Review: Dell's M3800 Precision Workstation
Issue: November 1, 2014

Review: Dell's M3800 Precision Workstation



PRICE: $1,799


- Extremely lightweight and portable
- Blazingly fast mSATA storage options
High res 15.6-inch QHD+ touch-screen option

If you were around in the 1990s, you probably remember the commercials that burned the saying, “Dude, you’re getting a Dell!” into your mind. If you don’t remember that, you most likely don’t remember other things that make me feel old, like Beavis and Butthead. Other than fixing a couple of Dell computers while working as a computer repairmen at a local Best Buy, once I graduated from high school and moved on to college, I kind of forgot about Dell. 

Lately I’ve been bombarded with new mobile and desktop workstations to review and share my opinion on, including HP and even Lenovo’s latest. One name that hasn’t been talked about too much is Dell, and I’m not exactly sure why? I thought to myself: “I’d love to see some healthy competition in the post production workstation arena, so why not see what Dell is up to these days?”

Before I go into the powerhouse technical specs of the Dell Precision M3800 mobile workstation, I need to quickly touch on the difference between a true “workstation” and a “high-end” computer. Workstation vendors’ work directly with various software and hardware manufacturers to create finely-tuned workstations that work as fast as possible within certain productivity environments. 

The Dell Precision M3800 mobile workstation I am reviewing here had been rigorously tested with the Adobe Creative Suite, Avid Media Composer and many others before it reached my hands to match the extremely-high expectations of my demanding multimedia software needs. Many companies refer to this type of brand connection as “ISV certification” or Independent Software Vendor certification. Things like including Nvidia’s Quadro K-series graphics card are examples of this ISV connection between Adobe, Dell and Nvidia. 

If you are a strong DIY PC builder, you may be able to build a “workstation” just as strong, but don’t underestimate the value of a great warranty. Dell offers a standard one-year, next business day, on-site service after remote diagnosis warranty. You can even purchase up to five years of warranty coverage.

The Dell Precision M3800 mobile workstation comes with a blazing 2.2GHz (3.2GHz in Turbo mode) Intel i7 – 4702HQ mobile processor. The i7 is packed with four cores (Quad core) and eight threads. The more cores and threads you have, the more you can render simultaneously without slowing down. It can be configured with up to 16GBs of 1600MHz DDR3L (the “L” stands for lower voltage than standard DDR3 memory, which is another feature usually found in workstations, and offers lower overall power consumption). 

By far, my favorite hardware feature is the Nvidia Quadro K1100M with 2GBs of GDDR5 dedicated graphics memory. You usually won’t see internal components like a Quadro in a consumer system; you would see something like the Nvidia GTX 760. Nvidia Quadros typically have lower power consumption while maintaining as many CUDA parallel processing cores and the largest memory bandwidth possible (this also causes the cost to rise substantially). 

There are two display options: the QHD+ 3,200x1,800 and the FHD 1,920x1,080. Both are 15.6-inches large, feature 10-finger touch, and are complete with the ultra durable Corning Gorilla NBT Glass display. Personally, the 10-finger touch screen could have been left out. I did like being able to flick through Windows menus or occasionally pinch and zoom around Photoshop, but for the most part, it didn’t matter too much and wouldn’t have affected my decision to buy. When using the 3,200x1,800 resolution display, I had to break out my Wacom Intuos tablet for some fine detail “mousing” around because of the wealth of real estate. Luckily Adobe has made the UI text larger for high-resolution screens in its latest update, but if you have a pre-October 2014 version of Adobe CC, you will have a very hard time reading the UI text. Overall, the screen is beautiful when editing higher than 1080p video. I could really see where my 4K edits were going, even though I couldn’t actually watch my 4K in its full glory.

In terms of storage, there are a few options: standard SATA 6Gb/s, 2.5-inch hard drives in either 500GB or 1TB flavors at 5,400rpm speeds; a 500GB hybrid SSD with 8GBs of solid state storage; 256GB or 512GB SSD; or 128GB, 256GB, or 512GB mSATA. If you are doing any sort of multimedia creation and have the money, upgrade to the mSATA drive — it is a full, solid-state drive that shows off its speed the first time you boot up the computer, which blew my mind. It literally took four seconds for me to be inside Windows 8.1 and working. Once you use a true SSD as your boot and applications drive, you will never want to go back, and if you do, you will be very, very sad.

Dell has outfitted the M3800 with an Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC for your wireless Internet needs, but don’t forget that just because your laptop has a wireless AC connection, your Internet will not just be faster — you will also need an AC-based router as well. The speakers are surprisingly resilient, but they will not replace a pair of high-quality headphones or monitor speakers. It comes with three USB 3.0 ports and one USB 2.0 port with power share (the ability to power your device with the lid closed), one HDMI output port, one mini displayport, battery life indicator, headset/microphone port, and a handy three-in-one card reader, which actually works great! (Sometimes these don’t, so it’s worth pointing out). 

Absent are optical disc drives and Ethernet ports making this mobile workstation super slim at around .71 of an inch in the back and .31 of an inch in the front. It weighs in at around 4.15 pounds, with the lower life 6-cell battery and mSATA drive option. Speaking of batteries, you can either purchase a 6-cell or a 9-cell battery. I noticed that when running Adobe CC 2014, the battery life sustained itself at around four hours (using the 9-cell, non-removable battery). However, when in stand-by mode with the lid closed, it was good for a week or more. So keep in mind when rendering and exporting using the Adobe CC 2014 suite to keep your power cable near by. I really love Apple’s power adapter with the magnetic connector, but unfortunately Dell’s power adapter requires it to be inside the actual workstation and has the potential to be broken off if stepped on. 

In the end, the aluminum and carbon fiber Dell Precision M3800 is the lightest and best-feeling workstation I’ve experienced — I barely noticed it was in my backpack for two months. I did however notice the lack of Thunderbolt ports and I think that with such a powerful machine, my expectation of Thunderbolt ports is reasonable. I also noticed the substantial lack of heat when I used it as a traditional “laptop” in my car, which was a very pleasant surprise when the San Fernando Valley decided to heat up to 115 degrees!

The M3800 is one of the highest-performing mobile workstations I’ve worked on, period. During my testing, I was conforming a 4K short film using After Effects and Premiere Pro CC 2014, and was able to play the 4K files at half resolution without a hiccup. Because of the included Nvidia Quadro K1100M and Adobe’s use of Nvidia’s CUDA technology, I was exporting four versions of a 4K short film at once, all in realtime. It was a sight to behold. At around $2,500 you have a few mobile workstation options from HP and Lenovo, but none of them reach the power and feel that I got from the Dell Precision M3800 for such a low price point.