The Dell Precision M6500 mobile workstation is the fastest notebook available today from any source, with the fastest processor, graphics card, and memory.
The Dell Precision M6500 also has a true, full-size keyboard and superior LED technology in its 17in screen. However, it is heavy, somewhat cumbersome, and pricey.
The laptop market is a strangely fragmented consolidation of different user needs and preferences expressing themselves through a vast array of options. In the midrange - the bulk of the market - are standard workaday laptops that provide knowledge workers what they require plus a few gewgaws for entertainment. Products from Dell, HP, Lenovo, Toshiba, and Apple all battle for the hearts and minds of consumers in this space.
At the highly mobile end of the market, we find a small collection of products that emphasise either lightness (Apple MacBook Air) or small form factors (netbooks). On the high end of the power and weight curve, we find the fewest options: portable workstations from Dell and HP. Of these, the systems from Dell have been consistently revved and are very much promoted by the company as their flagship notebook. We view Dell's notebook workstations as an excellent augur of things to come; that is, they form the leading edge of notebook technology. And so, each year as Dell rolls out a new model, we try to elbow our way to the front of the line to see what Round Rock has wrought.
Our exclusive first look at this year's model, the Dell Precision M6500, shows a significant increase in system performance and a large leap in graphical capability.
The performance of this notebook is equivalent to that of midrange workstations of a year ago; the 17in screen with its 1,920-by-1,200 resolution is the top of the line for laptops and the envy of many desktops; and the keyboard is full sized - not nearly full size, but truly full size. It measures across exactly the same as Dell's desktop keyboard. The Dell Precision M6500 is a monster machine, not so much a desktop replacement as a desktop upgrade. It does have some limitations, however; it's bulky, it's heavy, and it's expensive. Let's look at all these aspects in more detail.
Dell Precision M6500: under the hood
The Dell Precision M6500 comes with a few processor offerings. The version we examined was driven by the most powerful CPU offering: a quad-core Intel Core i7 (Nehalem) x920 processor running at 2GHz. This is one of the first Nehalem mobile processors to ship. It supports Hyper-Threading, so it provides up to eight execution pipelines. These are fed by an 8MB cache that in turn can be fed by up to 16GB of DDR3 memory running at 1,333MHz. On my machine, the system had 4GB of RAM (using two DIMMs).
The graphics system consists of the just-released Nvidia Quadro FX 3800M adapter, with 1GB of dedicated RAM and a 650MHz internal clock - the fastest currently available model of mobile graphics cards.
Storage, a frequent limitation of portable workstations, is capacious. There is room for two 500GB drives and one 64GB solid-state drive (SSD). Typically, systems that combine HDDs and SSDs dedicate the latter to the operating system to accelerate boot-up. They also store frequently used applications on the SSD and place everything else on the HDDs. Because of the large amount of data needed in the field by workstation users in the geological and energy industries, the 1TB of HDD will surely be a welcome feature. The two drives can also be used in a RAID configuration for better data protection.
Dell Precision M6500: The chrome and fins
The display, as we mentioned earlier, is huge at a full 17 inches across. This is made possible by the system's enormous form factor. These dimensions mean that most bags designed for notebooks will not accommodate the Dell Precision M6500. However, they permit the keyboard to be full sized, as is the numeric keypad beside it. The palm rests are large, as is the trackpad, which now understands gestures such as those used on smartphones.
The keyboard's size takes some getting used to if you work with notebooks a lot. The keys are wide enough apart and you have to retrain your fingers. Initially, we kept hitting the wrong keys. The large trackpad can seem to take forever to traverse. Dell has conveniently moved the finger scanner above the keyboard. On other laptops, it remains on the palm rest, where it causes unexpected pop-ups if your palm brushes by it.
One final keyboard feature: the keys are backlit. The keys themselves are black, but the white plastic part that forms the letter is translucent. If you touch the palm rests or any keys, all the keys light up from underneath. This obviates the need for an external (or built-in) light when typing in dim environments.
The screen is clear and sharp. This clarity is due in part to Dell's choice of a WUXGA RGB LED LCD panel. The RGB LED is a way of signaling that the system does not rely on standard white LEDs to form the pixels. The RGB aspect permits Dell to offer "100 percent of the Adobe colour spectrum."
We were told that this would be evident as deeper, richer colour, especially when the screen is bright. This is certainly true when we put the Dell Precision M6500 beside other laptops. However, the difference is not a revelation - had we not known to look for it, we're not sure we'd have spotted it. Nevertheless, for heavy users of multimedia or graphics, the 100 percent Adobe spectrum could be reason enough to get the M6500.
The Dell Precision M6500 comes in a brushed-metallic case that passes MIL-810 tests. Unlike former road-warrior systems that were thick and hard to hold, the Dell Precision M6500 is a uniform 1.25 inches (or 3.2cm) high. It sports four USB ports, one eSATA slot, one FireWire jack, a PCMCIA compartment, an SD card slot, and the usual external VGA port and Ethernet jack.
The nine-cell battery provides roughly 2 hours, 30 minutes of usage - enough for a visit to the field, but not more than that. Unfortunately, the power pack adds almost 2.2 pounds (985 grams) to be lugged with the system's already hefty 8.6 pounds (3.9kg). This load is most annoying when you're in motion. However, we were surprised to see how little it bothered me when the system was in use on my lap. This is due in part to the large form factor, which distributes the weight over a larger area, so you can work a good while before your legs become uncomfortable. In fact, system heat created discomfort before the weight did.
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