Mobile Workstation: Dell Precision M90 Notebook Review

Michael Dell must be pleased with his engineers and designers who have succeeded in creating one of the first mobile workstations capable of running resource-consuming professional 3D applications. The Dell Precision M90 is a perfect tool for people who work in such areas as digital animation, special effects, video editing, CAD and modeling. More details in our article!

by Alexander Britvin
02/07/2007 | 03:54 PM

As an old adage goes, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained”, and we are all trying to gain something by venturing. We just can’t be passing away the time idly. Many of us need to be on the run and yet be able to do our work. It is such people notebooks were invented for. But if we focus on the still narrower circle of people who work in heavy resource-consuming applications that process realistic, highly textured models in CAD systems, create 3D content and special effects, etc. and whose time is very precious, we’ll find that they have no use for an ordinary notebook.

 

They wouldn’t be satisfied with a simple, even though highly functional, portable computer. They need a full-featured workstation. The last word sounds bulky a priori since there have not been portable counterparts to high-performance desktop computers which can solve a complex problem but don’t offer mobility (to take a stationary computer with you, you must spend some time to disassemble and then assemble it again and must have a car to take it with you).

A team of engineers and designers of a renowned American brand which specializes on solving complex problems was the first to offer to the public its vision of a tool just for such situations. In the spring of 2006 the Dell Precision notebook series was announced. These are full-featured workstations, but mobile workstations! They allow to work everywhere making full use of your time. The 15.4” Precision M65 model came to replace the M60 and the 17” Precision M90 that we are going to discuss today takes the baton from the M70. These machines are identical on the CPU level, being both based on the Napa platform with Intel Core Duo or Core 2 Duo CPUs on Yonah or Merom cores, respectively. Yet there is one significant difference between the two models.

Today’s PC users are well aware of the power of dual-core CPU architectures, but an Nvidia Quadro FX graphics subsystem, comparable to desktop graphics solutions in speed, is something to be surprised at. Such graphics cards deliver tremendous performance, although their heat dissipation, even optimized for portable computers, is still rather high. The capacious batteries of the Precision notebook are going to be swallowed by the advanced configuration at a gulp. Well, that’s just our supposition that yet needs to be verified.

The Dell Precision M90 will undergo our examination following the long-established pattern: exterior, interior and performance tests. After thinking for some time over what notebook could make a worthy opponent to that monster, we took an ASUS Lamborghini VX1 which has a somewhat faster CPU (a 2GHz one as opposed to the 1.83GHz CPU of the Dell Precision M90), with twice the amount of system memory working in dual-channel mode, and with a GeForce Go 7400 VX graphics processor, which is the fastest model in the 7400 series. Let’s see if the workstation from Dell can keep up the pace of the “racing” notebook.

Package and Accessories

If it were not for the Dell logotypes on the sides of the box, one might suppose it contains tins or something. There are no bright and loud colors or extravagant shapes here. It’s just a piece of cardboard with modest blue captions all around. But is this not sufficient? Once the notebook is taken out of the package, you can hardly find some use for the latter.

The contents of the package are in accordance with its exterior. We found the following in the box, besides the notebook: a 7200mAh battery, a power adapter with a LED indicator and rubber feet (it is almost the size of a brick and weighs accordingly), a modem cable, a mysterious adapter for a phone cable, a product booklet, and two CDs:

You may have noticed that this frugal kit doesn’t even include a user manual. The potential user of the notebook is expected to be qualified enough to figure everything out by himself! J

Design and Ergonomics

The Dell Precision M90 looks like a large folder, but doesn’t seem too bulky even with its impressive dimensions thanks to the use of different colors in its case. The case is made of a magnesium alloy and features Dell StrikeZone technology that protects the notebook from physical damage and other troubles. The lid is painted a light silvery color, but with somewhat darker margins. There is also an almost black insert in the front part:

The manufacturer’s logo is placed in the center of the lid:

At the back of the lid, almost in between the hinges, there is another black piece with pressed-out letters of the notebook series name.

Having such a large display, the notebook can’t do without a lock. Its light silver color is distinguishable against the black background. The lock is designed like a slider:

Below the lock, on the bottom part of the notebook, there is a block of multimedia buttons surrounded with a bevel edging and highlighted with a fashionable blue light. This multimedia block includes (from left to right):

On both sides of the multimedia buttons there are rather loud stereo speakers hidden under decorative grids. The speakers are close to the user, but get covered up with the user’s hands during work.

The exterior color scheme is continued inside. The bottom part is light silver, including the touchpad, with black margins on the right and left. The display bezel is black and has rubber pads for softer contact with the notebook’s bottom.

The display fastening mechanism is typical of large models. The hinges stand up above the notebook’s bottom, allowing you to unfold the notebook by a full 180 degrees.

The Precision M90 is equipped with a widescreen 17” display with a max resolution of 1440x900 pixels and an aspect ratio of 16:10 (WXGA+). The Precision M90 series may also come with a WUXGA display (1920x1200). The viewing angles seem large both vertically and horizontally. This model’s display lacks “glassy” coating typical of many other notebooks. It means you don’t have to care about ambient lighting when you sit down to work with your M90. The display offers 8 grades of brightness, which is quite sufficient for choosing a comfortable setting.

We measured the brightness and contrast of the notebook’s display using a Pantone ColorVision Spyder with OptiCAL version 3.7.8 software. We selected the highest brightness setting before that test and it remained almost unchanged when the notebook switched to its battery. The measured values of brightness and contrast aren’t high, although you wouldn’t think so after looking at the screen:

AC power source:

DC power source:

The notebook’s keyboard looks unusual. Considering the large area of the notebook’s bottom half and the professional positioning of the product series, it’s not clear why the manufacturer didn’t install a full-size version as there’s enough room left on both sides of the keyboard. There are 87 black keys here. The Arrow keys are lowered below the keyboard’s baseline to reduce the risk of your pressing them unintentionally. The Fn button is located at the bottom left of the keyboard, next to the Ctrl key, which is in the corner. This is convenient for people who are used to shortcuts like Ctrl+C or Ctrl+V. Numeric buttons and two Windows keys are available: the Windows Logo key is over one key on the left of the spacebar whereas the Context Menu key is placed in an unusual location, at the top, above the F9 button. The functional keys are smaller than others. Insert, Home, PgUp, Delete, End and PgDn buttons are placed in a single block at the top right. Print Screen, Num Lock and Pause are located in the same row with the Context Menu button above the functional keys (you should press them together with Fn to access their additional functions). The letters are painted white; the functional keys are blue.

The notebook’s touchpad is painted the color of its surroundings. The touch-sensitive area with vertical and horizontal scrolling zones is sunken a little into the case. There is a scrolling joystick between the touchpad’s buttons.

Above the keyboard there is a Power On button, a button to launch Dell MediaDirect (a kind of Windows Media Center, this multimedia program was developed by CyberLink especially for Dell’s notebooks), and the first group of status indicators that includes (from left to right):

The second group of indicators is located on the right display hinge. It is visible irrespective of the position of the lid. This group includes:

The notebook’s left side is loaded with the following components (from left to right):

The right panel of the Precision M90 offers the following:

The rear panel is all speckled with various connectors (from left to right):

At the notebook’s bottom panel there are memory, Bluetooth card, communication module and HDD compartments (the HDD itself is taken out from the right panel – there’s only a fastening screw here), a battery module with one spring-loaded lock, stickers with the model information and the OS serial number.

These are the notebook’s feet: they are made of rubber and are somewhat larger than usual.

The Dell Precision M90 comes with a large 7200mAh battery. Just like with the Samsung Q30 Plus and the Dell Inspiron XPS M1210, there is a charge indicator on the reverse side of the battery so that you could always check out the amount of power left without turning the notebook on.

Near the battery there is a subwoofer that sounds good enough and is surrounded with a crescent-shaped additional support for the notebook’s body.

The memory compartment accommodates two slots occupied with 512MB modules. The maximum amount of system memory supported is 4096MB, so you can upgrade the notebook’s memory subsystem easily.

Below this compartment there is a port-replicator connector. So, if you think the notebook’s got too few ports and interfaces, you can add more via a docking station. But we can hardly think of a situation one might need to do so!

Configuration

The Dell Precision M90 is based on a dual-core Intel Core Duo T2400 processor with a clock rate of 1.83GHz (65nm Yonah core, shared 2MB L2 cache).

Besides Intel’s Enhanced SpeedStep technology that gives the notebook’s software and BIOS control over the CPU frequency multiplier (to reduce it under low loads), this CPU supports Dynamic Power Coordination (power consumption of the cores can be varied independently depending on the current load; one core may even fall into Deep Sleep mode with the lowest power consumption possible) and Dynamic Cache Sizing (unused cache segments can be turned off to reduce power consumption). For more information refer to our Centrino Duo Mobile Platform Review.

The Napa (Centrino Duo) platform also incorporates an Intel PRO/Wireless 3945ABG adapter and an Intel Calistoga 945PM chipset. This chipset supports DDR2 SO-DIMMs, thus offering more memory bandwidth at lower power consumption, and a PCI Express x16 interface for an external graphics card. The chipset’s South Bridge (ICH7-M) is connected to the North Bridge via a special-purpose Direct Media Interface. The South Bridge supports one Parallel ATA port, two Serial ATA ports, eight USB 2.0 ports and Intel High Definition Audio. It also offers six PCI Express x1 lanes to connect external devices. For more information about the Napa platform, visit the manufacturer’s website.

As for the graphics subsystem, the Dell Precision M90 features a new 0.09-micron super-fast graphics processor Nvidia Quadro FX 2500M with 512 megabytes of dedicated video memory. It was designed for professional applications and makes most desktop graphics subsystems look humble in comparison.

Nvidia’s new Quadro FX series was developed specifically for new-generation mobile workstations and has become a kind of a standard in that area. Quadro FX solutions offer the same functionality as Nvidia’s best products for stationary workstations, which have long been considered the best choice for users who run professional 3D applications. The Quadro FX series features Nvidia’s mobile technologies such as PureVideo (for high-quality HD video) and PowerMizer 6.0 (for optimized power consumption). It supports 12-bit sub-pixel precision, a 256-bit memory interface, 32-bit floating-point precision, and a number of other features. The following table lists detailed specs of the Nvidia Quadro FX. You can also learn more about it at the manufacturer’s website:

The Precision M90 comes with a Fujitsu MHV2100BH hard disk drive (2.5” form-factor, 5400rpm, 100GB, SATA interface) and a TSST TS-L632D DVD-burner with the following speed formula:

CD:

DVD:

Our Dell Precision M90 is equipped with DDR2-667 SDRAM. The memory slots are both easily accessible, so you can increase the amount of system memory from 1024MB to the maximum supported amount of 4096MB. The memory works in dual-channel mode as the following screenshot shows:

We measured the temperature of the hottest spots on the notebook’s surfaces with an infrared thermometer after it had worked for half an hour in the Classic test mode of Battery Eater Pro 2.60 (the ambient temperature remained constant at 22°C during this test) and got the following numbers:

The table below lists the technical specs of the Dell Precision M90 and compares them with those of the ASUS Lamborghini VX1:

Testbed and Methods

The notebook’s hard drive was formatted in NTFS before the tests. Then we installed Microsoft Windows XP Professional SP2 with DirectX 9.0c, system drivers (from the included disc), and Windows Media Encoder 9.0 with Windows Media Player 9.0. We also installed Windows Media Player 10.0 for such tests as PCMark 2005 and SYSMark 2004 SE.

The following settings were used for the tests:

There were two exceptions: we returned to the Windows XP desktop theme for PCMark 2005 since the program required that. And for SYSMark 2004 SE to work normally, we had to roll each parameter back to its default (as they are set right after you install Windows).

Two power modes were used. First, we selected the Always On power mode for maximum performance and the shortest battery life. Then we switched to the Max Battery mode for the maximum battery run-down time.

Our tests:

  1. Performance benchmarks: synthetic (SiSoftware Sandra 2005, SiSoftware Sandra 2007, PCMark 2004 1.3.0, PCMark 2005 1.2.0), office and multimedia (SYSMark 2004 SE, Business Winstone 2004, Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004), and games (3DMark 2003 3.6.0, 3DMark 2005 1.2.0, 3DMark 2006 1.0.2, Quake 3, Quake 4, Unreal Tournament 2003)
  2. Battery life tests (Battery Eater Pro 2.60)

There are three test modes in Battery Eater:

We used the first two modes as they are in Battery Eater, but in the Idle mode (when the test utility doesn’t put any load of its own on the notebook) we played a DVD movie.

Performance

As usual, we will first run synthetic benchmarks.

The SiSoftware 2007 suite features an updated enhanced-functionality interface, runs on three platforms (Win32 x86, Win64 x64, WinCE ARM), contains 13 tests, 34 informational modules, and supports a large range of devices thanks to the developer’s collaboration with Intel, AMD, ATI, SiS and VIA. The program is supported in six languages and has a free Lite version for personal and educational purposes.

PCMark 2005 carries on the tradition of complex benchmarks of the series and uses fragments of real-life applications as tests. This makes it somewhat more relevant for end-users as opposed to fully synthetic benchmarks. After running a series of 11 tests on the different components of the system, the program calculates an overall performance score in units called PCMarks. PCMark 2005 can check out a computer at processing HD video and encoding audio, and offers enhanced tests of the CPU and hard disk under multi-threaded load. The overall score is calculated by the formula: PCMark Score = 87 x (the geometric mean of the basic tests) , where the geometric mean is calculated as (Result 1 x Result 2 x…)/the number of results.

SiSoftware Sandra measures the overall performance of the system as well as that of each of its subsystems, while PCMark benchmarks the computer performance in office and office-related applications and also produces performance scores for the main subsystems (CPU, memory, graphical, and disk subsystem).

The CPU performance tests produce expectable results, which are proportional to the frequencies of the installed CPUs. When the notebooks switch to their batteries and enable Max Battery mode, their CPU clock rates are reduced to the minimum of 1GHz. The results become almost identical then. The memory subsystem of the ASUS Lamborghini VX1 is somewhat faster as it incorporates two times the amount of memory installed in the Dell Precision M90. Both notebooks feature dual-channel memory access. The amount of memory is not crucial in the graphics subsystem tests, however, and the mobile workstation easily beats the rather powerful Nvidia GeForce Go 7400 VX with TurboCache technology which allows to allot up to 512MB (that’s the amount of dedicated graphics memory the Nvidia Quadro FX 2500M is equipped with in the Dell notebook) for the needs of the graphics subsystem.

The Business Winstone 2004 test runs scripts of the following real-life office applications, several scripts at a time to simulate multi-tasking: Internet Explorer, Outlook, Word, Excel, Access, Project, PowerPoint, FrontPage, WinZip, and Norton AntiVirus Professional Edition.

The Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004 test evaluates performance of a computer in the following multimedia applications: Windows Media Encoder, Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Premiere, NewTek LightWave 3D, Steinberg WaveLab, Micromedia Dreamweaver MX, and Micromedia Director MX.

The following table and diagrams show the outcome of these tests:

It is all clear here. PC Magazine’s benchmarks put a high load on the CPU and the ASUS Lamborghini VX1 has somewhat better results thanks to its higher CPU clock rate. When working on the batteries, the notebooks lower their CPU clock rates to the same point and produce similar results as a consequence.

SYSMark 2004 SE is intended to reveal a system’s performance under different types of load. It simulates a user who is solving practical tasks in a few popular applications. Multi-threading is taken into account. The benchmark issues a few ratings that are indicative of the system performance under different loads. SYSMark 2004 SE is mainly positioned as a tool for testing desktop systems and includes applications that are not often run on mobile computers. That’s why the results for each test load are shown separately:

The 3D Creation script simulates a user who is rendering an image into a BMP-file in 3ds max 5.1 and is also working on web-pages in Dreamweaver MX. After these operations are over, a 3D animation is created in a vector graphics format.

This test needs a fast CPU, and it’s natural that the notebook with a higher CPU clock rate is ahead here. When working on the batteries, the notebooks deliver nearly identical results as their CPU clock rates get lowered to the same level in power-saving mode.

The 2D Creation script simulates a user creating a video out of a few RAW-format fragments and a few audio tracks in Premier 6.5. Waiting for the operation to complete, the user is also modifying an image in Photoshop 7.01 and then saves it on the disk. When the video clip is ready, the user edits it and adds special effects in After Effects 5.5.

This test, and some of the following ones, produces roughly the same results as the first test. We guess there is no need for any comments here.

The next test simulates the work routines of a professional web-master. The user unzips the content of a website while using Flash MX to open an exported 3D vector graphics clip. Then the user modifies it by including more pictures and optimizes it for faster animation. The resulting clip with special effects is compressed with Windows Media Encoder 9 to be broadcast via the Internet. Next, the website is compiled in Dreamweaver MX while the system is being scanned for viruses with VirusScan 7.0 in the background.

It’s similar to the previous test. The Dell Precision M90 is slower when working on the battery due to its slower system configuration.

The next script simulates an ordinary user who’s receiving a letter with a .zip attachment in Outlook 2002. While the received files are being scanned for viruses with VirusScan 7.0, the user looks through his e-mail, enters some comments into the Outlook calendar, and then opens a corporate website and some documents with Internet Explorer 6.0.

The CPU frequency is not a decisive factor for this script, so we don’t see the twofold performance reduction on switching to the batteries.

In the Document Creation script the user is editing text in Word 2002 and is also using Dragon NaturallySpeaking to convert an audio file into a text document. This text document is then converted into PDF format with Acrobat 5.0.5. And finally, the document is employed in a PowerPower 2002 presentation.

The test is again sensitive to the CPU frequency and the results are lowered just as the CPU frequency is when the notebooks work on the batteries.

The final script from SYSMark 2004 SE includes the following: the user opens a database in Access 2002 and creates a few queries. Documents are archived with WinZip 8.1. The results of the queries are exported into Excel 2002 and are used to construct a diagram.

Very similar picture here.

The notebooks both feature discrete graphics cores so we tested them in three versions of 3DMark: 3DMark 2003 3.6.0, 3DMark 2005 1.2.0 and 3DMark 2006 1.0.2.

3DMark uses a set of 3D scenes rendered by its own graphics engine to load the graphics subsystem in various ways. Compared with the previous version, 3DMark 2005 uses Shader Model 2.0x/3.0 instead of Shader Model 1.x, provides full compatibility with Shader Model 2.0, includes more complex tests (over a million polygons per each frame), and employs normal maps. 3DMark 2006 brings support for HDR, Uniform Shadow Maps, and multi-core CPUs. It is overall oriented at Shader Model 3.0, but two out of its four graphics tests work within the Shader Model 2.0 framework.

It wouldn’t be improper to applaud here because we’ve never seen a mobile graphics solution to have so high 3DMark scores. The Nvidia Quadro FX 2500M beats its opponent easily, although the latter can get the same amount of memory (up to 512MB) from system RAM by utilizing its TurboCache technology. The Quadro FX 2500M slows down when the notebook works on the battery – if the graphics core didn’t lower its power consumption (which is about 63W normally), the notebook’s battery would last mere seconds.

Next, we tested the notebooks in two modes in Quake 3 :

And in one mode in Quake 4 :

There was no standard demo record in Quake 4 , so we had to create it by ourselves and will use it in every following review of notebooks on our site so that different notebooks could be compared under identical conditions.

As you might have expected, the Nvidia Quadro FX 2500M is better at high resolutions. At low resolutions the overall system performance, not only that of the graphics subsystem, is important, and the ASUS Lamborghini VX1 gains the upper hand. Like in 3DMark, the Nvidia Quadro FX slows down when the notebook switches to the battery. It’s the first time, however, that we see such a big slowdown in Quake 4 – graphics adapters we’ve tested earlier would suffer a much smaller performance hit.

This looks like Quake at low resolutions, doesn’t it? That’s right, the results are similar indeed. So, after running a series of graphics subsystem tests, we can claim that the Dell Precision M90 delivers highest performance among 3D and games-oriented notebooks (at least, when connected to the mains), and the Nvidia Quadro FX 2500M is the fastest discrete graphics solution for notebooks we’ve ever tested in our labs.

The notebook’s battery life was measured with Battery Eater Pro 2.60. The test was performed at the maximum screen brightness in the following modes:

That doesn’t seem long, but you wouldn’t say so if you recalled the configuration of the notebook. Two hours under full load is an impressive result for a portable workstation!

Here are the battery discharge diagrams for the different operation modes.

Conclusion

Michael Dell must be pleased with his engineers and designers who have succeeded in creating one of the first mobile workstations capable of running resource-consuming professional 3D applications. The Dell Precision M90 is a perfect tool for people who work in such areas as digital animation, special effects, video editing, CAD and modeling. Thanks to the new Quadro FX series of graphics solutions from Nvidia, the notebook has got very close to its desktop counterparts in performance.

Dell Precision M90 notebooks on the Napa Refresh platform have come out by now, so they deliver even more performance. Moreover, Dell offers you to adjust the configuration of your Precision M90 according to your particular needs. This should make your shopping choice much easier.

Highs:

Lows: