Issue: Volume: 28 Issue: 5 (May 2005)

Mastering Mobility

It used to be that the graphics and processing power needed to create high-end graphics existed only in extremely large workstations. As processor speed increased, these much-heralded traits moved to the desktop. Now, a new crop of mobile workstations is giving desktop models a run for their money. PCI Express-based graphics and fast processor speeds, along with good ergonomics and large LCD displays, make these mobile powerhouses excellent platforms for virtually any type of graphics work.

Of course, a mobile workstation is a lot of technology packed into a very small space, and this compact technology comes at a premium. A laptop will always cost more than a similarly equipped desktop unit. People who need notebook systems, such as on-set effects artists and technical directors, however, are willing to pay extra for mobility. The convenience of tossing your work into a laptop bag at the end of the day and taking it wherever necessary can be invaluable. And many of these new systems are fast enough to replace a desktop workstation completely, eliminating the need for two machines.

When it comes to mobile workstations, graphics is the name of the game. The one component that really sets a mobile workstation apart from an ordinary laptop is the graphics chip. Mobile workstations sport portable versions of the high-end graphics chips employed in professional workstations. These workstation-class graphics chips differ from their business and gaming counterparts in that they provide true OpenGL support and are fully verified as compatible with a wide range of graphics applications. Simply put, these boards are guaranteed to work powerfully and flawlessly with the most intense graphics applications.

Right now, there are two main providers of workstation-class graphics chips for the mobile workstation market: ATI, with mobile versions of its FireGL chips, and Nvidia, with its Quadro FX Go chips. Both of these vendors recently introduced PCI Express-based solutions that offer performance on par with their desktop workstation graphics boards.

ATI has been particularly aggressive in the mobile market, and its FireGL cards have been used in a number of mobile workstations from Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Fujitsu. ATI’s newest Mobility FireGL card is identical to its FireGL V5000 PCI Express-based desktop workstation card. Because it’s also used in desktop workstations, the chipset offers excellent mid-range performance, but it also consumes very little power to extend battery life. The V5000 uses 128mb of fast GDDR3 memory, as well as six geometry engines and eight parallel rendering pipelines, to deliver ultra-fast processing of complex data sets, real-time cinematic-quality rendering, and multiple-display output. The HP Compaq nw8240 mobile workstation, the first machine to be powered by this chip, offers lots of power in an exceptionally thin and ergonomic package.

Nvidia also offers workstation-class mobile chips in its Quadro FX Go series, which has found a home in mobile workstations from Alienware, Dell, and Boxx Technologies. The Quadro FX Go 1400 is Nvidia’s top-of-the-line chipset, with 256mb of video RAM and PCI Express-based technology for fast mid-range performance. The chips use Nvidia’s PowerMizer technology, which incorporates a variety of power-saving techniques to maximize battery life. Workstations sporting this chip include Dell’s M70, Boxx’s GoBoxx 2200, and Alienware’s Area-51m 7700.

The built-in screen of the laptop is also an important part of the graphics equation. The screen size is key, but larger screens typically mean a larger laptop that is bulkier and more cumbersome. Most mobile workstations sport 15- or 16-inch screens, but some go as high as 17 inches. The quality of the screen is another consideration. LCD screens have come a long way, but many still lack the quality and brightness of a good desktop display. This is changing, however, and vendors such as Dell are offering different grades of LCD screens. Another interesting take on the LCD can be seen in the Sharp Actius AL3DU, which provides a 3D-enabled display that doesn’t require stereo glasses to see things in depth.

Mobile workstations need to be speedy in other areas, aside from their graphics capabilities. A fast processor is always a plus, and both AMD- and Intel-based processors have been used in mobile workstations in the past. These days, it seems as though Intel is the de facto choice for the current crop of mobile workstations, thanks to Intel’s early adoption of PCI Express-based graphics.

Many mobile workstations currently use Pentium 4 Extreme CPUs, which offer the same speed and power as desktop workstations. Yet, these processors are fairly power hungry and make for larger laptops because of power and heat requirements.

Pentium 4 chips are going to see significant competition from the new Dothan-class Pentium-M processors. This processor family consumes significantly less power than its desktop counterpart, but thanks to 2mb of cache memory and a new 90nm process, it has plenty of speed. In fact, a 2ghz Pentium-M actually can match the speed of a 3.2ghz Pentium 4 when running graphics applications. While this falls a little short of the 3.8ghz Pentium 4 performance available in the most powerful mobile workstations, the reduced power consumption of the Pentium-M CPUs goes a long way toward conserving battery life and reducing heat. Less power consumption also means that smaller batteries are required to run the laptop for the same period of time; smaller batteries go a long way in reducing the size and weight of the workstation. Both Dell and HP have opted for Pentium M chips in their newest mobile workstations, which are among the thinnest and lightest on the market.

Disk speed and capacity are important, particularly when working with large video files. Mobile workstations use 2.5-inch drives, and currently the fastest of these drives spin at 7200 RPM. This speed is certainly an improvement over previous technology, and workstations using faster drives should be able to handle a single stream of standard video with no problems. Those needing even more speed for high-end compositing or other disk-intensive tasks may need to consider a RAID array. Several vendors, including Boxx and Alienware, now offer dual drive bays in some mobile workstations, enabling you to set up an internal RAID for advanced disk performance or data security. In fact, 1Beyond has taken this concept even further by bundling the internal RAID along with Avid or Adobe software to provide a turnkey video editing solution in a laptop enclosure.

Getting data into and out of the system is always a consideration, particularly with mobile workstations. Most workstations come with standard Gigabit Ethernet and an 802.11g wireless connection. Data can also be moved via USB and FireWire ports, which have become standard as well. For data backup, mobile workstations can be configured with CD or DVD writers. Other nifty little features include slots for memory cards, such as the SD card slot on the HP nw8240 and the ever-present MemoryStick slot available on any laptop from Sony.

While performance is always an important part of the equation, mobile workstations also need to be ergonomic. It is understandably a personal issue, as people will have different tastes and requirements. Typically, a small and light unit is a benefit, but those needing more powerful machines may have to settle for a slightly thicker and heavier solution. Some of these mobile workstations tip the scales at as much as 11 pounds. Others compromise a bit of power for portability, and weigh half as much. This trade-off is typical, and those needing the absolute fastest model will be charged with the task of carrying a heavier and bulkier device.

When it comes to ergonomics, even seemingly minute traits-including the size and placement of the touchpad and the feel of the keyboard-can have a profound effect on the usability of a machine. So it’s usually best to try before you buy.

It’s a great time for graphics professionals on the move. While there will always be a trade-off between performance and portability, the gap between the desktop and the laptop has closed significantly. Thanks to faster and more power-efficient CPUs, mobile PCI Express graphics, and robust hard drives, the newest crop of mobile workstations can now perform on par with all but the fastest high-end desktop worksations.

George Maestri is president of Rubberbug, a Los Angeles-based animation studio specializing in character animation.
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