Under the Desktop: On and Off the Road

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Mobility is the current buzz in computing nowadays, from the latest cellphone-palmtop combination devices to wide area Wi-Fi networks. For content creators, this trend can be seen in high-performance notebook computers with fast processors, large and colorful flat-screen displays and high-capacity storage.

These machines appear to have the juice to rival their desktop cousins. Is there really a meaningful difference between desktop and mobile systems? And can these notebooks fill the needs of professional content creators?

Some are More Mobile than Others
According to ZDNet, the answer is "yes." In a special report released this week, their editors declared the desktop computer dead: "Desktop PCs are rapidly becoming digital dinosaurs, while notebook sales are steadily rising. And it's not hard to understand this reversal of fortune. Today, a notebook delivers virtually everything that a desktop PC can -- processing power, big screens, plenty of peripherals, and affordable prices."

I quizzed Giga Information Group research fellow Rob Enderle about the subject and he agreed with the long-term assessment, although adding several caveats to the thesis.

"With the emergence of workstation class laptops, led by Apple, even classes of users who typically wouldn't be able to use a laptop will," Enderle said. "One of the most interesting products out there is from Fujitsu, called the Celsius Mobile H, and it is arguably the best mobile workstation in the market today."

Due to ship here this month, the Celsius Mobile H is an intriguing machine -- its hallmark is a removable keyboard. Sold as a mobile workstation for CAD and "DCC," the shorthand for digital content creation, the Mobile H will come with a 15-inch LCD screen, a 1.7-GHz Pentium 4, and Nvidia's Quadro4 500 Go GL graphics processor with 64 MB of video RAM. I understand that it shipped earlier this year in Europe.

At the same time, Enderle said notebook buyers, even with the new workstation-class models, "pay a performance penalty. But this is often an acceptable trade-off to being able to work in ad hoc groups, or take your work on the road or home. So, if you specify the right product, and don't feel performance alone is the deciding factor, then the mobile workstation user may find themselves as, or even more, productive than their less-flexible desktop workstation counterpart. It's all in the choices."

Clearly, there are several market assumptions behind this trend. First, the manufacturers hawking these "mobile workstations" must consider that all users are equal and have similar needs for performance. Or lack of performance, as Enderle pointed out. Secondly, these companies must figure that there's some fundamental value in mobility that outweighs all other design considerations.

There's the rub. Such performance trade-offs may be fine for folks in the enterprise, but not for professional content creators, who require top performance and flexibility.

An Un-Natural Replacement
Sold by many companies as desktop replacements, high-end notebook computers are still designed primarily for mobility. Everything, from their design process to functionality, must conform to that goal.

On the other hand, a desktop machine is designed for performance. Without limitations of size, weight and heat, it can run the fastest processors, pack more RAM and produce better images, more quickly.

"It's a fact that laptops are not the answer for imaging people," digital artist and author Bert Monroy said. "I see the mail-order houses touting the [Apple] PowerBook Titanium in a bundle for graphics pros. NOT!"

"Yes, it is a great machine for on-the-road," Monroy added. "In the studio, however, I want all the flexibility of a tower. Sure, there are docks and such, and perhaps if you can only afford one machine then it makes sense to go the laptop route. But multiple screens, connections for many peripherals, etc., make the desktop the machine of choice for graphics professionals."

"Some editors will go with PowerBooks and/or laptops for portability reasons, but only if they must work in the field," agreed Charles McConathy, the president of ProMax Systems, a longtime vendor to content creators, particularly to video shops. He said about 5 to 10 percent of the company's system sales were portables.

"Serious creative content types will stay mostly with desktop towers," McConathy said. "Why? Mainly for configuration issues, like adding inexpensive internal storage, the availability of dual processors, the ability to install more RAM, and for installation of PCI cards for uncompressed video."

Desktop systems are made with easy expansion and upgrades in mind (in many ways expansion is the flip side of performance). While a mobile workstation may drive a large second monitor or offer a FireWire connector for external storage, it can't approach the flexible and powerful options available from a desktop machine. Multiple processors, choices for graphics cards, co-processor boards, and interface adapters are common features of workstations, yet are mostly out of the picture for a system constrained by mobility.

Desktop of the World, Baby!
So what does this assault on desktop computing hold for professional content creators?

First, it may add yet another layer of explaining for designers working in the enterprise. As I mentioned in a previous column, managers are often unfamiliar with the hardware demands of graphics applications and may balk at requests for faster processors, higher-capacity hard drives, and especially lots of memory.

Now, content creators must add desktop computers to that list. Imagine the linguistic tangles when explaining how the "mobile workstation" isn't really workstation enough. Great.

Second, and more alarming, is the notion that manufacturers will ignore the desktop category altogether, or limit production to models that don't meet the expectations of content creators. This will certainly cause prices to rise for CPUs and for expansion products.

Throughout history, technology has flowed downstream, as it were, from expensive, powerful workstation machines to mainstream models. Technologies such as AGP, FireWire, PCI and SCSI started in workstations and then migrated to boxes for everyday computing. That process helps drive prices down and performance up, not necessarily for the very top-of-the-line machines but for everything below.

We assume this process will continue but it's no law, particularly when the industry is focused on platforms with different values such as wireless and mobility. A desktop machine can even be a portable in disguise, such as Apple's LCD iMac.

To the learned sages of the Talmud, "The world is like a ladder: One man goes up while another goes down." Perhaps the same is true of the technology industry. Content creators will have to see which rung we're on.

Read more by David Morgenstern.

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