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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Toshiba Tecra W50

Although Toshiba is a newcomer to the mobile workstation market, its Tecra W50 can teach the established players a thing or two about delivering a thin and light system on a tight budget (the base unit starts at $1,899; the review unit costs $1,999). Unfortunately, it lacks the configuration options that the others have.

Toshiba Tecra W50
Toshiba Tecra W50

At 14.9 x 9.9 in., the Tecra is slightly wider than the HP ZBook 15 and the Eurocom Racer 3W. It is 1.4-in. thick, 0.2 in. thinner than the Racer 3W. The lightest of the three at 5.9 lb., it has a somewhat bulky AC adapter that brings its travel weight to 7.5 lb.

Rather than having a smooth surface, the Tecra W50's black plastic system has a striated surface on the wrist rest and screen lid that takes a while to get used to.

Like the HP ZBook 15, the Toshiba Tecra W50 is powered by Intel's quad-core Core i7-4800MQ processor, which runs at 2.7GHz and can be pushed to 3.7GHz.

The system I looked at -- the pre-configured W50-A1500 model -- includes 16GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive. You can also purchase a configurable model; however, the only items that can be customized are system memory (up to 32GB), storage (you can opt for a 1TB hard drive, a 256GB SSD or a 512GB SSD) and security (a fingerprint reader or a SmartCard reader). The configurable system also offered a wider range of warranty choices.

The laptop comes with an optical drive and Nvidia's 128-bit K2100M graphics card with 2GB of dedicated memory and a memory bandwidth of 48GB/sec. -- the same card the HP ZBook uses. (An interesting fact: Because the K2100M uses 55 watts of power compared to the 100 watts used by Eurocom Racer 3W's Quadro K5100M, it doesn't need as much battery power.)

While all three of these mobile workstations have 15.6-in. screens with 1920 x 1080 resolution, the Tecra W50's display didn't look as bright as that of either the Racer 3W or the HP ZBook 15; I felt that its colors looked washed out.

As far as graphics work goes, it is more than powerful enough for most tasks and delivered smooth motion when zooming, panning and rotating my CAD models. It handled a heavy graphics workload while still leaving enough resources available to write in an adjacent window.

Like the HP ZBook 15, it has both a touchpad and a pointing stick. The keyboard has 19.2-millimeter keys that are smooth and more comfortable to use than the Eurocom Racer 3W's.

The system comes with DTS Studio Sound audio and it has speakers are in the Tecra W50's front lip. The sound lacks the richness and bass of the Racer 3W's subwoofer; in fact, it sounded a bit muffled at times.

Ports include two USB 3.0, two USB 2.0, and one that can be used either as a USB 2.0 or as an eSATA connection for an external hard drive. It also has HDMI, VGA and audio ports.

If you need a docking station, Toshiba's $176 Port Replicator III can consolidate the system's connections. However, because it can be used with several of Toshiba's systems, the dock has three different marks to line up different models; it took me a bit of time to master the process. On the other hand, the dock does provide a comfortable 10-degree angle and has a mechanical release lever. It delivers four USB 3.0, two USB 2.0, two DisplayPort, and one each of HDMI, DVI and VGA video. There's also an Ethernet and audio jack.

The Tecra W50 includes a variety of security features, including a Trusted Platform Module, a Smart Card reader and a fingerprint scanner. It also has an ExpressCard card slot for adding ports or an SSD. Its communications potential matches the others, with Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0.

Test results

Benchmark results were a mixed bag, with a PassMark PerformanceTest 8 score of 2,654, 19% less than that of the HP ZBook 15.

The system redeemed itself with a score of 672 on CineBench's processor test and 66.3fps on its graphics test.

The Tecra W50's battery life under constant use was excellent. Its 5,700mAh battery ran for 3 hours and 43 minutes on a charge, two hours longer than the Eurocom Racer 3W's runtime. That should translate into a comfortable full day of on-and-off use.

It's easy to swap batteries on the Tecra W50. It has a hatch underneath that is held in place with two screws, but it affords access to only its hard drive and memory modules. It is cooled with a single fan that is not easily accessible for cleaning.

The system came with Windows 8 Professional, but can be ordered with Windows 7; I was able to update it to Windows 8.1. Toshiba's excellent Service Station software helps tune performance as well as show when new software needs to be loaded.

Certification

When it comes to ISV certification, Toshiba is a little behind others, possibly because it is such a new machine. The Tecra W50 has been certified for Autodesk Inventor and SolidWorks; AutoCAD and other programs are expected to follow in the coming months.

Toshiba warrants the pre-configured Tecra W50 for three years.

Bottom line

At $1,999, the pre-configured Toshiba Tecra W50 is the blue-light special of mobile workstations. (If you go for the self-configured version with 32GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD, the price jumps up to $2,748, still not a back-breaker.) It should be fine as a general purpose mobile workstation for those on a tight budget, but I wish that it had more options than it currently has so that I could customize it to the work at hand.

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