28 January 2014

Best laptops for engineers: When work requires a real workstation

Along with gamers, engineers pose one of the toughest design challenges for laptop makers. Engineering applications crave memory, graphics horsepower, and large screens all hurdles in designing stylish, lightweight laptops. The result is a necessary tradeoff between performance and convenience. While not every engineer will make the same compromises, there are a few laptops that stand out for use by engineers, depending on their specific needs.

So what is the best laptop for an engineer? Here are a few great options, one of which will get the job done for you.

Lenovo ThinkPad W540

For those used to lugging a typical portable workstation “brick” the new Lenovo ThinkPad W540 may be a breath of fresh air. While not lightweight compared to a business laptop, at just under 5.5 pounds and just over an inch thick, it is not much larger than a MacBook Pro. Under the hood it can be configured with a variety of 4th generation (Haswell) Core i7 processors ranging up to the 4930MX capable of 3GHz (3.9GHz Turbo). It can also be stuffed full with up to 32GB of RAM and a 2880×1620 high resolution display. As befits a laptop designed for heavy-duty graphics, it features an Nvidia Quadro K1100 or K2100 discrete GPU.

Oddly for a Windows machine, the W540 doesn’t offer an HDMI or Displayport video output, opting instead for VGA and Thunderbolt ports. That may be a turnoff for those who don’t want to invest the extra time and effort in Thunderbolt peripherals. However, for those who need the ultimate in expansion capability, and want Thunderbolt’s high-speed 10Gbps transfer rate, it may be just the thing. For everyone else, fortunately, the W540 offers plenty of USB ports (2x USB3.0 and 2x USB 2.0). Automatic switching between integrated and discrete graphics helps the W540 claim a more-than-respectable 6+ hours of battery life (users are reporting around five hours).

As befits a ThinkPad, it comes with Intel’s vPro and a fingerprint reader. The system ships with Windows 7 Pro, so for Windows 8 haters, there’s no need to fret. However, if you want the latest version of Windows you’ll need to upgrade it on your own. W540 pricing starts at $1600 for an entry-level model with a 2.4GHz (3.4GHz Turbo) i7-4700MQ CPU, 8GB of RAM, and a 500GB hard drive.

HP ZBook 15 and 17 Mobile Workstations

Having made its reputation selling to engineers, HP is a natural when it comes to shopping for a portable workstation-class laptop. If accurate color and rugged construction are high on your list of requirements, the HP ZBook 15 with 15-inch display (or the larger and heavier 17-inch version the ZBook 17) will fit the bill. The tradeoff is a slightly heavier and larger machine (6.2 pounds for the 15-inch version) than the similar ThinkPad W540, even though specs are similar. The ZBooks also don’t offer the ultra-high-resolution display of the ThinkPad W540, but their 1080p displays are top notch and feature HP’s DreamColor technology.

Thunderbolt is also a feature on these models, allowing the connection of up to four displays. Unlike the ThinkPad, it also has a Displayport in addition to a VGA port. It also includes vPro and a fingerprint reader, along with a docking station connector on its underside. CPU options range up to the Core i7-4900MQ, clocked at up to 2.8GHz (3.8GHz Turbo), and it can be ordered with either Windows 7 Pro or Windows 8 Pro. Reviewers loved almost everything about the machine, except for its sub-four-hour battery life. The HP ZBook 15 is priced starting at $1650.

Dell Precision M3800 or XPS 15 Touch

While Dell’s flagship Precision M4800 goes head to head with beefy models like the ThinkPad W540 and ZBook 15, I’m focusing here on the new, lighter Precision M3800. The M3800 promises workstation power in a svelte 0.71-inch, 4.15-pound package. It has many of the newest bells and whistles, including an option for a QHD+ display, fourth-generation Core i7, Nvidia Quadro discrete graphics, and an mSATA slot to go along with its spinning hard drive.

Gorilla Glass covers the multi-touch screen it’s still a bit of a novelty in the mobile workstation category, but valuable if you order the machine with Windows 8.1 pre-installed. The option for dual SSDs allows for maximum performance if you put them in a RAID0 configuration or allocate your swap and temp drives carefully. Like the other machines we’ve looked at here, Nvidia’s Optimus technology provides automatic switching between integrated and the discrete Quadro graphics. The M3800 is priced starting at around $2000. For those who don’t need the Quadro graphics and dual drives, the new Haswell-equipped Dell XPS 15 has almost identical specs otherwise.

Sager NP9570

Often the words “portable” and “mobile” are used interchangeably. Not with the Sager NP9560. This beast of a machine is essentially a portable desktop, but not what you’d call a mobile computing device. Not as well-known as the big brand names, Sager has a reputation for creating machines with amazing performance. For those who want maximum power, the Sager NP9570 is an amazing laptop. Available with CPUs up to an Intel Core i7-4960X Extreme Edition CPU (typically a desktop processor), running at 3.60GHz (4.0GHz Turbo) this laptop’s raw performance is its defining characteristic.

The 1080p display isn’t as sexy as the ultra-high-resolution versions available on other machines, but it has an unmatched three hard drive bays, a tons of ports, 7.1 channel sound, and the choice of two powerhouse 4GB or 5GB Nvidia GeForce 770M or 680M video cards with SLI. This selections makes it the top graphics performer in anything short of a full-on desktop.

The downside of this machine, not surprisingly, is the size and weight. At 12 pounds, it is a beast in more ways than one. Part of the weight is the 17-inch display that covers 90% of the NTSC color gamut, but the high-powered, near-desktop components drive most of the rest.

The battery on a machine like this is more for moving from one outlet to another than doing a lot of work, with reviewers get just over an hour on battery, for occasions when the need demands. The Sager NP9570 is priced starting at $2000.

What, no MacBook Pro?

For those who have gotten tired of seeing the MacBook Pro appear in nearly every “best of” list of laptops, you won’t find it here. For starters, many of the top engineering applications do not run on OS X. That includes industry-standard design tools Solidworks and Creo, although MATLAB and Mathematica do have native Mac OS X versions. Other software like LabVIEW runs on both, but offer more purchasing options for Windows.

Running Windows on a MacBook is certainly an option, but from talking to engineers who have tried to make a go of it, they’ve lost the MacBook Pro’s natural advantages in battery life and driver support resulting in an unhappy compromise. So obviously, if you don’t need any of the Windows-only applications it is an excellent choice, but you definitely limit your software options.


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