Review: Dell Precision M3800 Workstation

m3800I had to upgrade the old hardware again. In recent years, it has gotten harder and harder to find a laptop powerful enough for full-scale development, tough enough to last more than a week under heavy use, yet also remains small enough to quality as ‘portable’.

This time, I opted for a new Dell Precision M3800.

Dell’s reputation is pretty bad, and they deserve that for the most part. Their consumer and fleet systems have been declining in quality for years, tech support is abysmal, and they cut corners everywhere that can save them a buck or two. But the Precision line has always been the exception. They’re well designed, super powerful, highly reliable, tough as nails, and expensive as hell –worth every penny though.

I had a Precision M4500 for three years, and it was by far the best developer workstation I’ve ever owned –and I’ve been using laptops exclusively for the last 15 years.

The new M3800 is Dell’s first attempt at an ultra-portable precision. It can’t be easy to shave off enough to squeeze it into an ultra portable form-factor, but still maintain the performance and build quality people expect from the Precision brand.

I’m happy to report that Dell has pulled it off spectacularly with the M3800!

For the most part, this thing packs the same high-end hardware its bigger cousins have; Core i7 CPU, 16GB RAM, SSD, workstation class graphics card, and a beautiful QHD+ (3800 x 1800) 15.6″ touch-screen display .

Despite all that, it manages to be razor thin –0.71 inches at it’s thickest point. Though it still weights around 5 pounds with the bigger battery, it doesn’t feel heavy at all. With a 15.6″ screen, the weight is evenly distributed over a very wide area.

To get it this small there were a few cuts. It has an mSATA card slot plus one 2.5″ internal drive-bay, but the drive bay space is taken up by the extended battery when you opt for the 91 watt hour model –and you DO want the 91Wh battery. That leaves you with just the one mSATA slot for storage.

Also missing are a dedicated docking port, ethernet port, finger print scanner, card reader, and an optical media bay. I miss the fingerprint scanner more than I expected I would, but overall the cuts are not too painful. It comes with a USB ethernet adapter, and you can buy any kind of display adapter to plug into the mini-D port.

Good keyboards have become quite rare over the last few years. For some reason, designers seem convinced that people don’t need arrow keys, function keys, or home, end, pgup, and pgdn keys. These designers are assholes. Sure, home users might not care too much, but IT, business, and graphics professionals use these often.

precisionkeyboardWhile the M3800 keyboard is still one of the better options for developers, it is also the source of my main complaint about the system. The keys are a bit mushy, and I’ve found that the left shift, fn and Ctrl keys don’t always register when I’m working quickly.

Dell also moved pgup, pgdn, home, and end to share the arrow keys as fn combinations. It’s less awkward than some keyboards (I’m talking to you Lenovo!), but the fact that the fn key doesn’t always register makes it unreliable and annoying.

Considering how much empty space there is around the keyboard, you’d think we could at least get dedicated keys for this stuff. At least the arrow keys are offset, even though they are half-height.

The only other complaint I have is that the screen has a somewhat glossy coating, meaning you get glare in many lighting conditions. I really prefer the matte displays Precisions have been known for in the past, but I presume the glossy coating is necessary for the touch screen features –still, I’d prefer an option for a matte display even if it meant giving up the touchscreen.

Otherwise though, this machine is making me very happy. The display is truly amazing, just as you’d expect from a Precision. It is also freakishly fast. On paper, the specs for this system aren’t much different from my last machine –an HP Envy TouchSmart 15t with after-market SSD. In reality though, this system murders the HP, and it even outpaces the beastly Lenovo M540 workstations we have at the office.

Battery life is around 5 hours under normal development workloads (with WiFi turned on). Even though the system has a 130watt power supply, Dell was kind enough to reduce the size of the power-brick quite a lot compared to the previous generation boat-anchors.

If you plan to buy one of these, here’s a pro-tip: Dell charges almost $800 for their 512GB mSATA SSD module. I recommend buying the system with the tiny 128GB mSATA card instead, then just pickup an after-market 512GB mSATA. Crucial sells their excellent M550 mSATA modules for under $300, so you’ll save $500, and still get a far better drive than the Dell offering.

Keep in mind though, you will need both a T5 Mini-Torex, and a #1 Phillips screwdriver to open the case. Make sure you get a good driver that has a real handle. These screws are tiny, and fragile, and you do NOT want to strip one of them by accident. I highly recommend the Sears Craftsman mini-Torex kit for this kind of work.

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