Critical Testing Criteria: 15- to 17-Inch Mobile Workstation Laptops

eWEEK Labs provides guidance for selecting a mobile workstation for those high-value employees who most process compute-intensive workloads while on the road.

"Thick and heavy" mobile workstation laptop computers keep getting thinner and lighter. And these powerhouse systems are now commonly equipped with multicore processors and graphics cards that approach those found in desktop systems in speed and processing power. For workloads that must be processed in the field or where network connectivity is unreliable, a professional-grade mobile workstation is still the right tool for the job. To help you when comparing systems, eWEEK Labs has compiled a list of things to consider when evaluating mobile workstation laptops.
1) Peripherals count
Sure, mobile workstations have docking stations, but the whole point of these systems is that they go on the road to solve tough compute problems. Because they are bigger than most laptops, there's room for more ports. Three to four USB ports and a healthy supply of display, storage and peripheral attachments are the standard for mobile workstations. There are differences between brands, so be sure to keep this at the top of your comparison list.
2) High-end components
Manufacturers are racing to put the latest multicore processors and high-performance graphics cards in mobile workstations, and they will likely achieve parity during 2010. Be sure that the high-performance components your users need are available in the system you want. Be especially careful to check the maximum RAM options. All of these systems are built for speed, but memory capacity is still one area where there is differentiation between the vendors.
3) Display matters
Most workstations come with 15- to 17-inch widescreen displays. The Lenovo W701ds has a 17-inch main display with a 10-inch screen tucked in behind it just for good measure. You get choices on color calibration systems and brightness, so check you're your end users to see if they have a need for these options.
4) Get enough storage
The point of most mobile workstations is to process and store large amounts of data at speeds that rival stationary desktop systems. Mobile workstations typically offer trade-off options based on the number and type of drives. Low-voltage systems usually offer fewer and slower drives. If a long battery life is crucial to your end user, a mobile workstation is an inappropriate recommendation.
5) Docking station
Mobile workstations still end up the office. And end users may also frequent the same remote location. If so, it's a good idea to keep a docking station at the office and another at the remote site. Since the high-value users of these systems usually work with graphics-intensive output, plan on the docking stations getting tethered to two or more large displays. These systems have the graphics power to drive pretty much as many peripherals as you can attach to them.

6) Optical drive
Optical drive choices are usually paired with processor and power supply choices. Keep in mind that you and your users will be able to mix and match options, and in mobile workstations the optical drive is often up for grabs. If it's just going to be used to watch movies on airplanes, swap out the optical drive for a second hard drive.
7) Keyboard shortcuts
Nearly all the mobile workstations I've tested have had large, spacious keyboards and large trackpads. It's become a fad in standard business and consumer laptops to futz with the keyboard design. This seems to have a lot more to do with "keeping up with Apple" than actual usability. Be sure to give the keyboarding experience a run-through to make sure the large keyboard is used to full advantage.
8) Physical relationship
Big mobile workstations generally come with large power supplies, lots of cords, surprisingly quiet fans and an unsurprising ability to get hot quickly. Always include the power supply and power cord when weighing these systems. Since the battery is really more like a mobile UPS that supports the workstation between wall outlets, you don't always have to get the nine- or 12-cell option. This can save on some weight. For those who are aghast at this recommendation, consider that mobile workers using this class of machine are likely also traveling in business class next to an outlet or are in a trailer that does have power even if it lacks a decent network connection.