Workstations on the Move
Issue: Volume: 31 Issue: 11 (Nov. 2008)

Workstations on the Move

This year, 2008, marks the year Moore’s law gave us the most mobile workstations ever. They are laptop computers with 17-inch or greater screens, powerful dual- and quad-core processors with gigabytes of fast DDR2 DRAM, powerful GPUs with lots of graphics memory, high-speed and large-capacity disks with RAID, optical drives with Blu-ray, every kind of I/O you can imagine, and more features than you can find on many desk-bound machines. Those are the facts. But what does it all mean?

Aside from the sheer pleasure of being able to take your work with you all the time, what would be the motivation for having a portable workstation, and how portable are we talking? What about the workstation side? Are there compromises? It seems like there are some incontrovertible conflicts in the premise.

What Is A Workstation?
A workstation is distinguished from an ordinary PC by a few critical items. There’s a fairly regular debate about what a workstation is and what it isn’t. And too many vendors try to market high-end PCs as a workstation in order to get a higher price for them.

Workstations cost more than a typical PC, and there are good reasons for that. For one thing, a workstation is often used in a mission-critical situation and, therefore, has to work 24/7, 365 days a year with no hiccups or glitches. Workstations are used with high-performance and often expensive software, and have to be qualified by the software vendor. That is done to give assurance to the buyer that the machine is going to work, and work well.

Generally speaking, a workstation has a high-resolution display and high-performance graphics, a large capacity of high-speed (high-bandwidth) memory, top-of-the-line CPUs, and fast high-capacity disk drives. Furthermore, a workstation will have application-certified drivers that guarantee reliable operation with an application. Also, the certified drivers are tuned to the specific applications—a qualification that is not just a label but really means something.

One of the distinguishing hardware features of a workstation is its error-correction memory (ECM). However, in the case of mobile workstations, there is no ECM. Additionally, a workstation is equipped with a power supply that contains extra capacity. Therefore, cooling and noise design is critical, and more care is put into baffles and routing than is found in an ordinary PC.
These are some of the most challenging aspects in building a mobile workstation that, ultimately, limit the system’s abilities.

Jon Peddie Research (JPR) categorizes the workstation market into five classes, or segments: entry, midrange, high-end, ultra high-end, and mobile. The entry level has no 3D capability, whereas the ultra high-end is, as you can imagine, the most powerful machine that can be built with dual graphics boards, dual processors, and zillions of megabytes of memory.

Somewhere in between is the mobile workstation, which, like the mobile PC, is the fastest-growing segment.
The workstation market in terms of unit shipments is about the same size as the enthusiast gamer market, which is an interesting correlation with regard to the user’s demand for high performance and a willingness to pay for that performance.

Can I Take It with Me?
So, considering all the above information, why would a person want a workstation to be mobile? Collaboration is a big buzzword in the industry, and among distributed workforces and partners, being able to share a design or a problem is critical. But what if you’re on a campus or in an aircraft manufacturing facility? In those situations, being able to grab the workstation and scoot off to a meeting, or jump on a jitney and go to the other end of the production line, would be an enormous advantage. However, working on a design while traveling in an airplane, although often mentioned, isn’t a realistic application. For one reason, these portable workstations are big, and for another, the design work is so sensitive you’d never want to risk exposing it in public. That tends to mitigate the argument about battery life. And for those workstation users who fly in business class or better, there is usually available power on the plane.

The Lenovo ThinkPad W700 has some unique features, including a built-in Wacom tablet below the keyboard.

Let’s get back to the initial question, though: Can a workstation actually be portable? Display size, resolution, and graphics performance are usually critical to a workstation user, and those features are major power drains. So, if a portable workstation can survive on battery operation for more than two hours, that’s considered pretty good. And when you pack that much power into a mobile machine, it ends up weighing as much as eight pounds (3.6 kg) or more.

Workstation Displays
The new crop of portable workstations has a 17-inch WUXGA (1920x1200) screen with 400-nit brightness. (More about nits later.)

This year, LCD display technology has improved to the point where users can get an almost-perfect color representation. In the film industry, judge the color correctness by comparing it to Adobe’s RGB color space, developed in 1998 to encompass most of the colors achievable on CMYK color printers.

Today, some of the new mobile workstations are expressing their display capability in terms of a percentage of Adobe color space. This is an awkward description because of the seven-dimensional nature of the color space, and it begs the question: Which part of that color space is compromised? That undoubtedly will be a marketing debate among the suppliers.

No matter, Lenovo maintains that it supports 72 percent of the Adobe color space, and HP maintains it supports 100 percent, albeit with an external DreamColor monitor. The idea is to be able to pick a color on the screen and expect that color to show up on the printed page. Remember WYSIWYG? Well, we’re getting pretty close to it now.

The Lenovo ThinkPad W700 workstation has a unique built-in color calibrator. A small sensor is located in the base, just below the space bar. When you close the lid, the display runs through a series of test colors and patterns; this process is monitored by the sensor, and the system then calibrates the screen so it is as color-accurate as possible.

HP, on the other hand, is promoting the DreamColor aspect of its EliteBook 8730w mobile workstation. DreamColor is a perfectly color-corrected monitor that HP introduced recently, starting with the LP2480zx monitor for the film and photo market.

The LP2480zx external stand-alone monitor has a set of RGB LEDs to extend the color range. The LED panels fit as part of HP’s DreamColor technology initiative, which encompasses higher-precision (true 30-bit, 3x10-bit per channel) and color-calibration technology.

In the context of HP’s mobile workstations, the DreamColor external monitor provides calibration technology, but on a foundation of more conventional 24-bit (3x8-bit) color precision. Nevertheless, they are equipped with a WUXGA RGB LED backlight panel, and while HP is still tweaking the color spaces, the company is targeting 132 percent of the Adobe space (and 151 percent of RGB). The DreamColor panel option on the mobile workstations just recently began shipping.

In addition to color balance, the screen’s brightness and contrast are important as well, especially during DCC applications. Brightness—or more correctly, luminance—is expressed in nits; one nit is equal to one candela (a unit of measure of the light’s intensity) per square meter (1cd/m2). And bigger is better, so you want the most nits, or candelas, you can get for the dollar when selecting displays, whether as a stand-alone or on a laptop.
Contrast, meanwhile, is a ratio and is based on black as the reference point. However, LCDs don’t project a very good black; typically, the best they can offer is a very dark gray. So polarizing and wave filters are placed in front of them to achieve a “blacker” black. This requires a brighter backlight, which in turn drives up power consumption. Contrast ratios for a good home theater TV will be between 5000- and 10,000-to-1. A midrange laptop will have a ratio of between 500- and 1000-to-one, and it is important to note that the contrast ratio impacts the display’s ability to reproduce the color spectrum.

The HP 8730w delivers 300 nits and an 800-to-1 contrast ratio, while the Lenovo W700 offers 400 nits with a 500-to-1 contrast ratio.

Powering the Displays
The new mobile workstations are equipped with powerful GPUs, but have limited memory compared to their desktop counterpart. Typically a desktop will have a graphics add-in board with 1gb of video RAM, whereas a mobile workstation will typically have a maximum of 512mb.

In the evolving mobile workstation market, Nvidia has jumped to an early lead, with vendors such as Dell, Fujitsu, HP, and Lenovo usually positioning the Quadro FX3700M and FX2700M in the standard configuration, with the AMD ATI FireGL V5725 offered as an option. GPUs from both companies support OpenGL 2.1, but additionally, ATI delivers DirectX 10.1 support (Nvidia is at DirectX 10.0). The Nvidia FX3700 is capable of supporting 1gb of video memory, and both HP’s EliteBook 8730w and Lenovo’s ThinkPad W700 use that GPU; thus, the workstations can be equipped with 1gb of video memory.
Even though Nvidia currently has the “standard” position in these mobile workstations, that situation could change. Given recent evidence both from SIGGRAPH and from vendor comments, we can expect to see a surge on the part of AMD mobile workstation graphics in the coming year.  The company has clearly renewed its efforts with respect to workstation graphics, and vendors have taken note.

Other issues to consider are the user interface and input devices. The mouse and trackball still reign supreme (see “Invaluable Input,” October 2008), but there is also a large segment in the DCC world who work with a tablet, using a pen for input. With that in mind, one supplier, Lenovo, has cleverly built in a Wacom tablet just below the keyboard of the ThinkPad.
HP has added a DreamColor option to its 8730w mobile workstation, which is already nicely equipped with a Montevina-class Intel Core 2 Duo processor and more.

Processors and Memory
Workstations, mobile or fixed, are expected to have the most powerful CPUs and the fastest and most RAM. However, in a mobile workstation, or any mobile device for that matter, power and thermal management is crucial—super-fast CPUs and GPUs get super hot, and there’s scant space to put in fans. Also, the limited space restricts the amount of memory that can be packed in, and it has to be cooled as well.

HP is equipping its EliteBook 8730w mobile workstation with a Montevina-class Intel Core 2 Duo (up to 3.06ghz) and up to 8gb of 800mhz DDR2 memory. Lenovo configures its W700 with an Intel Core 2 Extreme Quad-Core CPU and up to 8gb of high-speed DDR3 memory.

Lenovo also offers optional dual hard drives with RAID configurations, and an optional Blu-ray DVD burner/player, while HP can provide up to 640gb when a second drive is added (displacing an optical drive).

They for Real?
So, are these new monster machines real battery-powered workstations? The answer is a slightly qualified “yes.” Qualified because they don’t offer ECM, and they don’t have the most powerful GPUs. But, those are the trade-offs for size, power consumption, and cooling, and they are only slight compromises at that. When you think back to just a few years ago, the idea of having a portable workstation—a real workstation-class machine, not just some high-end branded PC—was on the verge of absurdity. It would be like putting a Ferrari inside a Smart car—not only physically impossible, but ridiculous in concept. And look at us today. We have it, with gigantic screens and super-high resolution, super-fast multicore processors, powerful GPUs with a gigabyte of fast memory, and special features like Blu-ray disk drives.

Having been a workstation builder and now a workstation user over the past few decades, I find it amazing to think about, let alone imagine it possible a decade ago.

And, that’s not all. Dell unveiled a new line of Precision mobile workstations, and got the ball rolling with the 17-inch M6400, which supports up to 16gb of RAM, a 1gb graphics card, an Intel Core 2 Duo Quad-Core QX9300 Extreme Edition processor, four memory slots, and RAID capability. So there are even more choices for professional users on the go. n

Jon Peddie is president of Jon Peddie Research, a Tiburon, CA-based consultancy specializing in graphics and multimedia that also publishes JPR’s “TechWatch.” He can be reached at