The most demanding, hardcore users need the most powerful laptops on the planet. You probably agree. You probably think we’re talking about gamers and gaming laptops.
Actually, though, we’re talking about work, not play: applications such as computer-aided design (CAD), architecture, engineering, video editing and post production, 3D rendering and animation, virtual reality, and oil and gas exploration. The machines that take these jobs to job sites or conference rooms are mobile workstations—laptops in the top echelon of both CPU and GPU power to crunch through huge datasets and accelerate ultra-complex graphics.
Mobile workstations proudly wear their own brands, such as HP’s ZBook and Dell’s Precision families. (Lenovo’s entries carry their own letter under the company’s larger ThinkPad brand—the ThinkPad P series.) They can be breathtakingly expensive, but they can pay for themselves quickly as their users value the time they save. They’re built for reliability, capable of running flat-out 24/7. And they’re massive overkill for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint—mobile workstations are not about spreadsheet recalculations that would take most notebooks a couple of seconds, but CGI effects that would take most notebooks forever.
Table stakes for mobile workstation vendors are what are called “ISV certifications.” The acronym stands for “Independent Software Vendors”—specialized software companies such as Adobe, Autodesk, Avid, PTC, Siemens PLMS, and Dassault Systemes, who work with the PC makers to guarantee that a given workstation and its graphics adapter, drivers, and other components are optimized for their apps. If you use a particular program in your job, such as Dassault’s SolidWorks, look for the proper certification before buying a system.
Is a mobile workstation right for you? Frankly, for most laptop users, the answer is no. But if you work in one of the professional fields mentioned above—or if your job involves waiting for calculations or graphics processing that takes your current notebook many minutes or hours—you can justify the expense and join the elite.
Before we get to some of our favorite recent reviews, let’s look at some general components and choices you’ll face as you shop for a mobile workstation.
Buying Basics: Mobile Workstations
CPU and RAM. The rule of thumb here is to buy all the processing power you can afford. In the pro mobile workstation market, workstation-grade CPUs are an all-Intel world, centered around its highest-end Core mobile chips and its mobile Xeon processors.
While plenty of good gaming laptops, as long as they have a fast graphics card, can make do with a Core i5, mobile workstation shoppers should head straight for a Core i7, a Core i9, or even a Xeon, with as many cores and threads as are available. Here, you’ll want to look at the specific software that you mean to run on the machine for recommendations on what grade of CPU the vendor deems ideal.
A few entry-level machines, meant more for showing finished renderings to clients (or the boss) rather than producing the renderings themselves, feature quad-core processors. But most mobile workstations rely on beefy six-core-or-more CPUs, teamed with plenty of memory—16GB is a minimum, with 32GB not uncommon and 64GB a popular ceiling. Again, your software’s suggested requirements should be your guide, but erring on the side of “more” here, especially for demanding applications, is a safe mistake to make. Again, let the software makers’ recommendations be your guide.
Some Xeon-based systems support server-style error correcting code (ECC) memory, which can detect and fix single-bit memory errors. ECC DRAM is a mainstay in applications such as financial or scientific computing, where even the slightest internal data corruption cannot be permitted. That said, a requirement for ECC RAM is outside the mainstream for most ISV apps.
GPU and Display. As with gaming laptops, all but a handful of mobile workstations draw on the speed and strength of a dedicated or discrete graphics adapter rather than the integrated graphics built into the CPU. Nvidia’s professional mobile graphics are found under the Quadro brand, just as AMD’s are called Radeon Pro (formerly FirePro).
Though built to optimize different operations, mobile workstation GPUs give nothing away to consumer or gaming GPUs like Nvidia’s GeForce line. In fact, Nvidia’s professional mobile flagship at this writing, the VR-ready Quadro RTX 5000, has more display memory (16GB versus 10GB) than the company’s elite GeForce RTX 3080 desktop gaming cards.
A couple of mobile workstations that emphasize light weight and portability have 14-inch screens, but most measure either 15.6 or 17.3 inches diagonally. Some vendors offer both full-size and thin-and-light 15.6-inch models (the Lenovo ThinkPad P52 versus P52s, for example, or HP ZBook 15 G5 versus ZBook Studio x360 G5), the latter trading expandability for easy transport. Full HD or 1080p (1,920-by-1,080-pixel) resolution is a minimum, with 4K (3,840-by-2,160-pixel) resolution a popular choice for graphics or animation work with room for onscreen toolbars and menus—or for 4K video editing.
Color management—making sure that what you see on screen exactly matches a finished product—is often important for the kinds of tasks expected of a high-end mobile workstation. Screens such as HP’s factory-calibrated DreamColor displays come with software that lets you choose the Internet’s sRGB, print’s Adobe RGB, or cinema’s DCI-P3 palettes or color spaces.
Some Lenovo systems go further by having Pantone color calibrators on board: You select a white point (typically D65 for photography or D50 for prepress and graphic design) and gamma (tone response) value, then close the lid, which puts the screen against a palm-rest sensor. A few seconds later, an audible tone indicates that the calibrator has done its work.
Storage and Extras. Mobile workstation owners work with massive data files, so mobile workstations need ample storage. That typically means one or two M.2 solid-state drives teamed with one or two hard drives, totaling as much as 3TB or 4TB (at least for larger 17.3-inch models, which will have more room in the chassis for such a spread).
For still more storage capacity, nowadays we don’t consider a workstation worthy of the name unless it has at least one Thunderbolt 3 port for high-speed connection to external drives and RAID arrays, as well as single or multiple high-resolution displays. (Thunderbolt 4 should emerge in 2021 models.) If Thunderbolt 3’s daisy-chaining connectivity is too much of an investment for you, a growing number of desktop docking stations use the technology to provide one-plug access to ports aplenty.
Finally, take note of the touch pad located in the palm rest south of the space bar. Many CAD and other workstation apps make use of three mouse buttons, so it’s worth checking to see whether a system has a middle button instead of only the usual two.
The Major Players
As we mentioned earlier on, HP, Dell, and Lenovo are the big dogs in the mobile workstation market. Don’t confuse the companies’ high-end business systems with workstations; although the term “workstation” has a generic meaning, and a simple connotation of a “PC for work,” in the professional applications world it has a very specific meaning along the lines we’ve discussed: a high-end Core or Xeon CPU, a workstation-class Quadro or Radeon Pro graphics chipset, and ISV certification. As a result, you’ll want to look specifically at the three vendors’ ZBook (HP), Precision (Dell), and ThinkPad P (Lenovo) selections when comparison shopping. One other player, MSI, has also made modest inroads into mobile workstations with its MSI W series laptops; take a look at them as well.
Take note of an up-and-coming concept in the workstation world: a more generic GPU driver that is built around maximizing compatibility with creative apps. Nvidia is already doing this with its Nvidia Studio Driver, which works on both GeForce and Quadro GPUs. The driver doesn’t offer guaranteed compatibility like an ISV certification, but it’s tested against creative software from popular vendors. (A list of apps is published on the driver download page.) We’re seeing an emerging class of workstation-like Studio laptops hitting the market.
Note that almost all workstation machines are traditional clamshells, but HP has experimented with workstation convertibles with its ZBook X2 (a detachable-screen model) and ZBook x360 (rotating 2-in-1) models, respectively. These are both worth checking out, as well, in the event that their unique-among-workstation designs mesh with what you do.
Don’t need quite as much power as these workstation beasts deliver? Also check out our roundup of the top business laptops and our overall roundup of the best laptops.