Zero Day Review: Dell Precision Workstation M90
Packed with Intel Core Duo and NVIDIA 512MB graphics, this laptop's tough to beat
By Charlie White
The Dell Precision Mobile Workstation M90 (starting at $2239, $3523 as tested, see Dell's Small Business area on its Web site) raises the bar for the company's highest-end notebook PCs, adding Intel Core Duo processors to the mix along with a 7200RPM hard drive, workstation-class OpenGL graphics and enough room for 4GB of RAM. Making the product even more appealing is its 17-inch WUXGA screen with a pixel count of 1920x1200, and its upgraded styling that puts it into a whole new class of notebooks. We put the 8.6-pound laptop through a battery of tests, running our real-world benchmarks and comparing it to its predecessors and competitors.
Dell sent us the most-capable member of the Precision Mobile Workstation M90 line, tricked out with its 2.16 GHz Intel Core Duo T2600 processor. Along for the ride were 2GB of DDR2-667 RAM and a 100GB 7200 RPM SATA drive. Perhaps the most impressive component was the NVIDIA Quadro FX 2500M Open GL graphics card with 512MB of dedicated graphics memory on board. Dell is offering the M90 and its little brother, the M65, for order on its web site immediately, with delivery promised within the next few days. As we will later see, this combination of processor and graphics card enabled the M90 to fly through our benchmarks, rivaling the speed of most of the high-end desktops we've tested.
But benchmarks are not all this laptop can run through, because it's made for content creators, graphics professionals and anyone who needs sheer brute computing force. As Dell has done with its previous notebooks in the Mobile Workstation line, the M90 is certified by 31 independent system vendors, which means this notebook is supported for applications such as 3DS Max, all of Adobe's software and numerous other content creation, CAD and design applications. Check Dell's web site for a complete list. The certification program gives you the confidence to buy a laptop and know for sure that it will work with your chosen content creation application.
The M90's big, wide screen, at 17 inches, is razor-sharp and exceedingly bright with vivid, saturated and realistic colors, but it's not perfect. Its brightness is too much of a good thing, causing the lower sixth of the screen to have a milky horizontal glow in scenes where there's a lot of black. And, the black isn't ever truly black, but a dull gray. Here's a screen that benefits from turning its brightness down a notch or two, which was its default position when we received it, by the way. Even then, its backlighting appeared to be slightly uneven. Also, while running the screen through our customary DisplayMate Obstacle Course, the Stuck Pixel test revealed a red pixel that couldn't get itself unstuck. We thought stuck pixels were becoming a rarity, but there was one that showed up in our review unit, which Dell assured us was a pre-production prototype. Even so, the M90's screen, while big and bright, doesn't measure up the excellence of the rest of the product, which is a shame since it's aimed at content creators, architects and artists.
We noticed numerous improvements over Dell's previous members of this M-series workstation line, such as the addition of a FireWire port which was unfortunately omitted from its predecessor; more USB ports, now totaling six; and the convenient row of media controls across the front, with play, stop, fast forward/reverse and speaker volume control now at your fingertips. There's also the well-situated addition of a 4-in-1 flash card reader, along with an ExpressCard slot. We would have liked to have seen a PC Card (PCMCIA) slot, though, especially since Panasonic's P2 cards, which fit only in a PC Card slot, are gaining acceptance among content creators as their price falls.
We also liked the M90's keyboard, and even though it doesn't have a number pad, which probably would've gotten in the way anyway, the vertical travel of its keys feels generous, especially for a laptop. The keys don't have a "clicky" feel to them, but they're not too mushy, either. When you push down one of the M90's keys, you can tell you're pushing something. It's one of the best notebook keyboards we've tested.
The overall styling of the notebook is impressive. The top of the notebook has the look of burnished aluminum (see graphic below), and the case itself consists of significantly more magnesium alloy and much less plastic. Overall it has a more solid feel, and gives the impression that it's a much more durable product. If you want people to think you're carrying an expensive notebook, this is probably about the swankiest-looking laptop we've seen short of the new MacBook.