3D CAD has been around for almost 50 years now in some form or fashion. It started as a tool reserved for programs that had more budgets than time to spend it. This usually meant government research or ultra-rich corporate research departments were the only ones that had the opportunity to utilize these powerful tools.

One of the major cost prohibitive measures was the hardware required to run such complex computations and mathematics. Even as late as the 1990s, workstations had to be specially designed on both the hardware and software ends to accommodate the system requirements of modern 3D CAD and solid modeling software packages.

At the turn of the millennium, Moore’s Law really began to introduce excess computing power into average PCs and workstations. Companies without the budgets of NASA and Lockheed Martin were able to deploy computing hardware powerful enough to have every engineer on their staff to efficiently use high-end CAD systems such as Pro/ENGINEER, NX and CATIA V5.

In the past 2 – 3 years, the industry has seen yet another trend in workstation performance. Mobile Workstations like the Dell Precision laptop series has introduced the concept of portable hardware with the power of yesterday’s engineering workstation that not only cost big money, but took up big space and big power. We tested two of the latest additions to the Dell line of Precision laptop workstations and compared them to an equivalently priced standard desktop workstation to see what the performance gap is.

Baseline Workstation – Dell Precision 390
This is as much engineering computation power that $3,000 buys you at Dell. We configured it with the Intel Core®2 Duo E6700 2.66GHz processor, 4.0GB RAM, a 500GB SATA (10,000 rpm) hard drive and 256MB PCIe x16 nVidia Quadro FX3500 video card. This took us right over the $3,000 budget.

Dell Precision M4300 (15.4” Laptop)
The Precision M4300 line of mobile workstations is the next evolution to the M65 series Dell Precision laptop. This seems to be the direct replacement to the M65. It is the mid-sized of the Precision Laptops pack featuring a 15.4” (1920 x 1200) screen. We configured this unit with the Intel Core®2 Duo T7700 2.4GHz processor, 4.0GB of RAM, a 120GB (7200 rpm) hard drive and the NVIDIA Quadro FX 360M video card with 512 MB. This laptop came in right under $3,000.

Dell Precision M2300 (14.1” Laptop)
The Precision M2300 workstation is the lightweight of the Dell Precision laptops. Starting at only 5 lbs (2.27 kg) it is geared towards the heavy mobile user. We configured this unit with the Intel Core®2 Duo T7700 2.4GHz processor, 4.0GB of RAM, a 120GB (7200 rpm) hard drive and the NVIDIA Quadro FX 360M video card with 512 MB. The cost on this laptop was well under $3,000 at about $2,600.

Benchmark Data
Since this test is strictly geared towards high-end CAD users, we decided to use the independent CAD benchmark written by Olaf Corten, OCUS (You can read more about it at this website:
http://www.proesite.com/). This benchmark used Pro/ENGINEER to run through several tasks using a script and records time stamps prior to and after each task. The tasks are then broken down into categories to give a clearer picture of what is impacted (CPU, HD or video) by each task.

The chart below reports the results of the testing.
Results are reported in seconds (i.e. lower is better).

Workstation DescriptionTotal ScoreCPU Related TasksGraphics Related TasksDisk Related Tasks
Dell Precision 39053723527756
Dell Precision M430068931834090
Dell Precision M230069731135189

Given the cost of these three options, it is hard to not justify “going mobile” with your next engineering and high-end 3D workstation. The two Dell Precision laptops performed well along side what is a above average engineering workstation in the traditional sense. The added ability to take you design tasks with you wherever you need is a huge added benefit.

The decision between the M4300 and the M2300 should center on a couple of questions; 1) Will I be using this laptop on a docking station with an external (larger) monitor and 2) what is the ratio of time that this unit will be used in an office environment where power is available and outside locations where you will need to run on battery power. Due to the 14.1” screen size, the M2300’s battery performance is far superior especially when configured with the 9 cell extended battery as we did. We were able to run this mobile workstation at high cpu cycles for almost 5 hours before needed to connect to an external power source. The M4300 struggled to run 3 hours. If you plan on using the unit in an office environment with a docking station with an external monitor, then the small 14.1” screen becomes a benefit rather than a detriment. The occasions when you are undocked is when you will enjoy and appreciate the increased battery life, lighter weight and added overall portability of the M2300 and will not have to deal with any of it’s shortcomings while in a docked state.

In conclusion, I think it is a wise move for any CAD user to invest in a mobile workstation for their next hardware refresh. I’m seeing less and less reasons to justify a desktop workstation as the performance gap continues to narrow.

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  1. believer1984 // June 5, 2008 at 3:48 PM  

    wow you learn something new every day. Thanks for the input. Im a big dell fan !

  2. rich // July 4, 2008 at 6:06 AM  

    wow, i have a precision 390 at home and always thought you just got much better performance from a desktop. I stand corrected! Although you will always have the ease of upgrade and generally longer life with a desktop, laptops are looking pretty appealing, I needed to buy a laptop for working on the move anyway so this comparison was very helpful. thanks