Slim and sexy is good for travel and keeping up with the Joneses. But sometimes big and chunky is what's really needed to get the job done. And so it is in mobile workstations, where the sheer amount of componentry and connectivity required to replace a desktop workstation is currently impossible to shoehorn into a 20 mm slab. Here's our Dell Precision M6800 Mobile Workstation review. See also The 18 best laptops: What's the best laptop you can buy in 2013/2014?
The Dell Precision M6800 is the latest version of Dell's 17-inch professional workstation laptop, replacing the outgoing M6700, with Dell's marketing copywriter announcing it as ‘the world's most powerful 17” Workstation'.
Let's get the physical shock and awe out of the way first. This notebook computer would weigh mighty heavily atop your lap, at close to 4 kg. And while battery life as measured in the lab was not entirely tragic at around 4 hours, if you have pretensions of travel with the M6800 you will need to pack a big charger, a flattened brick of a mains adaptor the size of a paperback, itself tipping the scales at another kilo. See all high-end laptop reviews.
In comparison with state-of-the-art computing, the new Apple Mac Pro desktop workstation packs many times the computing performance of any professional notebook, and similarly weighs 5 kg.
What the Precision M6800 offers though is a self-contained computing platform with keyboard, display and trackpad (and trackpoint stick), all in a flat-packable form ‘just' 38 mm thick.
The chassis is gun-metal coloured but mostly plastic to the touch. So while it looks seriously sturdy we'd expect paint to rub or chip from the plastic frame after some use. Like Windows laptops of yore, it has a tiny trackpad just 80 x 45 mm, but with three discrete buttons below that worked smoothly.
To the right of the Qwerty keyboard is a separate numberpad, and the action of these slightly dished and rubbery keys could be described as spongey. In full typing flow the sound is somewhat muted rather than clackety, and we found the overall feel a little soft.
Ports and slots
Thanks to the power of expansion docks and hubs, many laptops can easily supplement their limited range of built-in ports. But if you need to keep it all aboard, the Precision M6800 will have most jobs covered.
There are four USB 3.0, two each side, plus a combined eSATA/USB 2.0 to the rear. Also at the back is a gigabit ethernet port, VGA D-Sub and HDMI. Version of the latter is not specified, although we were able to drive a Dell UP2414Q monitor at native 3840 x 2160-pixel resolution, which suggests HDMI 1.4. Missing in action for video professionals are FireWire and Thunderbolt.
To the laptop's left side is a tray-load DVD drive for reading and writing optical discs, coupled with a 54 mm ExpressCard slot and SD card reader. A narrow slit here will also accept smart cards.
On the right side is a full-size DisplayPort connector and spare bay slot with various expansion possibilities, plus a slide switch to turn off the 11ac Wi-Fi adaptor. This shows some more cost-cutting, with a 2x2 mini-PCI card used in place of a full-spec 3x3 solution.
Several possible configurations for internal components are offered. All variants take the same main processor, a 2.7 GHz Intel Core i7-4800MQ and a matt full-HD display, and can be configured with a choice of graphics processor, memory, storage and support contracts.
Currently £1389 plus delivery and VAT buys you an M6800 with AMD FirePro M6100 graphics, 8 GB system memory and 500 GB hard disk supplemented with 8 GB of flash.
Our test sample was the top-spec model with nVidia Quadro K3100M graphics, 16 GB memory and 750 GB hard disk, which is priced at £1765 plus shipping and VAT – or £2154 inclusive.
Like most current Windows computers designed for professional use, they have the more popular Microsoft Windows 7 Professional 64-bit operating system pre-installed.
As a mobile workstation, display quality is critical, especially for graphic design and CAD work that requires accurate representation of images. Dell does not list in specifications what screen technology is used for this matt anti-glare panel, so we sought to clarify through the company's PR agency. They found a Dell spokesman who clearly stated that it is using IPS technology.
Our lab measurements of the display recorded 99 percent coverage of sRGB gamut and 77 percent AdobeRGB. Contrast ratio was disappointingly low at between 490:1 and 520:1, these figures at 25 percent and full brightness respectively.
Maximum level was also relatively low at 240 cd/m^2, although most professionals will not be needing to exceed 200 cd/m^2 unless working outside.
Luminance variation across the panel was very poor. At a typical 50 percent brightness level, the top third of the screen was up to 28 percent brighter than the bottom.
Viewing-angle clarity was mixed. When viewed from the sides or top it was possible to see the screen image clearly, up to around 45 degrees off axis before blacks started to invert to light grey. But viewed from below, the screen image quickly became ‘negatised' with colours entirely inverted.
Further investigation revealed the panel to be an LG twisted-nematic (TN) LCD with product code LGD02DA. Meanwhile Dell's technical representative maintains that this workstation laptop is fitted with an IPS panel.
Processor and Graphics Performance
The main processor is a solid choice, one of Intel's last Haswell generation chips from last year based on a 22nm process, a quad-core part with Hyper Threading and Turbo Mode up to 3.7 GHz for one core.
This processor incorporates an Intel HD Graphics 4600 graphics GPU too, and Optimus switching allows this to be used instead of the high-power Quadro card, saving energy and reducing fan noise.
In the Geekbench 3 test, which measures raw processor and memory performance, the M6800 was rated very highly with 3641 points for a single core and 13,493 points in multi-core mode.
PCMark 7 gave a more lukewarm overall rating of 3556 points. This suite of tests rates responsiveness of a Windows PC, and has marked down system speed for the Dell because of its slow hard disk – a 7200 rpm 2.5in SATA drive that hampers performance. You can opt for hybrid drives for this laptop, or even fit an mSATA SSD to regain lost ground here.
The later PCMark 8 benchmark returned result of 3889 points in the Creative section of the test, which includes photo and video editing as well as gaming benchmarks. We don't have any other PCs with which to compare this score just yet.
In Cinebench 11.5, the Precision M6800 scored 1.62 and 7.26 points for single- and multi-core modes, while v15 of the rendering benchmark hit 145 and 670 points respectively – both superb scores for a portable workstation.
Leveraging the nVidia Quadro graphics fully, the Precision M6800 also romped in with the fastest OpenGL framerates we've seen for this class of computer, averaging 82.7 and 87.9 fps for versions 11.5 and 15 of Maxon's test.
Obviously not aimed at gamers per se, we couldn't resist trying some Windows games on this graphics-packing portable.
In Stalker: Call of Pripyat and running at native 1920 x 1080 resolution, the game averaged 92 fps at Ultra settings.
The more challenging Tomb Raider 2013 saw lower figures, starting with a 60 fps average at default Normal detail. Raising quality to Ultra meant an average of 33 fps, while Ultimate quality – which includes TressFX hair rendering – dropped the framerate to 19 fps.
In our standard battery runtime test – looped MPEG-4 full-HD video played over Wi-Fi with screen at 120 cd/m^2 – the Dell Precision M3800 with its 97 Wh removable battery lasted 4 hours 13 mins.
That's poor by the standards of some Haswell-based notebooks that can run for 8-12 hours, but an unusually decent result by the standard of Windows workstation laptops that normally have battery life measured in minutes rather than hours.
In use the M3800 remained relatively quiet even with fans running, which were pitched lower than many laptops' fans. More annoying could be the intermittent nature of the noise – using the default ‘Dell' power plan and the laptop left idle on the desk, the fan would periodically whirr up for a few seconds every minute in a quite annoying and disconcerting fashion.