Apple’s MacBook Pro 15 with Retina has long been an attractive system for prosumers who need a powerful notebook, yet don’t want the bulk of a workstation PC. It’s also entertained surprisingly few challengers over the years. Only a handful of Windows competitors, like the Asus Zenbook NX500, have tried to take Apple’s system head-on.
Dell’s Precision M3800 is a part of that elite crowd. Based on the XPS 15, its consumer-focused cousin, the M3800 features slim design, an Intel quad-core processor, Nvidia Quadro workstation graphics and a 4K display. On paper, then, it’s easily a match for the Apple, or any other notebook on the market.
What really sets the system apart, though, is its reasonable pricing. HP and Lenovo have a reputation for charging ludicrous amounts for powerful 15-inchers, but our M3800 review unit is “only” $2,250 after Dell’s many discounts are applied. OK, that’s still a lot, but it’s $250 less than the Zenbook NX500, $250 less than an Apple MacBook Pro 15 with Retina (when equipped with discrete graphics), and equal to the HP ZBook 15u G2 we recently reviewed, and the latter of which had neither a quad-core processor or 4K display.
Is this a powerful Windows notebook that spans the gap between prosumer and enterprise, or is there less to this Dell than its specifications suggest?
Hands on video
Carbon-fiber ages well
The M3800’s design harkens back to the original carbon-fiber XPS 13, which was released four years ago. Like that model, this 15-incher has a black soft-touch interior and rounded chiclet keys housed in a sturdy metal frame. It’s bigger, of course, but the basics are identical.
All of this is a nice way of saying this Precision is an old design. Fortunately, it’s held up well. The main evidence of its age can be found in the transition between panels, which are in some places more visible than expected on a $2,000 system. Still, the aesthetic is luxurious, and the rigid chassis inspires confidence. Dell has managed to create a system that feels very expensive, yet doesn’t ape the all-aluminum design of the MacBook line.
Connectivity is robust. There are three USB ports, two of which are 3.0, along with HDMI, Thunderbolt, a combo headphone/microphone jack and an SDcard reader. Wireless connectivity includes 802.11ac and Bluetooth, both of which come standard. Mobile data connectivity is not available, though. Most notebooks don’t have that option, but it is somewhat common among the M3800’s enterprise competitors, like the HP ZBook 15u G2.
Rounding out the keyboard
Another trait the M3800 retains from older XPS designs is a compact island-style keyboard with rounded, almost toy-like keys. They provide reasonable travel and the layout is adequately spacious, but the key caps themselves could be better. Their texture doesn’t match the expensive feel of the notebook’s other materials. This didn’t slow are typing, though, or result in any extra errors.
While the key layout is spacious, individual key caps feel a bit cheap.
Backlighting is standard. Only two brightness levels are offered, one of which was actually too bright for use in a typical low-light situation, and seems to exist only to show off the backlit keyboard to friends. The second, tamer setting was thankfully usable, and there’s only moderate light-leak around the key caps.
We enjoyed the touchpad, which is about four inches wide and three inches deep. It has a somewhat grippy surface that adds texture to the experience and multi-touch inputs worked well. The integrated left/right mouse buttons activated stiffly, but tap-to-click was a perfectly fine substitute, and we generally preferred it to attempting a “real” click.
4K done right
Our M3800 review unit arrived with the optional 4K touchscreen. It offered impressive image quality from the start, with good contrast and strong colors, traits that served it well as we viewed a variety of 1080p, 1440p and 4K content. While the panel’s glossy coat at times was a bother, in general the backlight was able to overcome glare. Of course, like most such screens, it looked great in a dark setting, where glare was not a problem.
Testing revealed numbers that backed up our initial impressions. The contrast ratio, which reached 840:1 at maximum brightness and 800:1 at half, was the best we’ve ever recorded from a laptop. Apple’s MacBook Pro 13 with Retina hits 770:1, the Asus Zenbook NX500 manages 760:1, and the Acer Aspire V15 Nitro Edition with 4K panel came in at 690:1.
Maximum brightness soared to 383 lux and color accuracy managed an average error of less than one, making the M3800 only the second laptop (after the Zenbook NX500) to offer such a result. That’s important because an error below one is generally unnoticeable to the human eye. However, this is still a standard gamut display, reaching 99 percent of sRGB but only 74 percent of AdobeRGB. That’s on par with most notebooks, but the Zenbook NX500’s wide-gamut display hit 96 percent of AdobeRGB, providing additional colors that digital artists may be interested in using.
We did occasionally run into 4K scaling issues. Spread across 15.6 diagonal inches, the resolution translates to about 280 pixels per inch, which is about as dense as modern Windows laptops get. Older programs not built with high resolutions in mind were an issue, as they looked fuzzy if they rendered at a readable size, or comically small if they didn’t.
The built-in speakers were strong, delivering enough oomph to fill a large room with sound. Some bass was available, which means the M3800 doesn’t sound as flat and tinny as most laptops. On the downside, the sound system was at times so loud it shook the laptop’s enclosure, creating an unpleasant buzz as components and panels vibrate.
Ready to perform
Unlike the consumer-oriented XPS 15, which comes standard with a dual-core Core i5 but can be upgraded to a quad, the Precision M3800 is always sold with the Core i7-4712HQ. The chip has a base clock of 2.3GHz and a maximum Turbo Boost of 3.3GHz, and it led the system to solid results in Geekbench.
As visible above, the M3800 outran every other prosumer and business system we’ve recently reviewed. That includes the new MacBook Pro 13 with Retina, which of course has to make do with a dual-core chip. Only the MacBook Pro 15 with Retina, in its $2,500 configuration, can keep up.
Hard drive performance, while respectable, was not as impressive. We recorded sequential read speeds of 498.5 megabytes per second, and sequential writes of 398MB/s. These figures are below the HP ZBook 15u G2, which hit 656.4MB/s and 433.2MB/s, respectively, and way behind the Asus Zenbook NX500J, which scored over one gigabyte per second in sequential reads and almost as quick in writes.
Our unit came equipped with Nvidia Quadro K1100M graphics, another standard feature. It performed respectably in 3D Mark, but didn’t come close to setting any records.
These results put the Dell aside the HP 15u G2, and far behind the Acer Aspire V15 Nitro Edition, which we tested with the Nvidia GTX 860M, a legitimate gaming-capable GPU. It’s obvious Dell did not build this system for play.
Still, gaming is not out of the question. Diablo 3 managed an average of 51 frames per second at low detail and 1080p resolution. With detail set to high the game chugged along at 33 FPS. Playing games at full 4K resolution is generally not an option, but 1080p can work in less demanding titles.
Since the Precision M3800 is built to handle workstation applications, we ran two additional tests on it to provide a better picture of how it performs. These were Cinebench R15, and SPECviewperf 12.
Intel’s Core i7-4712HQ led the M3800 to respectable Geekbench results.
Cinebench is a commonly used animation suite from Maxon, and R15 is a benchmark that simulates using the software to render a set scene. The results are displayed in frames rendered per second. The Dell managed to hit 50 FPS in the OpenGL benchmark, a result that indicates the system is well suited for the task, though it doesn’t have a ton of performance to spare.
In SPECviewperf 12, a combined workstation suite that simulates a number of commonly used programs, like Autodesk Maya and Catia V5, the M3800 again scored modestly, hitting 13.87 in the Maya test and 15.16 in the Catia test. These results are adequate, but a bulkier workstation laptop like the 17-inch Dell M6800 can triple these scores.
On the whole, it seems clear Dell makes some concessions to offer portability. While capable, the system doesn’t blow away either benchmark. This means that, for workstation users, the M3800 may be best as a compliment to a powerful desktop.
Long lasting, yet power hungry
Like all 15-inch systems, it’s a bit of a stretch to call the Dell Precision M3800 portable. It travels perfectly well so long as you own a bag large enough, but the screen size alone makes the system awkward to use in tight quarters. We weighed the system at 4.9 pounds with the 91 watt-hour battery, which is mediocre for a system in this price range.
That bulky battery paid off in Peacekeeper endurance tests, as we recorded four hours and 20 minutes of endurance. Such a result is strong given M3800’s quad-core processor and 4K display, both of which drain battery quickly. The Asus ZenBook NX500 and HP ZBook u15 G2 barely managed to crack four hours, and the Acer Aspire V15 Nitro lasted less than three hours. On the other hand, though, this number is quite far south of a typical Ultrabook, and will be unsuitable for users who need to spend more than half a workday away from a power socket.
Hooking the M3800 to our watt-meter showed why the large battery is necessary. We recorded up to 22 watts of power draw at idle with the display at 100 percent brightness, and up to 62 watts at full load. The Dell’s results are lower than competitors like the Acer Aspire V15 Nitro Black Edition, which needs 23.5 watts at idle, and the Asus Zenbook NX500, which needs up to 24.5 watts, but still high for a modern notebook.
Also a space heater
High power draw figures mean there’s a lot of heat to exhaust. We recorded a maximum external temperature of 97 degrees at idle, and up to 122 degrees at load. That latter figure is the highest we’ve recorded in two years. Using the notebook on your lap while running a workstation application can become extremely uncomfortable.
The high external temperatures aren’t the result of a lazy fan. At idle it hums along at a pleasant 34.8 decibels, but at load it hits 42.3dB, which is very noticeable. The M3800 is louder than the Acer Aspire V15 Nitro Black Edition or Asus Zenbook NX500, though only by a hair.
Dell sells the M3800 with a one-year parts and labor warranty, which includes on-site service after remote problem diagnosis. This is quite competitive, as many companies provide one year with no on-site service possible. Extended service plans are available, of course.
The Dell Precision M3800 is one of the stronger 15-inch Windows systems we’ve recently reviewed. It manages to better balance its pros and cons than the Acer Aspire V15 Nitro Edition and Asus Zenbook NX500, both of which are significantly superior in certain areas, but also significantly behind in others. Mediocrity may seem dull, but in a computer it can be desirable. A niggling annoyance in a machine you use every day can be a big problem.
If anything can be pointed at as a serious issue, it’s battery life. Dell tried its best with our review unit’s huge 91 watt-hour unit, but even it can’t keep the quad-core processor and 4K display powered far beyond four hours in our Web browsing benchmark. Buyers who need endurance should stick with the base, 1080p panel.
We also think it’s near time for a design update, as the M3800’s aging chassis, while still unique, is starting to show its age. Yet it remains sturdy and feels luxurious enough to support the system’s rather intimidating $2,250 price. This is more notebook than most users need, and it’s a top choice for anyone who wants serious hardware in a portable chassis.
- Luxurious feel
- Pleasant touchpad
- Beautiful 4K display
- Strong all-round performance
- Design starting to seem dated
- Battery drains quickly
- Runs hot, loud at times