Dell Precision M3800 review (2015)

When Dell launched the Precision M3800 laptop in late 2013, it resembled the essential layout of the Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display, the 15-inch model with discrete graphics. A lightweight mobile workstation just 19 mm thick. Also see: Best laptops 2015.

It added a few twists of its own, of course, including touchscreen control and Windows 8. (See all Ultraportable laptops & Ultrabooks reviews.)

Now the Dell Precision M3800 has been updated, featuring a glass-fronted screen with a higher UHD resolution of 3840 x 2160 pixels, and a slightly faster Haswell-generation Intel Core i7 processor. Confusingly, Dell doesn’t seem to have changed the model designation, and as with Apple’s naming convention still references this model as the Precision M3800.

As it turned out, despite the 100 MHz speed bump for the CPU, in our tests the current model proved no faster than the last time we tested it; and in some respects was slower. (See also: Best Ultraportable laptops 2015 UK.)

Dell Precision M3800 review: Design and Build

The Precision M3800 is designed as a premium 15.6-inch workstation laptop, packing an Intel quad-core processor and Nvidia Quadro graphics. The case is made from a mix of metal, carbon and plastic, with aluminium lid back and chassis frame, carbon-fibre bottom and a plastic top deck.

It is well equipped with ports and connectors, including two USB 3.0 and one USB 2.0 port, HDMI, an SD card slot and 3.5 mm headset jack. This year’s updated model also now sees the addition of a Thunderbolt 2 port, Intel’s high-speed data bus developed for Apple that is now specified for 20 Gb/s operation. This Thunderbolt port doubles as a Mini DisplayPort 1.2 connector, the only means to connect to an external UHD 4K display at full 60 Hz refresh rate.

Besides these ports ranged down the left and right sides, there’s also a security lock slot (notably absent from today’s MacBooks), and a battery level indicator, which lights with up to five small white LEDs when you press a tiny button.

The internal battery is relatively small at 61Wh, and is not user replaceable.

Dell Precision M3800 review: Components

With tumbleweed blowing through the streets that should have been touting new Intel mobile quad-core processors from every stall, Dell is also forced to use a main processor from a series that’s two long years old. Replacing the 2.2 GHz Intel Core i7-4702HQ is a 2.3 GHz Core i7-4712HQ, a tiny 0.1 GHz clock speed increase, and uses the same Intel HD Graphics 4600 as the low-power graphics processor.

For best graphical performance, there is also the same Nvidia Quadro K1100M GPU, keeping the 2 GB GDDR5 video memory specification from before.

Main memory stays at 16 GB, two 8 GB DDR3 cards running at 1600 MHz. And storage comprises the same capacity 256 GB mSATA SSD, although our new sample has a Samsung SM841N flash drive, effectively an OEM version of the Samsung 840 Pro SSD.

This replaces a Lite-On (Plextor) mSATA SSD. And where the last generation also included an additional basic 2.5-inch SATA hard disk for bulk storage, this new model was supplied with just the single flash drive. That could explain why this new model weighed 1.95 kg, against the 2.04 kg of yore.

For network connections, there is no built-in ethernet although a USB 3.0-to-gigabit-ethernet adaptor is included in the box. For wireless links there’s the usual Bluetooth 4.0, and a two-stream 11ac Wi-Fi adaptor from Intel.

The keyboard is solid enough for sustained typing, notably omitting the right-hand numberpad that most 15-inch Windows laptops include to help fill the deck space. Instead Dell has copied the plan of the MacBook Pro again, usefully allowing the trackpad to be correctly centred on the top deck rather than uncomfortably offset to the left.

The trackpad is buttonless, smooth and black, with almost the same rubbery texture as the top deck. In use it proved suitably precise to allow easy navigation and mouse steering. Two-finger scrolling is of the ‘natural’ type pioneered by Apple by default, where the fingers follow the direction of intended movement.

Stereo speakers are hidden below the front edge of the chassis, and are perhaps the loudest we’ve heard on any laptop when turned up. More pertinently, the sound quality is not too bad either, showing clear treble extension and less of the grit and tinniness that usual comes with laptop territory. Importantly the midband is relatively clean and intelligible for good vocal diction.

The display has been increased in resolution from the original 3200 x 1600 pixels, to 3840 x 2160. You could look at these as ‘quad 1600 x 900’ and ‘quad 1920 x 1080’ screens respectively. Again this is an IGZO technology panel made by Sharp, using indium, gallium and zinc oxide to form the thin-film transistor matrix.

In size, the Precision M3800 15.6-inch display is smaller than the 15.4-inch display found on the MacBook Pro, since Dell has selected a narrow 16:9 aspect-ratio widescreen designed for consumer products. Mounted in its bezel, there is wasted space above and below the screen which could have been usefully taken by a more versatile 16:10 aspect display.

This display has been built as a multi-touch touchscreen, with an aluminosilicate glass panel bonded to the front like Apple’s Retina displays. However there is no reflection-reducing coating applied here, resulting in a particularly reflective glass sheet. To avoid excessive narcissm you could try changing the default dark-coloured Dell wallpaper to something lighter to help hide the mirror effect.

With Windows 8 set at 250 percent scaling out of the box, the interface is very clean and sharp, with precisely detail typography. There is the usual problems with Windows programs though, some of which do not respect the enlargement so appear minute on-screen; or other programs that do render at the correct size but with fuzzy text and windows.

In use we found the internal cooling fans were not as loud as we remembered from the first generation model. Handling of the M3800 is not as comfortable as it could be, with the weight distributed toward the hinge from the heavy touchscreen display. Got to lift the lid open on the desk, for instance, and the bottom half of the laptop comes up with it unless you press it back down.

Dell Precision M3800 review: Performance

With GPU, memory, OS and storage technology remaining the same, we would expect a fractional increase in performance to be picked up in benchmark tests, owing to the 100 MHz uptick in CPU clock speed. That’s a 4.2 percent faster chip in clock terms, although we cannot automatically expect a direct increase by the same percentage in benchmark scores.

Geekbench 3 scores single-core and multi-core processor and memory performance only, and here returned numbers of 3269 and 11,760 points respectively. The previous 2.2 GHz model scored 3238 and 11,553 points, giving around 1 and 1.8 percent increases here.

PCMark 8 scored the Dell with 2524 points in the conventional Home test, 4.5 percent slower than the older model’s 2643 point result. Using the Accelerated test and the benefit of OpenCL, it scored 2517 points – 4.7 percent slower than the older 2642-point result.

Dell Precision 3800

Turning to the Work module of PCMark 8, we also saw around 5 percent slower results, namely 2660 points Conventional (down from 2801 points); and 3260 points Accelerated (was 3443 points).

Cinebench 15 was kinder to the new Precison M3800 of 2015, with 125 points single-core and 593 points multi-core (up around 6 and 10 percent from the older model’s 118 and 541 points). Both generations of M3800 rendered at 50 fps in the benchmark’s OpenGL test.

For reference, last year’s 15-inch MacBook Pro with 2.2 GHz processor scored about the same here, returning 121 and 593 points respectively.

We tried some graphics gaming tests, and found Batman: Arkham City could play at 1920 x 1080 and Normal detail with an average framerate of 31 fps. Tomb Raider 2013 was not really playable, as setting screen resolution to 1920 x 1080 resulted in a tiny windowed image. Meanwhile back at native 3840 x 2160 resolution the game now filled the screen but the ultra-high resolution brought the Nvidia Quadro K1100M graphics to a stuttering 9 fps. See all laptop reviews.

Dell Precision M3800 review: Display

The IGZO technology LCD has similar image properties as that found on good IPS screens. Using a Datacolor colorimeter we measured 100 percent coverage of sRGB gamut and 77 percent Adobe RGB.

Contrast ratio was around 700:1, peaking at 740:1 at full screen brightness. Maximum brightness was not especially high though and we couldn’t coax more than 248 cd/m^2 from this laptop. Colour accuracy was outstanding, with an average Delta E of 0.77. Also see: Best gaming laptops 2015.

Dell Precision M3800 review: Storage

While many performance laptops are now successfully using PCIe-attached flash drives, the M3800 is still limited by its slower SATA SSD. The Samsung mSATA drive here is perhaps the fastest of the old breed though, with sequential reads at around 500 MB/s, and writes at 412 MB/s.

Dell Precision 3800

Small-file transfers were very quick, with 4 kB random reads at 24 MB/s and random writes at 62 MB/s. When multiple threads are stacked up to a depth of 32, these figures rose to 401 and 337 MB/s respectively, suggesting a peak IOPS performance of 102,000 IOPS with random reads. See all laptops buying advice.

Dell Precision M3800 review: Battery

Dell has not improved the battery life of the M3800 since the last generation. It has the same 61 Wh lithium battery, now asked to power an even higher resolution screen and faster-clocked CPU. Using a simple looped-video rundown test over Wi-Fi, we measured 3 hr 24 min from this model, just behind the 3 hr 33 min of before.

It’s also important to realise that like many Windows laptops the Dell suffers from battery issues even when not in use. Over a 40-hour period of sleep, the battery had depleted exactly to 60 percent capacity, suggesting around 1 percent of battery reserve is drained per hour of sleep. At that rate, if you returned to the Dell four days after leaving it in sleep with a full battery, you’d find your laptop entirely dead and needing a complete recharge. Factor in the additional half-kilo weight of the mains charger whenever you leave home. Also see: Best laptops 2015.

Dell Precision M3800: Specs

  • 15.6-inch (3840 x 2160) IGZO touchscreen (Sharp LQ156D1)
  • Windows 8.1 Pro
  • 2.3 GHz Intel Core i7-4712HQ (3.3 GHz Turbo) 4C, 8T
  • Nvidia Quadro K1100M with 2 GB GDDR5 / Intel HD Graphics 4600
  • 16 GB (2x 8 GB) 1600 MHz DDR3 RAM
  • 256 GB mSATA SSD (Samsung SM841N)
  • Intel Wireless-AC 7260
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • ethernet with supplied USB 3.0 adaptor
  • 2x USB 3.0, 1x USB 2.0
  • HDMI 1.4
  • Thunderbolt 2.0
  • Noble lock slot
  • SDXC card slot
  • stereo speakers
  • webcam
  • built-in mic
  • 3.5 mm headset jack
  • US tiled, backlit with two levels
  • buttonless multi-touch trackpad, 105 x 80 mm
  • 61 Wh lithium battery, non-removable
  • 130 W mains charger with C5 inlet
  • 372 x 253 x 19.0 mm
  • 1951 g (546 g charger)
  • 15.6-inch (3840 x 2160) IGZO touchscreen (Sharp LQ156D1)
  • Windows 8.1 Pro
  • 2.3 GHz Intel Core i7-4712HQ (3.3 GHz Turbo) 4C, 8T
  • Nvidia Quadro K1100M with 2 GB GDDR5 / Intel HD Graphics 4600
  • 16 GB (2x 8 GB) 1600 MHz DDR3 RAM
  • 256 GB mSATA SSD (Samsung SM841N)
  • Intel Wireless-AC 7260
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • ethernet with supplied USB 3.0 adaptor
  • 2x USB 3.0, 1x USB 2.0
  • HDMI 1.4
  • Thunderbolt 2.0
  • Noble lock slot
  • SDXC card slot
  • stereo speakers
  • webcam
  • built-in mic
  • 3.5 mm headset jack
  • US tiled, backlit with two levels
  • buttonless multi-touch trackpad, 105 x 80 mm
  • 61 Wh lithium battery, non-removable
  • 130 W mains charger with C5 inlet
  • 372 x 253 x 19.0 mm
  • 1951 g (546 g charger)

OUR VERDICT

The Precision M3800 is Dell’s take on the ‘Ultrabook’ portable workstation notebook. It’s made from a mixture of materials, and has an undersized battery in order to stay fashionably trim. In its favour, the quad-core processor and midrange pro-certified graphics chipset provide useful performance, and without too much histrionics from the cooling fans. This year’s model now has a UHD 4K display although this still serves to exaggerate problems in some Windows programs, while the overly reflective touchscreen facility results in a heavier panel with poorer viewing that drains the battery faster. For professional users even more so than with consumer laptops, we here question the real worth of a touchscreen on a laptop. Ultimately the Dell’s circa-3 hour battery life means the M3800 is seriously compromised as a mobile productivity tool. If you don't mind staying tethered to the mains, it is a good clothes horse.

Find the best price