Mobile Workstations by the Numbers

The mobile workstation is a valuable tool for the mobile professional, but don’t throw away your deskside workstation quite yet, according to Jon Peddie Research.

By Alex Herrera
Senior Technical Analyst, Jon Peddie Research

The Dell Precision M4400 Mobile Workstation is one of the new class attracting attention these days.

The mobile workstation made its first big splash in 2003 and accounted for roughly 101,300 units or 6% of total workstation units shipped. In 2004 through 2006, it was by far the largest growth segment for the workstation industry. But in 2007, as expected, the segment’s growth rate began to fall more in line with the overall market, and overall market share began to settle in the low- to mid-20% range. The table “Mobile Workstation Share of Total Workstation Market” shows annual market share data from 2003 to 2009.

Mobile Workstation Share of Total Workstation Market

2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
6% 11% 15% 19% 22% 23% 25%

The guts of a mobile workstation have quite a bit in common with a high-end corporate notebook, but there is one key differentiator: the graphics. Whereas integrated graphics dominate shipments in mainstream mobile workstations (formerly in the chipset, and now migrating to the central processing unit (CPU) with the Intel Westmere and AMD Fusion microprocessors), the attach rate for discrete graphics processing units (GPUs) on branded mobile workstations remains at 100%.

And the GPUs that are populated by mobile workstation original equipment manufacturers aren’t the garden-variety, gaming-focused types. The core technology for NVIDIA’s mobile Quadro FX and AMD’s FirePro Mobility professional GPUs are derived directly from their gaming brethren, but the drivers (and sometimes hardware) are optimized to handle the types of graphics involved in professional applications. An AutoCAD user will see much faster rendering of smooth lines on a mobile workstation using a professional GPU than on a generic corporate machine without one.

Where Are They Going?
It’s clear from the numbers that professionals are buying mobile workstations at a substantial rate. Engineers, designers, and digital content creators—those who would have relied on desktop workstations in the office—are natural candidates for using a mobile workstation rather than corporate notebook on the road. For an engineer who is using a desktop workstation in the office and lugging a corporate notebook home at night and on weekends, replacing the latter with a mobile workstation is a no-brainer. For a geoscience engineer sitting at a potential drill site, the mobile workstation is clearly the better option. And anecdotally, a lot of management types are getting them as well, perhaps for status or caché, even though the performance of the standard corporate model would meet their computing needs.

All Mobile All the Time?
But if buyers can get all they’ll ever want out of a workstation, and get it in a mobile form factor, why shouldn’t all professionals ditch the deskside and go mobile full-time? Well, as battery technology as well as CPU and GPU power efficiency improves, the capability gap between the mobile and the desktop certainly is shrinking. And that is encouraging more adoption of the mobile workstation as the primary machine, and some enterprises are pushing for wholesale adoption of mobile workstations.

But a significant gap in capability remains between the deskside workstation and its mobile sibling. A desktop workstation will always allow for more power consumption, thermal dissipation, capacity, and usually display area, in the common scenario where the office-based CAD user is equipped with multiple monitors. So most performance-hungry professionals that still spend a good chunk of their day at the desk running CAD, CAE and EDA will want the desktop workstation as their primary weapon of choice. It’s hard for us to see those users ever chucking the desktop system unless they’re out of the office literally all the time.

Add that all up, and while its current share of about a quarter of the market will grow, it’s unlikely we’ll see the mobile workstation surpass the desktop workstation in shipments any time in the foreseeable future.

Note: For more information about the workstation market, see JPR’s Workstation Report, a semiannual assessment of the state of the workstation and professional graphics industries, at

Alex Herrera is a senior analyst at Jon Peddie Research, focusing on 3D graphics and professional computing. He authors JPR’s Workstation Report.