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Dell Precision 7540 Workstation review

A powerhouse of precision

Dell Precision 7540 Workstation
(Image: © Dell)

Our Verdict

If you're all work and maybe a little play, the Dell Precision 7540 is one of the best straightforward workstation around.

For

  • Excellent 4K HDR display
  • Best-in-class computing power
  • Great battery life
  • Strong security options

Against

  • Low-quality webcam
  • Very expensive, especially with 4K display

"It’s time to go to work." 

That's what I think every time I sit in front of the Dell Precision 7540, the latest in the company's line of semiportable, high-spec mobile workstations. The Precision 7540 doesn't beat around the bush. It offers intense computing power in a simple, clean package. The machine is for serious business, which means it costs serious money. However, an Intel Xeon CPU, Nvidia Quadro RTX 5000 and a best-in-class 4K HDR display — some of the laptop's best features — are worth the cost of admission. The Precision 7540 Workstation is an especially good option if you have serious work to get done, such as crunching data sets, encoding video or pulling reports from across the internet.

Price and configurations

There are six default configurations for the Precision 7540, with myriad ways for you to bolster and upgrade everything from the processor and display, to storage and memory. For $1,269, the base model features an Intel Core i5-9400H processor, 8GB of RAM, a 500GB, 7,200-rpm hard drive and Intel UHD630 graphics. The most powerful stock model sports an Intel Xeon 2276M, 32GB of DDR4 RAM and a 512GB M.2 SSD, all for $3,339.

That said, many of the 7540s  can be upgraded in all sorts of ways. For maximum power, you can add an Intel Xeon E2286M processor and an Nvidia Quadro RTX 5000 graphics card. The storage and memory can go sky-high: the 7540 supports up to three M.2 drives or two M.2 drives and one 2.5 SATA drive, each of which can add up to 2TB SSD, and can take up 128GB of DDR4. In addition to the core specs, you can add a 4K (3840 x 2160) HDR display, a fingerprint scanner, NFC security, mobile broadband and more. The fully loaded version will run you an eye-popping $9,439. 

The model we tested skewed toward the upper tier of the ladder regarding computing power, but feels more average elsewhere. It sports that maxed-out Intel Xeon E2286M processor, an Nvidia Quadro RTX 5000 graphics card, 64GB of DDR4 RAM and a 500GB M.2 SSD. The display has been upgraded to the 4K panel. It does not, however, have the fingerprint sensor. All told, it would cost you $5,527 on Dell.com.

Design

The aesthetic of the Precision 7540, like almost all of Dell's PCs, is "Dude, you're getting a Dell." That is to say, it's standard. Reliable, but predictable. The aluminum shell with the Dell logo and dark gray top case are exactly what you'd expect from a laptop designed for work.

(Image credit: Dell)

Inside the clamshell chassis, you'll find a full-size LED backlit keyboard and Dell's standard (read: small) offset touchpad. This review unit did not include the optional Windows Hello fingerprint scanner, but should you opt for one, it'll be built into the top-right side of the deck.

Looking at the screen, it's worth noting the thick bezel around the display — it's almost like a reminder that this laptop is made for work. If you're staring at the screen long enough to care about the thick frame, chances are you're not doing the thing this laptop was made for: working.

Dell’s Precision laptops are workstations through and through, which means they're heavy, unwieldy, and probably shouldn't be moved around too often. At 14.7 x 9.9 x 1.0 inches and 6.2 pounds, the 7540 is slightly lighter than its 17-inch predecessor, the Precision 7730, but still considerably heavier than the MSI WS65 9TM, which weighs only 4.3 pounds and measures 14.1 x 9.8 x 0.1 inches. It's light enough that I didn't mind picking it up and carrying it around the house under my arm, but heavy enough that carrying it in my messenger bag on a 15-minute walk to a local coffee shop was brutal on my back.

Ports

As a workstation, the Precision 7540 has the I/O necessary to plug in and be the center of a very powerful PC setup.

(Image credit: Dell)

On the left side, you have two Thunderbolt 3 ports, an SD card reader and a Dell Smart Card slot, which can serve as a physical token for two-factor authentication. (The Smart Card is optional on some of the low-midrange configurations). 

(Image credit: Dell)

On the right, you get a wedge lock slot, two USB 3.1 Gen 1 ports and an old-fashioned headphone jack. 

Since this is a workstation, and thus thick enough to have ports on its rear end, there is also an HDMI port, a mini DisplayPort, an RJ45 Ethernet port and a power cable connector in the back-left corner.

Security and durability

Although it is a processing powerhouse, the Precision 7540 can take a little punishment if the worst happens. According to Dell, the Precision 7540 passed 15 MIL-STD 810G durability tests, including tests for repeated drops and shocks, as well as environmental hazards like blowing sand and high-temperature storage. You're always going to worry about such an expensive laptop, but these certifications may put you at ease.

The Precision 7540 comes with multiple layers of extra security. The Dell Smart Card adds a physical token for two-factor authentication for logging into your machine. There are also two optional ways to add biometric security using Windows Hello: a built-in fingerprint scanner ($39.49 for standard reader; $142.49 for a FIPS-compliant reader) and facial recognition using the webcam. (Comes standard, but can be removed from a downgraded display.)

Display

The 15.6-inch 4K HDR display is arguably the crowning glory of the Precision 7540. Bright and bold, it produces color as well as almost any other laptop in its class. Everything from watching Netflix to playing games and editing photos, every image or frame comes through clear. Watching an 1080p version of the Bad Boys for Life trailer, the overhead shots look almost as exciting as the shootouts: In one scene overlooking the Miami skyline, the city comes through sharp and clear, with bursts of neon light popping against a soft purple sky.

(Image credit: Dell)

During our colorimeter testing, the 7540 produced a 227% color gamut, which is well above the 122% workstation average as well as the ThinkPad P72 (123%) and StudioBook Pro (162%). But the score is slightly under the MSI WS65 9TM (251%). 

The Precision's brightness, on the other hand, can't be beat: At 462 nits, it is among the best HDR displays you can find on any laptop. That's brighter than the 358-nit average as well as the WS65 (393 nits), the ThinkPad (311 nits) and the StudioBook (292 nits). 

Keyboard, touchpad and pointing stick

The Precision 7540 has a decent full-size keyboard, with some dedicated media keys (play, skip, rewind) serving as conveniently labeled shortcuts. The backlit keys are smaller than I'd like, though they are nicely spread out, which leads to fewer typing mistakes. Typing on the Precision 7540 feels more comfortable than the average laptop, as the keys offer strong, noticeable travel. The keys do require more force to actuate than the average laptop keyboard. I personally don't see that as an issue, but typists used to flying on hair-trigger keys may need a little time to adjust. 

(Image credit: Dell)

On the 10fastfingers typing test, I scored 76 words per minute, which is slightly less than my normal 81wpm on my Macbook Pro.

The Precision 7540's touchpad measures 3.9” x 2.1 inches. While the touchpad is not wholly unmanageable, touchpad size is smartly trending up these days, and Dell would be wise to get with the times. 

If you prefer a pointing stick, the Precision 7540 has a relatively nice one. It rises just  a bit higher than the G, H and B keys, which allows you to use them as guides and help retain control. 

Audio

The Precision 7540 has two speakers positioned on the curved front edge of the bottom of the laptop, pushing the sound down and forward. Generally speaking, the sound is clear and crisp, especially the mids and highs. Low tones, however, tend to come out scratchy and rarely produce the oomph you'd like to feel in bass-heavy music or games. In a pop-rock song like "The Wire" by Haim, midrange sounds like vocals come through a little heavier than the other tracks. Overall, it sounds good, but not as well balanced as it would in a pair of high-quality headphones.

These speakers are no replacement for a good pair of external computer speakers or headphones, but laptop audio rarely reaches that level. These speakers are a strong backup however, particularly for podcasts and A/V calls.

Performance

Unsurprisingly, this high-powered workstation's greatest strength is its ability to get work done. As I mentioned, our review unit came with one of the most powerful mobile workstation processors: an 8-core Intel Xeon E2286M CPU along with 64GB of RAM, so we should be looking for a massive amount of computing power. For our practical testing, we open as many tabs as possible in Google Chrome, including a few running videos in YouTube or Twitch, and a TweetDeck feed, to test performance.

(Image credit: Dell)

During casual testing, I didn't experience any slowdown or stutter. And that includes opening two windows in Google Chrome with 10 to 20 tabs, with YouTube and/or Spotify running, as well as playing DOOM (2016) at 4K resolution.

On Geekbench 4.1, an overall performance benchmarking tool, the Precision 7540 outperformed its competition, with a 29,658 performance score. That's nearly double the average for premium laptops (15,995). It also far exceeds the WS65 (Intel Core i7-9750H CPU, 22,876), the StudioBook (Intel Xeon E-2276M, 21,359) and the ThinkPad (Intel Xeon E-2186M, 18,176).

It took the Precision 7540 only 7 minutes and 50 seconds to encode a 4K video to play in 1080p using the Handbrake app, as opposed to 10:36, 10:30 and 10:25 run by the WS65 9TM, the StudioBook and the Thinkpad P72, respectively 

In our file transfer test, the Precision 7540 copied 4.97GB of files in just 3 seconds, for a blink-and-you'll miss-it 2,035.7 megabytes per second. That score is more than twice as fast as the 613.8MBps average. The StudioBook was a distant second at 1,272, while the WS65 9TM and the ThinkPad obtained 727 and 565MBps, respectively.

Graphics

The Precision 7540 sports an Nvidia Quadro RTX 5000 graphics card with 16GB of VRAM, and excels at processing visuals We ran a number of 3DMark visual benchmarks and, unsurprisingly given the specs, it is quite capable. 

When we ran 3DMark Fire Strike, a graphics performance test, the Precision 7540 scored 16,390, shattering the 6.135 workstation average. The laptop also outperformed the WS65 9TM (15,364, Quadro RTX 5000 GPU), the Lenovo ThinkPad P72 (14,280, Quadro RTX P5200 Max-Q GPU) and the StudioBook (12,075, Quadro RTX 3000 GPU). For reference, that falls short of our favorite gaming laptop, the Alienware m17-R2 (19,113), but not by as much as you might think. 

The laptop is not really designed for gaming, if you were so inclined, the Precision 7450 can handle it. The laptop delivered a frame rate of 257 frames per second on Dirt 3, blasting through the 61-fps average. The ThinkPad and the StudioBook notched 236 and 177 fps, respectively. 

Battery life

The Precision 7540 boasts a 97 watt-hour Lithium Ion Battery. We found it lasted 7 hours and 24 minutes on the Laptop Mag Battery test, outdoing other 4K workstations like the MSI WS65 9TM (6:57) and the Lenovo Thinkpad P72 (4:19). That's still below the average (8:39), but it's definitely an impressive showing for a workstation.

I got two full days of standard, but not strenuous use — word processing, web browsing, etc. The intensive software needed for games takes a larger toll, but it's possible to get through a full workday on a full charge.

Webcam

The Precision 7540's webcam is… not great. The 720p webcam is affixed front and center in the top bezel, and has a slick sliding security cover. (No Post-its necessary!). While the webcam technically performs without issue, the quality of the photos and videos taken using the camera are grainy, off-color and generally unpleasant to look at. Even judging it by the low bar that we tend to set for front-facing cameras on PCs, the 7540 falls short. We highly recommend investing in an external webcam.

Heat

Considering the 7540's processing power, I was impressed with its ability to mitigate heat under a heavy load. Even after playing DOOM (2016) in 4K for 15 minutes, I did not feel any heat coming off the top plate or sides. 

(Image credit: Dell)

The bottom, where the main fans are, is another story. Within 2 minutes, the metal grate covering the fans was painful to touch with my bare skin. On my jeans, it felt warm, but not intolerable. Still, I would make sure to have a secure place to leave this thing before crunching any heavy numbers.

The cost of that mostly manageable cooling is a lot of noise. When the Precision 7540 fans spin to full blast, they will be loud enough to get in the way of the speakers, even when music is playing at full volume.

Software and warranty

Dell offers an optional program, Dell Precision Optimizer, which gives users a set of settings presets to optimize certain tasks and programs, such as Rendering in Maya, and many of the apps in the Adobe Creative Suite, including Illustrator, Premiere and Photoshop. These configurations are all attainable without using Optimizer, though they would require a change in settings at the BIOS level. This gives you the ability to quickly recalibrate your computer for certain intensive tasks.

There's also a suite of Dell computational software, including a system-updating tool, Dell Command and a Color Gamut adjustment program, Dell PremierColor. I didn't find these apps to be especially helpful for making fine adjustments. PremierColor was particularly disappointing, as I was unable to mitigate the display's saturation issues.

Windows 10 adds its various apps, as well, including Skype, Solitaire and Groove Music. Depending on your workflow and what you may or may not already use, these apps range from very helpful to bloatware. Dell also offers a 30-day free trial subscription for Microsoft Office and McAfee Small Business Security.

Dell offers three tiers of warranties and service for the Precision 7540. The most basic plan, which comes with even the basic model, offers three years of support and on-site repair service. See how Dell fared on Tech Support Showdown and Best and Worst Brands, our annual special reports. 

Bottom line

The Dell Precision 7540 is the very definition  of a high-end laptop workstation. Powerful and efficient with a vibrant 4K display, it excels with all kinds of work. And it's no slouch when it's time to play, either. With great battery life and strong upgrades to improve security, the 7540 is a well-rounded, versatile PC for long-distance commuters and other workers who need a machine with some mobility, but don't necessarily need a daily carry.

However, the $5,227 price is seriously expensive. For a more inexpensive option, consider the MSI WS65 9TM. For $3,499, you get a workstation with a more vivid display, powerful performance and solid battery life. Plus, you get to save over $1,500. But if you're looking for a powerhouse workstation that can do just about everything, the Dell Precision 7540 is a top choice.