By Neil Bennett | on October 31, 2012
Price: £949 plus VAT (base), £3,672 plus VAT (config reviewed) . £3,672 plus VAT
Pros: The most powerful laptop we've ever reviewed. Top-notch screen.
Cons: Heavy. Bulky. Small trackpad.
If Apple’s MacBook Pro is the Lamborghini of laptops, then Dell’s Precision M4700 is a monster truck. It’s big, brash, heavy and not going to win any design awards for its aesthetics – but in every other way our review model of this 15-inch laptop excels over the equivalent MacBook Pro. And that can even include outdoing the Retina Display.
The Stalinist chassis has allowed Dell to offer the most powerful Core i7 mobile processors, the Extreme Edition. Our test model has a 2.9GHz 3920XM chip with 8MB of cache. This isn’t top of the line – there’s a 3940XM just above it – but it’s 14 per cent faster in our Cinebench 3D rendering test than the top-spec 15-inch MacBook Pro with Reina Display we reviewed back in June.
You can’t get those Extreme Edition chips in the MBP, nor in HP’s 15-inch rival EliteBook 8560w – and the M4700 was even faster than the HP Z1 all-in-one desktop workstation we reviewed last month (which uses a lot of laptop components to cram it all in).
The chip also helped the M4700 complete our After Effects CS6 test faster than any laptop we’ve ever seen. It chucked HD video and effects around at over 2.5x the speed of the MacBook Pro. You’d think this would be due to much more than just the chip, but both our review units of the M4700 and 15-inch MacBook Pro featured 8GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD – though our M4700 uses faster 1866MHz RAM to the MacBook Pro’s 1600MHz.
Our M4700 review unit features AMD’s FirePro M4000 graphics chip with 1GB of its own RAM, though you can order it with Nvidia’s higher end Quadro K1000M or K2000M (both of which have 2GB of VRAM). Even the M4000 wiped the floor with the MacBook Pro’s Nvidia GeForce GT 650M consumer-grade card in both the relatively simple Cinebench real-time 3D test and our hardcore Maya test. It even trumped the Z1, which has a previous-generation Quadro 1000M.
While the MacBook Pro’s Retina Display is a technological marvel, the only pro-level creative applications that support it are Apple’s own Final Cut Pro and Aperture. Photoshop, After Effects and the rest of Adobe’s Creative Suite – plus tools such as Autodesk’s 3ds Max and Maya, Cinema 4D and Nuke – just look a bit fuzzy.
Our M4700’s UltraSharp FHD screen has a more app-friendly resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 – though some users may find this a bit eye-straining. Unfortunately the only lower resolution option is an entry-level 1,366x768. A 1,650x1,080 option would have been good. We tested the colour depth and accuracy of the screen using a DataColor Spyder4Elite sensor and found it to be identical to the MacBook Pro’s Retina Display (about 75 per cent of Adobe RGB gamut). However, Dell offers a PremierColor screen option that it says offers 100 per cent of the Adobe RGB colourspace – an option that Apple should be offering too, but doesn’t.
The M4700’s backlit keyboard is truly excellent and very comfortable to type on, though the trackpad is small. It’s offset to the left to sit in the middle of the standard keyboard (which has a numeric keypad on the right). We’re aware the M4700 is also pitched at the financial market who might use the numeric keypad, but for many Digital Arts readers, Dell would have been better off ditching that and bumping up the size of the trackpad, a la Apple’s designs.
We also liked the range of hard drive options. Our test unit had a single SSD plus an Blu-ray drive. You can swap out the optical drive for another SSD (or hard drive), then add back the Blu-ray using an optional caddy – though this bulks out the M4700 even more. To any config you can also pop in an mSATA SSD, which can be used as a cache to boost performance of the main drive. If top performance is what you’re after, you can stripe two main drives into a RAID 0 – or mirror them using RAID 1 for data security (for example if you intend to use the M4700 on location).
Many creatives would like to trade these options for a lighter weight and thinner chassis – and it’s a shame Dell don’t offer an ‘Ultra’ version that strips these away to make the M4700 more usable on the move (and more mobile overall).
Performance like our M4700’s comes at a price – and at over three grand and a monkey, this configuration’s out of reach of most creative. Pricing for the M4700 starts at £949 though, and if you do have £3,672 to spend on a laptop and don’t mind the extra bulk and weight – the M4700’s your best mobile companion.