Review: Dell Precision M2800 Workstation Is Smaller, Faster

After our review of the Dell Precision M2800, it was obvious that Dell had worked hard these past few years to refine its mobile workstations. When the CRN Test Center looked at the Precision M6600 in 2011, it was by far the fastest laptop we had ever tested. But it also was heavy, big and bulky. Its newest model suffers none of those tags, yet is significantly faster and lighter, and is durable enough to carry a MIL-STD 810G rating.

With pricing that starts at $1,199, the entry-level M2800 lists for about half the cost of the M6600 of yore. The high-end unit we tested was built around an Intel Core i7-4812MQ quad-core processor running at 2.8GHz and an AMD FirePro M4170 GPU with 2 GB of dedicated GDDR5 memory driving a 15.6-inch 1,920-x-1,080 display. It came with a 64-bit version of Windows 7 Professional running on 8 GB of 1,600MHz DDR3L RAM; its two slots can accept as much as 16 GB. List price as tested: $1,629. A comparably equipped M6600 would have cost $5,689.

Dell Precision workstations are designed to deliver the performance of a tower in the form of a laptop for people working with large media files or running applications for scientific, oil and gas exploration, medical, CAD/CAM, and other vertical markets that need high-performance computing. The M2800 measures about 15 inches wide by about 10 inches deep and is just 1.3 inches thick. With its standard-issue 6-cell battery, the base unit weighs 5.4 pounds, nearly 3 pounds less than the M6600. The 9-cell battery adds about a pound and about a half-inch to the depth. Screws on the bottom panel are labeled relative to the peripherals they're holding in place, simplifying service even for experienced techs.

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Durability features of the M2800 include vibration, shock and altitude resistance (up to 10,000 feet) and an ingress protection rating of IP5x. This means that it's highly resistant to blowing dust and sand (5 out of 6) but has no rating for water incursion (x). However, its spill-resistant keyboard directs spilled liquids around sensitive internals and out through a drain hole on the bottom. The unit also has proven that it can perform in temperatures ranging from 32 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit and be safely stored in environments of between -40 and +149 degrees F with as much as 95 percent noncondensing humidity. An aluminum lid is strong and handsome.

Inside is a full-sized keyboard with a small off-center touch pad and upper and lower mouse buttons. There's also a pointing stick. Rubberized wrist rests are warm and comfortable, and provide a grippy feel for occasions when the unit is carried with the lid up. Aside from dedicated power, volume and mute keys, all system functions are two-key operations. Sound from its two front-firing speakers is loud and undistorted. LEDs near the lighted power button indicate hard drive, and network access and battery status. A second set of LEDs visible with the lid closed indicate drive activity and the status of power and battery.

The M2800 disperses its four USB 3.0 ports about the sides and rear, along with VGA, Gigabit Ethernet, Kensington lock port, headset jack and a full-sized HDMI port. Alone on the front edge is an SD card reader. Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi ac and mobile broadband are options, as are various internal optical drives. Factory storage options include SDD and spinning drives with or without encryption in capacities between 128 GB and 1 TB.

CRN's list of the top 10 fastest laptops has a new leader. With Windows properties set to maximum performance, the 64-bit version of Geekbench 2.3 reported a high score of 16,197 for the M2800, for the first time unseating the M6600 and its peak score of 14,021. Battery life also was vastly improved. With the screen at full brightness, the Haswell-based laptop ran a digital media file continuously for four hours and 35 minutes, adding more than two hours to the M6600's mark.

For field workers that demand workstation-level power for running highly computational applications at bargain basement prices, the Dell Precision M2800 Workstation fits the bill nicely. Its durability features and a three-year warranty are icing on the cake. The M2800 Workstation is a product that the CRN Test Center recommends with confidence.