InfoWorld review: The Dell Precision M6500 is a true workstation in a notebook

Only high-end workstations deliver more client side firepower than the M6500, but they certainly don’t come in such an attractive package

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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 color 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.

Greased lightning

I ran the traditional benchmark set InfoWorld uses on workstations, 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 (see "Nehalem workstations: A new era in performance" and "Nehalem workstations: Dell, HP, and Lenovo test results").

For additional detail on the graphics performance benchmark results, see "Dell M6500 review addendum: Vsync and Nvidia graphics performance."

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