Hot on the heels of the Precision M6500, Dell has launched a new laptop that puts a little bit of the ‘mobile’ back into mobile workstation. Greg Corke puts it through its paces.
Even the most battle-hardened commuter would agree that the best way to transport a 17-inch laptop is on the front seat of a car — shoulders just weren’t designed for such tasks! Dell’s Precision M6500 certainly is not the heaviest 17-inch model out there, but it can not really be described as a true mobile workstation, particularly when you take into account the poor battery life and brick-like power supply.
The good news is Dell has now added another machine to its Core i7 workstation-class family of laptops, a 15.6-inch model that is altogether more mobile. Weighing in at a little over 2.8kg the M4500 is not exactly light, but it is certainly a much better option for business on the go. It also features a surprisingly small slimline power supply and a battery life of over two hours at peak loading, which adds to its mobile credentials.
While portability is important to many users, mobile workstations are all about the performance and our review unit came with a workhorse Intel Core i5 540M. This dual core chip is a great choice for CAD as it has a high clock speed for the price. This is listed at 2.53GHz, but actually goes up to 3.06GHz in turbo mode. It also supports HyperThreading, which gives a small but significant boost in multithreaded rendering software, such as 3ds Max. For those more serious about rendering, Dell also offers a massive choice of quad core Core i7 chips, including the top end Core i7-920XM.
While the M6500 excels when it comes to supporting large amounts of memory (it has four DIMM slots) the M4500 is much more mainstream in its design. With two slots, 4GB (2 x 2GB) is standard, but for those working with larger datasets 8GB (2 x 4GB) is available for an additional £257.
High-end graphics is one of the main reasons why the M6500 has poor battery life and a colossal 210W power supply. The Quadro FX 2800M and FX 3800M, both key options on the M6500, literally drink power – up to 75W and 100W respectively at peak. While both cards offer high levels of raw 3D performance this is more important for design visualisation or high-end CAD than it is for mainstream 3D CAD software.
In the M4500 Dell offers two graphics options: the Quadro FX 880M (up to 35W) and the FX 1800M (up to 45W). The Quadro FX 880M in our review unit performed adequately in our SolidWorks 2010 graphics test, however, we would recommend the FX 1800M for more challenging 3D CAD work.
For storage there are a number of options. Our review unit came with a standard 320GB 2.5-inch hard drive, however, this can be upgraded to 500GB or swapped out for an Solid State Drive (SSD) in 128GB or 256GB capacities. There is also the option of partnering the standard 2.5-inch drive with a 64GB SSD mini card drive that fits in the mini-PCI slot. The idea is to use this for Operating System and applications, while the 2.5-inch drive is used entirely for data.
In terms of its display, the M4500 is available with a variety of panel options. The entry-level 1,366 x 768 panel arguably has too small a resolution for serious CAD work, while our test machine’s 1,600 x 900 panel was incredibly sharp if not hugely vivid in its colour definition. Those comfortable with high pixel densities may go straight to the HD panel. With a resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 it will not only show more detail but will deliver brighter images due to its LED back-lit technology. A VGA port and a Display Port are both available for outputting to an external display.
Features-wise the M4500 includes all the usual connectivity options from Firewire and USB to Ethernet and Bluetooth. One of the four USB ports doubles as an eSATA, which is useful for connecting high-speed external hard drives.
It seems crazy that Wireless LAN does not come as standard on most configurations. It is only £8 for the base WLAN unit so it can not be down to cost – just be careful when you spec up your system. For those always on the go, there is an optional 3G/HSPDA mobile broadband module available for an additional £108. Battery life can also be extended with a nine cell unit instead of the standard six cell.
Other features include an integrated 2.0 Mega Pixel Camera with Microphone, an 8-in-1 card reader, ExpressCard, PC Card and an optional Smartcard and fingerprint reader for added security.
Finally, a general business feature of the M4500 is ‘Precision ON’, which allows you to check your Outlook e-mail, calendar, and contacts without having to boot into Windows. To access the Precision ON software there is a button just to the left of the standard ‘on’ button and it takes around 10-15 seconds to boot. Unfortunately I did not try this feature out, (admittedly because I was not overcome by a driving desire to install and configure Outlook) but it works by launching into a Linux OS instead of Windows. In an age where everyone seems to have an iPhone or Blackberry to hand I am not entirely sure how useful this will be, but it sounds like a nice feature nonetheless — once you get round to setting things up!
Dell has produced another excellent workstation-class laptop, which offers a good balance between power and size, possibly saving a few aching shoulders in the process. The broad choice of processors is a big plus as it acknowledges that not all engineers and designers need quad core chips for their everyday work. Furthermore, opting for a dual core chip also reduces the price, which brings our test machine in at a very competitive £1,212. For an all round machine for CAD on the go it is an excellent choice.