an ultra mobile workstation, still a whole lot more than you’ll find in a typical laptop.

Storage

Solid State Drives (SSDs) are perfect for mobile workstations. They’re fast, responsive and, because there are no moving parts, use less energy and will not break when dropped.

What’s not to like? Well, the price per GB is high and capacities peak at 500GB – 1TB so traditional mechanical drives still have an important role to play in storing large CAD datasets.

The good news is most mobile workstations can accommodate multiple drives, so you can mix and match technologies: a lower capacity SSD for operating system and applications and a high-capacity mechanical drive for data.

There are two main storage form factors in a mobile workstation: traditional 2.5-inch (for SSD and mechanical drives) and the smaller mSATA (51 x 30 x 0.8mm), which is just for SSDs. Some machines support the M.2 form factor, which is even smaller.

Ultra mobile workstations typically support two drives (1 x 2.5-inch + 1 x mSATA); 15-inch machines three drives (a combinations of 2.5-inch and mSATA) and 17-inch four drives (2 x 2.5-inch + 2 x mSATA).

It’s also possible to create RAID arrays so you can optimise your drive for speed or redundancy. For ultimate performance consider striping two drives in a RAID 0 array. However, if you’re on the road a lot and there’s a long time between backups, keep your data safe by mirroring two drives in a RAID 1 or 5 array. Should one drive fail then you can continue to work uninterrupted.

DVD or Blu-ray drives are common, but omitted on the ultra mobile workstations to keep down size and weight. This could be an issue if you back up data or like to watch films. But with software increasingly downloaded or even coming on USB sticks, it’s less of an issue – instead, buy a USB DVD drive or map to another drive over the network.

Good things come in small packages

mSATA is a compact alternative to the traditional 2.5-inch hard drive. Primarily designed for storage in highly mobile devices, these tiny cards are also having a major impact in mobile workstations

Measuring a mere 51 x 30 x 0.8mm, machines that previously were restricted to a single hard drive can now support two or three. The drives are very easy to fit: simply remove the laptop’s rear panel and secure with two screws.

mSATA SSDs are typically seen in mobile workstations in 128GB or 256GB capacities, delivering fast storage for OS and applications. However, Samsung’s recently released 840 EVO mSATA SSD comes in 500GB and 1TB as well as 120GB or 250GB capacities so you can also store big CAD datasets.

Performance is top notch. The 1TB model delivers very high random and sequential read and write speeds. Prices are high, but coming down fast: the 1TB model currently costs £389.

All models feature Self-Encrypting Drive security technology to keep data safe.

The 840 EVO mSATA SSD also features TurboWrite technology and a RAPID (Real-time Accelerated Processing of I/O Data) mode, both of which are explained in our detailed review of the 2.5-inch 840 EVO SSD. tinyurl.com/AECEVO

Keyboard and mouse

Mobile workstations typically have two types of keyboards: ‘standard’ and ‘chiclet’. Standard keys have slanted edges and sit close to each other while ‘chiclet’ or ‘island’ are flat and have clear space between them. Everyone has a personal preference.

Numeric keypads, which sit to the right of the main keyboard, are extremely useful for precise input for design and engineering. They are standard on 17-inch models and most 15-inch models.

TrackPads vary greatly in size and surface texture. We like a large TrackPad with a smooth finish and buttons with a small but definite click, but preferences vary. Some machines also have a Pointstick that sits in the middle of the keyboard. Many users find these hard to use, but there are definitely some fans out there.

Of course, whenever possible, we recommend you use an external mouse – wired or BlueTooth.

Battery

With big screens and high performance CPUs and GPUs, mobile workstations can eat power, which is bad news for transatlantic flights or long commutes. If you’re on the road a lot consider buying a spare battery.

Some machines offer a choice of batteries – typically 6, 8 or 9 cells. Generally speaking the more cells, the longer the battery life, but batteries are also rated by Watt Hours (Wh). Other machines, such as the HP ZBook 14, support a battery slice, a slimline secondary battery that clips underneath the base.

Battery life is obviously governed by what you do with your mobile workstation. Hammering both CPU and GPU when modelling in a 3D CAD package is always going to drain power more quickly than writing a Word doc. When processors heat up you also get the double whammy on battery life as fans kick in to cool everything down. Keeping fans and grilles free from fluff can help improve cooling efficiency and save power.

To help maximise battery life (and because it’s not always possible for the battery to deliver the same amount of power that it can when plugged into the mains) the CPU and GPU are often throttled automatically.

The way this throttling is done varies by manufacturer. For example, in the Lenovo ThinkPad W540 the CPU automatically runs at 25% speed when on battery power, though this can be turned off in the BIOS.

With the Schenker W503, Scan 3XS MGW-10 and Workstation Specialists, the CPU always runs at 50% when running on battery. In the Dell Precision M6800 it’s 95%, but the GPU is clocked down much more dramatically. There’s no right or wrong way, but it’s definitely good to have control.

The quality of batteries can vary greatly and, over time, some lose their ability to hold charge faster than others. Some manufacturers exclude batteries from their warranties or reduce the term so read the small print.

Battery charge times vary which can be frustrating if you’re about to embark on a long haul flight. Dell Precision mobile workstations support ExpressCharge, which allows a completely discharged battery to charge to 80% in about 1 hour, though using this feature regularly could have a negative impact on long-term battery life. HP offers something similar and its Fast Charge technology recharges batteries up to 90% within 90 minutes when the system is off.

Ports

Three to five USB ports are typical, which should be plenty for most users. Some machines offer a mix of USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 so learn which are which. This is particularly important when reading / writing big CAD datasets to external drives where high-bandwidth USB 3.0 is a must.

‘Always on’ USB ports are extremely useful for charging SmartPhones and other devices when the mobile workstation is off. Annoyingly, they can be very hard to spot, usually denoted by a miniscule lightning symbol.

Taking data transfer speeds up to a whole new level HP and Lenovo boast support for Thunderbolt – definitely nice to have if you need to read / write huge datasets to external storage. Other machines include IEEE 1394a (FireWire), which is more of a legacy standard now, and eSATA, which usually doubles as a USB port.

RJ45 Gigabit Ethernet is essential if you want to move large CAD files over the network. This is standard on most machines, but the Dell Precision M3800 uses a USB to Ethernet adapter rather than the standard RJ45 connector.

Memory card readers are standard but check out which formats are supported. ExpressCard slots are less common, but allow you expand your machine adding new or legacy wireless and wired standards.

Wireless

WiFi is now taken for granted on mobile workstations but most vendors offer a choice of two or three modules. Standard 802.11 a/b/g/n should be fine for mainstream use, but for moving hefty CAD files around or extending the range consider Dual Band 802.11ac.

In theory 802.11ac is two to three times quicker than 802.11n and approaches the speed of Gigabit Ethernet. However, as wireless speeds drop off over distance, and due to interference and physical obstacles, we’d always recommend a physical connection.

For CAD on the go, some manufacturers offer an optional mobile broadband module. You slip in a SIM card and then you can connect to the Internet wherever you can get a 3G or 4G signal. This is a nice feature to have but you can achieve similar results by tethering to your SmartPhone. However, built in mobile broadband can have the added benefit of being able to track your machine in case of theft.

Bluetooth is standard and useful for connecting peripherals such as keyboards, SmartPhones and mice. The SpaceMouse Wireless 3D mouse features 3Dconnexion’s own optimised 2.4GHz wireless technology, so you’ll need a spare USB port to plug in the receiver.

Security

When you have company critical information stored on your machine, security is essential. Laptop theft is prevalent and that’s without giving criminals a head start by leaving your bag in the pub, airport or on the train.

Drive encryption is vital if you want to prevent unauthorised access to data. This can be done in software or hardware.

BitLocker is available in the Enterprise and Ultimate editions of Windows 7 or the Pro or Enterprise editions of Windows 8 and provides software-based encryption for the entire volume.

Hardware-based encryption is generally considered to be more secure and, because all of the processing is done on the disk, is less susceptible to loss of performance. This can be done with Self-Encrypting Drives (SEDs) and can be set at the BIOS level.

To add another level of security, smart card readers or fingerprint scanners are available on most mobile workstations.

Fingerprint sensors are usually located in front of the keyboard or between the trackpad’s buttons. Simply place your finger on the device to log onto Windows or to web sites. The related software automatically fills in your user name and password.

Gimme five: palm vein authentication

Fingerprint sensors might be a standard feature on mobile workstations but Fujitsu takes security up a notch offering palm vein pattern recognition technology on its new Celsius H730 mobile workstation. Simply hovver your hand over the sensor and it authenticates it due to the unique pattern of the veins in the palm.

Fujitsu claims its PalmSecure technology is more reliable and secure than fingerprint sensors – and blood has to be flowing in the hand so there’s no scope for a gruesome Tarantino plotline ending in the loss of your firm’s valuable IP.

Docking

Docking stations are extremely useful if you frequently move your mobile workstation to and from your desk. They allow you to keep keyboard, mouse, display, Ethernet and other peripherals permanently connected to the dock meaning your don’t have to mess about with cables.

The best support comes from corporate-focused mobile workstations, such as the Dell Precision M4800, HP ZBook 15 and Lenovo ThinkPad W540. A dedicated port on the underside of the machine allows you to ‘snap on’ each machine to its custom dock in seconds.

The ZBook 14’s docking port is on the side, compatible with a HP UltraSlim Docking Station, while the Dell Precision M3800 connects to Dell D3000 dock via USB 3.0. Other manufacturers rely on universal USB docking stations.

Servicing

Serviceability has become a big focus in dekstop workstations over the past few years and many manufacturers are now bringing this to the mobile platform.

HP leads the market with its ZBook family of mobile workstations, all of which feature the HP Easy Access Door so users don’t have to fiddle around with tiny screws. Simply slide the catch and the back panel pops off, making it easy to upgrade or replace memory, hard drives and mini cards.

Getting inside the Dell Precision M4800 or M6800 is also easy — simply remove two screws and the back panel slides off.

The Lenovo ThinkPad W540, Scan 3XS MGW-10, Workstation Specialists WS-M1760 and Schenker W503 all feature separate panels for hard drive, memory, mini cards, etc. This can be a pain and a case of trial and error if you don’t know what’s behind each panel. The Dell Precision M3800 needs a specialist Torx T5 screwdriver, the type you never have when you need one!

Warranty and support

Most mobile workstations come with a 2 or 3 year warranty, but these can often be extended for an additional cost. Some are collect and return; others are next business day on site.

Think about how long you can afford to be without your machine. If you have to send it to a repair centre it can take days or even weeks to get it back. Check the small print as some warranties only cover screens or batteries for 12 months.

If you carry your mobile workstation all the time, consider accidental damage cover. And if you travel overseas think about how you’d deal with a tech support query or hardware failure. Some warranties include Next Business Day on site service even when you are abroad. This can mean great peace of mind if you’re a frequent flyer.