A mobile workstation is traditionally more workstation than it is mobile. The Scan 3XS MGW-20, for example, is massively powerful, but its near-4kg mass won't leave you wanting to carry it with you on a regular basis. Dell's Precision M3800, however, weighs less than 1.9kg, making it even more portable than the Gigabyte P35W v2 gaming laptop that impressed us with its svelte chassis earlier this week. Yet it's still packed with workstation-grade components.
Central to the M3800's status as a workstation is Nvidia Quadro K1100M graphics. This is a Kepler-based chipset with a reasonable 384 CUDA cores running at 716MHz and sporting 2GB of GDDR5 frame buffer. This puts it in a similar league to the earlier, pre-Kepler Quadro 5010M, albeit with slower memory thanks to a 128-bit rather than a 256-bit memory interface. The K1100M supports DirectX 11, Shader Model 5.0, OpenCL 1.2 and OpenGL 4.4. Whilst this isn't a high-end mobile workstation graphics chipset, it should be up to handling most professional 3D graphics software, and will be fully certified.
The processor is decidedly potent, however. It's an Intel Core i7 4702HQ, which is a quad-core CPU running at a nominal 2.2GHz when drawing 37W. However, Turbo Boost means that power consumption can rise to 45W so that all four cores may lift to 2.9GHz, whilst a single core can hit 3.2GHz when required. Intel's Hyper-Threading also means the four physical cores present themselves as eight virtual ones, which will give key tasks like rendering a significant benefit. The processor also incorporates Intel HD Graphics 4600, although this will only come into play in non-3D focused situations, thanks to Nvidia Optimus technology.
The M3800 can be specified with 8GB or the maximum 16GB of 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM supported. Our sample was supplied with the latter, which should be more than enough for the lifetime of the machine. Storage options range from a single solid state or hard disk to one of each or two SSDs. Our sample was supplied with a single 512GB Samsung SM841 SSD, which is big, fast, and low on power consumption, albeit a pricey option. But there is no optical drive.
There are a couple of screen options available with the M3800. You can choose a relatively pedestrian full HD 15.6in display, with a resolution of 1,920 x 1,080. But our sample came with the much more state-of-the-art QHD+ display, which has a resolution of 3,200 x 1,800, equalling Lenovo's Yoga 2 Pro. As we have pointed out before, these resolutions can cause usability problems. Windows 8 will detect the screen type and adjust its interface accordingly, so the native Windows 8 applications gain the resolution benefits without being blighted by ridiculously small dialog boxes.
However, if you choose Windows 7, as some 3D professionals may well do, you will need to do some major customisation, as this operating system doesn't automatically scale fonts and UI elements sensibly for a screen this size with such a high native resolution. Apple's Retina MacBook Pro encountered the same issue on launch. We tried running Maya 2014 on Windows 7 and found the text on its interface too small to read, with no way to adjust beyond a certain size. This will force you to run the display at a lower resolution, rather negating its value. Some software will have problems even on Windows 8.
The M3800 is reasonably well endowed with connectivity. On the left-hand side there's a full-sized HDMI port, mini DisplayPort, two USB 3.0 ports with PowerShare (Dell's version of Sleep and Charge), plus a combined headphone and microphone minijack. The right is home to the SD card reader, plus a third USB 3.0 port alongside a solitary USB 2.0, again both with PowerShare. No VGA or wired LAN are included, although a USB adapter for the latter is bundled in the box.
Not surprisingly, considering the Core i7 processor, the M3800 provides some impressive application performance results. Its Cinebench R11.5 and R15 rendering scores of 6.34 and 586 respectively are on par with the CPU's specification, and show that this notebook can readily output 3D on the move. The OpenGL results in R11.5 and R15 of 43.88 and 51.2 respectively are also decent, but not so close to the fastest we have seen. This was paralleled when we ran Futuremark's 3DMark11 and 3DMark Firestrike 1.1 tests, achieving 2,019 and 1,319 respectively. These are good scores, but nothing close to the gaming-focused laptops we have tested such as Gigabyte's P35W v2.
We also ran the professional 3D graphics-oriented SPECviewperf 11 and 12. In version 11, the lightwave-01 score of 59.01 and maya-03 score of 62.33 show this will be a good laptop for 3D animation, whilst 39.91 in the SolidWorks sw-02 viewset implies decent product design capabilities. However, a result of 14.5 in version 12's maya-04 and 25.93 in sw-03 also reveal that the M3800's K1100M graphics is not at the high-end of Nvidia's Quadro range, although it will be perfectly adequate for modelling on the move.
The Work and Home portions of Futuremark's PCMark 8 produced results of 2,639 and 3,400, which are good, although we have seen better from the top desktop replacement notebooks we have tested. Nevertheless, this notebook will handle non-3D applications with aplomb. Better still, running the PCMark 8 Work in battery test mode provided an endurance of 346 minutes, which is decidedly respectable for a 15.6in laptop. On the other hand, the M3800 only lasted for 135 minutes of the Battery Eater Pro test, which pummels the processor and graphics at 100 per cent. So you will only get a little over two hours of full-on 3D animation or rendering, but if you perform this kind of activity on the mains, you can use the notebook for most of the day for less strenuous activities, making the M3800 a great multi-purpose portable.
The Dell Precision M3800 isn't quite an all-singing workstation in a portable package, but it does provide good certified modelling and capable rendering on the move. Best of all, when you're not doing heavy 3D work, the battery can last for close to six hours, making this a great all-rounder for animation students or freelancers who need to combine 3D content creation and their everyday activities into one system that's easy to carry around all day.
Manufacturer and Model
Dell Precision M3800
2.2GHz Intel Core i7 4702HQ
16GB 1600MHz DDR3 SDRAM
Nvidia Quadro K1100M with 2GB GDDR5 memory and Intel HD Graphics 4600
512GB Samsung SM841 solid state disk
15.6in LED backlit Wide Viewing Angle TFT with 3,200 x 1,880 pixels
Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac/b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0
3 x USB 3.0, 1 x USB 2.0, HDMI, VGA, mini DisplayPort, LAN (via USB adapter), combo headphone / microphone, SD card reader
Width x Depth x Height
372 x 254 x 18mm
2 years global warranty