Product review: Dell's mighty mobile workstation rewards the strong-armed

Dell Precision M6300 proves that a laptop can greatly exceed the capabilities of most desktop systems without costing an arm and a leg, or at least a leg

The world of laptops is riven by pulls in two opposite directions. At one pole is the group of users that greatly favors portability. They see in the Apple MacBook Air a thing of beauty, because it's so light and thin; the limitations of an 80GB hard drive, a single USB port, and unchangeable batteries do not disturb them. At the opposite pole are users who favor functionality and don't mind lugging additional weight if it gives them the equivalent of a true desktop environment. Users in the latter group will find much to like in the Dell Precision M6300, which bills itself as a workstation in the form factor of a laptop.

I reviewed the M6300 over the course of several weeks and found it to be a superb portable for the demanding user. The ideal user would be a scientist or engineer who needs the full 3-D graphics capabilities of the system, the wide screen, the fast processor, and the numerous ports, and who is willing to haul the extra pounds that provide this firepower. The one thing that user won't have to do is lighten his wallet — the M6300 is surprisingly affordable.

Big on the inside
The system I examined had an Intel Core 2 Duo processor (model T7700: dual core, 2.4GHz, 4MB L2 cache, 800MHz front side bus), 4GB DDR2 667 RAM, an Nvidia FX 1600M graphics card with 512MB (of which 256MB is discrete) driving a 17-inch WXGA+ LCD screen; plus an 80MB hard drive spinning at 7,200 rpm, Gigabit Ethernet, and 802.11a/g/n high-speed wireless — all that and some more for a street price of just under $2,700. 

In addition to a remarkable capability to interact with numerous peripherals, the M6300 workstation has a veritable constellation of ports. The rear panel contains two video display jacks (one VGA, one DVI), an S-Video jack, four USB ports, and the usual network and modem jacks. The side panels add two more USB ports, a FireWire 1394 jack, a slot for SD/MMC or xD cards, and jacks for microphone and audio out. An Express is also built-in. In terms of other peripherals, the M6300 I examined had an 8X read-write DVD drive. In short, if there's any connectivity this side of SCSI that you're looking for, this laptop has the goods. For my needs, I found the six USB jacks to be a rare blessing.

The M6300 is designed for rugged use (a typical use case according to Dell is a mobile desktop system for engineers working in the field). It has a magnesium alloy chassis that has been stiffened, shock-mounted hard drives (with free-fall-sensing disks available), and steel hinges for the screen. Although not completely ruggedized, this is a rugged system. This extra strength, though, likely contributes to the workstation's biggest drawback — its weight. As configured above, the M6300 tips in at 8 pounds, 9 ounces (3.88 kilograms). It's not excessively unwieldy, however; the outside measurements are 11.25 by 15.75 inches with a height of 1.25 inches.

Users who can abide the weight will find a remarkably capable high-end laptop that can run Windows XP, Vista (with Aero), or Linux. But what will impress them the most is the display and graphics subsystem. The display is 17 inches across (9 by 14.5 inches) and can be either WXGA+ (1,400x900 resolution) or WUXGA (1,920x1,200) depending on the model purchased. The display is driven by an Nvidia Quadro FX 1600M graphics card with 512MB of which 256MB is dedicated.

I ran the Viewperf 10.0 SPEC benchmark on the graphics subsystem and found the results place it squarely in the middle of midrange cards from Nvidia — roughly between the desktop versions of the FX 1500 and FX 1700 cards. To describe these cards as midrange somewhat understates the case; they are substantially more than most knowledge workers' desktops have, and the street prices for these models are in excess of $350 today. This is an extremely capable graphics system. For users who demand more than "extremely capable," Dell has just begun shipping the FX3600 for an extra $630. I didn't examine this option, nor are benchmarks yet posted, but it's likely this card substantially boosts graphics performance. The graphics card and the rest of the M6300 gear is driven by a nine-cell battery that gave me about three hours of service.

A new breed of notebeast
In the heyday of Unix workstations, the term "workstation" referred to a high-end desktop system. Not just any loaded desktop machine, but one with specific characteristics: superior graphics hardware, more RAM (often significantly more) than other desktops, and SCSI drives. Workstations also tended to have faster processors. You'll note that many of the workstations we have reviewed in InfoWorld over the years conform by and large to this definition, with the notable exception of SCSI drives.

So it's legitimate to ask how is the M6300 a workstation? Except for superior graphics when compared with other laptops, this machine would seem more like a top-of-the-line laptop with pretensions than a genuine workstation of yore. I believe that you have to define workstation for this context in terms of other laptops. By comparison with most high-end laptops, the M6300 has a 64-bit dual-core processor, whereas many laptops are still running at 32 bits and aren't certified for 64-bit operating systems; the M6300 can support as much as 4GB of RAM, and, of course, it has the killer graphics. The final determining factor is that Dell had the M6300 certified to run many of the principal workstation software packages — including those in the geosciences, medical, CAD/engineering/design, and finance industries.

I think this is sufficient to consider the M6300 a breed apart — legitimately, a laptop workstation. I suspect, however, that many users will see it as a superior business laptop. And given its reasonable pricing, the only thing those power users will have to consider carefully when examining this system is whether they can comfortably deal with the 8.5-pound weight. If so, they'll find a truly terrific machine.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Performance (10.0%)
Battery Life (15.0%)
Build quality (15.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Ease of use (25.0%)
Configuration (25.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Dell Precision M6300 Mobile Workstation 10.0 8.0 9.0 10.0 8.0 9.0 8.8
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