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Power to Go

By David Cohn

Last year’s big news from mobile workstation makers was the release of the first notebook computers featuring PCI Express graphics. The performance gain was impressive, but what a difference a year makes. Mobile workstations that combine the new dual-core mobile processors and second-generation mobile graphics processors for a double dose of power are just now reaching the market.

The first of the new systems to reach DE were the Dell Precision M65 and Dell Precision M90. While these two notebook computers vary somewhat in size, they have a lot in common. Both are powered by the latest version of Intel’s Centrino Core Duo mobile CPU and backed by the Intel 945PM Express chipset, not to mention each uses recently announced OpenGL PCI Express-based mobile graphics subsystems from NVIDIA.

Though Dell offers lots of CPU options, starting with 1.67GHz processors in the base configurations, both of the systems we received were powered by dual-core T2600 processors running at 2.16GHz. These CPUs have a 2MB L2 cache and are supported by a 667MHz front-side bus. Both systems also came equipped with 100GB Hitachi hard drives and 2GB of DDR2 dual-channel memory. Up to 4GB of memory can be accommodated in the two memory slots, although the 2GB memory cards are only available at 533MHz.

Both systems are housed in beautiful magnesium alloy cases that look like brushed chrome. But the M90 is bigger, heavier, better equipped, and much faster than its slightly smaller sibling.

Dell Precision M65

The Dell Precision M65 measures 14.25 in. x 10.25 in. x 1.5 in. and tips the scales at 6.75 pounds, not counting the additional 1.25-pound power supply. A slide latch releases the hinged lid to expose a keyboard with 65 full-size keys, 23 smaller function keys, a track stick, a touch pad, and an optional fingerprint reader centered between the two lower touchpad buttons. Speakers are located to either side of the keyboard. Buttons above the keyboard control speaker volume and power. To the left of these are keyboard status lights. Device status lights for power, battery, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth are located in the right-hand hinge just below the LCD.

The LCD in the M65 measures 15.4-in. and Dell offers three different display options. Our evaluation unit came with a native 1920 x 1200 WUXGA panel powered by the new NVIDIA Quadro FX 350M, one of three new mobile graphics accelerators recently announced by NVIDIA. The new chipset has its own 256MB frame buffer and can allocate up to 256MB more of system memory. The GPU consumes less power than previous generations of NVIDIA chips, helping the M65 achieve better battery life than previous Dell notebooks we’ve reviewed. We also appreciated the ambient light sensor located just left of center below the LCD. Once enabled, the sensor automatically adjusts backlight to compensate for low- or high-light levels, and it worked quite well.


Dell Precision M65 Mobile Workstation.

In addition, users can power an external analog monitor at up to 2048 x 1536 resolution at 32-bit color, and the unified NVIDIA driver provides excellent control over the display configuration and performance options. I was easily able to extend my Windows desktop across a second monitor.

A modular bay along the right side of the case contained a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive. We would have much preferred a DVD+/-RW drive, which would have added $50 to the price. Two USB connectors are also located on the right side. Expansion options across the rear of the case include an RJ45 network connector, one standard USB port, and a second USB port with a powered connector, an RJ11 modem connector, a 9-pin serial port, a VGA port, and the AC power adapter connector. A single large air vent occupies the right end of the rear panel.

On the left side are the rest of the system’s expansion options, which include IEEE 1394 (FireWire), microphone and headphone jacks, an infrared sensor, a slide switch for controlling both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, a Wi-Fi Catcher light that indicates when a Wi-Fi signal is available, a PC Card slot that accommodates both Type I and Type II cards, and a Smart Card slot. The primary battery mounts from the bottom of the case, where you’ll also find a docking station connector. Dell sells several docking station options, including an advanced port replicator ($179), an expansion station with an additional media bay and PCI slot ($279), and a notebook stand ($60) and monitor stand ($49) that work in conjunction with the docking options.

Connectivity in our M65 evaluation unit was further enhanced by the inclusion of an optional Dell 5700 CDMA Verizon wireless broadband card. Dell also offers a 5500 3G HSDPA card for Cingular customers. I was able to connect to Verizon’s broadband service and surf the Internet from various locations around town and as I traveled the country without a wired or Wi-Fi connection. Prices for the service range from $15 per day for 24-hour access to $79.99 per month for unlimited access, making this a very attractive option for users on the road for long periods each month, in lieu of daily Internet charges at many hotels. I had no problem getting a 2.4Mbps connection with very good signal strength almost everywhere I went.

The Dell Precision M65 performed very well running a variety of CAD applications. Both Dell mobile workstations have been certified by most ISVs. We were also impressed by the system’s battery life. The M65 ran for 3 hours on its 9-cell primary battery. An extra primary battery costs $99. A 6-cell primary battery costs $79, but we’d be hard pressed to recommend saving $20 at the expense of battery life. A 6-cell media bay battery is available for $199.

Dell backs the system with a standard three-year warranty. Prices for a base-level configuration start at only $1,699, but the configuration we tested would have set us back $3,271.

Dell Precision M90

The Dell Precision M90 is considerably larger than the M65, measuring 15.5 in. x 11.25 in. x 1.75 in. and weighing in at a hefty 8.5 pounds as configured, plus an additional 1.75 pounds for its larger power supply. Beneath the hood is a nearly identical keyboard, track stick, and touch pad. Dell does not offer a fingerprint reader on the M90, however.

The larger size enables Dell to locate speakers to either side of the keyboard and there’s a second set of speaker openings along the front edge of the case. At maximum volume, the M90 delivered more sound than we’ve heard from other laptops. A round power button is centered above the keyboard and LEDs to its left indicate keyboard and device status. Buttons along the front edge, which glow blue when pressed, let you adjust speaker volume and control CD and DVD media playback when used with Windows Media Player.

The larger size of the M90 also enables Dell to include a 17-in. wide-aspect 16:10 display. While the company offers a WXGA (1440 x 900) display as a less-expensive option, our evaluation unit came with the high-end WUXGA display with a native resolution of 1920 x 1200.


Dell Precision M90 Mobile Workstation.

Dell also offers two different graphics options, both recently announced NVIDIA mobile workstation accelerators. While the NVIDIA Quadro FX 1500M, with 256MB of dedicated graphics memory looks good, our evaluation unit came with the even more impressive NVIDIA Quadro FX 2500M. Like the 1500M, the GPU features a 256-bit memory interface, but the 2500M comes with 512MB of GDDR3 memory and its performance was spectacular. Like the M65, the M90 also supports an external monitor at up to 2048 x 1536 resolution, using the same unified NVIDIA driver software.

While many of the expansion options were similar to those on the M65, their placement on the M90 was quite different. The right side of the case sported a PC card slot, IEEE 1394 (FireWire) connector, and audio jacks (headphone and microphone), as well as a memory card reader that supports SD/MMC, MS/Pro, and xD cards. Along the rear, connections on the M90 consist of S-video, RJ45 network, and RJ11 modem connectors, four USB ports, both DVI digital and VGA analog video connectors, and the power connector. There are also large air vents at either end.

The left side of the case houses the system’s optical drive as well as two more USB ports. Our evaluation unit came with a DVD+/-RW drive along with preloaded Roxio software and the Cyberlink Power DVD player. Like the M65, the primary battery mounts from the bottom, where you’ll also find a port for a docking station. Dell offers nearly identical docking options as it does for the M65. Curiously lacking from the M90, however, was Bluetooth, particularly since Dell’s Bluetooth module is only a $9 add-on. There was also no infrared receiver.

But that was the only disappointment in an otherwise stellar system. The Dell Precision M90 flew past the benchmarks set by any mobile workstation we previously tested, and its battery life was a reasonable 2.5 hours. An extra battery costs $99.

Like the M65, Dell backs the Precision M90 with a three-year warranty. Prices start at $2,093; our evaluation configuration priced out at $3,619 based on the latest prices available on Dell’s website.

Benchmark Performance

Despite their similarities, there was no mistaking the two systems when it came to performance. The M65 did very well on all of our tests; the results from the M90 were nothing short of spectacular.

As in the past, I measured system performance using a variety of benchmarks, including SPEC viewperf to measure graphics performance and the SPECapc benchmark for SolidWorks to gauge how the computer performs running a typical MCAD application. While these are synthetic benchmarks, they do provide a reliable indication of how well a system performs relative to another running the same application, and systems that do well in a particular aspect of the SPEC viewperf test should also do well running the corresponding application.

On the four datasets most representative of CAD performance—those from CATIA, Pro/E, SolidWorks, and UGS—the M65 yielded scores of 18.77, 28.01, 17.11, and 14.32 respectively, slightly better than the fastest of last year’s mobile workstations. But the M90 outperformed even the fastest workstations tested to date, thanks primarily to its new NVIDIA Quadro FX 2500M mobile graphics accelerator. On the four most representative tests, the M90 produced scores of 37.97, 74.49, 46.42, and 60.46, respectively.

On the SPECapc benchmark, the results were more in line with what we’d expect from a notebook computer when compared to a top-of-the-line workstation. But the M90 was still impressive, easily beating the performance of all but the fastest workstations we’ve reviewed to date.

For comparison purposes, the accompanying charts include results from several other systems we’ve tested, including last year’s Dell M70 mobile workstation as well as HP’s xw9300 work- station, which remains the fastest system we’ve tested to date. (Editor’s Note: A chart comparing SPEC test results for the M65 and M90 against some recent workstations tested is available in Excel format by clicking here.)

There is no question in picking the winner between these two new Dell computers. Although the M65 is a bit lighter and costs slightly less than the M90 as configured, it’s performance just doesn’t come anywhere close to its sibling, and the 17-in. LCD is absolutely stunning. We would have added Bluetooth, and we really liked the mobile broadband and ambient light sensor in the M65. We also wish both systems weren’t quite so heavy. But for now, nothing beats the Dell Precision M90 for the ultimate in mobile workstation performance.

David Cohn is a computer consultant and technical writer based in Bellingham, WA. He’s a Contributing Editor to Desktop Engineering, the Editor-in-Chief of Engineering Automation Report and CADCAMNet published by Cyon Research, and the author of more than a dozen books. You can contact David through his website or click here to send him an e-mail about this article.



Notebooks At A Glance

Round Rock, TX

Dell Precision M65
Price: $3,271 as tested ($1,699 base price)
Size: 14.25 in. x 10.25 in. x 1.5 in. (W x D x H) notebook
Weight: 6.75 pounds plus power supply (depending on configuration)
CPU: 2.16GHz Intel T2600 Core Duo Centrino with 2MB L2 cache
Memory: 2GB (4GB max.)
Graphics: NVIDIA Quadro FX 350M PCI Express with 256MB
LCD: WUXGA 1920 x 1200
Hard Disk: 100GB, 7200rpm
Floppy: none
Optical: tray-based 24X DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive
Audio: microphone and headphone jacks, built-in microphone
Network: integrated 10/100/1000 Ethernet, 102.11 b/g wireless LAN, Bluetooth, and mobile broadband
Modem: 56K V.92
Other: One 9-pin serial, five USB 2.0 (including one powered), one mini IEEE 1394 FireWire, one Type I/II PC Card slot, 15-pin VGA, infrared communication port, SD/SC card reader
Keyboard: integrated 87-key keyboard
Pointing device: integrated touchpad (with fingerprint reader) and pointing stick

Dell Precision M90

Price: $3,619 as tested ($2,093 base price)
Size: 15.5 in. x 11.25 in. x 1.75 in. (W x D x H) notebook
Weight: 8.5 pounds plus power supply (depending on configuration)
CPU: 2.16GHz Intel T2600 Core Duo Centrino with 2 MB L2 cache
2GB (4GB max)
Graphics: NVIDIA Quadro FX 2500M PCI Express with 512MB memory
LCD: WUXGA 1920 x 1200
Hard Disk: 100GB, 7200rpm
Floppy: none
Optical: tray-based 8X DVD+/-RW
Audio: microphone and headphone jacks, built-in microphone
Network: integrated 10/100/1000 Ethernet, 102.11 b/g wireless LAN
Modem: 56K V.92
Other: six USB 2.0, one mini IEEE 1394 FireWire, S-Video out, memory card reader (SD/MMC, MS/Pro, xD), one Type I/II PC Card slot, DVI, 15-pin VGA
Keyboard: integrated 87-key keyboard
Pointing device: integrated touchpad and pointing stick

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.