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Two For the Road

New notebooks: the Dell Precision M70 and HP Compaq redefine muscular computing on the go.

With the advent of PCI Express graphics, it wasn’t long before major system vendors Dell and Hewlett-Packard introduced new notebook computers based on the latest mobile chipsets. We recently received top-of-the-line systems from both companies. From the outside, the Dell Precision M70 and HP Compaq nw8240 appear very different. The dark gray HP unit is significantly thinner—it looks wider yet is actually somewhat smaller and nearly a pound lighter—than the light-gray Dell system. Inside, however, the two computers share many similar features: same CPU, equal amounts of memory, 15.4-inch LCDs, and similar 60GB hard drives.

But while the Dell M70 uses NVIDIA-based graphics, HP has gone with ATI. The systems also differ significantly in battery life and expansion options. In spite of their differences, both notebook systems are aimed directly at MCAD and graphics professionals. Benchmark performance results were quite close and the systems are priced to compete head-to-head.

Dell Precision M70

The Dell Precision M70 mobile workstation is housed in a sculpted light-gray plastic case measuring 14.2 x 10.3 x 1.67 inches (W x D x H). Inside, an aluminum and magnesium chassis helps reduce weight, but the M70 still tips the scale at 7.12 lb. The external power supply adds an additional pound. A single pushbutton latch releases the hinged lid to expose an excellent keyboard with 64 full-sized keys, 23 additional smaller function keys, and a pointing stick. There’s also a touch pad with two sets of buttons. Small speakers are located on either side of the keyboard.

A round power button is centered above the keyboard, with three smaller buttons for adjusting speaker volume or muting sound entirely. These are also duplicated by function key combinations. Individual LEDs indicate WiFi and keyboard status (caps lock, scroll lock, and number lock), while three additional LEDs built into one hinge show power, hard drive, and battery status, remaining visible when the case is closed.

Our evaluation unit was powered by a 2.13GHz Intel Pentium M CPU with 2MB L2 cache and with 1GB of memory installed using two 512MB DIMMs. The M70 uses 533MHz DDR2 memory and can accommodate up to 2GB using 1GB DIMMs installed in the two sockets accessible from the underside of the case. Our unit came with a 60GB 7200rpm hard drive.


The Dell Precision M70.

Dell’s UltraSharp 15.4 in. LCD is stunning. Powered by an NVIDIA Quadro Fx Go1400 PCI Express OpenGL graphics controller with 256MB of video memory, the internal WUXGA monitor displays 1920 x 1200 resolution at 32-bit color. Users can also power an external analog monitor up to 1920 x 1440 resolution at 32-bit color, or at 2048 x 1536 with the external monitor using 16-bit color, and we had no problem extending our desktop across two monitors. NVIDIA’s driver software also provides a wealth of features to tune graphic performance for your specific applications.

A modular bay along the right side of the case contained a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive. Other options include a floppy drive, DVD+/-RW drive, and a second 6-cell lithium-ion battery. A headphone jack, microphone jack, and two UBS 2.0 ports are also located on this side of the case. An infrared port, RJ45 network port, RJ11 modem port, two more USB ports, S-video out, 9-pin serial port, 15-pin VGA, and power connector are arrayed across the rear of the case. On the left side is a single PC card slot that accommodates Type I and Type II cards. There are also numerous air intake and exhaust openings around all four sides of the case, with two additional intake ports on the bottom. The primary battery mounts from the bottom of the case, where you’ll also find a docking connector. Dell sells several docking options for its Latitude family, including an advanced port replicator ($179), an expansion station with an additional media bay and PCI slot ($279), and a notebook stand ($69) and monitor stand ($49) that work in conjunction with the docking options.

Connectivity is provided by both built-in gigabit Ethernet and Intel PRO/Wireless LAN (with a choice of 802.11 b/g and 802.11 a/b/g options) as well as a Conexant D110 56K v.90 internal modem. Dell also offers Bluetooth wireless as a $49 option. The only thing we found surprisingly missing was FireWire support. For that, users would need to buy an additional PC card.

The M70 performed well running a variety of CAD applications; the system has been certified by most ISVs (see “Benchmark Performance” below for a link to the test results). We were less impressed, however, by the M70’s battery life. While many notebooks are now capable of several hours of continuous operation, the M70’s nine-cell 79.9Ah lithium-ion battery lasted just under two hours in our battery run-down test. The HP system outlived it by nearly 90 minutes. Potential buyers may want to consider buying a spare battery for $79.

Dell backs the system with a standard three-year warranty with next-day on-site service. Prices for a base-level configuration start at $2,377. As configured, our evaluation unit would cost $3,834.

HP Compaq nw8240

Although positioned as a continuation of a line of HP notebook computers we’ve reviewed several times in the past (see July 2004 Web Exclusive) the HP Compaq nw8240 mobile workstation bears little physical resemblance to those older systems beyond the color of its case. The N800w and nw8000 looked similar and used nearly identical batteries. The nw8240 is noticeably thinner and has an all-new eight-cell lithium-ion battery.


The HP Compaq nw8240

The nw8240 measures 14.0 x 10.4 x 1.1 inches (W x D x H) and our evaluation unit weighed just 6.2 lb. (plus 12 oz. for the power supply), nearly a full pound lighter than the Dell. Raising the very thin lid reveals a very responsive keyboard with 61 full-sized keys, 23 additional smaller function keys, and a pointing stick. There’s also a touch pad with two sets of three buttons and a dedicated scroll zone that lets users quickly move through documents. Large speakers located on either side of the keyboard provide decent sound quality and volume.

An LED adjacent to the silver power button above the keyboard on the left glows green when the computer is on. Small buttons to its right activate HP’s Quick Launch application, toggle the built-in WiFi and Bluetooth modules, control speaker volume, and control presentation settings. The latter includes launching a presentation application such as PowerPoint, setting a selected power scheme, and automatically switching to an external display, if desired. Individual LEDs indicate caps lock and number lock. Scroll lock is indicated by a tooltip that pops up onscreen when you change the setting. Additional LEDs along the lower-left front edge of the computer show WiFi, power, battery charging, and hard drive activity, and remain visible when the case is closed. A small ambient light sensor located at the bottom of the LCD bezel adjusts the display for optimal viewing.

Like the Dell, our HP evaluation unit was powered by a 2.13GHz Pentium M CPU with a 533MHz front side bus and 2MB L2 cache. The nw8240 came equipped with 1GB of memory, but HP chose to use a single 1GB DIMM. Like the Dell system, the nw8240 can accommodate up to 2 GB of DDR2 memory. Our evaluation unit also came with a 60GB 7200 rpm hard drive.
HP powers its 15.4 inch TFT WUXGA (1920 x 1200 resolution) LCD with an ATI Mobility Fire GL V5000 PCI Express graphic controller with 128MB of video memory and OpenGL support. The ATI controller can also power an external monitor at up to 2048 x 1536 at 32-bit color, and the ATI driver software provides excellent control over display configuration and performance optimization.

A modular bay along the right side of the case contained a DVD-RW/CD-RW combo drive. Other modular bay options include a second hard drive. A headphone jack, microphone jack, two USB 2.0 ports and a 9-pin serial port are also located on this side of the case. A RJ45 network port, RJ11 modem port, S-video out, FireWire connector, another USB port, a single Type I/II PC card slot, and a Secure Digital/Smart Card reader are located on the left side. All of these slots and connectors are clearly labeled on the top edge around the keyboard, making it easy to plug in accessories without having to tip the system up to see the edge. The only sockets along the back of the computer are a 15-pin VGA connector and power input; the only thing along the front is an infrared port.

The nw8240’s rather long primary battery slides in from the rear of the system and extends across nearly the entire width of the computer. HP also sells a secondary travel battery ($149) that clips to the bottom of the computer, providing nearly four additional hours of battery life. There’s also a docking port connector on the bottom of the computer, and like Dell, HP sells several docking options including a docking station ($179, which provides port replication and adds additional USB ports and a DVI connector), an advanced docking station ($279, which adds extra expansion capabilities), and an adjustable notebook stand ($69) and monitor stand ($79) that work in conjunction with the docking station options.

HP trumped Dell by including its optional integrated Bluetooth wireless in addition to a standard 802.11 b/g wireless LAN. The nw8240 also includes a 56K modem and FireWire support.
With ISV certification from all of the major MCAD and DCC software vendors, we had no problem running any of our CAD applications (see “Benchmark Performance” for a link to test results). We were also thrilled with the fact that the nw8240 ran for 3 hours and 15 minutes on a single battery. That’s the best battery life we’ve ever seen for a workstation-class notebook computer.

HP backs the system with a three-year warranty and on-site service. Prices for a base-level configuration with 512MB of RAM start at $2,199, significantly less than the Dell. As configured, our evaluation unit would cost $3,707. At that price, the HP Compaq nw8240 is more affordable than the Dell Precision M70, while offering more features and nearly equal performance.

Benchmark Performance

Of course, for most users, performance is the real measure, and here once again these Dell and HP mobile workstations begin to look very similar.

I measured system performance using my usual variety of benchmark tests, including SPECviewperf 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 SPECviewperf test should also do well running the corresponding application.

Based on SPECviewperf, the HP Compaq nw8240 appears to have a slight edge over the Dell on graphics performance. It proved measurably faster on all of the datasets in the latest version of this benchmark with the exception of the UGS test. We also ran the previous version of the test (in order to compare results to systems we reviewed in the past) and obtained similar results. On the application-specific SPECapc benchmark for SolidWorks, however, the results were reversed. On that test, the Dell Precision M70 edged out the HP system, completing the test 30 seconds faster, about a 12 percent difference. See the benchmark table for complete results as well as comparisons to previous systems we’ve tested under identical conditions. Click here to see the test results.

Of course, benchmarks can never tell the whole story. But what our results do reveal is that either of these mobile workstations could very well replace a desktop system. Both the Dell and HP notebooks performed better than last year’s AGP-based desktop systems with anything other than a top-of-the-line graphics board and both easily hold their own against even some entry-level PCI Express-based systems. Both also equal or beat the massive Eurocom D900T Phantom mobile workstation (see “Big, Powerful, and Pricey,” DE June 2005), even though that system was equipped with a significantly faster CPU and twice as much memory. Clearly, both Dell and HP have done an excellent job optimizing system components for maximum performance.

Picking one of these systems over the other will be difficult. Those basing their decision solely on performance might want to go with the Dell Precision M70. But the HP Compaq nw8240 offers nearly equal performance while packing more features (including Bluetooth, FireWire, and the SD/SC card reader) in a lighter-weight package at a lower price.

And if you need to work for long periods away from AC power (or just want to get through an entire DVD movie on a long flight), the superlative battery life may be a deciding factor. When you include all of those factors, the HP Compaq nw8240 noses out the Dell Precision M70.

David Cohn is a computer consultant and technical writer based in Bellingham, WA, and has been benchmarking PCs since 1984. He’s a contributing editor to Desktop Engineering, the editor-in-chief of Engineering Automation Report and CADCAMnet published by Cyon Research Corp., and the author of more than a dozen books. You can visit his website at dscohn.com. You can also send your thoughts about this article via e-mail to de-editors@helmers.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.