Dell Precision M6500 Mobile Workstation

22 Jun, 2010 By: Ron LaFon

First Look Review: System provides stellar performance and expandability for demanding users on the go.

For some time, Dell's Precision line of mobile workstations has met the needs of high-performance users on the go. Now, the company's new Precision M6500 mobile workstation raises the bar even higher with its performance and flexibility. Dell made a splash a few months ago when it launched the model at Autodesk University 2009, calling it "the world's most powerful mobile workstation." We decided to put this model to the test in Cadalyst Labs.

The Precision M6500 is based on the Intel Core i7 quad-core processor. The system we reviewed was built on the Intel i7-920XM processor Extreme Edition, which uses a 45-nm die. The base frequency of the i7-920XM is 2.0 GHz, and the maximum frequency while running in Turbo mode is 3.2 GHz. This processor features 8 MB of Intel Smart Cache and a 64-bit instruction set.

The Dell Precision M6500 has four memory DIMM slots and can accommodate 16 GB of installed RAM, although the review system came with 4.0 GB of 1,333-MHz DDR3 SDRAM. Memory bandwidths available for the system are 1,066, 1,333, and 1,600 MHz. Graphics power was provided by the NVIDIA Quadro FX 3800M, which is one of many available NVIDIA and ATI cards. Several LCD screen options also are available. The review system included a 17" RGB LED LCD panel that has an integrated camera and microphone. Display resolution as high as 1,920 x 1,200 is available with this particular panel.

The Dell Precision M6500 has choices — lots of choices. Two dedicated hard drive bays plus an installed SSD mini-card provide more than 1 TB of capacity. Users can choose a processor, graphics card, display panel(s), type of optical drive (the review unit came with a front-loading drive), and operating system (Windows Vista 32/64, Windows 7 32/64, Windows XP 32/64, and Red Hat Linux v5.3 x64).

Engineering, Design, and Connectivity

 The Dell Precision M6500 is relatively compact for a workstation, measuring 15.4 x 11", and 1.35" thick at the front to 1.5" thick at the back. The finish is a dark metallic anodized aluminum gray that resists fingerprint smudges. (A special-edition Covet model features a vibrant orange chassis and an edge-to-edge 17" screen, starting at $4,219.) A backlit keyboard comes standard on all models.

With the WXGA+ display panel, DVD-ROM drive, and nine-cell battery, the preliminary weight of the model reviewed was 8.42 lbs — not the lightest mobile system I've seen, but not unexpected for a system of this caliber.

The Precision M6500 has numerous connectivity options, including a powered six-pin 1394 connector, four USB 2.0 connections (current quad-core models ship with two USB 3.0 connectors on the left and two USB 2.0 connectors on the right, one of which is a dual USB/eSATA port), and VGA, DisplayPort, RJ45, and audio ports. Additional connectivity options include Bluetooth 2.1 and ultra-wideband (UWB; comselected countries only), wireless LAN, next-generation mobile broadband, GPS, Dell Wireless 1397 802.11g or Dell 1510 802.11 a/g/n 2x3 mini-card, Intel Wireless 5300 802.11 a/g/n 3x3 mini-card, and Dell Wireless 5620 HSPA — EVDO Revision A (selected countries only).

Testing and Performance

Putting the Precision M6500 through a battery of benchmark tests to gauge performance, I started by running several iterations of the Cadalyst Benchmark Test c2010 v5.3 (available via free download), running the 64-bit version of AutoCAD 2010 with all currently available service packs and hot fixes installed. As expected, I found the best performance with the accelerated AutoCAD driver from NVIDIA. With this configuration, the C2010 total index score was 340, the 3D graphics index was 692, the 2D graphics index was 302, the disk index was 138, and the CPU index was 228. The benchmark ran to completion in 19 minutes. These performance numbers are very good.

 Next up was SPECviewperf 10. Although this benchmark is long overdue for updating and can have problems running on Windows 7, it is nonetheless a valuable indicator of how various CAD and design applications perform within a given system configuration. I ran my tests under Windows Vista 64-bit, which worked fine. I did, however, have to disable the user-access control (UAC) for the duration of the test — something I wouldn't typically recommend, but that was necessary with SPECviewperf 10 running under Vista 64-bit. The results for the single-threaded test were as follows: 49.62 for 3dsmax-04, 57.18 for catia-02, 52.24 for ensight-03, 206.10 for maya-02, 61.44 for proe-04, 128.20 for sw-01, 39.02 for tcvis-01, and 33.90 for ugnx-01. With threads enabled (Composite 2 thread/Composite 4 thread), the results were as follows: 45.03/111.83 for 3ds max-04, 58.87/99.13 for catia-02, 228.09/149.34 for maya-02, 63.17/82.85 for proe-04, 133.61/176.68 for sw-01, and 40.82/38.42 for tcvis-01.

Dell's Precision M6500 mobile workstation is a powerful system with flexible configuration options for users with demanding needs.

My SPECviewperf 10 scores were approximately 4% lower than those reported by Dell Labs, so I repeated iterations of my tests and verified that the scores I produced were an accurate representation of the test system's performance.

I didn't run the usual benchmarks with Autodesk 3ds Max because of the lack of a released and readily available benchmark that uses many of the new features in the current release. SPEC's test for 3ds Max became outdated some time ago, and although a new version has been developed, it hasn't been released. I understand that Autodesk is participating in the completion of a new version of this benchmark and hope to see some developments in this area in the near future.

I had to make some decisions about how to evaluate the newer Intel processor that powers the workstation, given that the system has a Turbo mode that can be activated to balance performance and that it's possible to assign either single or multiple processes to a single core in the processor. Ultimately, I opted to test the base configuration as received, with the observation that these options are available for tuning system performance to individual needs.

The NVIDIA Quadro FX 3800M graphics subsystem included with the workstation I tested comes with 1 GB of GDDR3 memory and supports DirectX 10, Shader Model 4, and OpenGL v3.2. I used the preinstalled NVIDIA drivers v8.16.11.8737, which were dated September 17, 2009. I used the NVIDIA accelerated driver for AutoCAD 2010; it is available as a stand-alone download from NVIDIA. For testing, I set vertical sync to Force Off and minimized various background processes as much as possible, although Vista 64-bit uses several required processes at all times. As previously noted, I had to disable UAC to run some of the benchmarks.

Although I can't substantiate Dell's claim that the Precision M6500 is the world's most powerful mobile workstation because I haven't tested every current model, I will say it is the fastest mobile workstation I've ever tested.

Battery Life

Most users will keep this system connected to an electrical outlet whenever possible to maximize power and conserve battery life, but it is, after all, a mobile workstation, so you'll want an idea of how long you could be truly mobile using this device. Prior to testing, I fully charged the nine-cell lithium ion battery, disabled polling devices such as Wi-Fi, and eliminated nonessential background processes. I let the system reduce screen brightness while running on battery, but I didn't power down the hard disks or display.

I ran two battery run-down tests: one with no application activity, the other while running a continuous loop of AutoCAD 2010 and the Cadalyst C2010 benchmark. For the idle-system test, the fully charged battery lasted 2 hours, 36 minutes. For the test with the C2010 benchmark running continuously, the battery life was 1 hour, 30 minutes. My results represent average battery life rather than an absolute maximum duration. I believe the battery performance of a high-end mobile workstation such as this should not be compared with that of a conventional — and much less powerful — laptop system. Considering this system's configuration and performance characteristics, these numbers are quite good.

Pricing and Warranty

Priced as configured at $5,172, the Dell Precision M6500 mobile workstation starts at $2,749. A remarkably broad array of configuration options is available, so pricing can vary significantly, and you also can add port replicators, notebook stands, display and monitor stands, a 2-MP camera, or external storage modules, among other accessories. Dell reports that more expandability options and a 3-MP camera option will be coming soon.

Warranty coverage includes Dell's standard three-year basic limited warranty and three-year next–business day on-site service. Additional coverage is available for a fee.

The Precision M6500 is an impressive system that is relatively expensive and heavy but provides high performance for those who need it. The Precision M6500 is relatively quiet and doesn't generate much heat, and it incorporates numerous usability features. The design is elegant, the finish is superb, and — best of all — the M6500 provides workstation performance wherever you are. Highly Recommended.

About the Author: Ron LaFon

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