Mobile workstations deliver high-end computing power -- for a price

Mobile workstations from Dell, Toshiba and HP pack plenty of computing power and weigh less than their predecessors, but prices may limit adoption.

The latest mobile workstations pack high-end computing features into a mobile form factor -- for a price.

Dell Inc. is one of several vendors that have refreshed their enterprise-aimed mobile workstations, which are essentially laptops loaded with features that most laptops and tablets don't have.

Anyone who needs a faster graphics processor, high-end [CPU] and lots of memory will probably invest in these.

Craig Mathias,
principal, Farpoint Group

"Anyone who needs a faster graphics processor, high-end [CPU] and lots of memory will probably invest in these," said Craig Mathias, principal at Farpoint Group, an Ashland, Mass.-based advisory firm specializing in wireless and mobile technologies.

The new 15.6-inch Dell Precision M3800 weighs just over four pounds and comes with Windows 8.1 Pro, fourth-generation Intel Core i7 quad-core processor, Nvidia Quadro K1100M graphics and 2 GB of memory. It will be available on Nov. 14.

Customers have had to sacrifice performance for portability, but that isn't a tradeoff with this workstation, according to Dell.

However, the best of both worlds doesn't come cheap. The Dell Precision M3800 starts at $1,799. That price tag may be worth the performance for users who need computing horsepower for tasks such as number crunching and design.

"The question is not what you pay, it's what you get," Mathias said. "Return on investment and value is important. If you haul firewood all day, you wouldn't use a [Toyota] Prius; you'd get a truck. [Mobile workstations] are made for optimizing productivity."

Anyone whose profession is related to media creation, such as photo editing, video and even audio, would use this, and the cost premium would be justifiable, Mathias added. Other vendors also updated and released their own mobile workstations recently.

Hewlett-Packard's 14-inch ZBook 14 is slated to be released this month. The 3.57-pound device includes 1 TB of storage, is preinstalled with Windows 8 Pro and has either the fourth-generation Intel Core i5 or i7 processor. Pricing is not yet available.

Toshiba launched its 6-pound, 15.6-inch Tecra W50 on Oct. 18 with a starting price of $1,999. It features an Intel quad-core i7 processor, Nvidia Quadro K2100M graphics, Windows 8 Pro and 2 GB of memory.

Mobile workstations fill market niche

Mobile workstations cater to a small niche -- mainly people in media production and 3-D design who require high-end graphics and want to be mobile too, said Bob O'Donnell, a research analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass.

One IT manager uses the Dell Precision M3800 mobile workstation for just those reasons.

"We need a CPU with good power to stream multiple feeds, and this helps a lot," said an IT manager for Web services at a major university on the East Coast. "Having just one notebook to stream multiple audio and video feeds is very important."

It's also useful for viewing IT operations information, said the IT manager, who declined to be identified.

"If the network gets clogged up, we can now monitor all the vital information we see on one screen," he said. "That's a big change with this machine over past machines. With older versions, you ran out of pixels, so you had to shrink things down just to see both videos on the screen."

The main benefits are that it's portable and, even at four pounds, lightweight compared with past models.

"We need a machine to go quickly into a bag, so we can drag it across campus and go to meetings," he said.

As vendors continue to slim workstations down to a reasonable weight, more people will be attracted to them, O'Donnell said. However, these workstations won't gain much traction in the PC market because of their price, Mathias said.

"The typical corporate person will get something in the $600 to $700 range, which is the same price as a decent tablet," he said. "However, there will always be a market for high-end product."

The mobile workstation market could also be affected as traditional notebooks get closer to what workstations offer, O'Donnell added.

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