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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Removable battery. While battery life is admittedly pretty awful, being able to switch it out when it dies is a big convenience.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.