Dell Precision M70 Review and Linux Setup (pics, specs)

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Overview

At the time of this review (April 5, 2005), the 7 lbs Precision M70 is the top-of-the line workstation notebook from Dell. Its main distinction from the Inspiron and Latitude series of notebooks is the graphics card, which is an OpenGL certified NVIDIA Quadro FX 1400. Graphics cards of this type (the ATI FireGL line is similar) have superior computational precision and are certified to work with applications that engineers, 3D artists, and CAD designers use. Unlike some of its predecessors, this Quadro FX also performs well on gaming benchmarks. The laptop is otherwise similar to the Dell Latitude D810.

Dell Precision M70 Tested System Specs:

  • Pentium M Processor 760 (1.995 GHz, 2MB L2 Cache)
  • 15.4″ WSXGA+ Screen (1680×1050 pixels)
  • 1 GB 533 MHz DDR2 SDRAM (two 512MB DIMMs)
  • NVIDIA Quadro FX Go1400 OpenGL with 256MB on-board RAM
  • 8X DVD+/-RW Drive (removable, in the modular bay)
  • TravelLite Module (for replacing the DVD Drive with air)
  • 60GB 7200RPM Hard Drive
  • Intel PRO/Wireless 2915 a/b/g
  • 3 Year Standard Business On-Site International Warranty
Reason for buying

My main computer use is scientific analysis (heavy CPU and disk usage), with a little gaming on the side. My old notebook was a Dell Inspiron 4100, dual-booting Red Hat Linux and Windows 2000 Pro. I was looking to replace it with a notebook under $2500, and my requirements were that it be fairly quiet and under 7 lbs, have a regular or wide screen SXGA+ LCD, and come out of the box with a 7200 RPM hard drive and 1 GB, 533 MHz DDR2 SDRAM. I also wanted it to have a video card that could run video games comfortably at least 3 years into the future (in terms of the 3DMark 2005 benchmark, have a score > 2000).

There are very few laptops that fulfill all the requirements. Being a Macintosh fan, I was seriously tempted by the 15″ PowerBook. It has by far the best styling and performance/weight ratio of the laptops in this category. But the steep price tag, low LCD resolution, lack of 7200 RPM drive, and middle-of-the-road graphics card dissuaded me. The Toshiba Tecra M3 seemed to fulfill most prerequisites at under 6 lbs, but there were reports of a noisy fan and an underperforming NVIDIA GeForce 6600 graphics card; in addition, it had a price tag of $2500 with warranty, right around my limit. The Acer TravelMate 8100 seemed to be another one, at $2200, but I had read reports of lousy warranty service, and it does not come with a 7200 RPM hard drive. Furthermore, while its ATI X700 has superb performance, ATI’s support of Linux is less enthusiastic than NVIDIA’s. The Dell Precision M70, on the other hand, fit all my requirements. Also, I’ve had a very positive experience when I’ve needed Dell’s onside service with my Inspiron 4100.

Where and How Purchased

The full list price for the system on Dell’s website was around $3400, but as we all know with Dell, one never has to pay the full price. You probably have heard of the 35% off coupons available every few weeks for Inspiron systems (a simple Google search will reveal them). Most people seem to think that these coupons are never available for Dell’s Latitude and Precision systems. That’s what I used to think too, until I logged in one morning to see a 35% off coupon for Dell Small Business. I immediately jumped on it and placed a call to Dell. By calling them, rather than ordering online, I was able to receive the same discount as the coupon, as well as avoid the shipping charge, which the website wanted to add to my bill. The total charge was $2300, including tax. All in all this was a superb bargain. The coupons were gone the next day. I am not sure how often these coupons run; you may have to wait a long time.

Form & Design

I measured the system’s weight to be close to 7 lbs with the DVD+/-RW drive in the modular bay, and close to 6.5 lbs with the TravelLite Module installed in the bay. This is the same weight as my Inspiron 4100, which was advertised as “thin and light” notebook back in 2002. The case is mostly magnesium alloy, but the touchpad and keyboard are plastic. The dimensions are as advertised, 1.67″(h) x 14.2″(w) x 10.3″(d). Overall the notebook feels sturdy and is quite portable for its size, and it just fits in the Targus backpack that I used for my old 4100. One complaint I have is that the power cable is shorter than in previous Dell models. It does not reach as far as I need it to.

I am very glad to report that the fan is extremely quiet even during persistently high CPU usage.



Front View with the Ubuntu Linux 5.04 login window (view larger image)

Screen

The 1680×1050 WSXGA+ screen, while having similar pixel pitch as my Inspiron 4100’s (0.197 mm), is clearly superior. Not only is it bigger, it is also sharper, brighter, and more crisp. There were no dead pixels in the unit I received. I did notice the “dirty white” effect previously mentioned about Dell screens—when viewing a pure white background, there is a slight impression that it is not pure white, but grayish. However, I should say that at least to me this effect seemed barely noticeable—I certainly would not have thought of it had there not been a discussion of it in previous reviews. Overall I was impressed with this screen.



Microsoft Windows XP Pro running Cygwin and Doom 3 (view larger image)



Ubuntu Linux 5.04 view with Doom 3 (view larger image)

Sound

As with all notebooks, the speakers leave something to be desired, especially in the bass response. However, they are front-facing and considerably louder and more bass-responsive than my Inspiron 4100’s speakers, which I could barely hear at maximum setting. I recommend headphones for serious music listening.

Processor Performance

To test the power of the CPU and the graphics processor, I ran several benchmarks.
  • CPU Benchmarks. On Windows XP I ran the standard SuperPi and PCMark 2004 benchmarks. I also ran pi_css5, an open source program to calculate Pi. The advantage of using pi_css5 is that it runs on Windows, Linux, and Mac, allowing me to compare the raw CPU performance on the M70 using Windows and Linux; and also to compare that with the CPU performance of my PowerPC G5 (single 2.0 GHz processor, 2GB DDR SDRAM, 128 MB ATI Radeon 9600).
  • Graphics Benchmarks. On Windows XP, I ran the standard 3DMark 2005 Demo (restricted to 1024×768). On Windows, Linux, and Mac, I measured the lowest frame rate I observed on the Unreal Tournmanet 2004 Assault Demo at the highest resolution (1680×1050) and with all the settings set to highest quality. I also played the Doom 3 Demo (not the timeDemo) for a while and recorded the same (note that the Doom 3 Demo would not allow me to go to to SXGA+ resolution; 1280×1024 is the best I could do. I also ran glxgears, a measure of graphics processor capability under Linux and Mac OS X. For help on installing Linux on the M70, read the Operating Systems section below.

Test Type
Precision M70
Windows XP Pro SP2

Precision M70
Ubuntu Linux 5.04

PowerMac G5
Mac OS X

PCMark 04
4140
n/a
n/a
SuperPi (2 Million Digits)
1’37” (lower is better)
n/a
n/a
pi_css5 (2 Million Digits)
20″ (lower is better)
19″
30″
3DMark 05 Demo 1024×768
2365 n/a n/a
Unreal Tournament 2004 1680×1050
All settings set to highest quality
40 FPS (minimum) 45 FPS (minimum) 20 FPS (minimum)
Doom 3 Demo 1280×1024
Ultra high quality, no anti-aliasing
38 FPS (minimum) 40 FPS (minimum) n/a
glxgears 1680×1050
32 FPS (Cygwin emulated) 986 FPS 215 FPS

We can learn several things from these benchmarks.
  • CPU performance: First of all, SuperPi is a very slow Pi calculation program; pi_css5 is about 5 times faster. The Dell’s 2.0GHz Pentium M beats a 2.0GHz PowerMac G5 by about 30% in the pi_css5 test. And Linux is about 5% faster than Windows when it comes to computing Pi.
  • Graphics: The Windows XP glxgears result should not be taken seriously; it is run using the Cygwin unix emulator and merely indicates that Cygwin’s graphics emulation is about 30 times slower than native Linux or Windows graphics. Otherwise, 3D graphics performance appears slightly better in Linux than in Windows XP.
  • Overclocking note: while I have not tried overclocking the NVIDIA Quadro FX 1400, other people who have done so safely report 3DMark 2005 scores well above 3000.

Keyboard and Mouse

The keyboard is nearly unchanged from the Dell Inspiron 4100. The keys have a good springiness to them and the typing experience is satisfactory. There are controls for turning the volume off, up and down as well. The touchpad is a bit picky—if you lean on any part of the laptop adjacent to the touchpad you may see undesired behavior. The pointing stick seems to work well enough, though I rarely use it.




Keyboard. Above the keyboard are extra volume up, volume down, and mute keys.  There is a wireless status light as well (view larger image)

Input and Output Ports

Possibly the biggest drawback to the M70 is that it has no FireWire (IEEE 1934) ports. This means that if you have a FireWire hard drive or camera that you need to connect, you’re stuck buying a PCMCIA adapter ($30-$70). There are also no Flash card (i.e., digital camera/MP3 player solid state memory) readers. The four USB 2.0 ports are too many for my needs—two would have sufficed. There is also a (useless to me) infrared port, a smart card reader (for two-factor authentication, useless to me), a modem port (again, useless), an ethernet port, an S-video out port, a VGA port, a serial port, and a headphone adapter. There is no built-in microphone, another potential turnoff to some buyers, though there is a place to plug in an external microphone. Overall, this is the worst part about the M70—too many useless ports, and some glaring omissions.



Back view, showing, from left to right, four fan vents, the IR receiver, the ethernet adapter, the modem port, two USB 2.0 ports, S-Video out port, serial port, video port, and power input with power cable attached. There are also four fan vents to the right (view larger image)


Top: right side view, with DVD burner, headphone and microphone ports, and 2 USB 2.0 ports. Middle: left side view, with PCMCIA slot, smartcard slot, and hard disk drive. Bottom: front view with speakers and latch (view larger image)

Wireless

The Intel 2915 a/b/g adapter functions beautifully. There are three possible states you can set for it in the BIOS: on, off, or manually controlled. With the manually controlled feature, you can press Fn-F2 to toggle power to it on or off. You can also turn it on or off using the Dell Quickset menu option in the Windows XP. If you plan to run Linux, I would strongly recommend getting this one instead of the Dell-branded adapter, because the Intel wireless worked correctly without any tweaking with all the Linux distributions I tried.

Power and Battery


For this review, I left the system on battery power using Windows XP, with the power scheme set to Portable/Laptop (which, according to BayWolf’s excellent SpeedStep FAQ, uses adaptive CPU speed control). During this time I mainly used the system to download large demo files at over 500 kbps, so the hard drive and wireless card were constantly at work. I measured a battery life of about 2.5 hours. From this I estimate that the battery can support 2.5 hours of watching a DVD, and under 2 hours of serious 3D gaming.

To be honest, I rarely use the batteries on my laptops. When traveling on an airplane, I always make sure I am seated next to a DC power plug. There is an optional Auto/Air adapter available for the M70 for this purpose. I wish Dell would make a light, 15 minute battery for when you do not need battery power, which is about 99% of the time for me. This would reduce the weight of the system to around 6 lbs or less with the TravelLite Module.

Operating Systems and Software

The system comes preinstalled with Windows XP Professional (there was no option for getting the Home edition) as well as DVD Burning/Viewing software.  It takes about 15 seconds from power on for the WinXP login screen to appear. One note of interest is that Microsoft will now allow you to get a free 12-month trial of Computer Associates’ anti-virus software.

Linux Support

I have been running the Linux operating system since 1994, and I have always had trouble getting it up and running on new hardware. The Precision M70 was no exception, but once I did get it going, Linux performance was superb (it did, however, take close to 50 seconds to boot up, about 3 times slower than Windows). I was running Red Hat on my old Inspiron 4100, but I was deeply unhappy with its software installer, the RPM package management system (the words “dependency hell” come to mind). From my experience with Mac OS X, I knew that the Debian-based APT software was far superior. I chose Ubuntu Linux, a distribution based on Debian, but more up-to-date. When I booted the Live CD, all the hardware was detected—wireless card, sound, video card, PCMCIA, USB hot plug, etc. However, once the graphical system (X11/X.org) booted, the whole thing froze. I tried alternatives, such as MEPIS, that were based on XFree86 instead of X.org; while these booted just fine, they would not detect sound or the correct video resolution. I should also note that the Knoppix Live CD v3.7 completely froze the computer seconds after boot, even in failsafe mode.

Here is how I got Ubuntu working. As usual with Linux, I received no help whatsoever on the forums, and it took me about 7 hours to fix the problem. The problem was that the open-source video driver (“nv”) distributed by Ubuntu did not work with my system. However, downloading the proprietary driver (“nvidia”) fixed all the problems. Here is how to do it:

  • Repartition your hard drive to leave some free space (using PartitionMagic or QTparted on MEPIS).
  • Do not use the Ubuntu Live CD; download the full installer.
  • The installer should detect all hardware without problem. It will reboot twice.
  • Once the graphical screen comes up, do not login. Instead, select “Reboot.”
  • In the boot loader, select the “recovery mode” option.
  • Once it boots to a text-only screen, type “apt-get install nvidia-glx”
  • Answer yes to all the questions.
  • Edit the X11 configuration file: “pico /etc/X11/xorg.conf”
  • Find the word “nv”; change it to the word “nvidia”
  • Save and exit. Then type “reboot”
  • Boot the normal setup; it should work just fine.
Warranty and Customer Support

I have not yet had to use warranty service for this computer. However, I had a 3 year onside warranty for my Inspiron 4100, and I was very happy with it. Of course, the fact that I needed warranty service five times over 3 years is perhaps a not so encouraging aspect of owning a Dell. I would definitely recommend an extended warranty when you buy any laptop—chances are, you will use it several times, especially after the first year.

Praises:
  • Beautiful magnesium alloy case.
  • Super-quiet operation—virtually no fan noise.
  • Very fast 3D graphics, behind only the ATI X800 and the NVIDIA 6800 series cards (as of April 2005).
  • Crisp LCD screen.
  • A true desktop replacement yet quite portable at 7 lbs.
  • Outstanding floating point CPU performance, easily topping a PowerMac G5.
Complaints:
  • No FireWire or Flash card ports; several redundant or (to most people) useless ports.
  • Overpriced unless you can find a 35% off coupon.
  • Touchpad is fussy if you lean on the palm rests (typical for Dell).
  • Shorter power cable than previous Dell models.
  • Pure white backgrounds appear slightly grayish or “dirty” (again typical for Dell). This was barely noticeable to me.
  • Linux users will need to download NVIDIA drivers and perform a minor edit of xorg.conf to get X.org to run (as of April 2005).

Conclusion:

The Dell Precision M70 is a beautiful high-end workstation with superb graphics and CPU performance. It is an excellent system for the mobile engineer, graphic artists, scientist, and yes, gamer. There are few laptops out there that offer this kind of performance in a 15″ screen model under 7 lbs. Unless you need high-precision OpenGL certified 3D graphics, you may be better off getting an Acer TravelMate 8100, which has very comparable specifications and performance. But if you can get the price below $2500, I would say the Dell is a better deal because of the superior warranty service and the out-of-the-box availability of the faster hard drive.



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