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Review: Dell Precision M3800 Mobile Workstation

Dell M3800

It has been nearly four years since we last reviewed a Dell mobile workstation. Undoubtedly, a lot has changed in the interim, but the Dell Precision M3800 mobile workstation that recently arrived at our labs ranks as one of the most dramatic shifts we’ve ever seen.

The Dell Precision M3800 is one of three new Dell Precision mobile workstations. But while its M4800 and M6800 siblings still look like typical notebook PCs and weigh more than 7 lbs., the Precision M3800 bears a striking resemblance to Apple’s 15-inch MacBook Pro. The Dell M3800 is sleek, light and weighs just over 5 lbs. including its external power supply. In fact, from the minute I opened the box, I had to keep telling myself that this wasn’t a Mac. Even the minimalist packaging seemed to borrow a page from the Apple playbook.

Housed in a gorgeous aluminum and carbon fiber chassis, the Dell Prevision M3800 measures just 14.56 x 10.0 x 0.71 in. and weighs a mere 4.35 lbs. as tested. The base configuration weighs 4.15 lbs. The equally sleek 130 watt AC adapter adds 0.9 lbs., bringing the total weight to 5.25 lbs. Compare that to 11 lbs. or more for most mobile workstations.

Gorgeous Inside and Out

Raising the lid reveals a 15.6-in. display and a full-size 80-key backlit keyboard. The only thing lacking is a separate numeric keypad. A gesture-enabled multi-touch touchpad with two buttons is centered below the keyboard and a round power button is located to the upper-left. The caps lock button includes a small LED that indicates when caps lock is enabled.

The wide view LED backlit display extends practically to the lid’s edges. Above it is a noise-canceling microphone array, are an ambient-light sensor, HD video webcam and camera-status light. But it was the display that caught my eye and then blew me away.

The base model M3800 comes with a 1920×1080 display with 10-finger multi-touch, but our evaluation unit was equipped with the optional QHD+ 3200×1800 touch-screen panel (a $70 option). The images on this panel were nothing short of amazing. Even with Windows 7, I found myself using the touchscreen capabilities more and more as I evaluated the system. Dell configures the M3800 with either Windows 7 or 8.

Unlike many other mobile workstations, Dell does not offer a choice of processors. The Precision M3800 is built around an Intel Core i7-4702HQ quad-core processor and a Mobile Intel HM87 Express chipset. The Haswell CPU runs at 2.20GHz while accelerating to a maximum turbo speed of 3.2GHz. The processor includes a 6MB Smart Cache and its 37 watt thermal design power (TDP) rating helps extend battery life.

Although the CPU includes integrated Intel HD Graphics 4600, Dell also equips the Precision M3800 with an NVIDIA Quadro K1100M discrete graphics card with 2GB of GDDR5 dedicated memory. This powerful GPU, with 384 CUDA parallel processing cores, has a 128-bit interface and a bandwidth of 44.8GB/sec., helping deliver exceptional graphics performance. Here again, Dell chose wisely. With a maximum power consumption of 45 watts, the K1100M helps deliver great performance while conserving battery power.

Drive Options

Dell also does not skimp on memory, providing 8GB of memory in the M3800 base configuration. Our evaluation unit came with 16GB of RAM, installed as two 8GB 1.6GHz SODIMM modules, an option that added $112 to the price.

The base configuration also comes with a 500GB hybrid 2.5-inch hard drive, but Dell again raised the ante on our configuration by replacing it with a 512GB Samsung solid state hard drive, an option that added $749 to the total cost. Considering the performance and additional power savings of the SSD drive, the cost is definitely justified.

The M3800 can even accommodate a second hard drive, and choices include a 500GB hybrid drive, 1TB 5400rpm standard drive, or a second SSD with either 250GB or 512GB capacity. What this Dell Precision system does not offer, however, is an optical drive. While that is becoming less of an issue for many users, we had to first copy several programs onto an external USB hard drive before we could install them on the M3800. At just $80, Dell’s optional external DVD-RW drive is worth considering.

The system provides just the right selection of expansion options. The right side of the case provides a 3-in-1 memory card reader, USB 3.0 and 2.0 ports, (both with PowerShare) and a security slot. The left side houses the power connector, HDMI port, a mini DisplayPort, two more USB 3.0 ports with PowerShare, an audio jack, a battery-status button and display. Dell also includes a USB-to-Ethernet adapter and the M3800 comes with Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 7260 plus Bluetooth 4.0.

Although the base M3800 system includes a 6-cell 61-watt-hour 12.2 volt battery, our evaluation unit came with a 91WHr battery, a $42 option. Thanks to that battery and the system’s energy conserving components, our M3800 ran for an impressive 6 hours and 12 minutes before saving all data and shutting down. Once we restored AC power, this entirely solid state system went right back to work.

Performance not Compromised

We were very impressed with its light weight and battery life, but what would be compromised? As our benchmark results began to flow in, we quickly answered that question.

On the version 11 of the SPEC Viewperf tests, the Dell Precision M3800 out-performed many of last year’s larger, more expensive mobile workstations, although it lagged behind the desktop replacement systems we’ve recently reviewed. SPEC has recently released Viewperf v12 and the M3800 is the first system on which we’ve run the new benchmark. We are including its results on this new test and will eventually switch over to reporting just the Viewperf v12 results once we have enough systems to compare.

The results on the SPECapc SolidWorks 2013 test were also quite good, better or on par with last year’s mobile workstations but again behind the desktop replacements.

On the AutoCAD rendering test, a multi-threaded test on which faster systems with more CPU cores have a distinct advantage, the Dell Precision M3800 held its own, completing the rendering in just over 71 seconds, faster than some of those desktop replacements.

Dell M3800

We also ran the brand new SPECwpc workstation performance benchmark. Because we have no other results yet for you to compare, we are publishing the M3800’s results in the online version of this review and will continue to use this new benchmark on all future reviews.

Dude. It’s Just About Perfect

Throughout our tests, the M3800 ran cool and silent. Dell backs the system with a 1-year ProSupport plan plus one year of next business day limited on-site service after remote diagnosis. That plan can be extended to up to five years for an additional fee. The company also offers accidental damage protection for one to five years and up to two years of extended battery service as well as hard drive recovery services. The battery service may be something to consider. Although we downloaded a product manual that shows how to open the system and change components, it is a complicated process. Like the Apple MacBook Pro, the Dell M3800 is a closed system (the M3800 chassis can be opened after removing a dozen tiny screws). We think most customers will elect to have Dell service the system should it ever require a new battery.

Dell also sells a Dual Video Docking Station. This $170 add-on lets you connect up to two external monitors with up to 2048×1152 resolution as well as providing four USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 ports, an RJ-45 network port, DVI-D, HDMI, headphone, microphone and PS/2 keyboard/mouse port. But this is a generic type of device that connects to any computer via USB 3.0, not something specific to the M3800. We had no trouble connecting an external monitor to the mini DisplayPort and then duplicating or extending our desktop.

At its base configuration price of $1,799, the Dell Precision M3800 is already an excellent system. As configured, our evaluation unit priced out at $4,128. But Dell is currently offering discounts of 35%, reducing our price as-tested to $2,887. At that price, the Dell Precision M3800 may be the perfect system for any engineer on the go. It offers light weight design and style without sacrificing performance at a very affordable price.

More Info

Dell Precision M3800

• Price: $2,887 as tested ($1,799 base price)
• Size: 14.56”x10.0”x0.71” (WxDxH) notebook
• Weight: 4.35 lbs. plus 0.9 lb. power supply
• CPU: 2.20GHz Intel Core i7-4702HQ w/6MB Smart Cache
• Memory: 16GB (16GB max)
• Graphics: NVIDIA Quadro K1100M w/2GB GDDR5 memory
• LCD: 15.6” QHD+ Ultrasharp 3200×1800 wide view backlit touchscreen LED
• Hard Disk: 512GB SSD
• Floppy: none
• Optical: none
• Audio: built-in speakers, headphone/microphone jack, noise-canceling digital array microphones
• Network: Network: USB to Ethernet adapter, Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 7260 Plus Bluetooth 4.0
• Modem: none
• Other: Three USB 3.0, one USB 2.0, HDMI, mini DisplayPort, 3-in-1 media card reader, integrated light-sensitive HD video webcam
• Keyboard: integrated 80-key full-size backlit keyboard
• Pointing device: gesture-enabled multi-touch touchpad with 2 buttons

Mobile Workstations Compared

Dell Precision M3800(2.2GHz Intel Core i7-4702HQ quad-core CPU, NVIDIA Quadro K1100M, 16GB RAM) MSI
GT70-2OLWS(2.4GHz Intel Core i7-4700MQ quad-core CPU, NVIDIA Quadro K4100M, 16GB RAM)
Eurocom
Racer 3W2.4GHz Intel Core i7-4700MQ quad-core CPU, NVIDIA Quadro K1100M, 16GB RAM)
BOXXGOBOXX G2720

3.6GHz Intel Core i7-3820 quad-core CPU, NVIDIA Quadro K5000M, 16GB RAM)

Eurocom
Panther 4.0(3.1GHz Intel Xeon E5-2867W 8-core CPU, NVIDIA Quadro K5000M, 16GB RAM)
Lenovo
ThinkPad W530(2.90GHz Intel Core i7-3920XM quad-core CPU, NVIDIA Quadro K2000M, 16GB RAM)
Price as tested $2,887 $3,200 $2,172 $5,895 $6,800 $2,592
Date tested 3/13/14 11/25/13 11/10/13 5/28/13 4/20/13 12/29/12
Operating System Windows 7 Windows 7 Windows 7 Windows 7 Windows 7 Windows 7
SPECviewperf 12 (new) higher
catia-04 14.74 n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a
creo-01 13.37 n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a
energy-01 0.28 n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a
maya-04 12.79 n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a
medical-01 3.72 n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a
showcase-01 8.50 n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a
snx-03 14.74 n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a
sw-03 19.43 n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a
SPECviewperf 11
catia-03 33.56 72.47 28.97 73.23 65.87 34.82
ensight-04 17.50 50.62 17.38 61.24 61.01 18.40
lightwave-01 58.84 64.39 31.53 78.03 65.85 62.75
maya-03 61.83 112.33 51.20 111.58 102.18 62.04
proe-5 15.37 18.38 9.43 16.06 13.82 15.58
sw-02 39.48 55.00 24.95 63.26 55.06 39.48
tcvis-02 28.69 60.63 27.70 60.91 59.28 30.63
snx-01 23.76 59.76 23.17 63.57 64.62 25.14
SPECapc SolidWorks 2013 higher
Graphics Composite 2.41 5.72 3.63 2.72 2.26 2.06
RealView Graphics Composite 2.71 6.27 3.97 2.93 2.42 2.18
Shadows Composite 2.34 6.26 3.95 2.93 2.42 2.18
Ambient Occlusion Composite 2.20 13.00 5.35 6.09 5.14 3.76
Shaded Mode Composite 2.31 5.78 3.83 2.66 2.41 2.13
Shaded with Edges Mode Composite 2.51 4.80 3.44 2.78 2.12 2.00
RealView Disabled Composite 2.40 2.62 2.55 2.02 1.72 1.65
CPU Composite ratio 2.41 3.74 3.99 3.61 3.72 3.59
Autodesk Render Test lower
Time seconds 71.42 60.33 55.83 79.20 57.33 62.00
Battery Test higher
Time hours:min 6:12 4:34 3:47 1:15 1:14 6:09

Numbers in blue indicate best recorded results. Numbers in red indicate worst recorded results.

About David Cohn

David Cohn has been using AutoCAD for more than 25 years and is the author of more than a dozen books on the subject. He’s the technical publishing manager at 4D Technologies, a contributing editor to Desktop Engineering, and also does consulting and technical writing from his home in Bellingham, WA. Watch for his latest CADLearning eBooks on AutoCAD 2015 on the Apple iBookstore, at Amazon, and on the CADLearning website. You can contact him via email at david@dscohn.com or visit his website at www.dscohn.com.