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Haswell Architecture–Mobile Labs

Anyone who knows me, knows that I have a mobile virtualization lab – that is getting long in the tooth.  I’ve always preferred 17” laptops, as my needs are not only for virtualization, but as my primary personal computer, it is also used for multimedia.  17” have always been preferred as they typically were the only models to support dual spindles and larger amounts of memory.

The current unit is a Dell XPS 17, L701X purchased….. about 2.5 years ago now.  This might actually be the longest I’ve owned a single laptop.  To assist with my VMware/Virtualization needs, it was spec’ed with a 256GB boot SSD and a 640GB SATA, and I never saw much need to upgrade either.  Thin clones saved much of the disk space, which helped keep precious SSD resources around.  The system was shipped originally with 4x4GB for 16GB of RAM, which was a lot at the time.  About 4 months ago, I took a chance that the system would support 4x8GB for 32GB based on some online research and it turns out that it does.

However, as good as all of this sounds, there are some limitations.  The first gen i7 doesn’t support many important virtualization features, such as VTd and EPT.  So much for nested VM’s.  Kind of important for a virtual ESXi/vSphere lab.  Also, the two spindles were used, and the only way to get more was to replace the optical drive bay with a SATA bay – and really, who uses optical media?   More, of course, would always be good.

Just before Haswell was released, I was looking at replacing with a new system.  My desired specifications include:

  • Must be quad core, with HyperThreading
  • Must support VTx, VTd, and EPT.
  • Must have an mSATA slot for a boot SSD – 256GB preferred
  • Should still have dual bays for HDD.  512GB SSD for VM’s and 1TB SATA for media, ISO’s, archive, etc.
  • Optical bay …. could be ignored.  I don’t care if it has BluRay or not.   Most likely, I’m going to replace the bay with another SATA spindle.
  • 17.x” 1920x1080p minimum – no 1600×900 or otherwise.
  • ability to run 3x external monitors simultaneously, including the LCD.
  • Video card be damned.  There will be no gaming here, just media playback and remote consoles.  It would be nice if it supported WiDi/Mirracast.

At the time, the options for good systems were limited.  A good friend of mine has a ThinkPad W530 that meets just about all needs except for the 15” screen.  An Alienware M17x R4 and M18X R2 fit the bill, and gave me the added option of HDMI-in – useful for testing my mini HTPC boxes and such.  Dell also has the M6700 Precision, which is a wonderful choice, albeit expensive.  Most of the rest, didn’t support 4x8GB.

With June 3rd’s release of the Intel Haswell CPU architecture, new vendors have been releasing products.  So far the options seem to be:

  • MSI GT70 Dragon Edition 2 – All of the above fit, can be had in Canada with 24GB RAM and 256GB SSD + 1TB HDD for ~ $2100
  • Toshiba P and Qosmio series – which I’ve never really liked
  • Razer Blade Pro – which seems to only have one spindle, 8GB RAM, and little upgradability
  • Nothing yet from Dell or Alienware.

Here’s hoping something nice comes out soon.  I’d like an upgrade!   If you find something that fits the bill, let me know.

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