Engineering Laptop Buying Guide Mid 2019

September 2, 2019 Mark Harris

Previously, I covered buying a desktop computer for engineering purposes in The Definitive Engineering Computer Buying Guide Mid 2019. I only touched on engineering laptop/notebook computers at that point, if you’re looking at buying an engineering laptop this is the guide for you.

If you’re looking for a laptop specifically for engineering work, my expectation is that you are traveling a lot or are a student. Either way, you’re not looking for a laptop for lounging around the house or to have permanently docked on your desk. You want to do real work on the go and that, to me, puts some constraints on your options:

  • Relatively lightweight. Under 2kg/4.5lb, ideally around 1.5kg/3.3lb.

  • Large enough screen to use. 15.6” screen rather than 14” or less/. Preferably 17” or bigger. Full HD is required.

  • Good battery life. 8+ hours to cover a flight or day of work.

  • Dedicated graphics. Processor-based graphics cards are too slow for serious CAD applications.

  • Sufficient RAM. Minimum of 16GB RAM, ideally 32GB to handle CAD application requirements.

These requirements really cut down on the number of available options immediately. Packing all the requirements into a lightweight laptop is a challenge, but if the laptop is going to be used on the go, it can’t be a strain to carry. It needs to be something you can carry around an airport, a town, or an industrial facility without causing back pain if it’s in a backpack, or shoulder pain if it’s in a satchel.

A lot of ‘gaming’ laptops that would also work for engineering are so power hungry they only have two to four hours of battery life, which isn’t long enough to get into your work.

It’s surprisingly difficult to find laptops with over 8GB of RAM. I can max that out with just Chrome (I need to learn to close tabs!) and Altium Designer will max that out easily. I have an Acer Spin SP515 which I use on the go or to sit in a nice bit of English forest with my dog and get some work done. It is only available in the UK with 8GB of RAM, and the RAM is soldered to the motherboard! There is no upgrade path, so switching applications can be painfully slow as Windows pages memory to and from the Solid State Drive.

 

Laptop Options

Here are the laptops I found that meet the minimum requirements, even if just barely. I have not been able to test these laptops personally, so my opinions are based on advertised specifications and past experience.

Acer Predator Triton 500 - US$1699.99

The new Triton 500 comes with either 16GB or 32GB of RAM, which is fantastic. It features a current generation i7-9750H hexa-core 2.6GHz processor, so it certainly has some power for a laptop. The base model has a 512GB SSD, which should be sufficient for all your CAD applications and programming IDEs as well as the CAD files you need on the go.

The graphics card is the newly released nVidia GeForce RTX 2060 in the base model, with up to an RTX 2080 if you need tons of graphics power and to drain your battery faster. This is a very powerful graphics card, and will not be stressed by Altium, Solidworks, or Fusion 360.

It’s right on 2kg/4.5lb, which only just scrapes by the constraints. The advertised battery life is 8hrs, which probably means around 4-5hrs of usable battery life when running CAD applications.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 1 - US$2079

The ThinkPad X series is all about performance, and this specific model is the highest performance option offered. The ThinkPad brand is well known for incredible durability coupled with solid performance for professional users. Currently, Lenovo is offering significant discounts on these as the second generation model is about to be released. The base model (US$1899 retain) comes with only 8GB of RAM, however, the next model up (US$2079) comes with 16GB of RAM and 512GB PCIe-NVME hard disk over SATA3 for the base model. The RAM is user upgradeable and supports up to 64GB.

The Gen1 is running an older 8th generation i7-8750H hexa-core 2.2GHz processor which is a good tradeoff between battery life and performance. This is more than enough for the majority of CAD work.

For graphics, it features an nVidia GeForce GTX 1050 Ti. This a previous generation graphics card and is towards the bottom end of the market, but CAD packages will not stress this card. I can attest to this because it’s the same as the one I have in my laptop.

Weight-wise, the X1 Extreme comes in at 1.7kg/3.75lb with the full HD anti-glare screen option, making it one of the lighter options.

What really stands out on this laptop, considering its weight, is the 15 hours of advertised battery life. This should be sufficient to get you through 8-10 hours of CAD work.

HP EliteBook 1050 G1 Notebook PC - US$2499

HP’s EliteBook range comes with a lot of attractive features. The price above is for the model that meets our criteria, which takes it well beyond the base model. This model comes with 16GB of RAM that is in 2 SODIMM sockets and not soldered to the board, so this could be upgraded relatively cheaply.

The CPU is a previous generation i7-8850H hexa-core 2.6GHz processor, making it the fastest processor in this list. Despite this, the laptop’s huge battery gives it 16.5 hours of advertised life, which is quite impressive. With the previous generation nVidia GeForce GTX 1050 graphics card, you can expect 9-10 hours of CAD work.

The tradeoff for this huge battery life is weight. The EliteBook is just over our goal of 2kg, coming in at 2.06kg/4.54lb.

Another standout feature of the EliteBook is the screen; it’s not only anti-glare, but also the brightest in this list by far, which would make it very good for working outdoors or in bright environments.

Dell XPS 15 - US$1769.99

Dell has a strong focus on business users, and the XPS is its premium business laptop brand. Due to Dell’s focus on business computing, there are actually three options from Dell which made this list!

This particular model comes with a previous generation Intel i7-8750H hexa-core 2.2GHz processor. As mentioned on the X1 Extreme, this is a great tradeoff between performance and battery life. This is magnified even further when combined with the enormous 97Wh battery, giving an advertised battery life of up to 20 hours, which you can expect to use all day, around 12-14hrs, with CAD applications.

For graphics, the XPS 15 is running the previous generation nVidia GeForce GTX 1050 Ti. The 1050 Ti offers a little higher performance than the GTX 1050. The display on the XPS 15 is anti-glare and moderate in brightness.

That being said, battery life like this comes with a weight penalty; the XPS 15 comes in at 2kg/4.5lb with the 97Wh battery.

Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 - US$2019.99

Next up from Dell, we have the convertible variants of the XPS 15. This is the only convertible laptop that made the cut. Being convertible means you can fold the screen back all the way to use it as a tablet. This also means it comes with a touchscreen. Convertibles are pretty handy for reading through long application notes or other documents, as it’s basically a powerful bulky tablet in that configuration.

The processor in this model is the slowest of all the options with an Intel i7-8705G quad-core 3.1GHz processor. Despite the higher clock speed, it’s a much slower processor. The i7-8750H in the non-convertible XPS 15 offers 37% more multi-core speed, and 4% faster single core speed despite having a base clock almost 1GHz slower. The other laptops have CPUs from the high-performance line (ending with H), while this is a more midrange processor with the G suffix to the model number.

This is the only laptop with an AMD Radeon RX Vega M GL graphics card. The GeForce GTX 1050 Ti in the XPS 15 has 34x more market share than the Radeon, but depending on what you are using it for, the Radeon could offer higher or lower performance. For example, the GeForce 1050Ti is significantly better at lighting, but the RX Vega M GL is significantly better at reflections. The Vega also has better texture detail and multi-rendering. Owing to the differences in their architecture, some types of GPU computation are significantly faster on the GeForce, and others are significantly faster on the Vega. Effectively, the GeForce barely comes out on top in benchmark, but depending on your CAD application, the Vega may be either much faster or much slower.

Despite the slower CPU than and the almost identical weight to the XPS 15, the 2-in-1 has a smaller battery at only 67Wh, which means it gets almost 16 hours of advertised battery life. 

In conclusion, the XPS 2-in-1 is an interesting model, but the touch screen and the ability to convert into a tablet do come with performance and battery life tradeoffs.

Dell Precision 3530 (US$2756), 5530 (US$3293)

I’m going to group the Dell Precision series together since they are both similar. There are some critical differences between them, however, it's worth discussing both at once. There’s also the 7530, but it didn’t make the weight criteria.

Both Precision laptops have the powerful previous generation Intel i7-8850H processor. Both have 16GB of RAM. The Precision series laptops are completely configurable. Most other vendors will give you a choice in a couple of different RAM capacities and hard disks, but the Precision series lets you get into every detail. These are the only laptops on the list that allow you to specify a Xeon processor, for example.

I’m not quite sure how Dell came up with the number on the models, as the 5530 is significantly thinner and lighter than the 3530. The 3530 is 24.30mm/0.96” high, making it the chunkiest laptop in the list by a wide margin, and the 5530 is just 11.1mm/0.44” high at the front, rising to 16.82mm/0.66” tall at the rear, making it the thinnest on this list. The 3530 is also heavy, at 2.03kg/4.48lb, while the 5530 starts at 1.78kg/3.93lb.

With the extra size, the 3530 is able to fit a 92Wh battery, compared to the 5530’s 56Wh battery. You can, however, specify the 97Wh battery for an extra $50 in the 5530. Despite the smaller battery, the 5530 comes with a more powerful graphics card, namely the nVidia Quadro P1000, compared to the P600 in the Precision 3530. Both models allow you to specify up to a Quadro P2000.

These are the only laptops in the list with ‘professional’, ISV certified graphics cards. If you’re using a CAD package that cares about ISV certifications, such as Solidworks, it might make the Dell Precision series the most attractive option on the market. It proves that the Precision series are not just high performance or gaming laptops, they’re the only laptops in this list built specifically with CAD in mind, and the price reflects that.

Due to the vast array of possible configurations of these laptops, Dell does not advertise a battery life. Based on the similar processor and battery in the XPS, we can guess the Precision will probably be in the 18-20 hour range with the larger 97Wh battery, or about 12-13hrs with the smaller 56Wh. Quadro graphics cards run the same GPU as the GeForce at a lower clock rate, so we can expect slightly longer run times when doing CAD work compared to a laptop with a GeForce graphics card.

The Precision series is also available in a 2-in-1 model, which however is more similar to the XPS 2-in-1 than the aforementioned Precision series laptops. The processor and graphics are the same, as is the size and weight, but it costs an additional US$1500. I have not included it here, as I can’t see the $1500 advantage over the XPS.

MSI P65 Creator i7 8th Gen - US$1599

This is the lowest price laptop on this list, but it’s not slouching on performance; just battery life. Similar to the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme, it’s about to be replaced by a newer model, so you can currently find some pretty spectacular deals on it.

This model comes with a previous generation Intel i7-8750H hexa-core 2.2GHz processor, similar to the other laptops in this list. It also has the same 16GB of RAM, and 512GB of solid-state storage.

Unlike the other laptops running this processor, it comes with an nVidia GTX 1060 graphics card, which is the next model up from the GTX 1050. This will give you a slightly better graphics performance.

It has an 82Wh battery which is not that much less than other options, and the display is still a Full HD anti-glare one, yet the advertised battery life is only 8 hours. Perhaps, the test they are using for battery life is different from what most other brands are using; perhaps this test could be for more realistic usage than just trying to get the longest life possible?

The laptop is in about the middle of the pack for weight at 1.88kg/4.14lbs.

MSI P65 Creator i9 9th Gen - US$2899

Despite having the same model number and dimensions as the laptop above, this laptop packs a whole lot more punch, and you pay for it.

The processor jumps up to a current generation i9-9880H octa-core 2.3GHz core processor. The new more powerful i9 is about 18% faster overall than the previous generation i7. However, when it comes to multi-core performance it’s about 35% faster. It has almost double the cache, meaning if you’re running complex simulations, you may find it has higher throughput than just the extra cores offer.

This model of the P65 standardly comes with 32GB of RAM. The new 9th gen processor allows up to 128GB of RAM though, over the 8th gen’s 64GB maximum.

Keeping in line with the latest and more powerful specs, the graphics card has the latest nVidia RTX 2070 Max-Q, which is a real powerhouse. Compared to the GTX 1060 in the other P65, it offers 85% higher performance. Multi-rendering is 140% faster. Additionally, when compared to the GTX 1050 in many other laptops, the new RTX 2070 is almost 3 times faster. If you are doing rendering or other GPU intensive work, this might be just what you’re looking for. The display is also upgraded over the base P65, with a 4K anti-glare screen. Also of note is that this is the only option I have seen featuring a 4K display that isn’t glossy.

For storage, you get 1TB SSD storage, which is twice the 512GB offered by all the other models in this list. Most of the other laptops can be specified with 1TB, but I selected the 16GB RAM/512GB storage options to keep the comparisons even. However, this was the only configuration I could find for this P65.

Like the other P65, this model has an advertised battery life of 8 hours despite the much higher performance.

 

Which will you choose?

There’s certainly a wide range of high-end laptops available that meet our criteria both in specs and pricing. If you’re looking for a new engineering laptop, hunt around for a supplier. The price between the manufacturer's website and vendors could vary by as much as US$800 or more depending on who has what special offers. The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, for example, had over $600 of promotions available through the manufacturer's website at the time of writing. The MSI P65 with an i7 processor was $500 cheaper at B&H Photo than the retail price offered on other sites.

If you’re from Europe, like me, it’s worth looking at the price of laptops in other regions with promotions being offered. If the manufacturer won’t negotiate with you on price to match what is available in another region, it may be cheaper to travel to get the laptop. This might sound crazy, but the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme is cheaper in Canada than in the UK, by more than the cost of a flight from London to Toronto and accommodation with the current exchange rate. You might kill two birds with one stone, getting both a laptop and a vacation, which is probably a better deal than Dell’s 2-in-1s!

One laptop that missed out on meeting the criteria is the sibling of the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 called the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon. It only has a 14” screen if you’re fine with a smaller screen, comes in at about 1.3kg/2.8lb which is incredibly light, and still retains an impressive battery life.

Looking to learn about other cool tech? See what other companies are doing on the Altium OnTrack Podcast with Judy Warner or in the OnTrack Newsletter. Or find out more about how Altium can help you with your next PCB design and talk to an expert at Altium.

About the Author

Mark Harris

Mark Harris is an engineer's engineer, with over 12 years of diverse experience within the electronics industry, varying from aerospace and defense contracts to small product startups, hobbies and everything in between. Before moving to the United Kingdom, Mark was employed by one of the largest research organizations in Canada; every day brought a different project or challenge involving electronics, mechanics, and software. He also publishes the most extensive open source database library of components for Altium Designer called the Celestial Database Library. Mark has an affinity for open-source hardware and software and the innovative problem-solving required for the day-to-day challenges such projects offer. Electronics are passion; watching a product go from an idea to reality and start interacting with the world is a never-ending source of enjoyment.

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