Dell Precision M3800 Review

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Pros: Sleek, elegant design; Powerful graphics and performance; Beautiful QHD display; Above-average battery life

Cons: Missing some ports; Not as durable as other workstations

Verdict: As the world's thinnest and lightest workstation, the Dell Precision M3800 delivers powerful performance in a svelte, elegant chassis.

While mobile workstations are known for their power, they're generally not the most portable of notebooks. Dell is changing that perception with the Precision M3800, a stylish 15-inch system with a QHD touch screen measuring less than an inch thick and weighing less than 5 pounds. That doesn't mean, however, that the laptop is lacking for power. Packing an Intel Core i7 processor and Nvidia Quadro GPU, the notebook ($1,799 starting, $2,499 as configured) can keep pace with the top workstations out there. But does the M3800 have what it takes to be the best?

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Design

Measuring 14.65 x 10 x 0.71~0.31 inches, the Precision M3800 is the world's slimmest 15-inch mobile workstation. It's thinner than both HP ZBook 15 (15 x 10.1 x 1.2 inches) and the 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (14.1 x 9.7 x 0.71 inches). The 4.6-pound M3800 is much lighter than the 6.4-pound Dell Precision M4800 and 6.2-pound ZBook 15, but the MacBook Pro edges it out at 4.5 pounds.

Designwise, the M3800 is identical to the Dell XPS 15. We're still fans of the modern, MacBook Pro-esque silver aluminum lid with the elegant, rounded corners and the shiny Dell logo stamped in the middle. The majority of the notebook's interior has a sumptuous black soft touch finish. The deck protrudes ever so slightly from the top of the deck, drawing the eye to the silver aluminum border.

If that's not fancy enough for you, the laptop's undercarriage is made of handsome carbon fiber with an aluminum plate in the center that bears its name.

 

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Display

Is there anything as lovely as a QHD display? The M3800's 15.6-inch, 3200 x 1800 Gorilla Glass panel delivers deep, luxurious color with fine detail, similar to the M4800. The MacBook Pro, by comparison, has a 2880 x 1800 Retina Display.

A picture of a mountain with surrounding houses was magnificent. We marveled at the varying shades of green, from the foliage covering the rocky crag to the manicured lawns of the houses below. The sky was a deep royal blue and an aquamarine river snaked through the background. Details were sharp enough to see the unique striations along the mountain and the lines on the highway below.

Our only real complaint regarding the display has to do with the text. As with most ultra-high-res displays, we found ourselves having to zoom in to at least 200 percent to be able to comfortably read text on Kotaku.com, NYTimes.com and Clutchmagonline.com.

We also appreciated the swiftness of the 10-point touch screen that made navigating the finer points of the image a seamless experience.

Measuring 328 lux, the Precision M3800 is plenty bright, topping the 271 mainstream average. The M4800 was just shade dimmer at 323 lux. The ZBook 15 and MacBook Pro shone at 295 and 223 lux, respectively.

 

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Audio

Despite their placement on the bottom front lip, the M3800's bottom-mounted speakers were able to fill our medium-size test room. We played several different songs, including Jay Z's "Tom Ford," Anita Baker's "Good Love" and Guns 'N Roses' "November Rain," and while we noticed a little bit of distortion on higher tones, overall we were impressed with the quality. Using the Dell Audio control panel (powered by Waves MaxxAudio technology), we found the MaxxSense preset made everything sound well balanced.

When we ran the Laptop Audio Test (measuring decibel output at 23 inches from the laptop), the M3800 hit 82 dB, below the 87 dB mainstream average. Both the MacBook Pro and the ZBook 15 scored 88 dB.

Keyboard and Touchpad

The M3800's island-style keyboard is fairly large with wide spacing, but lacks the number pad found on the Precision M4800. The black keys are large with a slight curvature that, in combination with the soft-touch palm rest, made for a comfortable typing experience. However, the backlit keys were mushier than we prefer, which caused us to score 53 words per minute on the Ten Thumbs Typing Test, compared to our usual 55 wpm.

The laptop's touchpad is spacious, measuring 4.1 x 3.1 inches. When we performed gestures such as two-finger scroll and rotate, three-finger swipe and four-finger swipe the pad was highly accurate and responsive. The bottom corners of the touchpad acted as our left and right mouse keys, delivering firm feedback with a barely audible click.

 

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Heat

After streaming a full-screen video on Hulu for 15 minutes, the M3800's touchpad measured 77 degrees Fahrenheit. That's well below our 95 degree Fahrenheit comfort threshold. However, the space between the G and H keys was 98 degrees, and the bottom of the notebook registered a hot 111 degrees.

Still, we were able to use the M3800 in our lap for more than an hour in relative comfort, but we found the fan noise to be somewhat annoying.

Webcam

When we shot stills with the M3800's integrated 1280 x 720 webcam, colors came back somewhat muted, as evidenced by our usually vibrant red sweater that looked maroon in the picture. Our skin tone also looked darker than normal under the fluorescent light in our office, but looked somewhat better under natural light. There was some fuzziness throughout our test shots. However, we could still make out some of our sweater's fabric pattern

Ports

To make a workstation this thin, Dell had to omit some ports, but it still maintains a healthy selection. The right side of the M3800 holds a USB 3.0, USB 2.0, a 3-in-1 card reader and a noble lock slot. There's a pair of USB 3.0 ports on the left with HDMI, mini DisplayPort, a battery life indicator and jacks for power and headset.

However, the M4800 has many more ports: a DVD burner, eSATA/USB 2.0 port, SmartCard Reader, 54mm ExpressCard slot, 9-in-1 card reader, Ethernet, VGA and a dock connector.

Security and Durability

Our configuration of the Precision M3800 came preloaded with Dell's Protected Workspace software. When active, Protected Workspace opens potentially vulnerable applications (Web browsers, zip files and PDF readers) in a virtual container separate from the operating system, keeping it safe from malware attacks.

When you hear the term workstation, you expect the notebook to have some type of durability similar to the M4800's magnesium alloy frame beneath an aluminum frame or its MIL-STD-810G certification. The M3800 has none of those safeguards, relying solely on the aluminum frame and carbon fiber bottom to weather the storm against drops and bumps.

Performance

Got a few spreadsheets you need to crank out or maybe a bunch of presentations? Dell's got you covered. Powered by a 2.2-GHz Intel Core i7-4702HQ processor with 16GB of RAM, the Precision M3800 shrugged off streaming a full-screen episode of "Arrow" from Netflix while running a full system scan with 15 open tabs in Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Internet Explorer.

On PCMark7, the M3800 scored 5,157, surpassing the 3,501 mainstream average. That was more than enough to top the Apple MacBook Pro's 2.3-GHz Intel Core i7 quad-core CPU, which hit 4,779. However, the HP ZBook 15's 2.7-GHz Intel Core i7-4800MQ CPU scored a higher 5,406, as did the Dell Precision M4800 (2.8-GHz Intel Core i7-4900MQ), with a score of 5,701.

The M3800's 512GB SSD was a little slow on the draw during the Boot Test. It took 32 seconds for the laptop to boot Windows 7 Professional, which is slower than the 27-second average. The M4800 (256GB SSD) and ZBook 15 (500GB 7,200-rpm hard drive) were a bit quicker, launching Windows 7 Pro in 30 and 25 seconds, respectively. The MacBook Pro and its 256GB Flash Drive, however, loaded OS X 10.9 (Mavericks) in 15 seconds.

However, when we ran the File Transfer Test, the M3800 duplicated 4.97GB of mixed-media files in 12 seconds for a blistering transfer rate of 424.1MBps, shattering the 57MBps average. The Precision M4800 was a distant second with 212MBps. The MacBook Pro was hot on its heels at 196MBps, and the ZBook 15 offered a disappointing 48MBps.

During the OpenOffice Spreadsheet Macro Test, the Precision M3800 matched 20,000 names and addresses in 4 minutes and 14 seconds. The ZBook 15 outpaced that with a time of 3:44. The Precision M4800 delivered a swift 3:39.

 

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Graphics

Able to render CAD projects in a single bound, the Dell Precision M3800 isn't Superman, but it is one heck of a powerful notebook. The M3800 is equipped with both an Intel HD Graphics 4600 and an Nvidia Quadro K1100M GPU with 2GB of VRAM. That's more than enough power to edit a movie or two and get some reasonably high frame rates while gaming. Best of all, Nvidia's power-conserving Optimus technology automatically switches to the Intel GPU for less intensive tasks such as watching video or preparing a document.

The notebook scored 2,028 on 3DMark11, coasting past the 1,412 mainstream average. The HP ZBook 15's Nvidia Quadro K610M only managed 1,277. The MacBook Pro and its Nvidia GeForce GT 750M and Intel Iris Pro pumped out 2,275, but the Dell Precision M4800's Nvidia Quadro K2100M cranked out an impressive 2,661.

On the "World of Warcraft" benchmark, the M3800 delivered 76 fps at 1920 x 1080 on autodetect. That's below the 98 fps category average--which includes a number of gaming systems--but well above our 30 fps playability threshold. The Precision M4800 matched the average, while the ZBook 15 scored a meager 42 fps.

When we switched to Ultra settings on 1080p, the M3800 averaged 40 fps, falling below the 51 fps average, but beating the ZBook 15's 23 fps. The Precision M4800 maintained its lead, posting 52 fps.

We also tested the M3800's frame rate at its native 3200 x 1800 frame rate. On autodetect, the notebook notched 41 fps, which is several frames higher than the 36 fps average. However it wasn't enough to overcome the M4800's 50 fps.

On "BioShock Infinite," with the settings on low at 1080p, the Precision M3800 notched 62 fps, higher than the 52 fps average. The M4800 was a close second 47 fps, with the ZBook 15 bringing up the rear at 20 fps. Cranking up the settings to high caused frame rates to plummet, with the M3800 notching 15 fps, falling short of the 20 fps average. The M4800 fared a little better at 19 fps, while the ZBook 15 could achieve only 6 fps.

Battery Life

When we ran the Laptop Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi), the Dell Precision M3800 lasted 6 hours and 54 minutes. That significantly outpaced both the category average (5:31) and the Dell Precision M4800 (4:16). However, it couldn't keep pace with the HP ZBook 15 or the MacBook Pro, which posted 7:46 and 8:02, respectively.

 

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Software and Warranty

Dell kept the bloatware to a minimum, instead adding a few helpful utilities and a few productivity-focused applications.

There's Dell Backup and Recovery, a pretty straightforward service that allows users to create backups of their system or selected data and restore said information. Dell has also included its Digital Delivery software that downloads and installs programs that were ordered with the computer. Third-party software includes Adobe Reader X1 and Microsoft Office.

The Dell Precision M3800 comes with a one-year Basic Hardware Service with one-year Next Business Day Onsite Service after Remote Diagnosis.

Configurations

Our $2,499 configuration of the Dell Precision M3800 has a 2.2-GHz Intel Core i7-4702HQ processor with 16GB of RAM, a 512GB SSHD, Intel HD Graphics 4600, an Nvidia Quadro K1100M GPU with 2GB of VRAM and a 3200 x 1800 QHD display.

The $1,799 base model comes with a 2.2-GHz Intel Core i7-4702HQ CPU, 8GB of RAM, a 500GB SSHD, an Nvidia Quadro K1100M GPU with 2GB of VRAM and a 1920 x 1080 display.

 

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Dell also offers a $2,249 edition that features a 2.2-GHz Intel Core i7-4702HQ CPU, 16GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD with a 500GB SSHD, Intel HD Graphics 4600, an Nvidia Quadro and a 3200 x 1800 QHD display.

The Precision M4800 is somewhat more configurable, allowing users to swap out the optical drive for an additional hard drive.

Verdict

The Dell Precision M3800 laptop is an exercise in elegant productivity. The company has created the world's thinnest, slimmest workstation. For $2,499, power users get a notebook with a powerful Core i7 processor, an Nvidia Quadro GPU and a mesmerizing 3200 x 1800 display.

All that slim sexiness doesn't come without compromise, however. While heavier, the M4800 is more powerful and offers a wider selection of ports, plus a full-size number pad. And, if battery life is of paramount importance, the 15-inch MacBook Pro lasts nearly 9 hours on a charge.

Overall, though, the M3800 is a great choice for consumers looking for the power of a workstation with the slick looks of Dell's XPS notebooks.

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Author Bio
Sherri L. Smith
Sherri L. Smith,
Sherri L. Smith has been cranking out product reviews for Laptopmag.com since 2011. In that time, she's reviewed more than her share of laptops, tablets, smartphones and everything in between. The resident gamer and audio junkie, Sherri was previously a managing editor for Black Web 2.0 and contributed to BET.Com and Popgadget.
Sherri L. Smith, on
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Laptop Mag & Tom's Hardware
CPU 2.2-GHz Intel Core i7-4702HQ
Operating System MS Windows 7 Professional (64-bit)
RAM 16GB
RAM Upgradable to
Hard Drive Size 512GB
Hard Drive Speed n/a
Hard Drive Type SSD Drive
Secondary Hard Drive Size
Secondary Hard Drive Speed
Secondary Hard Drive Type
Display Size 15.6
Native Resolution 3200 x 1800
Optical Drive None
Optical Drive Speed n/a
Graphics Card Nvidia Quadro K1100M/Intel HD Graphics 4600
Video Memory 2GB
Wi-Fi
Wi-Fi Model Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 7260
Bluetooth Bluetooth 4.0
Mobile Broadband
Touchpad Size 4.1 x 3.1 inches
Ports (excluding USB) USB 3.0
Ports (excluding USB) USB 2.0
Ports (excluding USB) Noble Lock
Ports (excluding USB) Mini DisplayPort
Ports (excluding USB) Headphone/Mic
Ports (excluding USB) HDMI
USB Ports 4
Card Slots 3-1 card reader
Warranty/Support 1 Year Basic Hardware Service with 1 Year NBD Onsite Service after Remote Diagnosis
Size 14.65 x 10 x 0.71~0.31 inches
Weight 4.6 pounds
Company Website www.dell.com