Dell Precision M90 Review (pics, specs)

by Paul Reads (274,169)

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Overview and Introduction


About a month ago, I decided it was time to get a replacement for my 4-year old Dell Latitude C640.  I originally wanted a 15.4″ notebook or smaller, but after investigating found that a 17″ desktop replacement would probably be more in order. As an engineering student, I figured the power that a DTR could provide would come in handy sooner or later. After months of searching, I decided to go with the Dell Precision M90 for its fantastic performance in both professional 3D applications as well as gaming and its superb build quality. Here are the specs of the machine I received:

  • Intel T2600 2.16GHz Core Duo
  • 1GB DDR2 667 RAM
  • 100GB 7200RPM HDD
  • 17″ WXGA+ @ 1440×900
  • nVidia Quadro FX 1500M
  • Intel 3945a/b/g/ wireless module
  • Windows XP Pro

Purchasing

Originally, I saw this notebook configured through an education reseller suggested to me by my university for software solutions. It was a nice configuration for a nice price. I decided to call Dell up and see if they would match the price of the configuration. That way I could make sure to get the exact specification listed and I could get it straight from the source, eliminating possible hassle if anything needed to be repaired after purchase. Plus, I just felt more secure getting it straight from Dell. After some hassling with customer service, including them trying to offer me an Inspiron 9400 instead, I finally got them to accept the deal. In the end, I purchased this machine for $1,975 plus tax, which was a great deal in my opinion seeing as how my university offers a measly 12% EPP discount compared to others getting 30-35%.  I have yet to price this configuration for less than $2500 despite the several deals Dell has run in the past month.

Build and Design

Hands down, this is probably one of the best aspects of the Precision M90. It is built off of the same chassis as the XPS M1710, and sports a magnesium-alloy casing and steel hinges, as well as Dell’s patented Strike-Zone technology. I found no flex anywhere on the system since I have had it. Not even the LCD flexes when you open it. When I first got it, I actually had to almost ‘pry’ the lid open due to the hinges being nice and tight.  It’s one of the best built computers I have ever used. Design-wise, the M90 is also quite nice. I prefer the look of the M90 to the XPS, and it is definitely meant to deliver the professional looks that engineers and business professionals demand. As you can see from the pictures, it replaces the colors of the XPS to a simple black and brushed metal look, and the lights of the lid were removed. Otherwise, it is exactly the same as the XPS, save for the 3-button mouse. It even features the media buttons on the front, which is a very nice addition that I have grown to love and use a lot.  One feature that is sadly missing from this 17″ is a numeric keypad.  It’s not really a standard, but several 17″ notebooks these days come with them, and I wish this one had.     


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Screen

If the build is the best aspect of the M90, the screen would have to be the worst. As is the case with nearly all Dell 17″ systems, the screen leaves a little to be desired in many respects. I got the WXGA+ screen manufactured by AU Optronics, which is supposed to be the least reliable screen available for Dell 17″ notebooks. Fortunately, I seem to have gotten relatively lucky. I have yet to find any dead pixels, the screen is nice and bright, and the colors are actually quite vivid after you play around with the settings in the nVidia Control Panel for a while. However, the viewing angles are not very good, at times it seems to be unevenly lit, and there is still some light leakage, though not nearly as bad as many I’ve seen.  You can see from the pictures below what I’m talking about.  The screen is nearly unviewable from the top, though I never look at it from that angle so it doesn’t bother me that much.  Also note that the actual look is not nearly as bad as what the pictures indicate.  I’ve heard these effects are much less prominent on the WUXGA screen, but I have yet to use one of those. While it has its drawbacks, overall I am still quite satisfied with the screen. It is definitely an improvement over my old C640s LCD.


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Speakers

The speakers of the M90 were quite a surprise to me. I have never seen a notebook with respectable sound quality, but the M90 definitely falls into that category. I actually use it to listen to music quite a lot. It’s not as good as a complete stereo system, but very good for a notebook. It features two good-sized speakers at the front, and a small subwoofer for more bass on the bottom of the machine.

Performance

The machine definitely excels in this field. At the time, the T2600 was the fastest processor Intel offered, though it has now been one-upped by the T2700 at 2.33GHz. Personally, the T2600 provides all the performance I could ever need. The Core Duo definitely shines when it comes to multitasking. My old Pentium 4m would get really stressed with more than one demanding application open at a time, but the Core Duo takes it all in stride. Having several applications open at a time is nothing. Single-threaded performance is still great, and much better than what I’m used to, but the difference isn’t quite as big to me as the multitasking performance gain. This may change when I start getting into more demanding engineering applications.

As far as gaming performance goes, this machine has yet to disappoint. As you can see from the below benchmarks, the Quadro 1500M is right on par with the Go7900GS. As for real world performance, it is fantastic. I run F.E.A.R. at 1024 res. with max settings, and the only lag I ever notice is due to the RAM (my HDD light is frantically blinking when I get slowdown). If you’re going to be gaming on this machine (or any machine for that matter), I would suggest going for 2GB of RAM. As for other games, I have tried the Prey demo, the Quake 4 demo, and the Doom 3 demo. The 1500M handles all of these games at 1024 res. beautifully, no doubt due to the cards OpenGL optimization. Ultra settings are completely within reach with no lag. It should also be noted though, that the Quadro may give you some hassle with some games due to the fact that it’s a workstation card, and some games don’t like to work with them for some reason. One game that comes to mind is Ford Racing 3. I downloaded the demo after hearing that some M90 owners had problems with it, and it indeed lags terribly. I cannot explain why. The card is more than enough to handle that game, but something about it is not friendly to the Quadro.

Benchmarks

Super Pi calculated to 2 million:

Notebook

Time

Dell Precison M90 (2.16GHz Core Duo)

1m 12s

Asus W3H760DD (2.0 GHz Pentium M)

1m 33s

Dell Inspiron e1505 (2.0GHz Core Duo)

1m 16s

Lenovo ThinkPad T60 (2.0GHz Core Duo)

1m 18s

Toshiba Satellite M100 (2.00GHz Core Duo)

1m 18s

Samsung X60 (1.66GHz Core Duo)

1m 29s

Dell XPS M140 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)

1m 41s

Sony VAIO FS680 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)

1m 53s

IBM ThinkPad T43 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)

1m 45s

 

3DMark05:

Notebook Comparison

3DMark05 Score

Dell Precison M90 (2.16GHz Core Duo, nVidia Quadro FX 1500M )

6,413

ASUS W3V (2.0 GHz Pentium M, ATI X600

1263

Lenovo ThinkPad Z60m (2.0GHz Pentium M, ATI X600 128MB)

1659

ThinkPad T43 (1.86GHz, ATI X300 64MB graphics)

727

Asus V6Va (2.13 GHz Pentium M, ATI Radeon Mobility x700 128 MB)

2530

HP dv4000 (1.86GHz Pentium M, ATI X700 128MB)

2536

Toshiba Satellite M100 (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400 128MB)

1660

 

3DMark06:

Notebook  3DMark 06 Results

Dell Precison M90 (2.16GHz Core Duo, nVidia Quadro FX 1500M )

3,926
Apple MacBook Pro (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1600 128MB  1,528 3D Marks
Sony Vaio SZ-110B in Speed Mode (Using Nvidia GeForce Go 7400)  794 3DMarks
Alienware M7700 (AMD Athlon FX-60 Nvidia GeForce Go7800GTX)  4,085 3DMarks
Dell XPS M1710 (2.16 GHz Core Duo, nVidia 7900 GTX 512MB)  4,744 3D Marks


Gameplay results using Fraps: (all games were at max settings at 1024 res):

F.E.A.R.
(Walking around with mild gunplay)

  •  Min 28
  •  Max 125
  •  Avg 56

(Firefight)

  •  Min 15
  •  Max 99
  •  Avg 43

Quake 4

  •  Min 29
  •  Max 62
  •  Avg 59

Prey (demo)

  •  Min 15
  •  Max 63
  •  Avg 60

Heat and Noise

The computer is not noisy at all. The 7200RPM hard drive is not loud as I have often read. In fact, I never hear it. The fans, when they rarely come on, are not loud either. In fact, the few times that they have kicked in, I didn’t even realize it at first. The only noisy component seems to be the optical drive, but even that is only occasionally bothersome. When it gets going after the initial read, it is barely noticeable. Heat is not a problem either. Even when gaming, it is still cool enough to sit on my lap. I would say this is largely due to the 1500M, which uses less than half the power of 2500M and which seems to generate less heat, but that is pure speculation on my part as I have never used an M90 with the 2500M.

Keyboard and Touchpad

The keyboard has a very nice feel to it. For me, it gives just the right resistance. I have always preferred notebook keyboards, but this is definitely one of the best that I have used.  The touchpad is also quite nice. The driver/software solution for the touchpad gives you a lot of options, which come in handy quite often. Another nice feature is the 3rd mouse button, which is quite rare. It can be programmed to do anything you want it to. My only complaint is with the scroll areas.  Unlike Gateway notebooks, they are not separated from the rest of the touchpad, which causes problems now and again. But overall, it is still a very good pad. 


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I/O

The M90 features plenty of ports. It sports 6 USB 2.0, 1-Firewire, VGA out, DVI out, S-Video out, Express Card slot, Smart Card Reader, and a 4-in-1 Media Card reader (SD, Memory Stick/Pro, MMC, xD). Compact Flash support would be nice, but that would require a much larger reader. It doesn’t really bother me as I don’t use CF, but options are still nice.


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Wireless

My unit came with the Intel 3945 Pro Wireless module. It is a very strong wireless card capable of 802.11 a/b/g. I have yet to have a problem with it. It gets a very strong signal, and rarely disconnects. Even when it does get disconnected, it quickly reconnects.  It is very nice.

Battery

Don’t expect fantastic battery life with a 17″ DTR and a dedicated GPU. That being said, I would say that I can get between 2-3.5 hours of battery life depending on what I’m doing. I was even using Solid Edge (3D modeling) on battery power for about 1.5 hours, and the indicator was still showing nearly 50% left when I turned it off. I am very pleased with the battery life thus far. My old C640 only got 2.5-3 brand new, and it was a thin-and-light 14.1″. I’m sure that the 1500M GPU helps battery life, as it only consumes 45W vs. the 2500M’s 100W of power consumption.  No doubt the Core Duo is at work in this regard as well.

OS and Software

The M90 comes standard with Windows XP Pro, which is nice. As far as software, it comes with little to no bloatware (Google Desktop being the only real exception). Other than that, it comes with a few security applications which I’m assuming are for using the Smart Card Reader and other security features.

Customer Service

Thankfully, I have not had the need to use Customer Service yet (knock on wood).  However, the M90 comes standard with Dell’s Small Business On-site next day service, which is very nice. I don’t suspect I’ll have many problems with Customer Service if I ever need it. Still, the Mobility Plan may be a good upgrade for some.


Conclusion

I am very pleased with the Precision M90. I have yet to have any problems with it. It is a very strong performer as well. In my opinion, this is the perfect notebook for anyone looking for a strong 3D modeling machine with a good build. I would also recommend this to anyone looking for a professional looking and responding notebook with plenty of power for gaming. However, it can be quite pricey (though I would say usually cheaper than an XPS M1710), so if you’re looking for just power, you may want to look elsewhere. And if you’re just into gaming, you may want to know that the Quadro has problems with some games, and is indeed much more expensive than its Geforce counterparts. Despite that, I still highly recommend this notebook.  For more information, check out this review.


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