Dell M6500: A Precision Strike on Blingby Jarred Walton on March 9, 2010 3:00 AM EST
Last year, we did a roundup of some of the fastest laptops available at the time. The three laptops came from different sources, but all used Clevo chassis as the base for the build. Clevo is known for making high-end gaming laptop designs, but the build quality and materials can often leave us wanting. Glossy LCDs have some adherents, but the glossy—often mirror-like—surfaces used on the chassis are hard to get past. They're also very bulky designs, and it's hard to fathom spending thousands of dollars on a laptop chassis only to end up with a standard injection-molded plastic box. There has to be a better alternative, right? Of course there is, and as an example of a high quality design we have the Dell Precision M6500.
Right from the start, there's a lot to separate the M6500 from the previously mentioned Clevo designs. For one, users get the choice of glossy or anti-glare LCDs, and what's more they can also elect to pay for an RGBLED model that will provide a high color gamut. It's not just the LCD that's better: Dell delivers a chassis that has aluminum covers on most of the outside surfaces—available in standard silver or an eye-catching orange anodized aluminum. The M6500 is still a large notebook, true, but compared to many of the other desktop replacements we've looked at over the years, the industrial design is robust and reasonably attracted; it doesn't need to scream for attention, unlike other offerings.
Let's get this out of the way: the Precision M6500 doesn't come cheap. It packs a quad-core Core i7 Mobile CPU (i7-720QM to i7-920XM), four DDR3 SO-DIMM slots, two HDDs/SDDs, workstation graphics, a slot-load DVD/Blu-ray drive, and a standard 3-year warranty. Dell also includes the typical WiFi and Ethernet, along with optional Bluetooth and mobile broadband. An optional fingerprint scanner is available—standard "swipe" or FIPS certified for $70 more—as well as an optional contactless smart card reader. The latter is not something home users need, but it's a feature some enterprise customers want. And "Enterprise" is definitely the name of the game here, with a price to match. The basic configuration starts at
$2750 $1800 (now that Core i5 CPUs are supported), and our test system maxes out everything but the storage options for a final price tag of over $5000!
Shocked by the sticker price? Besides the R&D efforts and high quality industrial design, part of the price also comes from the ISV certifications. The M6500 is certified to run over 100 professional applications from 30 different ISVs. Sample applications include AutoDesk Inventor, SolidWorks, PPC Pro Engineer, and WindChill to name just a few. To give you an idea of pricing, the typical cost for a basic installation of many of these applications will run at least as much as our test laptop (i.e. $5000), and some of the packages can apparently run up to $100K per installation. Obviously, if you're buying a software package that can cost that much, having certified hardware is a must and the cost of the hardware is secondary to the cost of the software. As for performance in the various software packages, the only way you could get a faster laptop would be to use a desktop processor—not the ideal solution in most cases.
Before we get to the rest of the review, it's useful to discuss quickly why "mobile workstations" are useful. If you're after maximum performance you can get a desktop workstation with far more power than any notebook. With a clock speed of 2.0GHz on the i7-920XM as the maximum we'll see from mobile CPUs, i7 Xeon CPUs like the 3.33GHz W5590 are over 50% faster; pair a couple of W5590s and you're looking at over three times the performance in heavily threaded scenarios. Then there's the matter or maximum RAM support, GPU support, etc. Obviously, there's no way to get performance equal to a desktop workstation that can use 500W+ of power out of a <200W notebook chassis. The problem is that such workstations are difficult to move, so consultants and employees that have to work away from the home office need an alternative. They can save time by avoiding the need to travel back and forth between the office/datacenter, not to mention avoiding travel costs. Remote (i.e. VPN) solutions can provide more computational power still, but the latency of such solutions is a different problem. Thus, the target market for notebooks like the Precision M6500 is professionals that regularly need to be able to take their work on the road.
Technically, the M6500 can also play games, but that's not the target market… unless you happen to be a game developer working on the road, I suppose. While we wouldn't recommend the M6500 for mobile gamers, we would love to see some aspects of the styling and build quality make their way into such offerings. Dell's own XPS and Alienware notebooks could learn a thing or two about construction and features from the M6500, and we'd love to see Clevo give their whitebook customers a high quality chassis—and an anti-glare LCD would be icing on the cake. As we'll see in a moment, the M6500 is not without flaws; ultimately, it's going to come down to priorities and personal taste. If you happen to like glossy LCDs and bling, you probably won't like the M6500.
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FXi - Tuesday, March 9, 2010 - linkThe M17x sure could have used some touches to bring it more along the looks of the M6500. I have a M6400 and it's really a fantastic machine. It gets looks and questions wherever I take it.
Why did the M17x lack a latch, USB3 and some of the other subtlety that the M6500 has in spades? It's not that the M17x is "bad", not at all. It just could have had a more subtle elegance with so little additional effort. And moreover, the M17x "could" have used the very same docking station as the M6500. Same chipset, same overall form factor. The grill bottom of the M17x could have taken a docking port without making it too weak.
Anyway I have a M6400 and it's really a fantastic machine. Moreover I get about 2-2.5 hours on the battery which is wonderful for car appointments sitting in the lounge getting work done.
Great machine. Only sadness is the case is so packed they can't fit SLI Quadro's. But that doesn't keep it from being a Class A machine.
hko45 - Wednesday, March 10, 2010 - linkI have an M6400. I like it's clean, serious look. Not like the over-the-top "fashion" toys I've seen from other laptop purveyors.
As I said in an earlier post, the E-Port and E-Port Plus docking stations make Dell Precision & Latitude laptops my only choices for now. (Other docking stations that I know about do not offer multi DVI/DP options and require a USB connection, as opposed to the dedicated docking port on the Dells.
Although, I've heard rumors that NVidia is considering offering an external graphics card option (that I presume will use USB 3.0). If so, they'd be crazy not to include multiple monitor capabilities.
wicko - Tuesday, March 9, 2010 - linkWould be nice to see a consumer version of this, I'd be completely interested if it weren't for the abnormal price range.
geekforhire - Wednesday, March 17, 2010 - linkGoofy question, but would your opinion change if this machine were $3000 rather than about $6000? Check my review above.
Lothsahn - Tuesday, March 9, 2010 - linkWe use about 20 of these (M6400) where I work, and they are extremely fast, but their quality is absolutely horrible (despite what the article says). We've had nearly one problem in each laptop within the first year (some worse, some better).
My laptop was completely replaced by Dell due to 10 separate RMA requests, likely resulting from a defective powerbrick that Dell could not diagnose (even with my suggestion that they replace the power brick).
Some of the problems we've seen:
1) fan failures (requiring replacement of the ENTIRE graphics card daughterboard, not just the fan, because they're integrated together
2) battery failures
3) Motherboard failures
4) Power supply failures
5) Display issues-- the contrast is EXTREMELY poor on the displays ( http://www.google.com/search?q=M6400+display+color">http://www.google.com/search?q=M6400+display+color )
6) Numerous driver issues causing BSOD's in WinXP-64.
JarredWalton - Tuesday, March 9, 2010 - linkHopefully Dell provided good service at least in terms of getting things replaced? I did tech support for a giant corporation at one point, we had hundreds of Dell PCs and laptops, and they would send someone out within 24 hours to fix problems.
Obviously, I can't comment on long-term stability when I only have a unit for a month, but I didn't have any stability problems at all. The PSU is now updated relative to the M6400, and for sure the LCD doesn't have "extremely poor contrast"... I tested this one, and it rates 670:1, which is great.
As for the color tint, that's partly a problem from too bright a backlight (run at ~40% and you'll be a lot closer to 6500K; 100% is likely in the 9000K+ range). For calibration, you do need hardware and software, but with a 1.8 gamma setting (see above and updated text in article) that issue is now addressed.
Lothsahn - Tuesday, March 9, 2010 - linkDell provided excellent service. No complaints there. But I would be terrified if we didn't have a 3yr onsite warranty--these units are all out of a typical 1yr warranty now and given the current failure rates, I would expect most of them to be dead within the next year if we didn't have them repaired.
I should clarify the LCD issue--it's not "contrast" in terms of brightness of white to black. The monitor is extremely bright and contrasty. However, certain colors have NO grey definition whatsoever. There are details in this post:
If you look at the yellow pushpin on the M6400 monitor, ALL greys in the yellow pushpin are nonexistent--the pushpin is one solid color. For graphics editing, that is clearly unacceptable. Thankfully, we don't graphics edit, but some webpages are still more difficult to see because of this problem.
People reporting this error have calibrated their displays, but that does not resolve the issue. It's more than a software or a calibration issue.
I have adjusted gamma and brightness settings in the Nvidia driver (from the default settings), which has been good enough for web browsing, although the problem remains. However, when you pay 4-5k for a laptop, you shouldn't have these sorts of problems.
mino - Tuesday, March 9, 2010 - linkJust give me DUAL NIC for VMware worstation dual-node operation and I be in heaven.
The node2 being something in x200 tablet class ...
Lazlo Panaflex - Tuesday, March 9, 2010 - linkPOS screen with unfixable blue tint, no DVI (vga? LOL!) and lack of other ports, expensive price tag and bland asthetics...sorry, but this is epic fail for Dell.
Jarred, methinks you were a bit too kind in your overall assessment of this lemon.
JarredWalton - Tuesday, March 9, 2010 - linkSee above: LCD issue is "fixed" now and I updated the article. Docking station provides two extra DVI ports I believe, but it's still irritating. Still, that's not "epic fail" by any but the most limited perspective.