Dell mobile workstation bears compute-intensive loads

The Dell M6500 leverages the high-powered Nehalem, NVIDIA processors within a luggable chassis. Just don't expect to take to the skies without business-class seating.

The Dell M6500 is a muscular, 17-inch-display mobile workstation molded into a 9-pound luggable notebook that can go on location to saw through compute intense workloads. The M6500 is outfitted with the most of just about everything--from CPU to graphics, memory and disk. For high-value business users that must use compute-intensive applications while out of the office, the M6500 is the premier mobile hardware platform.

The Dell Precision M6500 I tested costs $5,172 from the Dell Online store and is loaded with "firsts" for a 17-inch mobile workstation. My M6500 was equipped with an Intel Core i7-920XM Extreme Edition processor, providing power for the kind of compute-intensive applications associated with oil and gas, scientific, media and entertainment, and gaming industries. This is the first time this Nehalem-class quad-core processor with high-performance features such as turbo mode and hyper threading has appeared in a mobile workstation.

The M6500 is also the first mobile workstation of its size to offer the 1GB NVIDIA Quadro FX 3800M graphics processor. My system came with an optional 17-inch WUXGA RGB LED edge-to-edge back-lit display with a 1,920-by-1,200 screen resolution. The display supports 100 percent of the Adobe color gamut, along with user-selectable color tables. NVIDIA 3800M supports CUDA (Compute Unified Device Architecture), an NVIDIA-developed architecture that allows supported applications to use the processor cores in the GPU to augment the CPU.

The M6500 I tested was equipped with 4GB of 1,333MHz DDR3 RAM. The system has four memory slots and is the first mobile workstation available that can support 1,600MHz memory. As currently shipping, the 1,600MHz memory is available only in 2GB units. Even so, the possible 8GB of 1,600MHz memory far outstrips the memory options currently available from competitors. Using 4GB 1,333MHz DIMMs, the Dell M6500 can hold up to 16GB of RAM--twice that of rivals.

Competing systems priced out in the same ballpark as the Dell M6500. The HP EliteBook 8730w with a less powerful Intel Quad Extreme QX9300 processor and an 1GB NVIDIA Quadro FX 3700M processor and 8GB of slower, 800MHz DDR2 RAM costs $4,981 at the HP Online store. The Lenovo ThinkPad W700ds with the same Intel QX930 processor and NVIDIA 3700M graphics card, but with 8GB of DDR3 RAM costs $5,144 at the Lenovo Website.

Both the HP EliteBook and Lenovo W700ds have only two memory slots where the Dell M6500 has four, and neither system currently supports the faster Intel CPU or NVIDIA GPU that are available in the Dell mobile workstation. The Lenovo system does offer color calibration and additional graphic tablet options that make it a compelling choice of art-oriented users.

Neither weight nor battery life factored much into my evaluation of the Dell M6500. These systems are meant to compete with non-mobile desktop workstations that weigh 25 to 40 pounds and, as a matter of course, use wall socket power. With that said, the M6500 is certainly luggable when combined with its external power supply and standard 9-cell battery, with a starting weight of 8.4 pounds. My system, including the power supply and second hard drive, weighed just over 9 pounds.

The M6500 is 15 inches wide and 11 inches deep. When opened at a usable viewing angle, the unit becomes 15.5 inches deep and 10.5 inches tall. This means that you will pretty much need to be sitting in business-class if you want to use the M6500 on an airplane.

That said, it's too heavy and the underside of the device is too hot to keep on your lap for any period of time. The large fans in the unit were relatively quiet during my tests and operated only when needed. I noticed a hot spot under my right palm that made me wish Dell engineers had found a way to move the underlying component under the keyboard to keep the palm rest cool.

The number and variety of connectors built into the M6500 is unremarkable. It has a slot-load DVD-ROM optical drive; three USB ports; one FireWire port; one VGA port; an ExpressCard 8-in-1 media card reader; a DisplayPort; a combo eSATA/USB port; and a wired network port.

My system was configured with an 802.11a/b/g/n wireless network. Optional mobile broadband from AT&T, Sprint or Verizon is available, but was not tested for this review.

Physical and data security options abound on the M6500. In addition to TPM support in the CPU, my test unit came with a full-sized (not a slot-type) fingerprint reader and support for contactless smartcard access.

Technical Director Cameron Sturdevant can be reached at