Choosing a Mobile Workstation

I get a lot of e-mail and Twitter requests for advice about what laptop someone should buy. I don’t mind this too much (I actually sort of like it, to be honest), but it probably makes some sense to summarize my general advice about this subject.

There are a lot of available good choices for high end mobile workstations and choosing one comes down to several main factors:

    1. Your intended usage
    2. Your budget
    3. Your tolerance for size and weight
    4. Your desired screen resolution
    5. Your vendor preference

A common usage request in the SQL Server community is that someone wants to be able able to run multiple, concurrent virtual machines on a laptop so that they can start learning about SQL Server 2012 AlwaysOn Availability Groups.

From this usage description, you would want a relatively powerful multi-core machine with lots of RAM and multiple drive bays if possible. This means you will need a 15″ or 17″ laptop that will be pretty large and heavy (6-8lbs). These larger machines will usually have four memory slots instead of two, and they will have two or three internal drive bays instead of one. The HD4000 integrated graphics in the Intel Ivy Bridge processor will be more than sufficient for this scenario. Using integrated graphics will give you more battery life than discrete graphics.

Remember, you are going to be stuck with the screen that you pick and with the processor that you select for the life of the laptop. Unless you choose an Ultrabook, it should not be too difficult to upgrade your RAM and to install a fast SSD.

A single fast 6Gbps SATA III SSD would probably have more than enough performance (both random and sequential) to support this scenario, but you might be worried about disk space unless you get a larger and more expensive SSD, such as a 512GB model.

The latest models will have 22nm Intel Ivy Bridge (3rd Generation Core) processors, with 6Gbps SATA III and USB 3.0 support, and support for up to 32GB of RAM (with four memory slots). You will also want a 1080P screen (1920 x 1080), rather than a 720P screen (1366 x 768).

I think the sweet spot for mobile processors right now is the Intel Core i7-3820QM. Going for the top of the line, Intel Core i7-3920XM does not make economic sense, since it is double the cost of the i7-3820QM while only offering maybe 10% more performance.

Rather than ordering a machine fully populated with RAM from the system vendor, you should just get a single 2GB stick of RAM from the system vendor and then buy 8GB sticks of RAM from someplace like NewEgg. This will save you several hundred dollars. Here are some 16GB memory kits from NewEgg.

Depending on your comfort level with hardware and whether you want to install a fresh copy of an OS, you should consider buying your own SSD(s) from NewEgg instead of buying them from the system vendor. This would save you even more money, plus you can pick the SSD that you want. The 256GB OCZ Vertex 4 is one of the better choices right now.

Vendor selection comes down to personal preference, really. Most people (including myself) actually only have anecdotal experience and evidence regarding vendor and specific model selection. For example, perhaps you bought a Dell laptop a few years ago, and you had some problems with it, so you are not likely to be a Dell fan. I would argue that your personal  experience is only anecdotal (unless you were a desktop support technician, and your company bought 100 of that model laptop, and a high percentage of them had problems). Even then, your experience would be only be valid for that particular model.

Ideally, you would want to be able to actually play with the specific model before you ordered it, to check the build quality, the ergonomics, etc. That is usually not possible with Windows laptops, since most brick and mortar retailers only carry poor quality, entry level laptops. That is one huge advantage that Apple has, since you can go into an Apple store and play around with the latest model MBP before you buy it.

Here are a few candidate, workstation class laptops:
Dell Precision M4700
Dell Precision M6700
Lenovo W530

This entry was posted in Computer Hardware, Dell, Intel, Ivy Bridge, Laptops, Processors and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Choosing a Mobile Workstation

  1. bitinkering says:

    HP Elite Book 8570w or 8770w. Choose your GPU, Add a secondary drive bay and two 512GB SSD’s, 32GB of RAM and you’re done.

  2. cteveret says:

    Thanks for this great post! I am currently considering a “beast” of a laptop and your post touches on every decision point I have been thinking about! I especially liked the advice to go aftermarket for the additional memory and the SSD as I had been wondering if these were priced at a premium by the laptop manufacturer but could be had for less aftermarket and easily installed. I would have been nervous to do so however but won’t be now given your advice. Your advice on processor is also great as you get right to the point on the current sweet spot for price vs. performance. You are “da man” when it comes to SQL Server hardware and I appreciate the time you take to share your experiences with the community at large. I continue to look forward to future posts and diagnostic query updates!

  3. way0utwest says:

    One very cool thing about the Lenovo is that it can drive four monitors. That interests me since I’ve been thinking about upgrading my desktop and I have four monitors.

  4. Nic Hopper says:

    Nice article Glen. Thanks.

    I however went with a slightly different approach, I already had a laptop, nothing to powerful, not enough to run multiple VM’s anyway, so instead of coughing up the cash I decided to put my development instances into AWS (other vendors are available).

    There was no initial costs up front and depending on how I use it, my cost for 4 machines is around $15-$20 a month (for all 4 of them). So for me, and that’s the key thing, it’s suits me, not everyone, AWS was a great alternative to buying a new machine and I can scale as much as I need to and then throw away machines when I’m done.

    That said, I’m sure at a certain point it would be more cost effective/practical to just stump up the cash and buy a laptop, but for now I’m happy with AWS.

  5. I got Intel Core i7-3720QM for my W530 (10 days after ordering and I still don’t have it!). Upgrading to Core i7-3820QM would cost me another $200, which I didn’t have. I spent $450 on the RAM upgrade to 16GB (from basic 4GB) – a huge, huge, HUGE, mistake!

    After reading this post, I feel a little buyer’s remorse. I should have asked you before purchasing!

    Would you say the Intel Core i7-3720QM is “good enough” for testing SQL 2012 AlwaysOn, and other resource-intensive features?

  6. Glenn Berry says:

    Hey Marlon,

    The i7-3720QM is probably about 5-10% slower than the i7-3820QM due to the clock speed difference and the smaller L3 cache. You probably would not notice the difference in real life usage, but a benchmark would.

    If they have not shipped it, maybe you could change or cancel the order and get the better processor and less RAM from Lenovo, and buy your RAM from NewEgg. This would save you some money. If it is too late, I would not lose sleep about the performance difference. This would increase the time you will be waiting for the system though…


    • I did try to cancel the order to upgrade the wireless card. But their cancellation policy says that they can’t guarantee the cancellation. You can cancel the order but they might still ship your order, at which point you have to return the laptop under their Return Policy that charges 15% penalty (restocking fee). That amounts to about $300 + shipping 😦 ranted about this on my blog.

  7. Pingback: Digging deeper into SQL Server

  8. Rick says:

    Thanks for your views on a mobile workstation. I guess I’ll have to wait a bit longer until more machines supporting 32Gb come on the market and prices will hopefully drop, as most current models are priced at a month’s salary – or more… 😦

  9. Martin says:

    Regarding your SSD recommandation;

    I’d recommend Intel and Samsung SSD’s instead – we have a mobile workforce of a couple hundred laptops, all with SSDs, and yes, OCZ appear to suffer from a very high ‘sudden death’ rate. Intel and Samsung – none so far.

    • Glenn Berry says:

      From what I have heard, the previous generation OCZ Vertex 3 SSDs (with the SandForce controller) had lots of issues in the past, but the current generation Vertex 4 (with the Marvell controller) has not had many issues. The latest Intel 520 SSD have been very reliable too.

  10. Robert H says:

    I bought an Apple Retina model with 16GB RAM. It is definitely the way to go for me. Light weight, lovely screen running loads of windows (if you can read them) and with Parallels VM running. And I am not even a Apple user….

  11. gary says:

    I’m thinking about the Dell Precision M6700 for testing SQL2K12 AOAGs using VMWare, but I’m not too sure which processor to select and wanted your advice before I made a decision. 🙂

    Quad core processors
    Intel® Core™ i7-3940XM Extreme Edition processor (3.0GHz, 8M cache, Upgradable to Intel® vPro™) [add $775.20]
    3rd Gen Intel® Core™ i7-3840QM Processor (2.8GHz, 8M cache, Upgradable to Intel® vPro™ technology) [add $299.20]
    3rd Gen Intel® Core™ i7-3740QM Processor (2.7GHz, 6M cache, Upgradable to Intel® vPro™ technology) [add $163.20]

    Dual core processors
    Intel Core™ i5-3380M (Dual Core 2.90GHz, 3.6GHz Turbo, 3M cache, 35W) [add $34.00]
    Intel® Core™ i7-3540M Processor (Dual Core 3.00GHz, 3.7GHz Turbo, 4M cache, 35W) [add $68.00]
    Intel® Core™ i5-3340M (Dual Core 2.70GHz, 3.4GHz Turbo, 3M cache, 35W) [Included in Price]

  12. Ankur says:

    I own ThinkPad T430 with 256 GB microSATA with i7 and 16GB RAM which is perfect for multitasking and running multiple instances across the board. I run SQL 2012 Enterprise and 2005 express flawlessly.

  13. Dustin Jones says:

    Hi Glenn, Any chance you could update this post with the latest offerings from Dell? I’m in the market looking to buy a laptop powerful enough to run multiple VMs with SQL server for a home lab. Thanks for the great info!

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