Dell Precision M40

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  • Editors' rating
    7.5 Very good

Pros

  • Workstation-class specification in a reasonably portable format.

Cons

  • Expensive
  • bulky and heavy for a notebook.

Not so long ago, if you wanted a portable PC, you had to accept that its performance and feature set would be seriously compromised compared to its desktop cousins. Today, though, notebooks built around the latest mobile processors routinely deliver 'desktop-class' speed, and also pack in a remarkable number of I/O and expansion options.

It is inevitable, then, that notebook manufacturers will take the next step and produce notebooks that claim to offer 'workstation-class' performance and compatibility. This means the ability to handle demanding applications like 3D content creation and CAD programs that require large amounts of processing power and memory, excellent 2D and 3D graphics acceleration, plus exemplary hard disk throughput and capacity. Dell's Precision M40 is one of the few products to be explicitly positioned in this space -- so how does it measure up?

The Precision M40 is based around Intel's current flagship mobile processor, the 1.2GHz 'Tualatin' Mobile Pentium III Processor-M. This 0.13-micron chip benefits from copper interconnects, 512KB of Level 2 cache and enhancements to Intel's SpeedStep power-saving technology. Our review model came with 512MB of ECC SDRAM -- the maximum available using the system's two SODIMM slots. The processor, memory and remaining system components are linked by Intel's 815EP chipset.

So far, apart from the EEC memory, so conventional. What about the hard disk subsystem? This is a 48GB Ultra-ATA/100 IBM TravelStar drive with a rotation speed of 5,400rpm -- again, a good specification, but hardly startling.

Where the Precision M40 does differ significantly from mainstream notebooks is in its graphics subsystem, which is based around nVidia's Quadro2 Go chip and outputs via an excellent 15in. TFT display with a native resolution of 1,600 by 1,200 pixels. The Quadro2 Go is a 256-bit AGP 4X chipset, supported in this instance by 32MB of DDR memory, that provides excellent performance under both the DirectX and -- crucially for many high-end applications -- OpenGL graphics APIs. Features such as a second-generation transform and lighting (T&L) engine, accelerated anti-aliased lines, accelerated two-sided lighting, OpenGL overlay support and optimised window memory management ensure that working on a notebook system shouldn't involve too many trade-offs for workstation users. Custom applets such as MAXtreme, POWERdraft and QuadroView are available to provide particular feature and performance enhancements (for 3ds max, AutoCAD and 3D visualisation respectively), and full certification is offered for a long list of key applications, including 3ds max, AutoCAD, Lightwave, MicroStation, Softimage and Solidworks.

As far as the look and feel of the Precision M40 is concerned, we're talking Latitude 800 series. It's a bulky 33.1cm by 27.6cm by 4.45cm, 3.48kg desktop replacement system with a fixed optical drive (a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo unit in this case) on the left-hand side, and two front-mounted bays -- one modular bay containing a floppy drive and a bay for the 3,800mAh Li-ion battery.

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Modem communications and Ethernet connectivity are taken care of by an internal Mini-PCI card, with RJ-11 and RJ-45 ports on the right-hand side. PC Card expansion is available via a pair of stacked Type II ports, and there's a good complement of I/O connectors -- serial, parallel, VGA, S-Video out, PS/2, infrared, audio (mic in, line-in, headphone/speaker out), 2 USB and one IEEE 1394. There's also a 200-pin connector for an optional docking station.

Other options include alternative occupants for the modular bay -- you can have a CD-ROM drive, a second 20GB hard disk, a second Li-ion battery or simply a weight-saving travel module. Wireless networking support isn't provided as standard, but is available via a TrueMobile 1150 PC Card. Windows 2000 Professional is installed, and the software bundle includes Roxio Easy CD Creator 5 and InterVideo WinDVD.

As far as performance is concerned, the Precision M40 acquits itself very well, delivering the fastest Business Winstone 2001 and Content Creation Winstone 2002 scores we've seen so far on any notebook -- although it does have twice the RAM of the previous performance leader, Dell's 1.13GHz Inspiron 8100. Graphics acceleration is exemplary, although the Precision M40 is just beaten by the Inspiron 8100's GeForce2 Go chip in the DirectX 7-based 3D WinMark 2000 test. Finally, if you should need to use this system on the road, its battery life of two hours and 20 minutes is pretty reasonable.

Inevitably, given its specification, the Precision M40 isn't cheap at £2,445 (ex. VAT). However, if you need to take a workstation-class system on your travels - to other offices in your company, or to clients' premises, for example - then you're going to have to pay for the leading-edge specification that's required. Whether or not Intel's forthcoming mobile Pentium 4 processor will prove a better bet in this market remains to be seen, but the performance of this 1.2GHz Mobile Pentium III Processor-M system looks impressive enough as it stands.

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