Could an HP mobile workstation be the only computer you'll ever need?

Has the day of the mobile workstation finally come? Maybe...Chromebooks and MacBook Airs aren't for everyone.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

My computer of choice recently is my MacBook Air. It rides in my bag with either my Motorola Xoom or my iPad, depending on what happens to be charged or what I might be testing or demonstrating on any given day. But I'm a tech writer and marketer who tends to be really mobile, really busy, and I like to be able to pull out something light and quick even if I happen to be sitting still for five minutes. Invariably, if I happen to not bring a laptop or tablet with me, I suddenly have half an hour free that I could be working on my book, writing an article, or at least responding to emails faster than I can on my phone. So, it's a rare day that the Air isn't at my side.

But for students and educators, most don't have the luxury of highly specialized tech toys...errr, I mean, personal computing tools. They don't have a speedy PC for digital content creation at home or in a dorm, a lightweight laptop to carry around, a tablet or two for content consumption and basic communications, and whatever other piece of kit an OEM sends them that week to test and review. A PC and possibly a tablet or smartphone are about it. So whatever that one device is, it needs to be a fairly robust jack of all trades. For many, it can be an inexpensive laptop. If all you need is basic productivity and Internet access, $500 at Dell.com or HP.com will get you there.

However, what about engineering students? Math and science? Courseware designers? That rare video or graphics arts student who dares not to use a Mac? Researchers running SPSS or SAS code to crunch data? Chances are, a bargain basement PC is not going to do the trick. At the same time, very capable laptops with discrete graphics and speedy dual- and quad-core processors can be had from major OEMs for fairly aggressive prices. However, these generally hit such low price points by sacrificing durability, expandability, and high-end LCDs needed for digital content creation.

What all of this is leading up to is my take on HP's EliteBook 8460w mobile workstation. Mobile workstations used to be incredibly expensive bricks, suitable only for engineers and designers who had to have incredibly powerful computers at a job site. While the 8460w is neither the cheapest nor the lightest laptop you'll find, it just may represent the ideal machine for students, instructors, and researchers whose higher education tuitions, budgets, and/or salaries allow for a single, good PC. If that one PC could benefit from fast processors, needs to be mobile, needs more than 8GB of RAM, and will be running applications like CAD or Adobe's Creative Suite, then the EliteBook should be on their short list.

Weighing in around 5 pounds with the extended life battery (which, by the way, is giving me around 8 hours of battery life under normal use), the 8460w has a bright, clear screen with an antiglare finish running at 1600x900. My test model topped out at about $2700, which isn't cheap by any means, but is actually right in line with a comparably equipped MacBook Pro. In fact, the price of the HP could be shaved to $2450 by just removing the Blu-Ray burner. It would still include a 2.3GHz second-gen Core i7 quad core processor, AMD FirePro graphics (with support for up to 4 monitors), 3 USB 3.0 ports, 1 USB power/2.0 port, and a USB/eSATA port.

The case is magnesium alloy and is incredibly rigid and the workstation has all of the other bells and whistles you would expect at this price (pointing stick, fingerprint recognition, large glass touchpad, etc.). It lacks a backlit keyboard, but has a small LED mounted under the webcam which works almost as well. It's incredibly fast, although I would forgo the optical drive, replace it with a large hard drive for storage, and configure it with a solid state drive for applications and the OS (all possible through HP's online configuration tools). Any way it goes, it screams, eating CS 5.5 for lunch. While my test machine came with only 6GB of RAM (it was a pre-production model; prices above reflect 8GB), it can be configured with up to 16GB.

Being a workstation, it also features various ISV certifications and HP has added a variety of security and power management software that are remarkably easy to use (so easy, in fact, that I actually enrolled my fingerprints, face, and Bluetooth phone for multi-factor authentication).

Not everyone needs a workstation in their messenger bags. For those who do, though, prices, performance, weight, and battery life have finally come to a point where such a thing is not only practical but downright pleasurable.

Thanks, HP...now I have another one of your workstation test units I'm loathe to send back.

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