Printed 2014/04/24 08:47PM

Choosing a Mobile Workstation


I get a lot of e-mail and Twitter requests for advice about what laptop someone should buy. I don’t mind this too much (I actually sort of like it, to be honest), but it probably makes some sense to summarize my general advice about this subject.

There are a lot of available good choices for high end mobile workstations and choosing one comes down to several main factors:

    1. Your intended usage
    2. Your budget
    3. Your tolerance for size and weight
    4. Your desired screen resolution
    5. Your vendor preference

A common usage request in the SQL Server community is that someone wants to be able able to run multiple, concurrent virtual machines on a laptop so that they can start learning about SQL Server 2012 AlwaysOn Availability Groups.

From this usage description, you would want a relatively powerful multi-core machine with lots of RAM and multiple drive bays if possible. This means you will need a 15″ or 17″ laptop that will be pretty large and heavy (6-8lbs). These larger machines will usually have four memory slots instead of two, and they will have two or three internal drive bays instead of one. The HD4000 integrated graphics in the Intel Ivy Bridge processor will be more than sufficient for this scenario. Using integrated graphics will give you more battery life than discrete graphics.

Remember, you are going to be stuck with the screen that you pick and with the processor that you select for the life of the laptop. Unless you choose an Ultrabook, it should not be too difficult to upgrade your RAM and to install a fast SSD.

A single fast 6Gbps SATA III SSD would probably have more than enough performance (both random and sequential) to support this scenario, but you might be worried about disk space unless you get a larger and more expensive SSD, such as a 512GB model.

The latest models will have 22nm Intel Ivy Bridge (3rd Generation Core) processors, with 6Gbps SATA III and USB 3.0 support, and support for up to 32GB of RAM (with four memory slots). You will also want a 1080P screen (1920 x 1080), rather than a 720P screen (1366 x 768).

I think the sweet spot for mobile processors right now is the Intel Core i7-3820QM. Going for the top of the line, Intel Core i7-3920XM does not make economic sense, since it is double the cost of the i7-3820QM while only offering maybe 10% more performance.

Rather than ordering a machine fully populated with RAM from the system vendor, you should just get a single 2GB stick of RAM from the system vendor and then buy 8GB sticks of RAM from someplace like NewEgg. This will save you several hundred dollars. Here are some 16GB memory kits from NewEgg.

Depending on your comfort level with hardware and whether you want to install a fresh copy of an OS, you should consider buying your own SSD(s) from NewEgg instead of buying them from the system vendor. This would save you even more money, plus you can pick the SSD that you want. The 256GB OCZ Vertex 4 is one of the better choices right now.

Vendor selection comes down to personal preference, really. Most people (including myself) actually only have anecdotal experience and evidence regarding vendor and specific model selection. For example, perhaps you bought a Dell laptop a few years ago, and you had some problems with it, so you are not likely to be a Dell fan. I would argue that your personal  experience is only anecdotal (unless you were a desktop support technician, and your company bought 100 of that model laptop, and a high percentage of them had problems). Even then, your experience would be only be valid for that particular model.

Ideally, you would want to be able to actually play with the specific model before you ordered it, to check the build quality, the ergonomics, etc. That is usually not possible with Windows laptops, since most brick and mortar retailers only carry poor quality, entry level laptops. That is one huge advantage that Apple has, since you can go into an Apple store and play around with the latest model MBP before you buy it.

Here are a few candidate, workstation class laptops:
Dell Precision M4700
Dell Precision M6700
Lenovo W530

Filed under: Computer Hardware, Dell, Intel, Ivy Bridge, Laptops, Processors Tagged: Hardware, Hardware Selection
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