The Dell Precision M3800 is a mobile workstation notebook that closely resembles the company's XPS 15 Touch gaming laptops. Measuring 18 mm with the screen closed, it's conspicuously thin, at least compared with most mobile Windows workstations that have a chassis thickness measured in inches.
There are several versions of the M3800 available – the entry-level model takes a 1920 x 1080-pixel screen, but the stand-out feature of the Dell M3800 only comes with the dearer version we received, with a QHD+ resolution display. This has a whopping resolution of 3200 x 1880 pixels.
Although it's short of 4K, it's getting close, with more pixels-per-inch (ppi) than the Retina display on Apple's MacBook Pro. It's also touch-sensitive for use with Windows 8, able to recognise 10 simultaneous presses.
The M3800's design has a particularly premium build quality, as you'd expect from any laptop that costs a four-figure sum. The chassis is built from aluminium with a black carbon-fibre base. The surface around the Scrabble-style keyboard is covered in a soft rubbery material that feels especially comfortable during long periods of use. However, we're not convinced this will prove the most durable of materials.
There's also a large trackpad with plenty of room for swiping and pinching. Thanks to Dell's proprietary input software, multi-touch gestures are supported, which now work similarly to those on a MacBook Pro. It feels natural: sliding two fingers up and down scrolls through web pages, while a single light tap rather than a hard press creates mouse clicks by default.
There are three USB 3.0 ports and a USB 2.0 port at the sides, a battery life indicator, Mini DisplayPort and HDMI connectors. The thin design of the M3800 means no internal optical drive or even ethernet port is present.
A USB-to-ethernet adaptor is supplied, and the Windows recovery files are bundled on a memory stick. The lack of built-in ethernet is partly mitigated by 802.11ac wireless capability, although this is a low-cost version featuring only two antennae.
A single component defines the M3800 as a mobile workstation – its graphics processor, here an nVidia Quadro K1100M with 2GB of video memory. This professional graphics fitting is intended for use with design software that supports nVidia's CUDA hardware acceleration, such as Adobe After Effects, in contrast to the usual nVidia GeForce or AMD Radeon graphics, better suited to gaming.?
There's a Haswell-generation Intel Core i7-4702HQ mobile processor, running at 2.2 GHz, boasting a maximum Turbo frequency of 3.2 GHz, which once would have seemd a particularly high clock speed for a mobile computer. Coupled with 16 GB of DDR3 memory, the M3800 should represent a powerhouse for video editing, audio production, and 3D design.?
Impressive processor benchmark results support this claim. A CPU score of 6.36 points in Cinebench R15 is only about 10% fewer points than the score achieved by a 3.5 GHz Intel Core i7-3770K desktop processor. The Dell M3800's rendering times in Autodesk 3ds Max were similarly close.?
The Quadro K1100M is a mid-range workstation graphics card, slimmed down with less memory, bandwidth, and shaders than the high-end Quadros and FirePro mobile GPUs fitted in 17-inch mobile workstations.
In Cinebench R15, we recorded an OpenGL score of 50.55 fps, which is roughly half that achieved by a desktop workstation with an AMD FirePro W5000. SpecViewPerf 12 scores were again about half those of the desktop PC, but given this is a thin and light portable computer, none of these results are bad.?
We tested its gaming performance with Tomb Raider (2013). At 3200 x 1880 it was completely unplayable, managing just 9.3 fps on Normal detail. We saw a much healthier 31 fps by dropping to 1920 x 1080 resolution.
Raising the detail level to Ultimate brought this result down to 8.8 fps at 1920 x 1080. This laptop isn't intended primarily for gaming, but these scores suggest playable performance is only possible at HD and lower rather than UHD resolutions, and only then by keeping detail settings low.
?Our higher-spec Dell M3800 came with two storage drives – a 500 GB Seagate hybrid hard disk and 256 GB LiteOn mSATA SSD, while the lower-spec model only has a hard disk, or a 512GB SSD ias an option. The SSD managed 478 MB/s burst write speeds, but its 4K QD32 speed of 216 MB/s indicates middling IOPS performance of around 55,000 IOPS.
We also measured performance of the Intel 802.11ac wireless adaptor. A file transfer in Windows showed just 304 Mb/s transfer speed, at close range to the router. This is a poor result for 802.11ac, probably influenced by the use of a budget rather than full 3x3 spec wireless card.
?In use the M3800 offers one of the best experiences available from a Windows laptop. Applications start and run quickly. Even under load from demanding software, it carried on without getting bogged down. The spinning fans are audible, but no more than with other laptops.?
The touch-sensitive display is responsive, but our testing of it was limited to Metro (Modern UI) applications, as it's more useful there than on the Windows 8.1 desktop.?
Unfortunately, there's a problem with the QHD+ display. Windows simply doesn't handle scaling of text and graphics particularly well. It's fine in Modern UI, and with Windows 8.1, the system automatically adjusts the desktop DPI so the text and graphics used in the operating system appear normal, with the crisp font rendering you expect with a high-PPI display. ?
But that scaling isn't applied to every piece of graphics or text. In Photoshop for example, the menus and popovers are rendered at regular DPI, regardless of the setting in Windows, making them unreadable, and the same is true in many other programs. In VLC, the controls were far too small to see, even while the text and graphics in Windows looked normal.
Even people with 20:20 vision might find it frustrating to read text this small, but if your vision is poor, you might find the M3800 unusable at times. What's more, in some dialogues the scaled text pushes text entry boxes to one side, making it hard to see where passwords and email addresses should be entered.??
Dell isn't to blame, for it's up to Microsoft to improve the DPI options in Windows, and push application vendors to provide additional support. Until then, the only way to completely avoid this issue is to opt for the lower-end model and its 1080p display.??
This affects the overall experience of using the M3800, which is otherwise one of the best Windows laptops around. It's expensive, but so are most mobile workstations.??
Another issue is its battery life. It's logical that with high performance and a thin chassis, a hardware sacrifice must be made elsewhere, and it seems that battery longevity is it. The 61 Wh battery just isn't beefy enough for a mobile workstation, although the priciest version of the M3800 listed on Dell's site shows a 91 Wh battery instead.
We set VLC to loop Avatar at 80 percent brightness, but the Dell M3800 ran out of power just as the end credits started, at 2 hours 58 minutes. Since nVidia Optimus should switch between the Quadro and integrated Intel HD4600 GPU depending on demand, we ran the test again to check, after manually switching off the Quadro in the nVidia Control Panel, but there was no improvement.?
We have mixed feelings about the Dell M3800. It squeezes incredible performance into a thin and light chassis, with superb build quality. But its poor battery life is unacceptable, and there's no easy fix for the DPI issues in some Windows desktop software. There are also a few niggling issues such as slow 802.11ac wireless performance. We'd recommend trying it out first with older desktop software before making your mind up whether this is the mobile workstation for you.