Power to the portable: 3 high-performance mobile workstations

While most laptops are reasonably priced and powered, sometimes you need a little extra. We test three high-end Windows mobile workstations.

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HP ZBook 15

According to HP, the company is the leader in mobile workstations, with 42.5% of sales for the second quarter of 2013. That may be because it offers laptops such as the ZBook 15, which is powerful and well designed, and offers extras such as a Thunderbolt high-speed port for external drives.

The system comes in a rounded black case that has soft rubber edging, making it comfortable to carry. Its footprint matches that of the Eurocom Racer 3W at 14.8 x 10.1 in., but the ZBook 15 is 0.2-in. thinner. At 7.5 lbs., the laptop is the heaviest of the three; with its AC adapter, it has a travel weight of 8.8 lb.

HP ZBook 15
HP ZBook 15

The $3,191 ZBook that I looked at is built around Intel's quad-core Core i7-4800MQ processor. The chip runs at 2.7GHz and can sprint at up to 3.7GHz. Other ZBook 15 models are available; you can choose between the slower and less expensive Core i7-4700MQ, Core 97-4600M or Core i5-4330M processors.

Like the other laptops covered here, the review unit came with 16GB of RAM and can hold up to 32GB (you can also go as low as 4GB if you wish). The unit also came with a Blu-ray optical drive and a 500GB hard drive bolstered by an optional 32GB SSD for caching the most used items to streamline its operations. You can also purchase the system with a 320GB, 500GB or 750GB hard drive or a 128GB, 180GB or 500GB solid-state drive.

For graphics hardware, there's the choice of Nvidia's Quadro K610M, K1100M or K2100M processors. The K2100M video engine that came with my test machine had 2GB of dedicated memory and a 128-bit bus that tops out at 48GB/sec., less than half the bandwidth of the Eurocom Racer 3W's K5100M.

The ZBook relies on HP's DreamColor 15.6-in. screen that offers 1920 x 1080 resolution; to my eyes, it was the brightest and richest of the three workstations. It is calibrated to produce a broad range of standard colors; in a previous demo, I saw it being used with HP's DreamColor LP 2480zx 24-inch external display and was impressed with the quality of the image.

In tests, the ZBook was able to show CAD models quite well and smoothly zoom, pan and rotate them. This can be done while writing a memo or working a spreadsheet in an adjacent window.

The system's backlit keyboard has 18.6-millimeter keys and is surrounded by smooth plastics. I found it more comfortable to work with than the Toshiba Tecra's striated surface or the Eurocom Racer 3W's roughened case.

As with the Toshiba Tecra W50, the HP ZBook 15 comes with both a touchpad and a pointing stick. The system's speakers are located above the keyboard; for audio, it uses DTS Studio Sound HD. Unlike the Eurocom Racer 3W, it doesn't have a subwoofer, so while the audio was fine, I felt that the sound wasn't quite as rich as that of Racer 3W.

The ZBook comes with one USB 2.0 and three USB 3.0 ports. There's also DisplayPort and VGA ports for use with a projector or monitor. It has an Express Card slot as well as audio jacks, but no HDMI connection; however, it worked well with an inexpensive generic DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapter.

The ZBook 15 also has something the others don't: a Thunderbolt port. When I tested it with an external 1TB LaCie Little Big Disk drive, the high-speed connector had a throughput of 95.0MBps compared to 31.4MBps for a USB 3.0 drive, a greater than three-fold improvement.

Unfortunately, the system's optional $250 docking station doesn't have a Thunderbolt port. What it does do, however, is tilt the system to 10 degrees for more comfortable use. In addition to containing space for an additional hard or solid-state drive, the docking station provides five USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, two DisplayPorts, a pair of DVI ports and a VGA connection. There's access to audio, wired Ethernet and a bunch of legacy ports: a parallel, a RS-232 and a pair of antiquated PS/2 ports.

The laptop itself has up-to-date security hardware, including a fingerprint scanner, a SmartCard reader and a Trusted Platform Module. The system has Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0.

Test results

With its hybrid storage system, the ZBook 15 review unit led the pack when it comes to its ability to perform everyday business tasks. Its PassMark PerformanceTest 8 score of 3,258 was the best of the bunch.

Its other results were more on a par with the Toshiba workstation: a CineBench processor score of 675 points and 65 frames per second on the graphics tests.

On the battery test, the system's 5,200mAh battery pack was able to power the ZBook 15 for two hours and 53 minutes of a continuous workload. That's 50 minutes shorter than the Toshiba Tecra's battery life, but more than an hour longer than the Eurocom Racer 3W's runtime. This means it should be capable of five to six hours of on-and-off work.

As is the case with the other three laptops, it is quick and easy to change batteries on the ZBook 15. In addition, the entire bottom panel of the case can be slid off of the machine, providing access to its components and fan. You won't even need to loosen a screw.

The review unit of the ZBook 15 came with Windows 8 Pro installed, but can be ordered with Windows 7. I was able to update it to Windows 8.1.

I really liked the computer's Performance Advisor software, which can help optimize the system's performance as well as get the display just right.

Certification

HP has the software vendors test and certify that its ZBook 15 will run a variety of specialty software. The ZBook 15 has been certified with the major programs in digital media, CAD, engineering, geographic information services as well as oil and gas development. Neither the Toshiba Tecra W50 nor the Eurocom Racer 3W can match this.

As Toshiba does with the Tecra W50, HP backs the ZBook 15 with a three-year warranty.

Bottom line

It may not have the power of the Eurocom Racer 3W or the seductive price tag of the Toshiba Tecra W50, but the $3,191 HP ZBook 15 does everything well at a reasonable price. It's a workaholic of the mobile workstation world.

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