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Dell’s Precision M6300 — a Big & Fast Workstation Laptop

By David Cohn

Dell Precision M6300
Dell Precision M6300

It’s been a while since we last looked at a Dell mobile workstation, so we were quite excited when the Dell Precision M6300 arrived. The M6300 is Dell’s top-of-the-line mobile workstation, designed to provide true desktop-level performance. First introduced nearly a year ago with an NVIDIA Quadro FX 1600M graphics board, Dell has since added the newer, more powerful Quadro FX 3600M GPU as an extra-cost option, making the Dell Precision M6300 nearly identical to the HP Compaq 8710w mobile workstation we looked at last month. In addition to both systems using the identical graphics cards, the Dell laptop we received was based on the same Intel Core 2 Duo CPU and came with the same amount of memory as the HP.

Under the Lid
The Precision M6300 is similar in size to the Dell Precision M90 we previously reviewed (see DE May 2006). In other words, there is nothing svelte about this laptop. Housed in a very attractive brushed chrome case, the system measures 15.5 in. x 11.3 in. x 1.6 in. and weighs in at a hefty 8.7 pounds (more than a pound heavier than the HP), plus nearly two more pounds for its 130-watt power supply and cables. With the lid closed, seven media buttons remain visible along the front edge of the case and glow blue when pressed. These let you adjust speaker volume and control CD and DVD media playback.

Raising the lid reveals a stunning 17-in. UltraSharp LCD and an 87-key keyboard. But whereas HP uses the extra size of its laptop to include a full-size keyboard with a separate numeric keypad, the keyboard on the Dell Precision M6300 appears somewhat isolated in the middle of the case, surrounded by a very large palm rest and lots of empty space. A round power button is centered above the keyboard, and LEDs to its left are indicators of keyboard and wireless status.

There’s also a battery conservation button that lets you select maximum performance or maximum battery life power settings while device status lights for power, hard drive access, and battery are located in the right-hand hinge. A touchpad with three buttons and dedicated scroll zones is centered below the keyboard, but Dell no longer includes a track stick. A touchpad with a fingerprint reader is a $29 option.

Display, Drives, Ports, & Battery
Our evaluation unit came equipped with a WUXGA active matrix TFT display with a native resolution of 1920 x 1200 and a 0.191mm pixel pitch. Dell also offers a WXGA (1440 x 900) display as a lower-cost option. While Dell included the aforementioned NVIDIA Quadro FX 3600M mobile graphics card, customers seeking to save some money can opt for the less powerful (and less expensive) FX 1600M GPU.

The NVIDIA Quadro FX 3600M comes with 512MB of dedicated graphics memory and can also power an external monitor at up to 2048 x 1536. The graphics subsystem uses a 256-bit memory interface, has a 51.2GB per second graphic memory bandwidth, and supports OpenGL 2.1, Shader Model 4.0, and DirectX 10, the same specs as the NVIDIA Quadro FX 3700.

Although Dell offers several hard drive options, including 7200rpm serial ATA drives with capacities up to 320GB, our system came with the standard hard drive, a rather modest 5400rpm 80GB drive made by Toshiba. The optical drive was equally pedestrian: a single-layer 8X DVD+/-RW drive. A Blu-ray drive is a $475 option.

The expansion options on the M6300 are very similar to those on the older Precision M90. Along the right side of the case are a Smart Card slot, an ExpressCard slot, IEEE 1394 (FireWire) connector, audio jacks for headphone and microphone, and a 5-in-1 card reader supporting SD, MMC, Memory Stick, Memory Stick Pro, and XD-Picture cards. The left side of the system includes the optical drive bay, two USB 2.0 ports, and a security cable slot.

An S-video TV-out connector, RJ45 network port, RJ11 modem connector, four more UBS ports, both DVI and VGA video ports, and the power connector are arrayed along the rear panel.

The system’s 9-cell 85 watt-hour lithium ion battery mounts from the bottom, where you’ll also find a port for a docking station and panels to access memory modules and internal cards (for options such as Bluetooth, a $9 add-on not included in our system). Wireless 802.11g is standard; multi-band wireless cards are extra. Our evaluation unit lasted a very respectable three hours in our battery run-down test.

Blazingly Fast Benchmarks
Dell offers the Precision M6300 with several different CPUs ranging from a 2.0GHz Core 2 Duo up to the 2.8GHz Core 2 Extreme (which would add more than $1,000 to the base price). Our evaluation unit came with the same 2.6GHz dual-core T9500 CPU as the HP 8710w we reviewed last month (DE Oct 2008). That processor features an 800MHz front-side bus and 6MB of L2 cache. The basic M6300 comes with 1GB of 667MHz dual-channel DDR2 memory, but our evaluation unit came with 2GB of RAM, installed as two 1GB DIMMs.

We downloaded the latest version of the NVIDIA graphics driver available from the Dell website and then ran our standard set of benchmark tests, including SPECviewperf to measure graphics performance and the SPECapc benchmark for SolidWorks to gauge how the computer performs when running a typical MCAD application. We also ran our AutoCAD rendering test using both AutoCAD 2007 and 2008.

The SPECviewperf test results were virtually identical to those of the HP 8710w — not an unexpected result considering the fact that both laptops were equipped with the exact same graphics card. But what was unexpected in both instances was the incredible level of graphics performance — the results approached those previously seen only in full-fledged desktop workstations.

The SolidWorks results were also nearly identical to those of the 8710w, with the Dell Precision M6300 edging out the HP system by the barest of margins. This was a bit more surprising, considering that the hard drive in our Dell system was supposedly slower than that in the HP.

The AutoCAD rendering tests once again reminded us that this was a mobile workstation. The Dell Precision M6300 took just over five minutes to render our test image at 1280 x 1024, but that was only 14 percent slower than a desktop workstation with a 13 percent faster dual-core CPU, and 30 seconds faster than the similarly equipped HP 8710w when running AutoCAD 2007. Curiously, the Dell was actually two seconds slower than the HP when we repeated the same test using AutoCAD 2008.

Dell Precision M6300
>Price: $3,051 as tested ($1,874 base price)
>Size: 15.5 in. x 11.3 in. x 1.6 in.
(WxDxH) notebook
>Weight: 8.7 pounds plus power supply
(depending on configuration)
>CPU: 2.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo (T9500)
w/6MB L2 cache
>Memory: 2GB (8GB max)
>Graphics: NVIDIA Quadro FX 3600M
w/512MB memory
>LCD: WUXGA 1920 x 1200
>Hard Disk: 80GB, 5400rpm
>Floppy: none
>Optical: 8X DVD+/-RW single-layer
>Audio: microphone and headphone jacks
>Network: integrated 10/100/1000
Ethernet, 102.11 g wireless LAN
>Modem: 56K V.92
>Other: Six USB 2.0, one mini IEEE 1394
FireWire, SmartCard slot, ExpressCard
slot, 15-pin VGA, DVI, S-video out, 5-in-1
card reader (SD, MMC, MS, MS/Pro, XD)
>Keyboard: integrated 87-key keyboard
>Pointing device: integrated touchpad

Price Point
While the performance didn’t exactly surprise us after having seen similarly amazing results from the HP system last month, that power comes at a lower cost from Dell. Prices for the Precision M6300 start at $1,874, while our evaluation unit is currently available online for $3,051, more than $700 less than the similarly equipped HP 8710w. In addition, for a limited time Dell is also throwing in a free 18-in. widescreen LCD monitor.

Dell backs the Precision M6300 with a three-year limited warranty with next-business-day onsite service after remote diagnosis. The battery, which has a rated lifespan of 300 discharge/charge cycles, is under warranty for one year, but customers can purchase the right to a battery replacement at the time they purchase their laptop. This service entitles them to one replacement battery during the three-year warranty period of the laptop. Additional warranty options are also available.

Operating system options include Windows Vista (32-bit or 64-bit) including a Windows XP Professional downgrade (XP comes preloaded and there’s a Vista DVD you can use to install Vista when you’re ready), or 64-bit Red Hat Linux. The Dell Precision M6300 is fully certified for most CAD and DCC applications.

The Dell Precision M6300 mobile workstation is hard to beat. It combines great performance at a great price. It’s definitely on the heavy side, but its performance and battery life, coupled with a great price, make it a very attractive solution for engineers and designers on the go.

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Contributing Editor David Cohn is a computer consultant and technical writer based in Bellingham, WA, and has been benchmarking PCs since 1984. He’s an applications engineer with The PPI Group, and the author of more than a dozen books. He’s the former editor-in-chief of CADCAMNet. Please send comments about this article to DE-Editors@deskeng.com. You can also contact David at david@dscohn.com.

About David Cohn

David Cohn has been using AutoCAD for more than 25 years and is the author of more than a dozen books on the subject. He’s the technical publishing manager at 4D Technologies, a contributing editor to Digital Engineering, and also does consulting and technical writing from his home in Bellingham, WA. Watch for his latest CADLearning eBooks on AutoCAD 2015 on the Apple iBookstore, at Amazon, and on the CADLearning website. You can contact him via email at david@dscohn.com or visit his website at www.dscohn.com.