How to Buy the Right Workstation Laptop
The most demanding, hardcore users need the most powerful laptops on the planet. You probably agree. You probably think we’re talking about gamers and gaming laptops.
Actually, though, we’re talking about work, not play: applications such as computer-aided design (CAD), architecture, engineering, video editing and post production, 3D rendering and animation, virtual reality, and oil and gas exploration. The machines that take these jobs to job sites or conference rooms are mobile workstations—laptops in the top echelon of both CPU and GPU power to crunch through huge datasets and accelerate ultra-complex graphics.
Mobile workstations proudly wear their own brands, such as HP’s ZBook and Dell’s Precision families. (Lenovo’s entries carry their own letter under the company’s larger ThinkPad brand—the ThinkPad P series.) They can be breathtakingly expensive, but they can pay for themselves quickly as their users value the time they save. They’re built for reliability, capable of running flat-out 24/7. And they’re massive overkill for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint—mobile workstations are not about spreadsheet recalculations that would take most notebooks a couple of seconds, but CGI effects that would take most notebooks forever.
Table stakes for mobile workstation vendors are what are called “ISV certifications.” The acronym stands for “Independent Software Vendors”—specialized software companies such as Adobe, Autodesk, Avid, PTC, Siemens PLMS, and Dassault Systemes, who work with the PC makers to guarantee that a given workstation and its graphics adapter, drivers, and other components are optimized for their apps. If you use a particular program in your job, such as Dassault’s SolidWorks, look for the proper certification before buying a system.
Is a mobile workstation right for you? Frankly, for most laptop users, the answer is no. But if you work in one of the professional fields mentioned above—or if your job involves waiting for calculations or graphics processing that takes your current notebook many minutes or hours—you can justify the expense and join the elite.
Before we get to some of our favorite recent reviews, let’s look at some general components and choices you’ll face as you shop for a mobile workstation.
Buying Basics: Mobile Workstations
CPU and RAM. The rule of thumb here is to buy all the processing power you can afford. In the pro mobile workstation market, workstation-grade CPUs are an all-Intel world, centered around its highest-end Core mobile chips and its mobile Xeon processors.
While plenty of good gaming laptops, as long as they have a fast graphics card, can make do with a Core i5, mobile workstation shoppers should head straight for a Core i7, a Core i9, or even a Xeon, with as many cores and threads as are available. Here, you’ll want to look at the specific software that you mean to run on the machine for recommendations on what grade of CPU the vendor deems ideal.
A few entry-level machines, meant more for showing finished renderings to clients (or the boss) rather than producing the renderings themselves, feature dual-core processors. But most mobile workstations rely on beefy quad-core CPUs, teamed with plenty of memory—16GB is a minimum, with 32GB not uncommon and 64GB a popular ceiling. Again, your software’s suggested requirements should be your guide, but erring on the side of more here, especially for demanding applications, is a safe mistake to make. Again, let the software makers’ recommendations be your guide.
Some Xeon-based systems support server-style error correcting code (ECC) memory, which can detect and fix single-bit memory errors. ECC DRAM is a mainstay in applications such as financial or scientific computing, where even the slightest internal data corruption cannot be permitted. That said, a requirement for ECC RAM is outside the mainstream for most ISV apps.
GPU and Display. As with gaming laptops, all but a handful of mobile workstations draw on the speed and strength of a dedicated or discrete graphics adapter rather than the integrated graphics built into the CPU. Nvidia’s professional mobile graphics are found under the Quadro brand, just as AMD’s are called Radeon Pro (formerly FirePro).
Though built to optimize different operations, mobile workstation GPUs give nothing away to consumer or gaming GPUs like Nvidia’s GeForce line. In fact, Nvidia’s professional mobile flagship at this writing, the VR-ready Quadro P5200, has more display memory (16GB versus 11GB) than the company’s top desktop gaming card, the GeForce RTX 2080 Ti.
A couple of mobile workstations that emphasize light weight and portability have 14-inch screens, but most measure either 15.6 or 17.3 inches diagonally. Some vendors offer both full-size and thin-and-light 15.6-inch models (the Lenovo ThinkPad P51 versus P51s, for example, or HP ZBook 15 G4 versus ZBook Studio G4), the latter trading expandability for easy transport. Full HD or 1080p (1,920-by-1,080-pixel) resolution is a minimum, with 4K (3,840-by-2,160-pixel) resolution a popular choice for graphics or animation work with room for onscreen toolbars and menus—or for 4K video editing.
Color management—making sure that what you see on screen exactly matches a finished product—is often important for the kinds of tasks expected of a high-end mobile workstation. Screens such as HP’s factory-calibrated DreamColor displays come with software that lets you choose the Internet’s sRGB, print’s Adobe RGB, or cinema’s DCI P3 palettes or color spaces. Some Lenovo systems go further by having Pantone color calibrators on board: You select a white point (typically D65 for photography or D50 for prepress and graphic design) and gamma (tone response) value, then close the lid, which puts the screen against a palm-rest sensor. A few seconds later, an audible tone indicates that the calibrator has done its work.
Storage and Extras. Mobile workstation owners work with massive data files, so mobile workstations need ample storage. That typically means one or two M.2 solid-state drives teamed with one or two hard drives, totaling as much as 3TB or 4TB (at least for larger 17.3-inch models, which will have more room in the chassis for such a spread).
For still more storage capacity, nowadays we don’t consider a workstation worthy of the name unless it has at least one Thunderbolt 3 port for high-speed connection to external drives and RAID arrays, as well as single or multiple high-resolution displays. If Thunderbolt 3’s daisy-chaining connectivity is too much of an investment for you, a growing number of desktop docking stations use the technology to provide one-plug access to ports aplenty.
Finally, take note of the touch pad located in the palm rest south of the space bar. Many CAD and other workstation apps make use of three mouse buttons, so it’s worth checking to see whether a system has a middle button instead of only the usual two.
The Major Players
As we mentioned earlier on, HP, Dell, and Lenovo are the big dogs in the mobile workstation market. Don’t confuse the companies’ high-end business systems with workstations; although the term “workstation” has a generic meaning, and a simple connotation of a “PC for work,” in the professional applications world it has a very specific meaning along the lines we’ve discussed: a high-end Core or Xeon CPU, a workstation-class Quadro or Radeon Pro graphics chipset, and ISV certification. As a result, you’ll want to look specifically at the three vendors’ ZBook (HP), Precision (Dell), and ThinkPad P (Lenovo) selections when comparison shopping. One other player, MSI, has also made modest inroads into mobile workstations with its MSI W series laptops; take a look at them as well.
Note that almost all workstation machines are traditional clamshells, but HP and Lenovo have experimented with workstation convertibles with their ZBook X2 (a detachable-screen model) and ThinkPad Yoga P40 (rotating 2-in-1) models, respectively. These are both worth checking out, as well, in the event that their unique-among-workstation designs mesh with what you do.
Pros: Remarkably thin and light. Formidable six-core Xeon horsepower. Gorgeous 4K touch screen.
Cons: Expensive. Unusable webcam placement. No middle button (or any buttons) on touchpad. Only one Thunderbolt 3 port.
Bottom Line: Dell splices its XPS 15 DNA with its Precision mobile workstation line to create the 5530, a lightweight basher with overpowering six-core Xeon and Nvidia Quadro chops and a spiffy 4K touch panel.
Pros: Top-end Nvidia Quadro P5200 graphics, Core i9 processor, 4K display in test unit. Two Thunderbolt 3 ports. Category-leading performance, as configured.
Cons: Big and heavy. Build is classy but unremarkable. Battery life is short.
Bottom Line: The highly configurable Dell Precision 7730 is a big, fierce 17-inch workstation for pros in design, VR-content-creation, and engineering fields. Our stacked Core i9/Quadro P5200 model delivers best-in-class performance.
Pros: Light and trim, for a mobile workstation. Powerful given its cost and size. Solid build quality. Handsome two-tone design. Excellent battery life.
Cons: No Nvidia Quadro or higher-end AMD GPU options. Quad-core “Kaby Lake-R” CPUs, not used here, will offer twice the cores and threads.
Bottom Line: The smallest of HP’s ZBook mobile workstations, the 14u delivers decent durability and power, and fine battery life, in a compact machine. It’s the rare “ultraportable workstation” for creative workers on location or on the go.
Pros: Hexa-core horsepower. Screen choices including 1080p with privacy filter and 4K DreamColor. Snappy keyboard with collaboration features. Toolless access for upgrades. Two Thunderbolt 3 ports. Strong audio.
Cons: Big and heavy. Privacy screen is too dark.
Bottom Line: It’s a bruiser compared with Apple’s MacBook Pro or Dell’s Precision 5530, but HP’s ZBook 15 G5 is an ultra-powerful, ultra-configurable mobile workstation ready to crush the toughest jobs and biggest datasets.
Pros: Sleek, premium build quality. Comfortable keyboard. 4K touch screen that mimics writing on paper. Impressive 32GB of memory.
Cons: Expensive as configured. Heavy. Underwhelming graphics performance.
Bottom Line: The HP ZBook x2 is heavy and expensive, but this Windows tablet’s strong feature set gives creatives an excellent alternative to using a traditional laptop or desktop.
Pros: Fierce Xeon power. Stunning 4K screen with built-in color calibrator. Easily expandable.
Cons: Pricey. Speakers lack bass response.
Bottom Line: Lenovo’s latest industrial-strength mobile workstation delivers the goods for high-end rendering and media creation while being surprisingly portable.
Pros: Good graphics performance. Stylish design. Multiple USB-C ports. Accessible components.
Cons: 4K screen doesn’t come with touch option. Less than seven hours of battery life. Expensive even for a mobile workstation.
Bottom Line: The HP Zbook Studio G4 is expensive and its 4K display is non-touch, but it looks sleek, is upgradeable, and has top-notch performance.
Pros: Reasonable price. Better portability than many mobile workstations. High-resolution touch display. Comfortable, innovative keyboard.
Cons: Convertibility not particularly compelling for a workstation. No USB-C or Ethernet ports.
Bottom Line: The Lenovo ThinkPad P40 Yoga is a well-made 2-in-1 mobile workstation, with a nice display, good performance, and useful extras. The convertible design isn’t a huge selling point for this category, but its portability and touch screen may prove useful if you need to do some serious work on the go.
Pros: Thin, light design. Great keyboard and touchpad. Professional-grade Quadro graphics. ISV certifications. Removable battery scheme.
Cons: Subpar battery life with base battery. Gets pricey with added options. Cooling fan can be noisy. Chassis gets toasty under load.
Bottom Line: A rare workstation-grade ultrabook, Lenovo’s ThinkPad P52s offers decent CPU pep, plus Nvidia Quadro graphics for buyers seeking ISV certifications. But factor in a battery upgrade: The basic power pack falls short of the mark.