Dell has a slim new 15-inch lightweight workstation notebook. The Precision 5510 is designed as a more portable solution than the traditional professional workstation laptop, and thanks to continued advances in processor efficiency, it should be capable of taking on the work once reserved for big static PCs. In fact, the Precision is one of the first laptops to sport an Intel processor bearing the workstation-class name Xenon.
Dell started down the path of lightweight pro notebook after the launch of the Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display in 2012, adding the Precision M3800 to its range in 2013. Before that, its Precision mobile workstations had been far chunkier, starting with the 37 mm-fat M4600 in 2011.
But the M3800 was the first Dell machine to step on Apple turf as a more totable 15-inch laptop. It weighed around 2.0 kg and was just 19 mm thick, the vital statistics of Apple’s professional notebook. And if you don’t believe that Dell had the Mac maker firmly in its sights, witness the advertising campaign it launched which attempted to compare the two rival notebooks.
Dell paid the (perhaps ironically named) Principled Technologies consultancy company to test and evaluate the M3800 alongside two generations of MacBook Pro with Retina display (one each from 2012 and 2013). The report clutched at available straws to promote the M3800 as the superior notebook, highlighting for example that the Dell had ‘up to 11 % faster boot time’ (calculated from a difference of 0.3 seconds), or was ‘up to 13 % less expensive’.
‘M3800 boot time was more than 11 percent faster than the 2013 MacBook Pro model, saving users valuable time at the beginning of a work session’, said Dellman Andy Rhodes, who clearly believed that shaving 300 milliseconds off the boot time was the best way to speed up a creative user’s workflow; or simply hadn’t read the actual details of the report. Never mind the fact that this measurement was taken with no anti-virus installed on the Windows laptop, nor that the OS demands more frequent restarting after system freezes and weekly security updates.
Professional users may have been attracted to more tangible performance claims such as ‘43 % faster rendering time’, a process where the Nvidia Quatro-equipped Precision might be expected to excel.
Principled Technologies used Adobe Premiere Pro for many of its timed tests, perhaps taking advantage of Adobe software running faster in Windows than OS X. The overall results were essentially cherry picked to demonstrate the Dell’s strengths, leading lazy journalists to quote from highlighted bullet points.
Precision versus MacBook Pro
When I tested the Dell Precision M3800, using Intel Core i7-4702HQ with Nvidia Quatro K1100M, and Apple MacBook Pro (Retina, 15-inch, Late 2013) with its 2.3 GHz Intel Core i7-4850HQ, the MacBook proved faster in most tests. Rendering was faster in Cinebench 15, for example – 53.5 fps with Apple, versus 49.9 fps with Dell in the OpenGL test. In Cinebench’s main multi-core test, the Dell scored 541 points against the MacBook’s superior 623 point score.
Principled Technologies also performed and published similar OpenGL scores but such results were glossed over by the conclusion: ‘We found that the Dell Precision M3800 outperformed both the current and older generation Apple MacBook Pro on several key performance tests.’
The consultancy outfit also omitted to mention real-world essentials like battery life, or screen viewability. Or absence of a professional data bus. Apple has long equipped the MacBook with two high-speed Thunderbolt 2 ports and two USB 3.0; the Precision was limited to three USB 3.0 ports and no PCIe-class I/O. Dell fitted a touchscreen display that proved more of an impediment, with poorer screen clarity from additional layers of glass, annoying mirror-sheen reflectivity, and even more unwanted drain on the battery.
In identical tests based on looping an MPEG HD video played over Wi-Fi from a network drive, and with screen set to 120 cd/m², the Apple ran for 7 hr 46 min, while the Dell M3800 lasted just 3 hr 33 min. With less than half the available runtime, the M3800 quickly became a dumb doorstep unless permanently shackled to the mains.
Thankfully for all concerned, the embarrassing head-to-head test by a hired consultancy firm has not been repeated in the marketing for the new Precision 5510.
Bring on the Precision 5510
A comparison between Dell’s Precision 15 5000 Series laptop and the 15-inch MacBook Pro remains useful, since both models should be evaluated by any professional or semi-pro user that needs a high-quality workstation-class notebook today.
Where Apple differentiates with specific chassis designs for consumer and professional ranges – currently the ‘Air’ and ‘Pro’ suffixed MacBook series – Dell reuses the same body design here to form both the consumer XPS 15 and business Precision 15 models. Differences are found in the internal components and choice of fittings; possibly some case trimming too, although I haven’t had a chance to examine the XPS 15 closely. But the shape and chassis specs remain the same.
Looking around the Precision 5510, Dell has clearly learned a few more tricks from Apple since the M3800. By the standard of other Windows laptops, build quality is outstanding. The chassis is once again based on a sandwich of metal plates top and bottom, forming lid back and base, with a plastic filling between housing all internals. The plastic middle-section includes carbon-fibre veneer around the keyboard on the top deck. That sounds high-tech and classy, and when new it does look smart, but quickly becomes messy with fingerprint oil after only a little daily use.
The metal parts have a mid-grey satin anodisation treatment, and the attention to finishing is better than ever.
In profile the Precision 5510 seems to taper toward the front like a MacBook Air.
It is an illusion though; between the callipers the Dell measured 19.7 mm front and back, although the side trim is shaped to suggest a narrowing slice so it’s easy to be fooled into imagining a leaner machine. At 2039 g, this sample of Precision is almost identical in weight to the original M3800 (2035 g), and only a little heavier than a modern MacBook Pro (2011 g)
One area where Windows laptops frequently eclipse Apple’s is the range and number of connectors for external peripherals. Here though Dell has regrettably followed its fruitful muse too closely, removing one USB 3.0 port to bring the total down to two – the same as today’s MacBook Pro.
Pre-empting any criticism of omitting high-speed ports though, there’s now a Thunderbolt port on the left. Not the familiar original based on Mini DisplayPort, but the new incarnation using the smaller USB Type-C port. And here Dell could claim the higher ground, since this is the latest version 3.0, with speed doubled to give a nominal maximum of 40 Gb/s. In April 2016, all Apple Mac computers are still fitted with Thunderbolt 2.
However, at present there is precious little you can do with a Thunderbolt 3 connection. In April 2016, high-speed peripherals supporting v3 are yet to launch; worse than that though, my searches for an adaptor to allow plugging in any legacy Thunderbolt 2 device have drawn a blank.
Startech.com lists a clunky adaptor to let you connect existing Thunderbolt 2 devices to a port like the Dell’s. It’s said to cost around £100 but is not available to buy yet.
Dell itself has a multi-purpose Thunderbolt 3 dock for $300, but only in the US and even then it seems to have been pulled from sale, after users complained of chronic flakey behaviour such as broken ethernet and failed USB capability.
I’ve asked Dell’s UK PR agency Axicom about the availability of Dell’s Thunderbolt dock, and will update this review if I receive an answer.
The dearth of Thunderbolt 3 devices, docks and adaptors should be remedied at some point in 2016, and provided Dell can squash the many bugs, blue screens and crashes I’ve seen that abound when combining Thunderbolt with Windows, it should be a really useful asset.
Keyboard, trackpad and display
The three pillars that form the physical user interface are the keyboard, trackpad and display. The first two are the human points of tactile contact, the third is the necessary visual window through which the graphical interface is experienced. Or sometimes text interface, for devs who spend their day at the command line or scrolling through pages of code.
For the Precision 5510, Dell offers a choice of two displays. The standard display is full-HD, probably IPS technology, and finished with a matt anti-glare coating. The display on the review sample was 4K UHD (3840 x 2160 pixels), touch-sensitive, and reflective enough to moonlight as a mirror. Besides the financial cost, the touchscreen option also adds significantly to the weight, more than a quarter of a kilo: Dell specifies the standard model at just 1780 g, versus 2039 g with touchscreen display.
Ill-judged is the polite way that I would describe the fitting of a touchscreen to most laptops; doubly so a professional workstation notebook.
A welcome breakthrough though is a screen with much smaller surround bezel, which Dell calls the InfiniteEdge display. This reduces the extraneous edge around the display to just 5 mm top and sides, although the use of a 16:9 widescreen panel in a chassis arguably shaped for 16:10 screen means the bottom border is now a whopping 25 mm (1 inch). The laptop’s webcam has been hidden down here too, leading to up-nostril webchats.
Nevertheless, the minimal surround of the Sharp IGZO screen on three edges works well to optimise the viewing experience by presenting nearly edge-to-edge screen content; at least, when used in a darkened room to reduce distracting reflections to a minimum. Unlike the displays of the iPad and MacBook Pro, there’s been no attempt to tame reflectivity with advanced optical coatings.
Curiously the Precision 5510 was configured out of the box with display set to 1920 x 1080 resolution and 100 % scaling. While this provides the safest interface without the scaling anomalies of Windows – even more evident with older Windows 7 installed here than later 8 or 10 versions – it also renders the entire visual interface totally fuzzy.
The correct way to benefit from ultra-high resolution panels is with interface set to panel native resolution – for this display, 3840 x 2160 pixels – and then to increase scaling to compensate for the unreadable small text and graphics. In this case, that will typically be 200 %, giving a 1920 x 1080-like interface size, but properly sharp. Unfortunately this amount of scaling does break some Windows programs, and parts of the Windows OS that ignore the scale factor remain very tricky to navigate. Reducing scaling to 150 % can help with less jarring for software that doesn’t scale correctly, although you’ll need good eyesight to work with such a shrunken overall interface.
To tweak the screen’s performance, Dell includes its own Premier Color software application. With this you can more readily set gamut back to sRGB if required, for example. It may not be particularly stable software though. On one occasion I found the fan running at high speed for no apparent reason. Checking in Task Manager Processes showed the Premier Color program had crashed and was stressing the CPU at 100 % load without cause.
Dell advertises models of XPS 15 and Precision 5510 with the Sharp-made UHD display as covering 100 % of the wider Adobe RGB colour gamut. In my tests with a Spyder4Elite colorimeter, it achieved 100 % sRGB without issue, and 96 % Adobe RGB gamut, just shy of full coverage but an impressive spread nonetheless.
Contrast ratio measured a steady 650:1 between approximately 25 and 100 % brightness levels. For reference, the M3800’s display was measured at around 700:1 while the MacBook Pro is more like 800:1.
At its peak, brightness was measured at 300 cd/m², rather short of Dell’s claimed 400 cd/m² but not catastrophic unless you plan to use the notebook outside on a bright day. In which case reflection from the untreated screen will prove the bigger problem.
Colour accuracy was good, averaging 0.64 Delta E, beating the Mac’s 0.83 and previous Precision’s 0.77.
Judged subjectively, the screen had good off-axis response, with whites turning to light grey but little other colour distortion. Backlight was reasonably even, albeit with a little vignetting and clouding evident at low levels. And most importantly, the LED backlight appears to be linear control rather than the eye-straining PWM technique that introduces flicker.
The tiled keyboard is far less contentious. It’s a low-profile Scrabble-tile example, the type some erroneously call chiclet, with a smooth action that allows very fast and fluid typing. At around 270 mm total width, it’s a good full-size laptop keyboard, and along with the large trackpad is reassuringly centre aligned – there’s no numberpad addition on the right, which means keyboard and trackpad are not uncomfortably skewed over to the left.
The keyboard is backlit in the Apple tradition, only with two levels of illumination rather than the 16 offered on the MacBook (or 64 levels, using the key combination, Shift-Alt F5/F6). Light bleed around each key’s edge is relatively low, as it should be.
The ‘buttonless’ trackpad is perhaps the best example I’ve tested on a Windows laptop, a Synaptics-made buttonless design that closely approaches the usability of those fitted to the MacBook. It’s lacking the useful three- and four-finger gestures of OS X but the essential precision to predictably move cursor is all present.
At 105 x 80 mm, the trackpad is even a little taller than the 76 mm type fitted to the latter. The surface is satin black to match the top deck, hence lacking the silky glass finish of the MacBook. Unlike the latest generation of Apple trackpads, it’s still based on mechanical switches left and right under the surface, rather than electronic strain gauges. That’s by no means a criticism though, especially when the result is executed as well as here.
Two internal bays gives useful choices for data storage. One is the traditional SATA Revision 3.0 bay, with space for a slim 7 mm-thick 2.5-inch drive. The other is M.2 format and specified up to PCIe-attachment with NVMe protocol – the current state-of-the-art.
It’s possible to specify anything between an old and slow 2.5-inch SATA disk up to the PCIe SSD. The tested sample had one drive inside, a budget SATA SSD from memory maker Hynix, 512 GB in size. For storage performance closer the MacBook, the PCIe option will be necessary; currently a 512 GB PCIe drive adds £259 + VAT to the base model price.
A 3.5 mm headset jack allows headphones and mic on one plug, although Dell has sadly cut costs by not including Toslink digital output within the jack.
For Wi-Fi connectivity, the Precision 5510 is listed with a choice of wireless adaptors, including for the first time a 3×3 MIMO option to rival the configuration of most Apple Macs.
Dell fitted an Intel 8260 M.2 adaptor to the sample tested. This is specified to v4.2 Bluetooth but limited to two-stream MIMO 802.11 networking once again, meaning a nominal sync speed of 867 Mb/s rather than 802.11ac’s currently available 1300 Mb/s.
In use, the Precision 5510 was quiet in parts, with its two internal fans revving up to audibility at random times while the notebook was sitting idle. When pushed to work, the fans increased noticeably in speed and volume; while the MacBook Pro fans are acoustically optimised to disperse noise across a range of frequencies, in full song these produce the characteristic whiny purr of tiny fans whirring at high speed.
Application and Graphics Performance
More affordable options of the Precision 5510 include processors from the popular Intel Core i5 or i7 series (specifically, 2.3 GHz 6300HQ or 2.7 GHz 6820HQ). But the higher-spec machine tested here includes a brand-new Intel Xenon chip, the E3-1505M v5 that is clocked at 2.8 GHz.
This was backed with 16 GB of DDR4 SDRAM – standard type without error correction (ECC) – on two Micron SO-DIMM cards, filling both available slots. The principal difference between more consumer-focused Core series and the Xenon series is the capability to use error-correcting memory. Curiously, the option for ECC memory seems to be absent when configuring the Precision 5510 on the UK Dell site.
The 14 nm quad-core processor has a nominal TDP specification of 45 W, the same as the alternative Core i5 and i7 chips. It works with higher-speed DDR4 SDRAM memory, the same as the latest Intel Skylake chips, and integrates an Intel HD Graphics P530 chipset as graphics processor. This is used on the Dell for light duties, with discrete Quatro graphics taking over when required.
Hyper Threading Technology is included to virtualise eight cores out of the four available, and the trademark Turbo Boost Technology allows short-term overclocking on demand, here to 3.7 GHz maximum.
In simple tests of raw CPU and memory speed, the Precision scored 3807 points in Geekbench 3, rising to 14,132 points in multi-core mode. The last version of Precision M3800 with Intel Core i7-4712HQ scored 3269 and 11,760 points respectively, some way behind. But remember the latter chip has a 2.3 GHz nominal clock speed, so a large increase in benchmark score is not unexpected after a jump to 2.8 GHz – not to mention the RAM now running at 2133 MHz instead of 1600 MHz.
Cinebench 15 returned some impressive numbers – 151 and 732 points respectively for single- and multi-core tests. OpenGL rendering through the Nvidia Quatro M1000M graphics processor averaged 101 fps, which spookily proved to be exactly double the 50.5 fps that I measured on the aforementioned Precision M3800 with Quatro K1100M. Both GPUs include 2 GB of GDDR5 video memory.
Compared to most benchmark performance increments of a few percent, that’s a huge 100 % increase which also trounces the 62.5 fps I recorded last year from the latest MacBook Pro with AMD Radeon R9 M370X graphics.
PCMark 8 returned figures of 2807 and 3086 points for the Home benchmark, in standard and GPU-accelerated tests. The Work unit showed a larger delta between the two available tests, 2871 and 4147 points, the higher second score suggesting a greater benefit from OpenCL tasks in this benchmark.
Windows gaming may not be the priority on a professional workstation, but it provides another way to compare the graphics capabilities of different machines. As found before though with the best notebooks currently available in the world, when it comes to UHD-class screens we cannot expect decent framerate at full native display resolutions, just because a high-performance discrete GPU is specified. After all, these are still mobile-optimised GPUs, with ultimate performance kept in check to prevent meltdown.
Instead I ran games tests at full-HD (1920 x 1080) resolutions, with a brief look at 3840 x 2160 to compare with previous findings.
For Batman: Arkham City the Precision waltzed through the test even at Very High quality, averaging 71 fps while never dropping below 35 fps. Maxed out at Extreme quality, average framerate was 55 fps, with minima of 23 fps.
In Tomb Raider (2013), full-HD resolution and High quality elicited 62 fps. Raising quality to peak Ultimate quality meant a drop to just 29 fps, although a midway compromise of Ultra quality resulted in a more playable average framerate of 48 fps.
Resetting to native 4K UHD, the Precision played the Batmark at 29 fps (Normal detail), and Tomb Raider at 22.5 fps (Medium detail). So these mobile GPUs are getting closer to playable framerates at UHD, but for now they require dialling down the resolution, especially to get the benefit of available textures.
The battery is not designed to be easily removable, instead secured behind the bottom plate cover that’s held in place with ten tiny T4 Torx screws. At 56 Wh the battery’s energy capacity has been reduced slightly from the 61 Wh of the M3800; and is nearly half the size of the 95 Wh lithium-ion polymer pack that Apple fits to its 15-inch MacBook Pro.
Given this huge discrepancy in capacity, it’s less surprising that the Precision 5510 is still plagued with terrible battery life by modern standards. In my standard battery runtime test, running a laptop down to empty while streaming an HD film over Wi-Fi from a local NAS and screen calibrated to 120 cd/m2, the Dell lasted a little over four hours – 4 hr 09 mins – on its best run of three.
That’s around half an hour longer than I achieved with previous M3800 models (3 hr 28 and 3 hr 33 min for generations one and two). But sadly, still less than half the runtime of the current top-spec MacBook Pro, which lasted for 8 hr 58 min. The limited usefulness when off the charger makes it clear that either Dell cares little about unplugged productivity, or was simply intent on reducing size, weight and/or cost to appear congruent with the MacBook template. Unfortunately, evicting the required battery to run powerful processors and a high-resolution screen means this Precision once again resembles a hand-transportable static workstation.
Pricing and positioning
The headline price of the Dell Precision 5510 in early April 2016 is £1127.57, plus shipping and VAT. That’s the most basic model, and assuming Dell’s current free-shipping offer continues, works out at £1353 inclusive of VAT.
The model I tested included several upgrades to the base specification, including the Intel Xenon processor, irritating touchscreen, 512 GB SATA SSD and 16 GB memory. This looks to be priced at £1861.87 ex VAT, or around £2234 retail. To equip with 16 GB of ECC memory from Crucial currently costs £106.40.
By way of reference, a comparable MacBook Pro launched in mid-2015 costs £1999. Differences are many of course. But screen gamut, and CPU and GPU speed are superior on the Dell; while best storage performance, battery life and trackpad among other details, all go to the MacBook.
The 100 Words or Less
The Precision 5510 marks the introduction of Intel Xenon processors and ECC memory capability to portable computing, making this Precision closer to a real professional workstation. It’s a powerful and lightweight 15-inch notebook. Like its Precision M3800 predecessor, it owes its form and functionality to the Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display, adding a touchscreen and Windows OS, while removing features found on the Mac like advanced trackpad, user-friendly screen and resolution, digital audio output and all-day battery life.
Specification as tested:
15.6-inch (3840 x 2160) 282 ppi gloss touchscreen (Sharp 7PHPT_LQ156D1) ; Windows 7 Pro; 2.8 GHz Intel Xeon E3-1505M v5, 3.7 GHz Turbo (4C/8T); Nvidia M1000M with 2 GB GDDR5 memory; 16 GB (2x 8 GB non-ECC DDR4-2133 DDR4 SDRAM, Micron); 512 GB 2.5in/7mm SATA Revision 3.0 SSD (SK Hynix SC210); Intel Wireless-AC 8260 (2×2 MIMO); Bluetooth 4.2; 2x USB 3.0; HDMI; Thunderbolt 3 (USB Type-C), lock slot; SDXC card; stereo speakers; 0.9 Mp webcam; dual mics; 3.5 mm headset jack; UK tiled keyboard with two-level white backlight;105 x 80 mm buttonless trackpad (Synaptics); 56 Wh lithium battery; 130 W mains charger; 356 x 235 x 19.7 mm; 2039 g