2014 Dell M3800 vs 2009 MacBook Pro

This is a comparison of of a 2014 Dell M3800 against a 2009 MacBook Pro. I’m not doing this to prove any particular point, but rather point out the differences so that people buying computers are better informed. I’m not going into performance except for where it’s really obvious.

First let me describe how I’m in possession of Dell in the first place. Those around me know that I use MacOS as I care about audio latency in my second job. To put it another way, I perform digital mixing using my laptop which has an end-to-end latency (i.e. the latency of the whole system) of 6ms. It’s a very specialised task which requires rather special tools (Ableton Live and a really good audio interface). But after picking up a new day job I ended up in a company that provides Dell laptops to it’s staff. Thinking I could be adaptable I thought I would try this new world so I decided to make a go of it. The laptop handed to me was a 15″ Dell Latitude. After struggling to get this laptop usable for over a year I gave up and handed back stating that I was better off without it. The problems I had were that it ran ridiculously hot, was bulky, heavy and spooky slow I/O.

After many other complaints within the company of how bad the laptops were our support team decided to give the Dell M3800 a crack. Since I was without a laptop I was first on the list for this trial. To put things in perspective, this is the mid-range version of the laptop. The specifications are:

  • Intel i7 2.2GHz Quad Core CPU (4702HQ)
  • 16GB of RAM
  • 256GB Liteonit LCS-256M6S Solid State Disk
  • Windows 8.1 with all current patches applied
  • 1920×1080 Touch Display

The above specifications are reasonably modest by today’s standards. But, this laptop cost NZ$3300 which puts it in the same ballpark as the 15″ MacBook Pro Retina (with similar specs).

What the Dell M3800 gets right

First off, it does not run hot so you can actually use it as a laptop. Given that it runs cool it also runs quiet. Even when the CPU is being consistently pushed and the fans need to kick in, the noise is quite a lot more bearable than most other laptops on the market. This is the first non-Apple laptop I have used in the last 10 years that gets it’s thermal management right.

The chassis is very solid. There are no detachable parts on the laptop itself which means there is nothing to break loose and fall off. Plenty of people I work with believe this is a bad move but I am in the other camp. Sure, it does make upgrades harder but how often do you really upgrade? I would rather a device that is solid and reliable but difficult to upgrade rather than flimsy and easy to swap out parts.

The touchpad is the first non-Apple touchpad I’ve used that is good enough to be usable. It’s a decent size and using touching or clicking work for mouse button presses. The two-finger (i.e. right click) touch even works out of the box, so this has been really easy to adapt to after being spoilt by Apple touchpads. But, scrolling and other gestures are so bad that one is better off not using them. One other aspect this touchpad does well is not getting in your way when typing.

The keyboard is very usable although the keys feel a little too spaced out. But I like the feel and can type on it for quite some time. The back-lighting of keys also works well but may be a little too bright for my tastes.

The screen is a decent resolution but it also quite nice to look at. The back-light is very bright, I find that I rarely set it to over 50% brightness. The colour tone may be a little on the cool side, but this is subtle. Colour rendering is also pretty good, it’s not 100% there but I’ve not felt it being limited enough to plug in an external display. Being a photographer I notice these kind of things, but for the general office worker I reckon they would find this screen fantastic.

Raw CPU grunt is also quite good. When using DxO Optics (a rather heavy-weight image processor) I’ve noticed processing times cut to a third. For general office and development work the CPU mostly sits idle. I’ve not quite decided if a 2014 quad-core CPU being three times faster than a 2009 dual-core is good enough (I would have expected more), but it is clearly an improvement.

Battery life is fantastic. I can quite happily be away from a power outlet for a good 5 hours before it needs a recharge.

Sleeping has been reliable. This is a first also for a non-Apple laptop. Being someone that works in multiple offices, the ability to just close the lid and move is important to me. I’m glad that PC laptops have finally caught on here.

Where the Dell M3800 misses the plot

The most noticeable issue with this laptop is the rather limited I/O abilities. I’ve never seen the disk I/O cross 20MB/s. I’ve read reviews of this particular SSD and seen it reach 280MB/s so I’m thinking Dell have gone really cheap on the SATA bus. It’s also disappointing that a PCIe SSD is not being used. In all fairness seek times are typical for a SSD (i.e. really low). To put things in comparison, the Seagate 750GB hybrid 7200RPM drive I run in my MacBook Pro will start DxO Optics in 3 seconds but this laptop takes around 15 seconds.

My peers think that having a touch-screen device must be really brilliant, but I’ve barely used it. I have a tablet and other touch devices but touch does not really work well with Windows or in a laptop form-factor. It’s just too awkward to move one’s hands to the screen all the time. This leaves me to think that a touch-screen laptop is just a gimmick.

Touchpad gestures are diabolical. Scrolling only works 50% of the time and when it does the scrolling action does not match what the screen does. Pinch zooming also has the effect, even worse is that it can sometimes interpret a scroll as a zoom. I’ve turned off the zooming feature which has made life a lot easier. The extra “special” gestures where one uses the edge of the pad also trigger when you don’t want them to but rarely when you intend it to be so. These are also better turned off.

The outer covering is starting to dis-colour after around a month’s worth of use. So I don’t have high hopes that this laptop will stay looking pretty for too much longer.

Audio is clearly done to a price point, for someone that is a casual MP3 listener then it is probably good enough. But for an audio engineer like me the distortion and frequency response oddities are obvious.

Conclusion

This laptop is a fantastic improvement on any PC laptop I’ve ever used in the past. I’d label it as “just enough to be usable” which is why I have not returned it. But I don’t feel honest that my company had to spend the equivalent of a MacBook Pro to get a laptop that is quirky and has seriously slow hard drive performance. So this is just good enough to work for me as a development workstation but I could not recommend it to a friend (unless they had plenty of cash to spare).

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