>> Choosing a mobile workstation

2014-10-24

Update 2014-10-30

Peter Wu wrote me about this topic and sent me a review of the System76 Gazelle, which raises concerns. A quick search for Galago reviews also resulted in another quite negative review. The System76 notebooks seem to be mostly rebranded Clevo machines with questionable quality. That pretty much leaves me with the Schenker ones as the only option, probably the B513. I will write an extended review once I finalized my decision and got one.


Original Post 2014-10-24

I recently downsized from my huge Workstation that could draw up to one kilowatt of power to a more compact and reasonable desktop cube with a current generation Intel Xeon and loads of memory to cache whole directories and pieces of software I use. It also solved my long problems with the AMD graphics drivers for Linux by eliminating the dedicated GPU alltogether. The Intel IGP is enough for desktop compositing simple 3D-acceleration.

Now I am considering taking it one step further and transition to a notebook, if I can get my hands on one that suits my needs. The reason for this is being able to take my work environment with me, to work from wherever I am, do presentations and have easy access to my data at all times, especially now that I am finding myself more and more away from my desk. My desk would then consist of my big 27” screen, my mechanical keyboard, a proper mouse and my sound system, making the notebook just a smaller desktop that I can unplug and take with me in a bagpack if I am leaving, making me a lot more flexible.

So, here are my requirements for a notebook like that:

  • A screen between 13” and 15”, the best compromise between screen estate and overall size (to fit into a bagpack, which is a must, I travel on two wheels a lot)
  • 1080p 16:9, to be able to use my and other screens and regular TVs without messing everything up by having to switch resolutions, or even aspect ratios
  • An Intel IGP without dedicated GPU, the drivers for Nvidia and AMD are by far worse and as noted above, I just need the IGP. Also improves runtime on battery
  • By that extension an Intel CPU, preferably current generation, ideally a quad core with Hyperthreading, but 4 threads should do fine as well (dual core + HT or vanilla quad core)
  • At least 8 GB of DDR3 memory, preferably 1600+ MHz, I can use up to 32 GB fairly effectively
  • HDMI and/or DisplayPort for connecting external screens, Headphone out, at least one USB3, at least 3-4 USBs in total, WiFi of course, 54+ MBit/s, Gb LAN
  • I would prefer not having a numpad and a more normal sized keyboard instead, would not mind if it was backlit
  • I do not care about storage or optical drives, is already taken care of
  • A somewhat sturdy case would be nice

Because of the stability and hardware with excellent Linux support, Lenovo’s Thinkpads are of course on my radar. Then there are the German Schenker notebooks, which are affordable and customizable. Then there are System76, which are known for distributing preinstalled Ubuntu machines. Here are some candidates:

Lenovo ThinkPad T440s Ultrabook

  • 14” 1080p IPS display
  • Intel i7-4600U (2.1 GHz dual core with HT = 4 threads)
  • Intel HD Graphics 4400
  • 8 GB DDR3-1600 memory
  • 256 GB SSD

1287€

This is the almost Thinkpad without a dedicated GPU and a 1080p display. While it already features a nice SSD, the hardware is sub-par in comparison and the price just not justified. I do not pay 50% extra for the pointing stick and the Thinkpad casing, no matter how indestructible it is. Other candidates would be the T540p, but that starts at about 1300€ as well (in configurations I deem useful).

Schenker S403 Ultrabook

  • 14” 1080p IPS display
  • Intel i7-4500U (1.8 GHz dual core with HT = 4 threads)
  • Intel HD Graphics 4400
  • 2950 mAh battery (about 8h runtime)
  • Without any drives

890€ (8 GB) / 920€ (16 GB)

This is roughly a high-end 13” MacBook Air, not that MacBooks would even make this list. They are nice hardware, but overpriced and sold by a terrible company. It is less powerful than the B513 while costing more, which I can only explain with the smaller case. The advertised runtime on battery is incredible though, although that is not my main concern, I just need 3+ hours.

Schenker B513

  • 15.6” 1080p IPS display
  • Intel i7-4710MQ (2.5GHz quad core with HT = 8 threads)
  • Intel HD Graphics 4600
  • 5600 mAh battery (about 5h runtime)
  • Without any drives

769€ (8 GB) / 879€ (16 GB)

The B513 looks really promising to me, relatively cheap, quite powerful for a notebook and without anything I do not care about. The IPS panel is a tiny plus for me. The extra power over the S403 comes at the cost of battery runtime, but I can live with that.

System76 Galago UltraPro

  • 14.1” 1080p display
  • Intel i7-4760HQ (2.1 GHz quad core with HT = 8 threads)
  • Intel Iris IGP (more powerful than Intel HD Graphics)
  • 2800 mAh battery (about 4h runtime)

880€ (8 GB) / 967€ (16 GB)

The Galago is really powerful for a notebook this small, but expensive in comparison. It has more power than the direct competitor S403 but only half the battery runtime as a result of that. Both System76 notebooks get even more expensive due to shipping and VAT, effectively adding about 20% to the price.

System76 Gazelle Professional

  • 15.6” 1080p display
  • Intel i7 quad cores with HT between 2.5 and 2.9 GHz = 8 threads
  • Intel HD Graphics 4600
  • 3260 mAh battery (about 2h runtime)

721€ (8 GB) / 808€ (16 GB) to 1050€ (8 GB) / 1137€ (16 GB)

Like the Galago, the Gazelle gets more expensive thanks to the import to Europe. It is roughly equivalent to the B513, but after VAT more expensive and with the only battery in this list that I actually consider too small.

So here they are, my first candidates for a portable workspace. So far, it looks like the Schenker B513 is clearly in lead, while actually being the cheapest. It is more a classical notebook than a “modern” ultrabook, which makes it cheaper overall, has all the features I desire, a matte IPS panel and enough space to fit up to three 2.5” SSDs. For 860€ I can get the small quad core with HyperThreading, which is enough, and 16 GB memory on this superb platform. That is obviously more than I would pay for a desktop, which would also enables me to switch parts for updgrades later, but the mobility is what counts here.