Clamshell notebooks come in many shapes and sizes, from lightweight ultrabooks to large-screen behemoths fitted out as fully ISV-certified mobile workstations aimed at designers, engineers and video editors. Dell's 17.3in. Precision M6600 is firmly in the latter camp, being a large, powerful and potentially lavishly-specified desktop replacement system. We looked at a model towards the top of the mid-range, to find out what Dell has to offer in this area.
The Precision M6600 is not in the least bit 'flashy' to look at; instead, it exudes understated professionalism. Built around a sturdy magnesium chassis, it's clad in slate-grey anodised aluminium and feels solid — as it should, weighing 3.5kg. Not only does the M6600 look the part, it also satisfies the MIL-STD-810G stipulations for resistance to extreme temperature, vibration, dust ingress, altitude and shock.
The military-grade Precision M6600 offers a 17.3in. screen, a full-size keyboard with separate number pad and a highly configurable specification
Reassuringly, there's surprisingly little flex in either the large lid section or the full-size keyboard — which, thanks to the system's 41.76cm by 27.05cm footprint, also accommodates a separate number pad to the right of the QWERTY keys. The lid is also solidly hinged and has a no-nonsense dual-latch open/close mechanism.
The screen on our review unit was a 17.3in. LED-backlit UltraSharp display with a native resolution of 1,920 by 1,080 pixels. It's a matte-finish unit with an anti-glare coating that delivers particularly good viewing angles in the horizontal plane, along with good colour fidelity. There's no built-in colour calibrator, though, as in Lenovo's ThinkPad W701. If you want the highest-performing display, an IPS RGB LED-backlit screen will cost you £408 (ex. VAT) extra; a touchscreen version of the standard panel, with stylus, is also available for £256 (ex. VAT).
As mentioned above, the keyboard — equipped with the optional (adjustable) backlight on our review unit — is full-size with a separate number pad. The layout features sensibly large Enter, Shift and Backspace keys, although we're not sure about the placement of the PgUp and PgDn keys in the interstices of the 'inverted-T' cursor key cluster, or Calc and the media control trio (forward, play/pause, back) at the top of the number pad. In the latter case, many workstation users might prefer Home, End, Insert and Delete in that position.
The keys have a good degree of travel and deliver reasonable tactile feedback, although we found it quite 'bouncy' to type on. These things are always subjective, but we'd classify the M6600's keyboard as 'good, but not up to classic ThinkPad standard'.
For navigation there's a decent-sized three-button multi-touch touchpad in the large wrist-rest area — the central button controls the scrolling function. A second set of three buttons above the touchpad works with the pointing stick that sits between the G, H and B keys. Although these work well enough, we much prefer using a decent wireless mouse on a large-screen notebook such as this.
There's a fingerprint sensor on the right-hand side of the wrist-rest area, while the area between keyboard and screen is occupied by — from left to right — volume mute and down/up buttons, a pair of speaker grilles and the power on/off button.
A key design advantage of the Precision M6600 is the ease of access to its innards — just remove the battery and a couple of screws, and the baseplate slides off easily (see above). Next to the battery compartment is a housing for a second 2.5in. SATA hard disk, held in place by three screws. The optical drive on the right-hand side slides out after you remove one screw. The primary hard disk is immediately above the battery, and is removable by undoing a single screw and activating a sliding latch. The DIMM slots are bang in the middle, with, above them, two half-size and two full-size Mini-PCI slots. Our review system used one of each, for Wi-Fi and mobile broadband respectively, leaving two free Mini-PCI slots for further expansion.
The Precision M6600 with the battery and the backplate removed
Like all Dell systems, the Precision M6600 is highly configurable. Our review system had a collection of premium components on-board, starting with Intel's Core i7-2920XM, a quad-core Extreme Edition processor running at 2.5GHz (3.5GHz under Turbo Boost). There's 8GB of 1,333MHz dual-channel DDR3 RAM (2x4GB), with various options up to 32GB (4x8GB) or 16GB (4x4GB) of faster 1,600MHz memory. The full 32GB will cost you an eye-watering £1,291 (ex. VAT) on top of the 8GB price.
Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit was preloaded on our review unit, with Professional optionally available for £50 (ex. VAT) less. The basic software bundle includes a 15-month subscription to Trend Micro Worry Free Business Security 3.5 and Microsoft Office 2010 Starter. You'll pay £324 (ex. VAT) more for a full copy of Office 2010 Professional. Also on-board our review sample were various bits of system management software from Intel, Nvidia and Dell (Intel Control Centre, Intel Management and Security Status, Intel Rapid Storage Technology, Intel ProSet Wireless; Nvidia Control Panel, Nvidia 3D Vision Pro; Dell Power Manager, System and Devices Manager, Dell Webcam Central). Generally, though, the M6600 is admirably free of 'bloatware'.
Graphics are handled by Nvidia's Quadro 4000M with 2GB of dedicated GDDR5 RAM. This is a high-end workstation-class GPU with 336 CUDA cores and an extensive set of ISV certifications. The 4000M also supports Nvidia's Optimus technology, allowing it to make use of Intel's CPU-integrated HD Graphics 3000 module for less demanding applications, in order to minimise power consumption. If you want the ultimate GPU option, the 384-CUDA-core ECC-supporting Quadro 1510M with 4GB of video RAM, you'll have to pay £1,323 (ex. VAT) more.
Storage is provided by a 256GB Samsung PM810 solid-state drive in the main hard disk bay. If you need more capacity, there are plenty of options: you can spend £236 (ex. VAT) less and specify a 750GB hard drive spinning at 7,200rpm, or £400 (ex. VAT) more for a 512GB SSD; there's also the second 2.5in. hard drive bay available, and the mSATA-compliant Mini-PCI slot. As for the optical drive, our review unit came with the premium Blu-Ray writer option (a Matshita BD-RE UJ242); if you don't need this, you can spend £358 (ex. VAT) less and get a slot-loading 8X DVD+/-RW drive instead.
There's connectivity aplenty on-board the M6600, in the shape of dual-band Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n), Bluetooth (3.0), mobile broadband (HSPA) and Gigabit Ethernet. Dell's Mobile Broadband Manager software helps you manage your HSPA connection.
As far as ports and connectors go, you're spoiled for choice. The back of the system carries Ethernet (RJ-45), VGA, HDMI and USB 2.0/eSATA ports, along with the power connector.
The left-hand side, from front to back, has a 54mm ExpressCard slot, a SmartCard reader and a reader for SD-compatible media above the optical drive and, further back, a pair of audio jacks, a six-pin FireWire port and two USB 2.0 ports.
Precision M6600, left-hand side (showing the slot-loading DVD drive, rather than the tray-loading Blu-Ray drive in our review unit)
The right-hand side has, again from front to back, a hardware switch for the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth modules, the primary hard drive slot, two USB 3.0 ports and a DisplayPort connector. Underneath, there's a proprietary connector for Dell's E-Port range of docking options.
Precision M6600, right-hand side, showing a pair of USB 3.0 ports and a DisplayPort connector
Note that you have three options for attaching external monitors, even without a docking station — VGA, HDMI and DisplayPort. However, if you want to use the notebook's screen at the same time, you'll only be able to use two external monitors when undocked.
Performance & battery life
Starting with the basics, the Precision M6600's Windows Experience Index (WEI) of 7.2 (out of 7.9) is the most impressive we've seen to date. The fact that the lowest-performing subsystem (which corresponds to the WEI) is a tie between Graphics (desktop performance for Windows Aero) and Gaming graphics (3D business and gaming graphics performance) is testament to the quality of the other subsystems. These deliver near-perfect scores: 7.6 for Processor (calculations per second) and 7.7 for both Memory (RAM) (memory operations per second) and Primary hard disk (Disk data transfer rate).
It may not be the most sophisticated benchmark, but WEI is telling us that this is a very fast notebook, across all of its subsystems.
Moving into workstation territory, we ran Cinebench 11.5 to get a feel for the system's CPU and OpenGL performance. In the CPU test, a scene containing some 2,000 objects — which in turn contain over 300,000 polygons — is manipulated. With a top score of 6.17, the M6600 came in between systems with server-class CPUs and those with lower-spec Core i7 processors:
In the OpenGL test the system runs a complex 3D scene depicting a car chase in which the GPU handles a huge amount of geometry and textures, plus a variety of effects including environments, bump maps, transparency and lighting. The M6600's top score of 58.75 is impressive:
Although you're unlikely to use the 3.5kg Precision M6600 as a portable system regularly, you may find yourself using it away from mains power on occasion. We estimated battery life by measuring power consumption using a Voltcraft VC940 Plus multimeter with the system idle (at the Windows 7 desktop) and under load (running Cinebench 11.5), and dividing the 9-cell battery's 97Wh capacity by the resulting figures. We did this under the no-holds-barred Ultra Performance power setting and the frugal Extended Battery plan.
In Ultra Performance mode, average power consumption was 28.9W when idling and 117.4W under serious load, giving battery life estimates of between 3 hours 21 minutes and 50 minutes depending on how hard you're working the system. In Extended Battery mode, the battery life estimates improve a little, to 3h 57min and 53min respectively. Although battery life is by no means poor considering the system's specification, you'll want the hefty power brick and a wall socket to hand most of the time.
At £3,173 (ex. VAT), our Precision M6600 review unit is a hefty investment, but if you need to do graphics-intensive computing it's well equipped for the job. With an entry-level price of £1,149 (ex. VAT) and plenty of scope to spend a lot more than the ticket on our review sample, the M6600 can take on many guises.
It won't win points for elegance, but this is a solid and highly configurable mobile workstation that should perform well with a wide range of demanding workloads.