Laptops: Future proofed?

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As an engineer or designer what exactly do you need from a laptop? Rob Jamieson dispels some of the common myths about technology and future proofing for Computer Aided Design on the go.

Rob Jamieson’s suggested best buy. Pentium M 2.13GHz, 2GB RAM, V5000 and 60GB 7200RPM drive with DVD Burner.

Recently I have been attending a number of software visualisation roll outs around the UK and have had the opportunity to present from some of the latest laptops. This has prompted many people to come and ask me what is the best laptop for workstation applications, and also for them detail some of the problems they face using their current laptops. I have been quite surprised by the issues faced by design/visualisation users and why they purchased certain laptops based on what the manufacturers had recommended to them.

Large brand names hide the “workstation” laptops as top end business machines and they do not often detail as to what they are for. As an example if you go to one of the biggest OEMs and look for workstations computers they don’t mention laptops at all. If you go to the laptops section you have to specify “general business use” then click the top end machines before it mentions workstations and certified drivers etc.

Why are certified drivers so important? This are part of the special drivers designed with the optimisations for FireGL and Quadro cards that give performance and reliability with CAD applications. You are going to say that I’m bound to say that certified drivers are important because of who I work for but in a recent benchmark in a DCC magazine where they compared a top end Radeon type standard card with OpenGL applications to FireGL card the FireGL was three times faster even though it was a mid range workstation chip.

Some manufacturers of laptops don’t realise that there are differences in the drivers for workstations graphics chips and have told customers all that you need is ‘top end’ graphics processor. The worse case scenario I have heard is of a customer with a standard ‘top end’ laptop upgrading their CAD package and now the software instantly crashes on start up. Try explaining to the boss or your banker that the expensive laptop you just purchased doesn’t run your software!

Future proof

There has been a lot written about Windows XP x64 and 64-bit software. I’m an advocate of the advantages it offers but the first real benefit is the access to larger amounts of memory. The problem is that there are very few 64-bit laptops available and none with a fully certified graphics card that I know about. This means the laptop has to go and pass a qualification test at each of the software companies to prove that it works correctly. The other big problem is trying to get 4GB+of RAM into a laptop! The future benefits of newly compiled code for the 64-bit architecture will not be with us for a while so the main benefit is the memory access. The other big problem is getting the x64 drivers to work with current laptops. There are lots of problems getting printer drivers working with x64 today so some of the special devices in current laptops will be harder. I’m sure the drivers and memory will come but buying a laptop today at a premium that might support this in the future is a little risky. Laptops really have a write off period of two years – after this period they tend to still have some value left as long as they haven’t had a hard life which is a little unusual with computers today.

Another customer was telling me about a laptop that would only last an hour before it encountered crashing problems running intensive applications! This was consistently happening and is related to the processor or chipset design used on the laptop. Latent heat is always a problem with laptops when they are under heavy loads. A standard laptop has a duty cycle for lighter loads than workstation design.

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Large high resolution screens are another option normally reserved for workstation laptops. This is great for CAD applications as you get to see the whole model you are working on with all of today’s menu systems. The two downsides are that the text can be small and it can be hard to find a projector capable of taking this output if you need to. Some of the applications have a large text option to fix the first problem (Windows can have large text anyway) the second problem has several fixes. You can set a lower resolution that a projector can take and also in the bios of some laptops is an option to stretch the display to fit the laptop screen otherwise you will get small a image in the middle of the laptop screen. The other option is to have an extended desktop (unlike clone) and only put what you need to show in the extended area with the lower screen resolution.

DVI

Some laptops come with DVI digital connections as an option in a base station. This is the best way to connect to another monitor or projector as no quality is lost. Carrying around the base station no matter how small is not good. One or two have a DVI built in but then you need to add a DVI to VGA converter to use a standard VGA. It’s a no win situation until they add both connections or put on a HDMI which carries digital and smaller connector.

Which processors?

With any CAD application CPU power is important. Mobile dual core processors are coming soon (AMD is expected now, Intel is due January 2006). As most CAD applications are not multithreaded higher single process performance is important. Yes, in the future this will change but not in the short term which is the likely life expectancy of the laptop. On the Intel platform you can get a full P4 with long pipelines and some heat. These come in the full high GHz and consume lots of power but if you do a lot of media encoding they are great. The Pentium M is a short pipeline CPU based on the P3 core and runs on less GHz but is just as powerful as the full speed P4. It also consumes a lot less power and produces less heat which is perfect for a laptop.

Intel does employ some clever (and sometimes annoying) speed throttling techniques to slow the processor down to save power when it’s not being used intensively like using Word etc. Each laptop manufacturer seems to implement this slightly differently and can even slow the graphics card down. Understanding the settings for your power saving modes on battery and mains power can help the performance you require. What I hate is the power saving mode cutting in when I do a render or defrag my hard disk-just because I’m not interacting with the laptop it doesn’t mean I don’t need the CPU flat out. The newer laptops are better at understanding what you are using it for. The Microsoft power saving settings are just too simplistic to manage the power usage which is why most manufacturers add their own.

The biggest problem with workstation laptops is that you can take them anywhere and work anywhere which includes on a train, on a plane, in your home on holiday etc. It keeps your boss happy but the wife is a different matter…

Robert Jamieson works for workstation graphics specialist, ATI.

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