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Updated: Buying Guide: Best mobile workstation: 5 ideal laptops for business


PCHF Tech News
Jan 10, 2015

Picks #1-3

Few productivity decisions are more important and, in turn, nerve-racking than selecting the right mobile workstation for your employees. Making the wrong choice could mean saddling your employees with a bad computer. So what do business owners look for? A great display, computing power and exceptional battery life without breaking the bank. There are few mobile workstations that can do this and we've rounded them up here.


Lenovo ThinkPad W540

This is a workstation powerhouse, with the downfall of being possibly too expensive for general office use at $2,573 (about £1,606, AU$2,946). The W540 is a mobile visual studio built on Lenovo's platform of ThinkPad workstations. With a 15.6-inch, 2880 x 1620 (3K) resolution IPS display and a high-end 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-4800MQ processor with a Nvidia Quadro K2100M graphics card, this machine is ready to tackle anything from simple word processing tasks to thousand page spreadsheets and even heavy 3D modeling.

The design is simple but unimpressive - a carbon copy of previous ThinkPad notebooks, folding up into a plain, gray rectangle and featuring only a few curved edges and no flashy accents. Although, if you don't put much stock in design, the W540 makes up for it with a carbon-fiber reinforced plastic body wrapped around a magnesium rollcage, which means this system can survive falls and other accidents that would otherwise damage other notebooks (although, certain small imperfections like a few soft spots on the rightmost side of the palmrest still exist).

Given the price tag, it might be smarter to pick a more affordable and less capable rig, unless of course your business revolves around graphic design that requires heavy computing power. If you are looking for a powerhouse, the W540 performs flawlessly with any application you use, never stuttering regardless of whether the user is browsing the web, editing images or looking at 3D printing models in Autocad.

Unfortunately, the high-resolution screen is a battery drainer - during a PCMark 8 battery test, the ThinkPad W540 only lasted three hours and seven minutes, with 5 hours and 17 minutes at best using the power saver profile and modest use.

Despite being a workstation machine design for office work and productivity, there are hardly any business applications built in or bundled into the laptop's high price. Instead, except the IT department to have to pre-install applications. What it does come with in the bundle: Password Vault, Quick Display, PC Experience, Airbag Protection, Messages from Lenovo, Rescue and Recovery, Lenovo System Update, and Pantone Color Calibrator.

Despite all of this, the Lenovo ThinkPad is a hefty and solid system that packs plenty of power under the hood to get your workforce through daily tasks and then some. That is, if you're willing to pay the high price tag. Our recommendation? Save it for your graphic design team and get the rest of the team a simpler, cheaper unit.


Dell Precision M6800

This Dell model is an impressive, niche product and Dell's biggest and most powerful business notebook pricing in at $3,490 (around £2,075, AU$3,750), almost double the price tag of some of its rivals. To make up for the hefty cost, Dell has packed this laptop with every feature a professional will need on the road.

The chassis is built from aluminum and magnesium alloy, and build quality is top-notch with no give on any surface, as well as dust and extreme temperature resistance.

One of the main selling attributes of the laptop is the versatility, there are four USB 3.0 ports, D-SUB HDMI and DisplayPort outputs, two audio jacks, an Ethernet socket and an SDXC card slot, and it's also got rarer editions: ExpressCard, eSATA and Smart Card slots, a docking station connector, a hot-swappable hard disk and a physical Wi-Fi switch. The machine is kitted out with a traditional keyboard rather than a Scrabble-tile unit, boasting an excellent layout, plenty of travel on each key and a reliable, comfortable action thanks to the rock-solid base and high-quality feel with an accurate and clicky trackpad to boot.

Unfortunately, due to its 3.8kg weight and 40mm thickness, the M6800 is bulkier than most of its competitors and was designed for function, not form with its gunmetal grey metal and exposed seams. As with most serious machines, the power comes at a price. The cheapest, $2930 has less RAM, a smaller hard disk and AMD FirePro graphics. The top model costs $4500, but might not be worth the money as you could get a better Nvidia GPU with a faster processor and improved storage for that price tag.

Despite the power, Dell has kept the noise down. For example, when handling simple tasks, the M6800 was barely audible, and the fans only produced a little noise when the system was stress-tested. Huge win is that the internal temperatures remained impressively low.

While we never expect high-end workstation batteries to last long, you'll be lucky to manage even a half-day away from the mains with the M6800 battery lasting just short of three hours and four hours when under Power Saver mode with screen brightness down to 25%.

Few employees will truly need the versatility and power offered by this Dell, but if they can justify the investment, it truly excels in every important area. Overall, the M6800 is clearly built for business, from its hard-wearing chassis and versatile exterior to its high-quality keyboard and powerful professional components.


HP ZBook 17

The ZBook 17's high-end performance is its most obvious positive feature. It can outperform most desktops on the market. It comes with an Intel Core i7 processor, up to 32GB of DDR3 memory and an Nvidia Quadro graphics card. Expect it to chew through video encoding jobs, render scenes as quickly as a desktop workstation, and perform any number crunching you ask of it.

Although its performance is excellent, the monstrous size is unfortunate. This is not a thin or light laptop - it weighs 7 pounds, and its chassis measures 1.3 inches. These numbers will turn a lot of people off ... and rightfully so.

Despite the ZBook's heft, it's well built, offers oodles of storage and has plenty of expansion options.

 This notebook's large frame also ensures a good selection of ports - three USB 3.0, one of which is for charging gadgets, with another for USB 2.0. There are video outputs for DisplayPort and a legacy analogue connector, Ethernet and a 2x2 Intel 6235 802.11ac wireless adapter. It comes with a Blu-ray writer, optional ExpressCard and an SD card slot cater for external storage - while there's a flexible range of internal storage options. You can have two 2.5-inch hard disks, up to 1TB in capacity, along with a 128GB mSATA SSD, or any other combination you like, including larger 2.5-inch SSDs.

However, despite all the lovely aspects of the ZBook 17, it's hard to see this category of ultra-powerful, ultra-heavy and ultra-expensive laptop ever becoming more than a niche. The sheer size of it makes this machine more of a desktop replacement than a portable computer. And at $4,630, £2,950 or AU$5,500, it'll cost you a pretty penny compared to other mobile workstations on the market.

HP recently released the ZBook 15u, which isn't quite as powerful as the ZBook 17, but is definitely valuable, portable and worth a look. But if you need something that's top-of-the-line, and portability isn't a concern, the ZBook 17 is your best bet.

Our 4-5 picks


Dell Precision M3800

This Dell breaks the construct that if you want a high-end laptop capable of running processor-intensive software as well as a desktop can, you have to expect it to be as heavy as a Lenovo ThinkPad system. Instead, the M3800 ($2236, £1397, AU$2569) is exceptionally powerful and portable, fitting a Haswell-based Intel Core i7 processor, and Nvidia Quadro graphics card, up to 16GB of memory and both an SSD and hard disk into a chassis that's just 18mm thick and weighs 1.8kg.

With a 15.6-inch glossy screen that is 10-point multi-touch capable, text and graphics are rendered with a noticeable crispness which makes rich content such as web pages look beautiful, thanks to the 3200x1800 QHD+ display. Not only are the graphics loaded beautiful, but the laptop's design is not too shabby itself, with a slim design that complements the silver-grey aluminum cover, curved edges and a rubbery material around the keyboard, which makes for comfortable typing.

The keyboard is standard "chiclet-style," with well-sized keys for accurate typing. The trackpad is sizable, can be tapped or click with no physical buttons, recognizing multi-touch gestures. And the speaker quality is a gem, along with a 720p webcam, plus two microphones for stereo audio.

There are few customization options - all M3800 variants come with a 2.2GHz Core i7 4702HQ quad-core processor, which runs at 3.2GHz in Turbo mode and Quadro K1100M graphics card with 2GB of memory, which goes alongside the integrated Intel HD 4600. All models also come equipped with a built-in twin-antenna Intel 802.11ac wireless adaptor.

Generally, the Dell Precision M3800 has impressive desktop-like processor performance, a powerful GPU and a surprisingly thin-and-light design for its power, which gives it an edge over most laptops currently on the market. Although some competitors may have more power and faster graphics card, these are bigger and heavier, making them less practical given their cooling and energy requirements to sustain hefty GPUs.


HP EliteBook 8540w

Need power and corporate features? This oldie but goodie should be the choice for you, packing both in equal measures. It's got a semi-rugged design for a resilient machine ideal for demanding use - its vibration, dust, humidity and extreme temperature resistant for easy transition from indoor and outdoor work.

It has a magnesium-alloy chassis and brushed-metal finish in a sleek design and gun-metal tone to round out a fresh look. It's light enough for basic travel at 3kg, although with a 224-minute battery life it won't be ideal for a long trip.

With a 15.6-inch screen, the HP has room for a spacious keyboard with firm, responsive and relatively silent keys (your coworkers will thank you). Even better, the keyboard is spill-resistant and has a tiny LED to illuminate it when working in dark conditions. Although, it isn't the most suitable workstation for outdoor use, this device is still great for busy urban professionals with its tough chassis and great usability.

The screen features a Full HD resolution and is ideal for demanding multimedia use. Images are sharp, boasting strong color and contrast to bring life to photos and graphics, plus it suppresses reflections through the matt-TFT panel.

In addition, this laptop offers ample power with a high-end Nvidia Quadro FX 1800M GPU, the HP provides a ton of graphics power, ideal for design multimedia tasks. The cutting edge Intel Core i7 620M processor and staggering 8192MB of memory run complex office software easily, making light work of the most demanding daily multi-tasking.

The best part: because it is an older model, you can probably score a few of these workstations online for around $300 (around £187, AU$344).



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