Road warrior power trip: Mobile workstations worthy of the workstation name
The beefy Dell Precision M6400 and polished HP EliteBook 8730w squeeze high-end graphics and serious horsepower into large but luggable chassis
Unfortunately, Dell may have gone a bit overboard in the style department. For example, the wraparound aluminum case works great until you start typing. Depending on the angle of your wrist, you'll either find the front edge (which reaches right up to the palm-rest level) or the left front corner (a by-product of the offset keyboard layout). The keyboard itself is quite spongy, and the matte plastic finish of the palm-rest area is somewhat smudge prone. Don't munch on potato chips while using this machine.
Basically, the Dell Precision M6400's ergonomics are subpar compared with its competitors and even previous Dell units (the M90 and the M6300 come to mind), which is a shame because in almost every other category -- performance, expandability, price point -- the new Precision is a winner. Performance, in particular, is stellar. Equipped with a quad-core CPU (QX9300), 8GB of RAM, and a pair of 120GB, 7,200-rpm disks in a RAID 0 configuration, it blew through my mixture of engineering, database, and software-development workloads with aplomb, outpacing the HP 8730w by margins of 9 to 23 percent. When you factor in the available RAID 0, you end up with as much as a 200 percent performance advantage on disk-intensive workloads. If your primary concern is raw performance, this is the machine for you.
Not surprisingly, the Dell did lag the HP in battery life. In a simple rundown test -- a script driving a continuous loop of Microsoft Office tasks, with regular pauses for "thinking time" -- the Dell lasted 1 hour, 57 minutes, compared with 2 hours, 38 minutes for the HP.
Returning to the topic of ergonomics, I have to say I'm not happy with the trend toward putting all the ports and connectors on the sides of the unit. Yes, I understand that many users will opt for a true docking station and a port replicator when in desk-bound mode. However, I still prefer the ports in the back, something the M6400's predecessor, the M6300 (see review), got very right by providing rear access to four USB ports (out of six total), network, modem, and both DVI and RGB D-SUB video connectors. By contrast, the M6400 places its three dedicated USB ports and one shared USB/e-SATA port on either side where, along with the RGB D-SUB, DisplayPort, and Gigabit Ethernet connectors, the attached cables interfere with any external mouse or digital input devices you may wish to attach.
I also miss the M6300's dedicated media playback buttons, but these are minor nits. In fact, outside of some chafing and a few muttered curse words when the keyboard gets smudgy, the M6400 is the ideal portable workstation for a hard-core power user like myself. Sleek, powerful, and even luggable (at 9.5 pounds as tested), the M6400 is the ultimate mobile mainframe for the übergeek in all of us. And at less than $5,100 in the test configuration, including the 8GB of RAM and RAID 0, it's the best deal going.