Mobile workstations are not so different from ordinary desktop computers. They have CPUs, memory, storage devices, and all the other components you might expect to find in a computer. But they also have some additional features that make them different from your average desktop or laptop PC. For starters, mobile workstation CPUs are designed to deliver more performance, they are often more powerful than the CPU you would find in a standard laptop. Mobile workstations are typically equipped with even better video cards and displays to support extremely high resolutions. Some mobile workstations have built-in support for connecting multiple monitors, letting you connect up to eight or ten screens to work on complex CAD projects in full resolution.
Mobile workstations are often designed with the highest quality components, using only Tier 1 parts from manufacturers such as Intel and HP. They can be configured to provide performance well above what is offered by a standard laptop PC. The best mobile workstations offer significant productivity gains over a normal laptop, but at a price that most users will find affordable given the additional functionality, they deliver.
What Do You Need To Know Before Buying A Mobile Workstation?
Several features set mobile workstations apart from other PC systems. In this article I'm going to focus on the most important of these features: expansion slots, high-performance CPUs and GPUs, internal storage devices, upgradability, power supply, and noise. I'll begin with a look at some of the different types of expansion slots found in mobile workstations, and then move on to more content about high-performance CPUs and GPUs.
The Different Types Of Expansion Slots Found In Mobile Workstations
Mobile workstations come standard with one or two PCI Express (PCIe) slots for add-in cards such as sound cards and video capture hardware. A growing number of mobile workstations also offer Thunderbolt 2 ports that can be used for extremely fast data transfers between devices connected to the computer, up to 20 Gbps in some cases. The best mobile workstations provide even more expansion options, including Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports that are capable of reaching speeds up to 40 Gbps when used with the proper adapters, and also support data transfers of up to 100 watts. Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports can be used in place of the Display Ports found on most mobile workstations and can connect single 4K 60Hz displays (HBR3), dual 4K 30Hz displays (HBR2), or a single 5K 60Hz display (HBR3).
Mobile workstations come standard with one or two PCI Express slots for adding hardware accessories such as Wi-Fi cards, audio cards, storage controllers, RAID controllers, graphics accelerators/rendering devices, video capture hardware, external super fast SSDs for extremely fast performance, etc. The mobile workstations come standard with either Thunderbolt 2 or 3 USB-C ports for the fastest possible data transfers and docking capability.
High-Performance CPUs And GPUs: Mobile systems typically use Intel Xeon CPUs with six to eight cores and up to 18 cores in some of the best workstations. Some mobile workstations come standard with Intel Core i7 or i9 processors that can be overclocked (with limitations) for even more performance under heavy workloads such as video editing. Similar to desktop PCs, several mobile workstations offer more than one graphics card slot for installing additional high-end GPUs such as Quadro P series cards with up to 32GB in video memory, AMD Radeon WX series cards in a single slot configuration providing a total of 16GB HBM2 memory, or Radeon Pro WX series cards providing 12GB of GDDR5 memory.
Upgradability And Power Supply: Mobile workstations are much thicker than desktop PCs because they need more room for all the various components (and power supply connectors) that make them unique. As a result, most users won't find it difficult to access any of these components for replacement or upgrade purposes. The thick chassis also ensures better protection against foreign objects accidentally being dropped inside the case during installation procedures. When it comes to power supply, your best option is to use a standard ATX PSU with high wattage output so you can run multiple devices simultaneously without experiencing problems related to insufficient current draw from the wall where the system is plugged in.
Multiple processor cores
The ability to manage numerous programs simultaneously, especially those that require a large amount of memory, is the mark of a mobile workstation. Expect a model's specifications to include an Intel® i5 or greater, or a comparable processor from another manufacturer.
A mobile workstation's CPU clock speed is measured in gigahertz (GHz). These machines will have at least 3.1 GHz, but it tends to be higher than that these days.
ECC Memory (error-correcting code) can detect and repair data corruption, allowing sensitive processes to continue. ECC memory is common in servers but is not required for most desktop machines.
Number of processing cores
A mobile workstation can have between two and 16 cores, with four being the norm. Eight cores are usually found only in the highest-end models, while dual-, quad- and Hexa-core CPUs are more common. Some mobile workstations are designed to support far more than six cores by allowing additional CPU modules to be installed inside the chassis.
PCI Express 3.0 or PCI Express 4.0 is used in some high-end servers, but it's pretty rare for a desktop machine outside of gaming PCs where having enough bandwidth to handle multiple GPUs was once considered essential. The vast majority of desktop PCs use PCI Express 2.0 or PCI Express 3.0, with the latter being far more common on newer machines.
The majority of desktop PCs have hard drives, but the speed difference between SSDs and HDDs is very noticeable in a workstation unless you stick to one that uses an HDD as its primary drive for data storage purposes. The vast majority of mobile workstations have solid-state disks (SSD) as their main drive, some exclusively so if they are designed for video editing purposes. Even low-end models come standard with an SSD option these days, although this may be little more than a basic 128GB model at best depending on what's included in the base price specification.
Mobile workstations are best if: You need a higher level of performance than is available from mainstream or even high-end desktop PCs. You access very large amounts of data frequently, such as video editing projects with hundreds of gigabytes in size.
Desktop workstations can be cheaper: If one is configurable enough to handle your needs without requiring more power than they have to offer.
Which one you choose depends on your requirements and budget limitations. Just remember that mobile workstations aren't designed for home users with relatively light workloads, so if it's not going to be heavily used they are probably not worth the extra cost unless you have a PC repair technician on hand who will do all the dirty work for you when things go wrong. At least for most people, a desktop is the smarter choice.