[Disclosure: NVIDIA is a client of the author.]
NVIDIA is one of the companies that (rightly) believes if you want to change a market locked into a design, you have to be willing to lead with a reference design – or sell the result yourself, like they did with their AI-focused DGX workstation.
NVIDIA recently howcased their ACE concept, which massively rethinks the mobile workstation making it something nearly equivalent to a tower. Benchmarks show a comparative performance range of 3% better to around 10% worse than an equivalent tower configuration. That’s pretty impressive, given users typically can’t notice a difference less than 20%. Asus has picked up the design, and this forms the top of what looks like an impressive performance laptop line from them.
The announcement of this product was part of an impressive announcement backed by all the major players of their new RTX Studio laptops and workstations, which fall closer to where most folks’ budgets and performance needs. The ACE is more of a halo/technology showcase product, and it doesn’t disappoint.
Let’s talk about this in the context of the future of the laptop computer
NVIDIA ACE RTX laptop workstation
The big problem with high-performance laptops has to do with power and heat. By power I mean the energy needed to run the thing. Now, with mobile workstations, you typically must live on AC power, because the size and weight of the kind battery needed to run one of these things for 8–10 hours isn’t something anyone wants to carry. (I had a friend that carried a large motorcycle battery to get around this problem, but most of us thought he was nuts, and today I doubt he could get the thing through airport security.)
The ACE laptop concept has a 300W power supply. Granted, it’s smaller and lighter than any I’ve ever seen in its class, but it still needs 300W, and no commercial battery has that capability. However, the big breakthrough was on heat.
High-performance laptops generate a ton of heat and if you don’t want to iron your pants while wearing them, calling these laptops (regardless of how much they weigh) is like calling the rack torture device a bed.
Addressing this heat problem is where the innovation came in. NVIDIA placed the heat-generating components behind the screen and, using a Titanium heat exchanger, they were able to both keep the result in the 5lb range and also keep it from being top-heavy…so you could put it on your lap without it falling over too easily on the floor.
It’s a workstation-class offering with a terabyte of fast SSD storage, massive, fast memory and a display that’s highly color accurate.
But it may just be either the last or near the last of the laptops in this class, because the workloads it’s designed for are shifting to the cloud.
As with other high-performance products using discrete NVIDIA GPUs, this laptop has the Optimus function, which shifts power requirements down sharply when the laptop is running on battery. That’s fine: email, browsing the web or light projects should give the laptop more reasonable battery life.
If you require full performance, I’d expect the battery to drop noticeably – if it lasted even an hour I’d be impressed. It falls into the laptop class we used to call “thin and light” – weighing in around five pounds without the power supply – but you’ll either be using this in lower-powered mode or plugged in when away from your office.
This product targets those that need the ultimate performance for creating things. As with all cutting-edge products you’ll want to make sure the application drivers support NVIDIA’s RTX Ray Tracing technology, otherwise you probably won’t see the performance bump you were expecting. Given that this class of product should cost over $5K, you want the performance for which you paid.
As part of their RTX mobile Studio Class notebooks, the ACE sets the pace as technology showcase, but it’s far from a mainstream product. People that buy this class of system are elite engineers, designers and video editors who need performance now and aren’t willing to wait for more performance later…because there’s always more performance later.
But as the 5G and WiFi 6 networks roll out promising far higher bandwidth and, more importantly, vastly lower latency, the need for a laptop with this level of performance will decline. And given you really can’t use a laptop in this class on an airplane – the one lagging performance area where people use laptops and still can’t use the cloud – road warriors can’t use this class of product either.
We’re in the midst of an aggressive rollout of 5G and WiFi 6, and there’s a chance this ACE product could hold the stand-alone performance lead for a laptop computer forever. Because going forward, performance products in this and increasingly other classes of mobile and desktop products will pull their performance from the cloud.