Dell Precision M20 Review (pics, specs)

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by Nick W, California, USA

Dell Precision M20 (view larger image)

Dell Precision M20 Specs as Ordered

  • Intel Pentium M 750 (1.86GHz, 2MB L2 Cache, 533MHz FSB)
  • 14.0″ SXGA+ (1400 x 1050) Samsung display
  • 1 GB 533 MHz DDR2 SDRAM (512MB x 2 SODIMM)
  • ATI Mobility FireGL V3100 w/ 64MB VRAM
  • 60 GB 7200 RPM Hitachi Hard Drive
  • 8x Hitachi/LG DVD Drive w/ Software MPEG 2
  • Dell Wireless 1370 WLAN (802.11 b/g, 54Mbps) Mini PCI card
  • Internal 56K Modem
  • 6-Cell 53 watt/hour Panasonic battery

Introduction

The Precision M20 is Dell’s thin and light mobile workstation.  Whereas its big brother, the Precision M70, is a mobile powerhouse of a machine, the M20 makes up for pure power with a manageable size and weight for users on the go.  With that said, this notebook is far from underpowered and provides good performance especially considering its basement, bargain price. 

Reasons for Buying

I decided on buying this notebook because my ideal choice from Dell, the Latitude D610, was not on sale and never is on its website.  Recently, there was a coupon code for the Precision line on notebooks, basic clones of the Latitude line except for the workstation level graphics cards and I decided on purchasing one.  I’m aware that the Precision line might be too much notebook for a fairly basic user like myself, however from what I can tell it is principally no different from the Latitude D610 besides the OpenGL graphics card.  I would have settled for the less expensive Inspiron line but Dell’s home user laptops fail to offer a true thin and light notebook for a constant traveler like me.  The 700m comes close but I didn’t find the 12 inch widescreen and rather unusual styling to my taste.  I also looked at IBM’s ThinkPad T43 but I was turned off by the high price point for basically a comparable system configuration as my own. 

Purchasing Experience

As mentioned, I purchased this system through Dell Small Business online.  During the time of purchase, the Precision M20 came with a Dell advanced port replicator and scroll mouse at no extra cost.  In addition to the system, I bought a Dell UltraSharp 1704FPT monitor for a discounted price of about $130.  I opted for the 3 year full warranty with Complete Care.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with Dell’s warranty scheme, Complete Care in theory is suppose to cover your system and anything bought along with your system from accidental damage.  For the extra 300 dollars, I felt it was a good investment on my notebook and the LCD monitor.  I used a 35 percent off coupon (available every so often) to knock my system price including tax and shipping to a total of $1817.  I honestly cannot imagine finding a better deal for this kind of system.  Like I said, an IBM similarly configured would cost 3000 dollars or more.  Estimated ship time was two weeks because of the 7200rpm hard drive which was in limited supply.  It turns out it arrived only 8 days later!  Dell often over estimates its ship dates and adds an extra week buffer to factor in unexpected delays.
 
Form & Design

 
The M20 is fairly large for a thin and light notebook (view larger image)

The design of the M20 is very basic which is typical for Dell.  Measuring 1.4 inches in width and weighing about 5.5 lbs. it’s larger than what I expected.  But judging from the size and weight gain from the Latitude D600 to Latitude D610 line of notebooks it’s as to be expected because of the transition to the new Pentium M, Intel 915PM Express chipset, or possibly the newer ATI graphics cards.  The M20 is exactly the same size and color as the Latitude D610, using a metallic grey color scheme with silver accents around the keyboard touchpad areas.  The advertised Tri-metal (magnesium, aluminum and steel compound) chassis surrounds only the back of the screen which is a shame.  The rest of the chassis is made of a quite firm and hard plastic material.  My first laptop was a Dell Latitude with a Pentium II 266MHz some 6 years ago and the plastics tended to flex all over the place, but this notebook showed very little signs of stress when I pushed against the palm rest and the rear of the LCD.  Below the system there’s a hard drive strike zone.  It’s a rubber nub that lies below the hard drive compartment made to protect the drive from and harsh bumps that would lead to possible damage.  To help with weight concerns, it comes with a travel light module to replace the DVD drive if you really care about the fractional weight savings it can offer.  After typing this review and watching a DVD with this unit on my lap, I can say that it does get moderately warm on the bottom of the laptop but the heat does not permeate to the keyboard or palm rest areas.  The one flaw found in the case was the LCD screen not fully sealed around its edges.  You can see light leaking out from the sides when viewing from an extreme angle.  Although this didn’t affect the viewing experience of the screen, it’s rather annoying to know that the system isn’t sealed around its screen borders.  Also, it’s only been a week and I notice that dust is finding its way into the cracks on the left and right sides where the substandard fitting flaw is found.

 
The LCD is housed in a Dell’s Tri-Metal chassis (view larger image)

Screen

The screen is a 14.1 inch SXGA+ LCD manufactured by Samsung.  It’s extremely sharp and colors were on par with most notebook LCD screens.  I found the backlight brightness was rather inconsistent at different viewing angles.  It was rather difficult for me to find the optimum view angle in terms of consistent brightness.  Still, brightness control was great offering 8 dimming settings to choose from.  The screen also has the common sparkly effect many Dell owners are familiar with.  I found it to be less distracting than I had originally thought and it really isn’t noticeable after extended use.  What I find more distracting is the reflective coatings used to enhance contrast, which thankfully this system does not furnish.

 
The LCD screen is relatively crisp and vivid (view larger image)

Speakers

This unit houses better than average speakers.  It provides good midtones and fairly good clarity considering its size.  Unsurprisingly, it lacked rich bass but that’s the drawback of using the provided speakers.  Speaker sound is highly subjective so don’t trust me on this.  I’m comparing my experience with my previous laptop which is ancient in comparison to this one.  Some of you may compare laptop speakers with your home systems but it’s really not a fair fight considering the size and space constraints of notebook speakers.  If you want better sound, stick with external speakers however I find the supplied speakers adequate for multimedia use.   A major problem however lies with using the headphones jack.  There is major distortion when the unit is running.  It intensifies when the hard disk or the touchpad is in use.  I’ve read that this is a common problem with some Dell notebooks but I have yet to find a solution.  However, many believe the problem lies with the dedicated ATI graphics subsystem not cooperating well with the SigmaTel audio chip.

Processor and Performance

The new Pentium M 750 – 1.86GHz is very speedy.  Boot up time was fast ranging from 32 to 35 seconds from power on to the login prompt.  After installing an antivirus program and a software firewall, the time dropped slightly but that is to be expected.  The good performance can also be attributed to the fast 7200 rpm hard drive and generous amounts of RAM.  There are a few initial hiccups while watching a video on PowerDVD while using multiple programs like Photoshop, Excel and Word, but everything ran smoothly considering the heavy application load.  The only real problem in performance would be the ATI Mobility FireGL graphics card.  First off, if this notebook is tailored for the engineering crowd working with CAD/CAM applications.  I doubt 64MB of dedicated memory would be enough to work with.  In addition, from what little research I’ve done, the FireGL V3100 is just a repackaged version of the Mobility x300 with OpenGL clocked slightly lower for system stability.  All in all, it’s more than fine for the average user like me; running a movie or a basic game here and there is no sweat.  But I’m not so sure a real professional, who this notebook is intended for, would be very happy with such a basic graphics subsystem.         

Benchmarks

We use the program Super Pi to get a benchmark of processor speed.  The Super Pi program simply forces the processor to calculate Pi to a selected number of digits of accuracy.  Calculating to 2 million digits is our benchmark.  Below is a comparison chart of how the Precision M20 with it’s 1.86GHz processor stacked up to other similar notebooks when running this calculation:

 Notebook Time to Calculate Pi to 2 Million Digits
Dell Precision M20 (1.86 GHz Alviso Pentium M) 1m 37s
Dell Inspiron 6000 (1.60GHz Alviso Pentium M) 1m 52s
IBM ThinkPad T43 (1.86GHz Alviso Pentium M) 1m 45s
Fujitsu LifeBook N3510 (1.73 GHz Alviso Pentium M) 1m 48s
IBM ThinkPad T41 (1.6GHz Banias Pentium M) 2m 23s
Compaq R3000T (Celeron 2.8GHz) 3m 3s
Dell Inspiron 600m (1.6 GHz Dothan Pentium M) 2m 10s
Dell Inspiron 8600 (1.7GHz Banias Pentium M) 2m 28s


Other Tests  Results
 PCMark04  3571
 3DMark05  721

HD Tune Tests Results
Transfer rate min  17.2 MB/s
Transfer rate max 40.0 MB/s
Transfer rate average  30.3 MB/s
Access time  14.1 ms
Burst rate 66.9 MB/s
CPU usage 5.0%

Keyboard and Pointing Devices

 
Dell’s keyboard is a delight to use offering both trackpoint and touchpad (view larger image)

I have nothing but praise for this keyboard.  The keyboard provided good feedback and felt very sturdy.  It offered a satisfying and trouble free typing experience.  I failed to find the many problems discussed about Dell laptop keyboards.  My fingers did not get caught in the keys nor did I experience keyboard flex when typing with strong downforce.  This laptop and the business line of all Dell notebooks offers a touchpad and trackpoint.  Both pointing devices performed satisfactory.

Input and Output Ports

The unit houses 4 USB ports, a parallel port, serial port, VGA out, infrared, SPDIF port, S-Video out, RJ-45, RJ-11, and a headphone and microphone port.  The left side holds a PCMCIA slot for type 2 cards.  Below that there is a Smartcard reader.  I find it annoying that Dell excluded Firewire, DVI, and some form of a Memory Card reader.  However the free port replicator provided has a DVI port so at least I can connect my external LCD monitor to the notebook without having to resort to using the VGA out.


Headphone, Microphone, PCMCIA, Smartcard, Infrared (view larger image)

 
Modular Bay (DVD Drive), 2 USB ports (view larger image)


RJ-45, S-Video out, 2 USB ports, RJ-11, Parallel port, Serial port, VGA out, Power In (view larger image)
 

Wireless

The unit has a Mini PCI Dell 1370 (802.11b/g) internal wireless solution.  When activated, there is a system light next to the power button console that lights up indicating Wi-Fi access.  The wireless connection I received offers a good range and I had no problems connecting to a wireless hotspot at my local Starbucks.  With a key combo or through Dell’s Quickset software, you can turn off Wi-Fi.  This notebook also comes with the option of am internal Bluetooth card if so desired. 

Battery

The M20 comes with a 6-cell, 53 watt lithium ion battery manufactured by Panasonic.  It features a push button power meter that lights up showing how much power is remaining.  It’s a handy feature if you don’t want to turn on your computer to find out your battery power status.  Basic usage consisting of web browsing, Photoshop and Word provided 3 hours and 43 minutes of battery life with screen brightness down to half.  You have the opinion of replacing the DVD drive for a second, modular battery for maximum longevity.  Charging the system with a drained battery and the system shut off took about an hour and a half.  The battery life specs I’ve given are hardly precise but I find that basic usage is relative to the user so it really does depend on who’s using the notebook.

 
The battery is housed in the left bottom region (view larger image)

Software

In terms of software, you get the usual standard.  Microsoft Windows XP Pro SP2 comes preloaded.  PowerDVD 5 comes preloaded for DVD movie viewing.  Other than Dell’s Quickset software for configuring power consumption, that is basically all the software you get.  I find this a good thing because some systems are loaded with junk.  With only the basics on this notebook, I found it unnecessary to format the system and immediately started using it.

Service and Support

Dell’s customer service seems to get a bad rap but my experiences with them are very positive.  I failed to mention that there was a dead pixel close to the center of my screen.  Rather than returning the system and having them send a new one, I asked them to send someone to replace the screen.  After they helped me run a series of tests on the screen to confirm that it was a dead pixel, they arranged for a technician to come by the next day.  By noon the next day, I had a technician at the door with my replacement screen and he swapped it within 30 minutes.  After that I see no discernable problems with the screen anymore.  Kudos to Dell for their hassle free and prompt response time!

Pros:

  • Excellent price
  • Good performance
  • Good service and support

Cons:

  • Relatively underpowered graphics card
  • Larger than some truly “thin and light” notebooks
  • General fit and finish needs some work
  • No DVI or Firewire
  • Headphone jack audio problem

Conclusion

Dell’s Precision M20 in essence is a very respectable notebook.  It provides an almost perfect blend of price, performance, and portability.  What would send this notebook over the top would be if it had a better graphics card, and better output options on board.  And a note to Dell:  Please fix this headphone jack problem in your new notebooks!!!  Ultimately, most users will be more than satisfied with what Dell has to offer in this laptop.

Pricing and Availability

 


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