Going Mobile
Jon Peddie
Issue: Volume 34 Issue 6: (June/July 2011)

Going Mobile

The workstation market continues to grow, evolve, and even surprise us. Its evolutionary track follows that of the PC, and just as PCs have gone mobile, so, too, are workstations.

Now, let’s clear up some misconceptions. Anyone not using a workstation, but even slightly familiar with what one is, usually begins a discussion asking, “Isn’t a workstation just an overpriced PC?” The obvious counterquestion to that is, “If that was indeed true, how do you suppose the suppliers have been able to pull the wool over the sophisticated and frugal users of workstations for more than three decades?” Obviously there has to be value in a workstation.

The three most-often cited differentiators of a workstation versus a PC are: qualification with professional and custom applications, ultra-reliable parts, and high, sustainable performance.

Tier 1 workstation suppliers and their add-in-board partners spend hundreds of hours at the software suppliers’ (ISVs’) facilities, testing and adjusting the drivers—the interface between the hardware and the application—to get optimum performance and maximum reliability. And that’s just one of the differences (for more, see the graphic on this page).

Workstations have to be ultra-reliable to justify the cost. In most situations, they run 24 hours a day and often for two or three shifts. When doing a major calculation or render job, they have to run non-stop and often unattended. Today’s workstations are really small, semi-private supercomputers.

And to accomplish all that, the parts have to be super high quality.

Just as the PC has multiple segments, so, too, does the workstation market, with entry-level machines, super-high-end machines, and mobile devices (also with several classifications). Mobile machines are usually 14 to 17 inches with discrete graphics and GPU computing solutions; 2D and thin-client machines are 15- to 17-inch tablets with low-end graphics cards; mid-range 3D workstations measure 15 to 23 inches and have multiple display capability; and high-end and ultra-3D machines span 17 to 30 inches, are multi-display, and sport high-performance graphics solutions with GPU compute. A more detailed breakdown can be found in the charts on pg. 78.

On the Move

Like the PC market, the workstation market is also moving to mobile, albeit not quite as fast as the PC. The reason the workstation has been slow in the move to mobile is because the need for power and performance is a drain on the battery, which also can cause heat. The traditional mobile model used for judging a PC does not apply to a workstation—the portability of a workstation is mainly to allow you to take your project with you. The ability to play solitaire or watch a movie on a long flight has much less importance for mobile workstations.

So, why is this shift happening? The idea of a portable workstation just makes sense. You never leave your project behind, and there’s no, or rather not much, compromise on performance. Mobile workstations use essentially the same CPU as a desktop machine, the same GPU, and memory: 512mb to 1gb GDDR5; the same system memory: 8gb RAM, 1tb HDD, 256gb SSD; the same I/O: eSATA, USB 2.0, DisplayPort, 1394a; and the same applications (CAD, DCC, video, visualization and design, and so forth).

On the other hand, there is no such thing as a one-to-one comparison of a desktop machine to a mobile one. Desktop or deskside workstations have more powerful processors and GPUs, higher-resolution screens … and more of them. For those machines, battery life and heat are not issues (or not major ones). But, there are things that a mobile workstation can do that a desk machine just can’t—like fit into your briefcase.

Mobile workstations allow collaboration in the field and offer the ability to give a presentation almost anywhere, anytime. Also, for many users and situations, the mobile workstation is becoming a desktop replacement and/or a supplemental system. Mobile workstations can support multiple displays; so they can, in many cases, replace a desktop.

And except for high-end visualization and the most complex drawings or images, a mobile workstation can do any type of work: from CAD and medical imaging, to DCC and video editing, to design and styling, visualization, and augmented reality.

Indeed, no one wants to be chained to a desk, and battery technologies are rapidly improving due to the push to be green. CPUs and GPUs are becoming more power-efficient with every generation, with new processor designs emerging, while displays are changing, as well—they are now bigger, brighter, and use less power.

The Associated Parts

This year, we saw the introduction of heterogeneous processors (HPUs). HPUs are CPUs with parallel processors, known as same-instruction processors, plus multiple-data (SIMD) arrays, also known as GPUs. The first wave included low-end devices designed for netbooks and tablets. The second generation, exemplified by AMD’s A-series Llano Fusion processor, has four x86 CPU cores and 400 SMID GPU cores—and that’s powerful enough to be used in entry-level to mid-range workstations.

These HPUs use less power, will be deployed in mobile devices such as laptops, and will be used in workstations once they have gone through the proper certifications and reliability testing procedures. The end result will be very powerful but lightweight workstations. Yet again, there will be interesting questions in terms of trade-off. We can see the potential for large displays—thin and light, the kind that Apple has been pioneering.

The first new development in workstation displays was the replacement of the fluorescent backlight with LEDs—which use less power, are brighter, and, in some special designs, are programmable in area segments to give a higher dynamic range to the display. The next wave of displays will be higher-refresh at 120 and 240 hz (current monitors are limited to 60 hz). The higher refresh displays, in addition to providing a smoother display when there is any motion of the objects on the screen, will also be able to support stereovision.

Simultaneously, glasses-free displays using either lenticular lenses or parallax barriers are being deployed on mobile workstations. The next generation will use OLED (organic LEDs) that can emit light with very low power. OLED displays don’t use or need any backlight. As a result, they can display deep-black levels and are often thinner and lighter than conventional LCDs.

On the display front, super-high-resolution displays are not only affordable, they’re expected on most workstations. The trend here is toward wide-gamut displays. Also, 3D displays that traditionally were employed by workstation users for professional applications are becoming more common, especially as stereo 3D grows in popularity with gamers.

Nvidia, for one, has just lowered the price on its wired stereo glasses to $99, and notebook vendors are deploying 3D displays on some of their notebooks. For instance, LG has introduced the LG R590 3D notebook with a 15.6-inch screen. It uses passive glasses and has a resolution of 1366x768. There’s compromise involved here, though: The passive display technology halves the resolution in order to present left- and right-eye views via the glasses.

On the other hand, HP was first on the block with a 3D notebook: the HP Envy 17 3D, a

17-inch monster that supports 1080p 3D with a full-HD 120 hz screen and AMD graphics card. Here, there’s no compromise. Nvidia contends that it is totally committed to stereo 3D, and some of the company’s notebook partners include Acer, with the Aspire 5738DZG, for example, and Lenovo, with the IdeaPad Y560D. In addition, Toshiba is playing in this space, offering the 3D A660. Moreover, all these offerings support active-glasses viewing technology.

No doubt these consumer products will lower the costs for stereo, and expect to see an even wider usage of stereo 3D in the work­station segment in the coming months.

Wide-color-gamut displays seem to be at an inflection point, or maybe more accurately, they’re at the chasm but haven’t quite made the leap. The challenges for new technologies in notebooks are the many constraints and the huge segmentation of the market. But, when it comes to low power, wide-gamut displays have an edge because they use LEDs. In addition, the wide-gamut displays entering the market support high def and stereo 3D. Then there are the issues of size and weight: Do you want to travel with this thing or use it as a desktop replacement? Finally, there are the obvious budget considerations.

Clearly, wide-gamut displays, with their ability to show more colors and truer colors, are a huge benefit to professionals in the visual industries: photography, video, print, and so forth. These people also want big displays and lots of them—they’re work tools. And these users will take the trade-offs associated with them. However, we’re not seeing the same flexibility in the mainstream of CAD, design, and manufacturing. Interestingly enough, mobility is emerging as the real advantage.

Workstations have usually been on the leading edge when it comes to user interfaces—workstations, in fact, were the first to employ pen inputs and trackballs. Today, there is a great deal of experimentation going on with touch screens by the workstation suppliers and by application vendors, most notably Autodesk. For several years now, Autodesk has been demonstrating possible scenarios for touch-screen implementations using research from Jeff Han (best known for popularizing large touch-screen applications for TV news and weather channels) and Perceptive Pixel.

Microsoft has been doing wonderful things with Surface, its touch-screen technology being targeted for kiosks and digital displays. However, the firm has been slow to get support for touch screens within the operating system, where applications from companies like Autodesk, the other CAD competitors, and Adobe, can get at the features and support them in their mainstream applications.

The excitement over tablets seems to have derailed what looked like a steady path toward new implementations of large-screen touch for professional apps. Prototype systems with large-screen displays integrating touch for video editing and other visual applications were all the rage a couple years ago; now, not so much.

However, Apple has opted for touch, one step removed: Its track pad enables fluid input, including gestures. And in its newest operating system, Lion, Apple has added more gestures and much more customization. Indeed, there are opportunities here for much better interfaces.

…And More

Mobility isn’t the only concept revolutionizing the workstation. Also starting to influence new desktop workstation designs are ergonomic and human factors. To this end, HP recently introduced an All-in-One PC with a touch screen that can be adjusted to lay vertical—a better form factor that supports more natural positioning during usage.

What, exactly, does the future hold? Reporters have been asking whether there is any longer a need for a workstation now that processors are getting so powerful. It’s the wrong question to ask. There are always going to be applications that are mission-critical to a company—meaning that a company has to have not only the most powerful computers on the job, but also the most reliable and secure computers.

There is always the opportunity to have better machines that can do more. Our society has moved to becoming a media-consumption culture. Today, the creation of media is more important than ever, and high-quality professional media is still being created in professional applications running on workstations. Likewise, manufacturing drawings—from airplanes, to cars, to dresses—are designed on a workstation.

However, what has changed is that workstations have broken their chains to the desk and are moving into the field—where the action is. When they stay at home, they’re plugged into the enterprise and not only getting daily work done, but also maintaining all the work that has already happened.

Workstations have, and will, continue to evolve and be a trendsetter in the areas of performance and reliability, and be the machines that our products and entertainment are designed on.

Jon Peddie is president of Jon Peddie Research, a Tiburon, CA-based consultancy specializing in graphics and multimedia. JPR’s reports include the bi-weekly “TechWatch Report” as well the quarterly “MarketWatch” for graphics and the bi-annual “Workstation Report.” He can be reached at jon@jonpeddie.com.