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Dell Precision M3800 Mobile Workstation: Slim and tough, with an excellent screen

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  • Editors' rating
    8.5 Excellent

Pros

  • 4K Ultra HD screen
  • Tough chassis
  • Core i7 CPU, Quadro K1100M GPU
  • Supports up to 1.5TB of SSD storage

Cons

  • Moderate battery life
  • Only 256GB of SSD storage as standard
  • Mediocre speakers

Dell has pulled out all the stops with its 15.6-inch Precision M3800 mobile workstation to deliver a notebook with impressive power in a relatively thin and light chassis. The option of a superb 4K Ultra HD touchscreen, plus Thunderbolt 2.0 and up to 1.5TB of SSD storage, make this a truly top-end notebook -- although you should probably be sitting down when you look at the price, which starts at £1,927 (ex. VAT).

The Precision M3800's standout feature is its 15.6-inch Ultra HD screen. Image: Dell

At first glance, you wouldn't identify the Precision M3800 as a workstation-class notebook, as its 8mm-18mm profile could almost pass for that of a large-screen ultrabook. However, these measurements exclude another 3mm or so of height courtesy of long rubber strips on the front and back of the notebook's underside, which do an excellent job of anchoring the system on smooth tabletops. Despite its slimline dimensions, the M3800's 1.88kg weight makes it a challenge to carry, even if it is significantly lighter than its 2.56kg Precision M2800 predecessor.

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The M3800 has a sturdy but slim chassis. Image: Dell

If you do need to carry the Precision M3800, you may be able to get away without adding a separate protective sleeve: the system's carbon-fibre base and aluminium frame provide good protection, while the screen is fronted by tough Gorilla Glass. We were able to bow the lid, but had to exert a fair amount of force to do so.

The M3800's standout feature is its screen, particularly the top-end 4K Ultra HD panel, although it may prove too reflective for some tastes. On our review sample, this 3,840-by-2,160-pixel display was superb, making web pages and documents easy to read, while graphics were rendered with fantastic detail.

The 4K Ultra HD display option does add a premium to the price, though. There are three off-the-page configurations on Dell's UK website at present, with the top-end 4K model, reviewed here, costing £2,284 (ex. VAT, although it's currently on offer at a more attractive £1,599 ex. VAT). The two other preconfigured models both have a 1,920 by 1,080 screen and cost £1,927 and £1,921 (ex. VAT) (currently on offer at £1,349 and £1,383 ex. VAT respectively). The Ultra HD and Full HD screens both offer 10-finger multi-touch support.

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The M3800's island-style keyboard has a light-touch feel. Image: Dell

We weren't as excited about the 80-key island-style keyboard as we were about the screen. There's probably room to squeeze in a number pad, but Dell has chosen to leave just over 40mm of vacant space on either side of the keyboard.

At 11cm deep, the wrist rest area takes up the same area as the keyboard. This makes for a large touchpad, but the tradeoff is a row of half-height Fn keys that are a little awkward to use.

There's relatively little travel on the keys and the feel is too light for our taste. The arrow keys are also squeezed into the bottom right corner, while the Enter key, although double-width, is only single-height, making it easy to miss until you get used to it.

The keyboard backlight is excellent: it has two intensity levels and there's very little light bleed around the edges of keys, making it easy on the eye.

The large touchpad, which has embedded buttons, has a smooth feel and is very responsive to multitouch gestures. We found ourselves using it and the equally responsive touchscreen in about equal measure.

The entire surround for the keyboard and touchpad has a rubberised finish that's grippy but which will, we suspect, become dirtier and more scuffed over time than metal or smooth plastic surrounds.

As a workstation-class notebook, the Precision M3800 has some decent specifications. All three preconfigured models run on a 2.3-3.3GHz quad-core Intel Core i7-4712HQ processor. You can't alter this in the customisation options, nor can you change the RAM complement -- 16GB in the top-end model reviewed here, and 8GB in the other two models.

The GPU is also a fixture: Nvidia's Quadro K1100M, which comes with 2GB of GDDR5 VRAM. This will support external monitors up to 3,840 by 2,160 resolution and can handle up to four active displays -- that is, the notebook's internal screen and three additional external monitors.

Somewhat disappointingly, the top-end 4K-screen/16GB RAM preconfigured model only comes with 256GB of SSD storage as standard, on a Mini-PCIe card. You can boost this to 512TB for an extra £147.70 (ex. VAT) or 1TB for an extra £261.10 (ex. VAT), and if you want to max out your solid-state storage you can add a 512GB 2.5-inch SATA SSD for another £312.90 (ex. VAT), bringing the grand total, with 1.5TB of SSD storage, to an eye-watering £3,104.29 (ex. VAT, or £2,173 with the current discount applied). The two less expensive preconfigured models both have 500GB 7,200rpm hard drives, with several HDD and SSD upgrade options.

Both Windows 7 Professional and Windows 8.1 Pro are available, with the top-end model needing an upgrade if you want to run the latter. You can also specify Ubuntu, but only on one of the preconfigured models.

Wireless connections include 802.11ac and Bluetooth 4.0, but there's no provision for either wireless broadband or NFC -- options that some users might hope to find on a true bells-and-whistles notebook.

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The M3800 has three USB ports (two 3.0, one 2.0, all with PowerShare), plus HDMI and Thunderbolt 2.0 connectors. Image: Dell

The headline among the ports and connectors has to be the Thunderbolt 2 port, providing the capability to simultaneously stream and display 4K video. If you don't need this, or you work with older systems at the output end, there's also a full-sized HDMI connector.

Both of these connectors are on the left side, where you'll also find a headset jack, the power input and a single USB 3.0 port with PowerShare. You'll also find a battery life indicator on this edge: just depress a small button and up to five small white LEDs illuminate to show the estimated amount of charge remaining.

The right edge carries a media card reader and two further USB ports with PowerShare, only one of those is USB 3.0 (the other being USB 2.0). There's no Ethernet integrated port, but Dell provides a USB-to-Ethernet adapter cable.

The quality of the speakers is disappointing, given that high-end multimedia presentations depend as much on good sound as good visuals. The volume goes much louder than we are used to hearing from a notebook, but bass tones are so poor as to be almost absent and the resulting aural palette is very limited. Some notebooks could get away with this, but the Precision M3800 specialises in high-end graphics, and ought to deliver sound quality to match.

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As far as performance is concerned, our review sample of the Precision M3800 didn't quite match the previous-generation Precision M2800 that we reviewed last year, the respective Cinebench R15 scores being 570 and 639 in the CPU test and 51.4 and 53.9 in the OpenGL GPU test. That's probably mostly down to the difference in processor speed: our M3800 had a 2.3-3.3GHz Core i7-4712HQ, while the M2800 had a faster 2.8/3.8GHz Core i7-4810MQ. To put both systems in perspective, the fastest Cinebench R15 numbers we've recorded, for the 12-core Xeon/Quadro K5100M-based Eurocom Panther 5SE, were 1,524 for the CPU test and 91.7 for the OpenGL test (the Panther 5SE does cost over £5,000 though).

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Disk performance from the 256GB Mini-PCIe SSD is very good, Atto Disk Benchmark recording a read speed of 516.2MB/sec and a write speed of 416.6MB/sec.

The M3800's standard 6-cell 61Wh battery is somewhat challenged by the Ultra HD screen and Core i7 processor. For example, in one typical 2.5-hour work session involving document editing, web browsing and background music, we saw the battery drain from 100 percent to 58 percent. To investigate further, we measured the system's power draw when idling and when running a demanding load, getting 16.7W for the former and 50.4W for the latter, on average. That translates to expected battery life of between 3.6h and 1.2h depending on what the system is doing.

If you travel with this notebook, you'll need to carry the fairly weighty AC adapter. It's disappointing that the battery is not removable, so you don't have the option to carry a spare. Your other option is to spend an extra £31.50 (ex. VAT) and specify a longer-lasting 91Wh battery.

There's a little white light on the charge connector that lets you know mains power is feeding in. It would be preferable if this switched off when the battery is fully charged.

Conclusion

Nicely built with a superb 15.6-inch Ultra HD screen, a Core i7 processor and plenty of configuration choices, Dell's Precision M3800 mobile workstation is an excellent notebook. However, it's let down by moderate battery life and poor-quality sound output.

Specifications

Processor
Clock Speed 2.30 GHz
Operating System / Software
OS Provided: Type Windows 7 Professional, English, 64-bit (includes Windows 8.1 Pro 64bit License)

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