Technalysis Research
Previous Guest Columns

September 28, 2015
The Philosophical Challenges with Smart Homes and Smart Cars

September 2, 2015
Electronics Made In the USA

June 25, 2015
Appreciating HD Audio

June 9, 2015
The New Semiconductor Challenge: Doing More Without Moore

December 4, 2014
Limited by Design

June 2, 2014
RIP, Device Operating Systems

TECHnalysis Research Guest Column

November 12, 2015
The Best New Notebook May Not Be a Notebook

I am a tech performance geek. I can’t stand waiting for PCs to boot, files to load, screens to redraw, and functions to finish.

I’m also a tech industry analyst, which means I get invited to briefings by component companies like Intel, nVidia, AMD, and Qualcomm, as well as device makers like HP, Dell, and Lenovo, where they share their technology roadmaps, new device rollouts, and other future plans.

It’s a great combination, in a way, because I get to find out in advance what sort of performance improvements I can look forward to on next generation devices.

One of the things that has often struck me, however, is that you don’t always get the full benefits of the latest technology advances created by the component makers in the finished goods of the device makers.

For many good reasons—but most typically related to cost—the deployments of a new technology are often done in a more limited way than what the technology could potentially enable. While the business analyst side of me understands why those decisions are made, the performance geek side of me is often disappointed.

At a recent briefing by HP it hit me that there is a way to get full deployments of all the latest and greatest performance technologies in everything from CPUs, GPUs, memory, storage, connectivity and more. How, you ask? Buy a workstation.

Now, clearly, workstations are not a mainstream option, and that isn’t likely to change soon. But in the increasingly wide continuum of computing device buyers, there is clearly a subset of potential customers who want the best possible performance, in the same way there are car buyers who are willing to pay for performance-oriented cars. (Thankfully, performance-oriented computing devices don’t come with six-figure price points.)

Workstations are intentionally designed to offer the best possible performance, and it’s in workstations that you will see the full implementations of all the latest and greatest technologies. Want the fastest possible CPUs and GPUs, like quad-core Intel Xeon for client, nVidia Quadro or AMD FirePro GPUs? Check. Looking for a full-range of ports, complete with multiple iterations of the latest ones (like Thunderbolt 3 and USB 3.1), as well as the ability to drive multiple 4K displays? Check. Looking not only for SSD storage, but a PCIe NVME-based controller that ensures zero latency from these speedy solid-state drives? Check. How about Mil-spec ruggedness certification to avoid accidental damage? Check.

Of course, the trade-off for all these capabilities has typically been size and cost. Workstations have been beefy boxes—in fact, there’s almost been a certain technical machismo about how big your workstation was—and while nobody seems to really know, the assumption has been that workstations sell at sky-high prices.

The reality of today’s workstations, however, is actually much different. At the aforementioned HP event, for example, the company debuted a new line of their Z-Book mobile workstations that come in at ultrabook-level thinness (the new Z-Book Studio is 18 mm thick and weighs 4.4 pounds) and price points starting at a reasonable $1,699. Of course, that’s the base configuration, and as with performance cars, it’s very easy to hit a significantly higher price point when you add in all the goodies you want. In the case of the Z-Book Studio, for example, a tricked out configuration could easily surpass $3K. But still, if you’re a performance nut, that’s not a terrible price point to pay.

If you’re more of a Dell or Lenovo person, those companies also sell mobile workstations with somewhat similar sizes and price points. (Some might argue Apple’s MacBook Pro fits into the mobile workstation category, but that’s a debate for another day.)

To actually buy a workstation as a consumer, you’ll have to work a bit harder than just walking into your local BestBuy, but you can actually go to the BestBuy for Business online site, or use a business-focused reseller like CDW. In addition, all the vendors enable you to configure and buy direct from their own respective web sites.

For a lot of good reasons, I don’t think we’ll ever see workstations really go mainstream, but if you’re a performance geek like me in the market for a new mobile computing device, it may not be a notebook you want, but a mobile workstation. Check ‘em out.

Bob O'Donnell is president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

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