The notebook market is a strangely fragmented consolidation of different user needs and preferences expressing themselves through a vast array of options. In the midrange - the bulk of the market - are standard workaday laptops that provide knowledge workers what they require plus a few gewgaws for entertainment. Products from Dell, HP, Lenovo, Toshiba, and Apple all battle for the hearts and minds of consumers in this space.

At the highly mobile end of the market, we find a small collection of products that emphasise either lightness (Apple MacBook Air) or small form factors (netbooks). On the high end of the power and weight curve, we find the fewest options: portable workstations from Dell and HP [1]. Of these, the systems from Dell have been consistently revved and are very much promoted by the company as their flagship notebook. At InfoWorld, we view Dell's notebook workstations as an excellent augur of things to come; that is, they form the leading edge of notebook technology. And so, each year as Dell rolls out a new model, we try to elbow our way to the front of the line to see what Round Rock has wrought.

Our exclusive first look at this year's model, the Dell Precision M6500, shows a significant increase in system performance and a large leap in graphical capability. The performance of this notebook is equivalent to that of midrange workstations of a year ago; the 17-inch screen with its 1,920-by-1,200 resolution is the top of the line for laptops and the envy of many desktops; and the keyboard is full sized - not nearly full size, but truly full size. It measures across exactly the same as Dell's desktop keyboard. This is a monster machine, not so much a desktop replacement as a desktop upgrade. It does have some limitations, however; it's bulky, it's heavy, and it's expensive. Let's look at all these aspects in more detail.

The M6500 comes with a few processor offerings. The version I examined was driven by the most powerful CPU offering: a quad-core Intel Core i7 (Nehalem) x920 processor running at 2GHz. This is one of the first Nehalem mobile processors to ship. It supports Hyper-Threading, so it provides up to eight execution pipelines. These are fed by an 8MB cache that in turn can be fed by up to 16GB of DDR3 memory running at 1,333MHz. On my machine, the system had 4GB of RAM (using two DIMMs).

The graphics system consists of the just-released Nvidia Quadro FX 3800M adapter, with 1GB of dedicated RAM and a 650MHz internal clock -- the fastest currently available model of mobile graphics cards.

Storage, a frequent limitation of portable workstations, is capacious. There is room for two 500GB drives and one 64GB solid-state drive (SSD). Typically, systems that combine HDDs and SSDs dedicate the latter to the operating system to accelerate boot-up. They also store frequently used applications on the SSD and place everything else on the HDDs. Because of the large amount of data needed in the field by workstation users in the geological and energy industries, the 1TB of HDD will surely be a welcome feature. The two drives can also be used in a RAID configuration for better data protection.

The chrome and fins

The display, as I mentioned earlier, is huge at a full 17 inches across. This is made possible by the system's enormous form factor: 18.5 by 11 inches. These dimensions mean that most bags designed for notebooks will not accommodate the M6500. However, they permit the keyboard to be full sized, as is the numeric keypad beside it. The palm rests are large, as is the trackpad, which now understands gestures such as those used on smartphones. The keyboard's size takes some getting used to if you work with notebooks a lot. The keys are wide enough apart and you have to retrain your fingers. Initially, I kept hitting the wrong keys. The large trackpad can seem to take forever to traverse. Dell has conveniently moved the finger scanner above the keyboard. On other laptops, it remains on the palm rest, where it causes unexpected pop-ups if your palm brushes by it. One final keyboard feature: The keys are backlit. The keys themselves are black, but the white plastic part that forms the letter is translucent. If you touch the palm rests or any keys, all the keys light up from underneath. This obviates the need for an external (or built-in) light when typing in dim environments.

The screen is clear and sharp. This clarity is due in part to Dell's choice of a WUXGA RGB LED LCD panel. The RGB LED is a way of signaling that the system does not rely on standard white LEDs to form the pixels. The RGB aspect permits Dell to offer "100 percent of the Adobe colour spectrum." I was told that this would be evident as deeper, richer color, especially when the screen is bright. This is certainly true when I put the M6500 beside other laptops. However, the difference is not a revelation - had I not known to look for it, I'm not sure I'd have spotted it. Nevertheless, for heavy users of multimedia or graphics, the 100 percent Adobe spectrum could be reason enough to get the M6500.

The notebook comes in a brushed-metallic case that passes MIL-810 tests. Unlike former road-warrior systems that were thick and hard to hold, the M6500 is a uniform 1.25 inches (or 3.2 cm) high. It sports four USB ports, one eSATA slot, one FireWire jack, a PCMCIA compartment, an SD card slot, and the usual external VGA port and Ethernet jack.

The nine-cell battery provides roughly 2 hours, 30 minutes of usage -- enough for a visit to the field, but not more than that. Unfortunately, the power pack adds almost 2.2 pounds (985 grams) to be lugged with the system's already hefty 8.6 pounds (3.9 kg). This load is most annoying when you're in motion. However, I was surprised to see how little it bothered me when the system was in use on my lap. This is due in part to the large form factor, which distributes the weight over a larger area, so you can work a good while before your legs become uncomfortable. In fact, system heat created discomfort before the weight did.

I ran the traditional benchmark set, including SPEC Viewperf, Cinebench, and an assortment of benchmarks from SiSoftware that are gathered in the Sandra XII suite.

Because SPEC carefully controls how Viewperf numbers are reported, the group's guidelines required me to use Windows Vista to run the test; the benchmark is not certified yet for Windows 7. So I ran all benchmarks on the 64-bit Ultimate edition of Windows Vista. The Viewperf guidelines show that the Nvidia card in the M6500 has performance that equals that of the desktop Nvidia Quadro FX 3800 card. This is quite an achievement for a mobile graphics adapter, which operates in much tighter thermal, spatial, and power constraints. The FX 3800 card it matches was used in midrange and high-end desktop workstations from Hewlett-Packard in my review of Nehalem workstations earlier this year.

Arithmetic computation on the x920 processor is slower than on the reviewed desktop workstations, primarily due to its slower clock speed (2GHz vs. 2.93GHz). The multimedia benchmark has no counterpart in our earlier tests, so is presented for information purposes and for future comparisons. Memory latency is comparable to the desktop systems, but bandwidth is significantly faster on the M6500 due to the higher clock speed of the RAM. In these benchmarks, only the M6500's disk speed is significantly slower than desktop workstations; for most uses, this is an expected and accepted limitation.

With the fastest mobile x86 processor and the fastest mobile graphics card on the market, there is no doubt that the M6500 deserves a top marks for performance on our report card - there is no faster notebook available today. The report card entries reflect our discussion here, but they cannot account for our concern that the size and weight will be too much for some users. Likewise, the price will suggest that prospective purchasers be certain they need the mighty firepower of this system. Those who can settle for less robust features can configure the system on Dell's website and end up with a lower price. 

There is no doubt that the M6500 represents the crème de la crème of laptops today. Engineers and power users who can abide the weight and the cost will find a blazingly fast laptop with superior screen and graphics, a full-size keyboard, and plenty of storage and RAM headroom. This machine's performance is nearly the equivalent of the midrange desktop workstations we examined earlier this year. In other words, it's more than a portable desktop - it's a beast that most desktops will envy. With the M6500, you can have it all and take it with you when you go.

OUR VERDICT

here is no doubt that the M6500 represents the crème de la crème of laptops today. Engineers and power users who can abide the weight and the cost will find a blazingly fast laptop with superior screen and graphics, a full-size keyboard, and plenty of storage and RAM headroom. This machine's performance is nearly the equivalent of the midrange desktop workstations we examined earlier this year. In other words, it's more than a portable desktop - it's a beast that most desktops will envy. With the M6500, you can have it all and take it with you when you go