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.

Review: Kindle Fire

I picked up a kindle fire as a christmas gift for my daughter. After setting it up and playing around with it (you know, to make sure it works), I thought I’d drop a mini-review.

The Verdict: 

If you want to read books, then just get the Kindle touch instead. It has the E Ink display, a good-enough touch interface, way better battery life, is thinner and lighter, and is only 1/2 the price —but most importantly, it wont piss you off with all the things it should be able to do but doesn’t.

If you want a multi-function entertainment device, then buy a real tablet. It’ll cost a lot more than a Kindle Fire, but you’ll be much happier.

The biggest problem with the Fire is that it actually does “feel” like a tablet… but since it isn’t, you’ll find yourself frustrated by the things it can’t do, rather than enjoying the few things it does do well.

A Bit of Detail:

  • Storage: the limit of 8GB is a problem on a device doing music and movies. It doesn’t have any way to attach external storage either. You’d think that “the cloud” would solve this problem, but it only does so if you don’t stray outside of WiFi coverage areas often.
  • Performance: it doesn’t perform bad at all compared to other Kindles, but it isn’t quite smooth like a real tablet, or even most smartphones. It is sluggish all around. Opening a text file can take 3 to 5 seconds, browsing the web feels more like 3G than WiFi, and it often takes longer than expected to bring up menus and such. I suspect that having only 512MB of memory is a huge part of the problem, and the rest I blame on the OS being a custom fork of an older version of Android. With luck, future OS updates might smooth out some of these issues a little.
  • Apps: The amazon store isn’t too bad, but keep in mind that this thing doesn’t have GPS, compass, camera, microphone, or external storage. A lot of apps and games rely on one or more of those things, so they aren’t viable on the Fire at all. Also, there is no traditional “homescreen”, so you don’t get widgets, gadgets, or smart-tile like features.
  • Bugs & Oversights: This is likely to improve over the next few months, but the initial software does have a LOT of annoyances and bugs. The UI occasionally locks up for a long period of time (minutes even). It frequently doesn’t respond to taps or gestures, or takes a long time to respond. Documents and pictures don’t sync with the Amazon Cloud Drive (which is inexplicably stupid). The Carousel on the home screen is super-annoying; it just shows EVERYTHING you’ve interacted with recently… which will be really embarrassing when you go to show off your new toy, and the top item on the carousel happens to be

Overall, the Kindle is very good at being an Amazon Digital Content delivery device, but it falls WAY short of being a full tablet. Unless you just have a burning need for portable video in addition to books, I’d recommend you get the Kindle Touch and invest what you saved into a new smartphone; or put it towards a real tablet next year.