Dell Precision M3800 Review - Rival To Apple MacBook Pro

Posted: Feb 11 2014, 7:55am CST | by , in Technology News


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Dell Precision M3800 Review - Rival To Apple MacBook Pro

Price: ranges from $1799 – $2499

Availability: Now

Why should you care about the Dell M3800?
Because PC users finally have an answer to the 15in Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display. The M3800 sees Dell come out swinging. Compared to Apple’s all conquering laptop it features a fractionally larger screen with higher resolution and touchscreen input, faster processor, greater storage options and more connectivity yet it is also thinner and lighter. Has Apple met its match?

First impressions suggest it is game on. Dell has pulled out all the stops with the M3800. Measuring just 14.65 x 10 x 0.31-0.71in (372 x 254 x 8-18mm) and weighing a mere 4.15lbs (1.88Kg) comparing the size of the laptop to its weight befuddles the mind. It is beautifully built too with a hard wearing, brushed aluminium lid which protects the 4mm thick screen and a carbon fibre base is designed to reduce heat build-up.

Dell provides a backlit keyboard as well and there are some additional nice touches such as a battery life indicator on the side and an engraved metal base plate which conceals serial numbers and service tags. Dell has shrunk the size of its power brick too which weighs in at 290g and further adds to its portable appeal.

In sum Dell has managed to create a machine with all the style and thoughtful design of Apple’s flagship laptop and improves on the fine work Dell has done with its XPS line.

What peaks interest, however, is not so much the slim line design as what Dell has managed to pack inside it. This is a workstation grade machine and my top of the range review sample comes with an eye-popping 3200 x 1800 QHD+ display (versus the 2880 x 1800 offered by Apple), Intel Core i7-4702HQ processor and NVIDIA Quadro K1100M graphics with 2GB of GDDR memory. The Quadro may not have the grunt of the MacBook’s Intel Iris Pro 5200 graphics, but it is ISV certified so it is guaranteed to work with a vast array of professional software.

In addition it sports a sizeable 16GB of DDR3 SDRAM (clocked at 1600MHz), a 400GB mCard-based SSD with 500GB HDD and the latest 802.11ac WiFi. On top of this are a significant number of ports: HDMI, mini DisplayPort, 3x USB 3.0, 1x USB 2.0 (all with PowerShare), 3.5mm headset jack and a 3-in-1 card reader. In terms of power and practicality the M3800 is hard to beat.

Of course cheaper options are available. My sample retails for $2499 putting it within $100 of Apple’s top end MacBook Pro, but at $1799 the end level edition is $200 less than the equivalent Mac Pro. The compromises dropping to a 1920 x 1080 display and 8GB RAM, but otherwise you get the full package which makes it compelling.

The biggest reason why the $1799 M3800 should appeal is Windows because it highlights the very best and worst aspects of the flagship model’s QHD+ display. Taken on its own it is stunning. The screen measures well over 400 nits in brightness, colour temperature is just under 6,600k and the RGB panel covers 92.5 per cent of the sRGB colour gamut. This means the M3800 not only has a class leading display, but one professional photographers and graphic designers can use.

The downside is Windows because, while the Modern UI looks great, the desktop doesn’t scale properly. Yes the text and menus can be enlarged and browsers and Office documents can enlarge their zoom, but it means individually fiddling with each program and the basic ‘200% zoom’ setting Dell applies out the box is ill-fitting. More problematic though is icons do not scale so layouts warp and a great deal of legacy software won’t scale at all so you’re left with microscopic interfaces that are eye straining to use.

I have already discussed how Microsoft must fix this with its Windows 9 release in 2015 and it is agonising since what does scale is gorgeous. Text on websites and browsers are razor sharp, images look incredible and it is a vision of where desktop graphics will go. Until then though it pains me to say it is very tempting to save cash and go with the 1080p option.

It is a similar story with the touchscreen. On a technical level it is superb, capable of recognising input from 10 fingers simultaneous and reaction times match the best smartphones. Against this once more is Windows. Again the Modern UI is excellent and scrolling through Office documents is smooth and fast, but confirmation boxes often fail to recognise taps – particularly for smaller icons and buttons – and third party software (notably the Chrome browser) can lag.

Microsoft needs a core standard throughout Windows 9 to address this, much as it has done with the very slick Windows Phone 8.

Specs alone will tell you the M3800 is fast, but running it through GeekBench provides us with some hard figures and its score of 11,584 is as fast as I have seen from a Windows laptop. It isn’t as fast as a top end MacBook Pro (which passes 13,500) but for any work you would consider doing on a laptop – and indeed some desktop workstations – it will blaze a trail.

Less convincing are the graphics. Here gamers need be aware that the workstation label assigned to the M3800 is for good reason. The Quadro is not optimised for gaming and the top end Nvidia GTX M cards will offer much better performance for gaming purposes and can be found in cheaper laptops.

Similarly the MacBook Pro’s Intel Iris Pro 5200 GPU edges it out 29.9fps to 25.9fps in the Unigine Heaven benchmark. This latter figure is far from slow but the Quadro’s true benefit is pro software compiling and rendering, especially when combined with its ISV certification. It also must not be forgotten that in this ultra slim form factor these scores are a revelation.

As for the SSD (made by LiteOn) it manages read and write speeds of 468MBps and 392MBps respectively. These figures can be topped by some third party SSDs but they are unlikely to ever be the bottleneck in your work. For storage hungry users Dell can also fit the M3800 with both an mCard SSD and 2.5in HDD.

Heat and Noise
Speed combined with a thin and light form factor will set alarm bells ringing for many, but I’m happy to report the M3800 deals with both extremely well.

Opting for the carbon fibre base was a superb decision and the M3800 never gets more than lukewarm even under extreme load. This is a big improvement over the burning hot MacBook Pro and – combined with its light weight – means you can work on your thighs for long periods with no ill effects. Not something you’d expect from a workstation.

Noise reduction is also strong, if not quite so successful. 99 per cent of the time the M3800 is barely audible, measuring under 20 decibels, but under extreme load this can surpass 40 decibels which means you will be conscious of the fan at all times. This isn’t back to the days of laptops which sound like planes taking off, but if you like to work in complete silence on processor intensive work it may bother you and the Mac Pro comes out slightly ahead.

Battery Life
If there is one area where the M3800 significantly disappoints it is battery life. Dell quotes in excess of 10 hours, but under Powermark we got less than four hours with medium screen brightness. This can be extended past five hours by disabling WiFi and creating a very dim screen, but this is impractical. Push the M3800 hard with intensive tasks and it can be flat in two hours.

By contrast the Mac Pro can top 10 hours with medium screen brightness and average usage, while even intensive tasks see it outlast the M3800 in stamina mode.

My M3800 review sample came with a 6-cell 61Wh battery and Dell does offer a larger (and therefore heavier) 6-cell 91Wh option, but even if it provides a full 50 per cent improvement this is not enough to get it up to par. Some may say this is harsh on a laptop with so much performance, but if Dell is going to fashion it into an ultraportable form factor it needs the stamina to back that up.

Keyboard and touchpad
Input with the M3800 is also a hit and miss. The good news is the keyboard action is superb with just the right amount of travel and spring and a quiet typing action. It is also backlit and projects an even glow which quickly and correctly measures ambient light.

The downside is the keyboard layout is baffling. The decision not to include a number pad will frustrate given its professional focus, but more bemusing is why Dell has compressed the enter and arrow keys when there is so much space available. I can only put it down to valuing aesthetics over practicality.

Another quirk is Dell’s decision to make the F keys use their multimedia functions by default. This would be fine for a consumer machine, but for professionals who are likely to make regular use of F key shortcuts having to press the function (Fn) key every time is a nuisance.

The touchpad has a similar split personality. On one hand the build quality is excellent and its click action is a match for Samsung’s Activ Book 9 series, which gives Apple’s trackpad a run for its money. The problem is input detection can be sketchy, particularly for multi-touch gestures. I often found two finger scrolling to be an issue with the request to scroll up or down not being picked up. Dell should be able to fix this with a driver update.

Something Dell does nail is the M3800’s audio. Laptop speakers are not normally used for much more than the occasional YouTube video, but here they are loud enough to fill an average sized room. They marry this surprisingly high volume with excellent balance between the low, mid and high ranges and bass levels notably deserve praise.

It is worth pointing out that the speakers are down firing, so they will sound better with the laptop sat on a table than your lap. But since many won’t buy the M3800 for its speakers they will come as a pleasant surprise.

Which brings us to pricing. Apple is often criticised for its premium pricing, but Dell has made little effort to undercut the MacBook Pro with the M3800. Official retail prices are ludicrous ($2570 to $3570), but as ever they should be ignored for the ongoing Dell ‘offer’ which has always sold the range in the $1799 to $2499 bracket. We’d like to see these prices come down $200 to really shake up the sector, but for the PC professional on the move there is nothing else out there to compete that doesn’t run Mac OS X.

Is it no small compliment to say Dell has made the most compelling PC alternative to the MacBook Pro to date. It looks fantastic, packs in plenty of performance alongside a beautiful QHD+ touchscreen and it won’t melt your thighs like Apple’s machine. Pricing also undercuts the Mac Pro and it has better speakers.

Where it falls down primarily is battery life. Intensive use can have it flat in two hours and little more than four hours with practical settings (WiFi on, medium brightness). Dell similarly sabotages its fantastic keyboard with cramped return and arrow keys and the recognition of multi-touch gestures on the touchpad can be hit and miss. Windows 8 is also a problem as it fails to scale as well as Mac OS X and we eagerly await news Microsoft will address this with Windows 9.

Despite these criticisms Dell has managed to make the best (if arguably only) MacBook Pro alternative on the market. It won’t convert hardcore Apple fans, but it may just keep a few PC users from swapping sides.

Overall: 7 / 10

I liked
• The design
• Build quality
• Screen
• Speed
• Speakers

I disliked
• The price
• Battery life
• Keyboard layout
• Erratic touchpad
• Windows 8 scaling issues

Source: Forbes

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