I’ll keep my 4 year old laptop, thanks.

I enjoy shopping around for computer equipment and like Joel Spolsky, I’m a big believer in using the best tools money can buy. And yet, I’ve held on to my trusty Dell M6400 Precision Workstation for nearly 4 years.

Dell Precision M6400

The beast. Dell Precision M6400

And the wild part is, I still can’t find anything that’s a clear well-rounded step up for the “portable desktop” experience I prefer. Here’s why.

  1. 1920 x 1200 RBG LED Edge to edge display – This display is crisp, colors look great and the extra vertical resolution is really great for avoiding the annoying “gun slit” feel of 16:9 displays. Sadly, it’s virtually impossible to find new laptops with a 16:10 aspect ratio or more than HD resolution these days. Even the predecessors to my Precision have been “downgraded” to 1080p displays. 1920×1200 is the perfect resolution for a 17” display on Windows. I wouldn’t trade it for a 15” Retina. Why? You can’t run a 15” Retina at native resolution on Windows without using a magnifying glass. And upping the DPI in Windows causes quirks with various application user interfaces.
  2. Full backlit keyboard including 10-key, dedicated function keys, and cursor keys in a logical separate location. So many manufacturers are trying to mimic Apple with minimalist keyboards that sacrifice usability for aesthetics. I use a keyboard for typing, not impressing my friends. So more keys please.
  3. Removable battery. While battery life is admittedly pretty awful, being able to switch it out when it dies is a big convenience.
  4. Serviceable and upgradable – Since purchase 4 years ago I’ve upgraded to 16 GB of RAM, switched to a 250 gig SSD, and upgraded to the aforementioned RGB LED screen. The chassis is easy to open and serviceable with a simple screwdriver and it’s roomy enough to hold two drives if you like. Fat chance doing all of this on nearly any of today’s laptops.
  5. No adapters needed – Since it’s not the world’s thinnest machine, it has built in VGA, Ethernet and optical drives. Nothing worse than getting somewhere only to realize you’re hosed because you don’t have the proprietary adapter handy.
  6. Cool running – So many of today’s laptops sacrifice heat management for style and thinness (I’m looking at you, MacBook Pro). I’ll be blunt – the Dell Precision series is a thick homely beast sitting next to most laptops. But the tradeoff is the aluminum case has dual fans, ample heat vents on the back, and plenty of internal space so it runs cool on your lap. The classic function over form tradeoff is at work here.
  7. Ultra quiet – Running an SSD, the machine is often completely silent. It runs cool enough, even on my lap, that the fans rarely run fast enough to be audible.
  8. REAL docking station with dual DVI and a plethora of ports – It’s amazing how few laptops offer a true native docking station. I love being able to slap my machine on a dock and instantly be connected to a power supply, dual 24” 1920 x 1200 displays, keyboard, mouse, external USB drive, and printer. And you can swap between docked and undocked all day. No quirks. It just plain works. Apple has tried to use Thunderbolt to carry a lot of this weight, but it doesn’t offer a single connection story like a native dock does.
  9. Dual hard drive support – For real speed/storage freaks, you can slap a 2nd drive in. Running SSD for the OS/apps and a 2nd large.
  10. Cheap parts – Since many business run/ran the Precision series, parts are ubiquitous. I picked up the RGB LED display for only $185 and installed it myself! And since it’s easily serviceable, you can swap out components that fail no problem. Keyboard, Optical, drives, RAM, screen…I’ve removed them all at some point. It’s like a mini desktop.

Now I’ll admit, she ain’t perfect. The M6400 is heavy and sturdy enough you could use it as a weapon. It’s big enough that you have to be careful selecting a bag. And the factory power supply is hilariously oversized – it’s literally the size of a brick (thankfully, the smaller Dell supplies work and still provide enough juice to maintain current battery state). And yes, the battery life is just plain lousy. I get around 1.5 hours. But since I don’t code often in the middle of corn fields, I don’t care much. Give me cool running high resolution performance with a full keyboard, and I’ll do the hard work of finding a plug in. Finally, as a music fan, it’s a shame I can’t put a 24-bit sound card in so I have to settle for a USB based sound to get crisp sound. These are all small compromises in my eyes, but could certainly be deal breakers to someone with different priorities.

If you know of any hardware I should be considering, please chime in. Until I see something clearly better, I’m going to stick with my 4 year old workhorse. And considering how cheap used models are on eBay, perhaps you should too.

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10 thoughts on “I’ll keep my 4 year old laptop, thanks.

  1. Cory, I agree with your comment on the retina 15″ MBP, I use one for work and am constantly having issues with the display in Windows. Fortunately for the most part Visual Studio works alright, but I find issues such as drop down lists being too small compared to the font settings, Console 2 is a prime example.

    I will say though that I just swapped out my personal MBP 13″ for a 13″ Air (2013), and it is perfect, sacrificing the retina display was tough, but the battery life is amazing at > 12 hours, in comparison you’d have to carry 8 replaceable batteries to get the same battery life.

    I’ve also been a stickler for upgradability, and it was a sticking point for me concerning the new range of Macs, but looking at the current specs I think it is worth the tradeoff. A good example of this is the PICe SSD’s which provide on average 750MB/s in both directions, that’s performance that will last a few years.

    Looking at the current generation of laptops I think one would be hard pressed not to find an upgrade over the M6400, possibly the only thing going for it is the screen and expandability. But looking at it from a CPU, GPU, DDR 3 RAM, battery and weight performance (long list), a current 17″ laptop with dedicated GPU would prove better for most needs, including software development.

    Thanks for the interesting writeup.

    • I can totally appreciate the 13″ Air. That’s amazing battery life.

      Everyone has their own priorities, for me “portability” isn’t one of them. A near desktop experience anywhere is my priority (Big screen, full keyboard, dock for home). As a dev, I’ve found screen size/rez really matter. Visual Studio burns a lot of real-estate, as do browser consoles. 1920×1200 at 17″ is the most info I can get on a screen and still read. I have a nice backpack and have carried this machine across the country to conferences and user groups. I enjoy working outside with it as well. All laptops are by definition portable, but you’re certainly right that the 13″ Air shines in that area!

  2. “So many manufacturers are trying to mimic Apple with minimalist keyboards that sacrifice usability for aesthetics” – I know, right? Even latest ThinkPads’ keyboards were “updated” that way, removing gaps between groups of F-keys and re-arranging Ins/Del/Home/End/PgUp/PgDn keys. That said, I had my W530 for a year now and so far I’ve been pretty happy with it. It has Ethernet port, 3 USB ports, Mini DisplayPort and old-school VGA. Easy to open up to add more RAM (more or less – two out of 4 slots are under keyboard) or replace main drive, install additional mini-PCIe cards. It also has Ultrabay – slot where you can put either optical drive, another HDD/SSD, or additional battery, though I never had the need to with it’s pretty long life on stock battery. It can get noisy under heavy load, but I never had it getting hot to touch unless I keep it on my lap. It’s thick and looks very utilitarian, bulky and uncool, but I like it that way. For me the only real downsides are rearranged keys and 16:9 screen, though it’s worth mentioning that screen is only 15.6″ and keyboard has no numeric pad.

    • The Thinkpads are nice machines. I had a 430 as a work machine for awhile. Mine had the lower end screen but the S-IPS screen is very nice. My biggest beefs were the small screen, all plastic build and lack of a full keyboard. Their docking solution is very nice though and it’s battery life was seriously impressive with the extended unit.

      • Actually, it’s plastic only on outside, inside it has a, IIRC, titan-magnesium-something roll cage. External plastic is meant to absorb the impact in case of drop, while the internal roll cage actually protect the components. I dropped closed W520 back corner down onto concrete from slightly above waist height and year after that drop it still works perfectly fine, though it does have a crack and small piece of plastic gone. Mechanically W530 only has different keyboard bezel, otherwise it has the same case as W520. And yes, I own both W530 and earlier W520.

  3. Hear! Hear! I own an aging 16:10 ThinkPad and won’t be touching the latest and greatest until the best-known brand in business notebooks build a business-class notebook again. It also has a removable battery and swappable Ultrabay and, sadly, both of these are going out of style. While its CPUs are fine, today’s hardware-accelerated browsers are pushing its GPU to its limits so I really need Lenovo to get its head out of its ass.

    • Up to last year’s 30’s models ThinkPad still had both removable battery and swappable Ultrabay, as well as several models with dedicated GPUs. Recently announced ThinkPad w540 supposed to fix function keys, splitting them in groups of 4 again, and add numpad. Don’t know if it still retains removable battery and Ultrabay though.

  4. I am using an 8 year old 16:10 laptop, and I don’t know what to replace it with. The world has gone insane – “perfect for watching movies” screens everywhere and lucky if it is “Full High Dumbass” 10% shorter than the old WUXGA. But mind you there are WUXGA screens there, hurrah!!! 7-inch ones on leave-greasy-fingerprints-all-over i-jerk-off pads, isn’t it lovely??? As for the navigation keys it is another study in totally retarded imbecilic stupidity. Make them tiny and shift ’em below Ctrl to make your hand ache, move Home/End/PageDn/Up to opposite side – stretching is great exercise, or get rid of them all together – the great Apple idea. I love that mentioned ThinkPad’s solution: stick Page keys to either side of the arrows – Up is left and Down is right, it’s so nnnnnaturrral. A holy curse forbids a vertical row of those beside the arrows with Shift key reduced to make room for up key – no, the latter has to be the biggest key on keyboard in case you want to press with your nose or foot.
    I blame the ozone hole – the extra radiation has affected the fetuses that now have grown into laptop designers with a few minor mutations in their brains that make laptops appear as primarily DVD players and hand dexterity exercise machines.

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