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Dell Precision M6500 mobile workstation

By John Virata

Notebook computers have outsold traditional desktop systems for several years now, and with processors getting faster and smaller every 18 months, users have become accustomed to getting desktop performance in a portable and smaller form factor. Workstation class notebook computers had other issues to deal with, including such issues as heat disipation and battery life. It is no secret that outfitting a notebook computer with a high horsepower CPU will drain a battery faster that sticking with a low powered CPU solution. But there's the rub. To classify as a workstation class machine, most users will tell you that the highest horsepower CPU coupled with the latest in OpenGL graphics processing power are required. Are you going to run a 3D animation program such as Maya or 3ds max with GeForce or Radeon graphics? If you want refresh, display, and stability issues, you might, but no artist wants that.

The big horsepower CPUs and graphics chips form the core of a workstation class notebook computer. A large screen, built in color calibration profiles, RAID capabilities, and a bevy of connectivity options also contribute. The Dell Precision M6500 in here for review combines the latest in mobile workstation graphics, the 1GB NVIDIA Quadro FX 3800M, with a Quad Core Intel Core i7 x920 2GHz CPU with 8 processor cores, 4GB DDR3-1333MHz SDRAM (16GB maximum), 17" Wide Screen WUXGA RGB LED LCD Panel with integrated camera and mic, and a Hitachi 250GB hard disk drive. The unit offers the capability to add two 2.5-inch notebook hard drives for extra storage as well as RAID 5 capabilities, and support for a Solid State drive, all in a brushed aluminum form factor. You can also configure the system with Windows Vista 32 or 64-bit as well as Windows 7. This system, as tested ran with 32-bit, Windows Vista Ultimate.

The system offers ample connectivity with a six pin 1394 FireWire port, a pair of USB 2.0 ports, headphone and microphone port as well as a 8X DVD+/-RW slot loading optical media drive, PC card slot, and an 8-in1 memory card reader on the left of the system, and  an Express card slot, DisplayPort, a USB 2.0 port, eSATA slot, a VGA port and an Ethernet port. The rear of the unit is where you will find the AC power port as well as the exhaust ports for the systems cooling fans. Networking is provided via Wireless LAN (802.11) Intel WiFi Link 5300 802.11a/g/n Draft Mini Card and Dell 365 Bluetooth 2.1 and Dell Ulta Wide Band 420.

The M6500 keyboard is full sized and includes fkeys as well as a number pad. Navigating the system is done via the Dell Touchpad as well as the eraser type tracking device introduced by IBM's ThinkPad during the 1990s. The keyboard lights up in dark rooms, and you can adjust the keyboard's ambient light sensor for specific situations or turn it off completely. The Dell Touchpad offers a built in Jog/shuttle that enables you to move easily on the Timeline of a video editing application. Scrolling a Web page is also made easy by simply dragging your finger down the right side of the Touchpad. The Touchpad features four (1 through 4) programmable buttons that enables you to assign certain functions depending on the application that you have open. The Touchpad can be customized to work with a variety of applications. The Touchpad's application profile includes a drop down of popular creative applications, ranging from the entire Adobe Creative suite of applications, to 3D applications such as Maya and 3Ds max, to Cakewalk Sonar and Digidesign's Pro Tools. 

In use
Let me get this out of the way first. The M6500 is a monster system in all regards. It is fast, sports a 17-inch display, is thick, and it weighs a lot. It weighs in at 8.5lbs, so it has some heft to it. In fact, carrying it around for a day I could really feel the heft of it. But having that powerful of a system and being able to work on a project anywhere in the house, or at the library is a wonderful thing. No longer are you confined to a desk. The screen is bright and supports Adobe's user selectable color gamut. In low light situations you can avail of the backlit keyboard. This M6500 also sports the optional 2mp web cam for video communications. The Dell Touchpad enables you to control many aspects of your computer screen with just a few finger gestures applied to the touchpad. And for the ultimate in security, the M6500 features a built in fingerprint reader for those situations where data needs to be safeguarded at the mobile level.

In the DMN After Effects tests, the M6500 scored performed fairly proficienty. It retained the same score on one test as the last system that DMN reviewed in December 2009, a Lenovo desktop system. It was close on the remaining tests and had a nearly identical score on the Photoshop test. Results are below. For more Cinebench testing info (see graphic below) visit for more test results.

Results in seconds
Version of After Effects used: CS4
Dell M6500 Precision mobile workstation Quad Core Intel Core i7 x920 2GHz CPU, 4GB RAM, NVIDIA Quadro FX 3800m Windows Vista 32-bit
Animation: 2 seconds 
Video composite: 
16 seconds 
Data Project: 
26 seconds 
Gambler:   11 seconds
Source Shapes:  31 seconds  
Virtual set: 28 seconds   
Adobe Photoshop CS4 test: Perform Guassian Blur with 6.3 radius on 10.51MB image file  1 second
























First Impressions
The market for mobile workstations has matured over the last few years, and the M6500 takes advantage of the latests advances in mobile system design, and puts it all together in a neat (but heavy) form factor. The 17 inch display is easy on the eyes and sports very good to excellent image reproduction in Photoshop. The system remains fairly cool due to the ample exhaust fans that run on an as needed basis. A nice touch is the battery indicator lights on the bottom of the system. While not a new idea, a simple press of a button lights up the battery indicator which enables you to determine if the battery has enough juice, or if you have to lug around the system's bulky AC adapter/power supply to get the work done. The unit offers an optional docking station for those who want to run the system in a fixed footprint environment, but still needs the capability to get up and go work wherever there is a fancy to work. Even without the docking station, you can still hook up a VGA display to the M6500 fairly easily and quickly thanks to the built in VGA port. So you do have options when it comes to driving an external display, or using the unit in a more fixed type environment. Maximum performance and portability does not come cheap, at $5,172 as configured,  but if you are in the market for a true workstation class notebook that can do everything, price one out to your specifications and see what you like. The M6500 also ships with a three year basic warranty and three year onsite service.

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John Virata is senior editor of Digital Media Online. You can email him at [email protected]
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