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Dell's new Precision M90 mobile workstation


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Author/Animator/Musician Michael Hurwicz gives us a first look at Dell's new Precision M90 mobile workstation, and finds that it's a significant step forward in technology. But should you wait for what's around the corner?

A new line of Dell Precision laptops was announced today (Wednesday, March 29, 2006), based on the new Intel® Centrino® Duo Mobile Technology. I have been waiting to get my hands on one of these, to see if they really are a vastly superior laptop machine for running 3ds max, as processor tests would suggest.

Processor tests have showed up to 60% better performance, with equal or lower power consumption, compared to previous processors. That should mean a significantly faster laptop and longer battery life. The main reason for the performance jump is the dual-core processor, basically two processors in one. The power consumption results from a variety of new and enhanced power management features.

I was particularly interested in how the new Dell laptops would run 3ds max, which tends to be a fairly CPU-intensive application. By promising Dell I would get a review up on Creative COW on the day of the announcement, I managed to get them to send me a review unit. The downside of this is that I only had about 24 hours to do my testing. Here are my first impressions:

The first thing that got my attention was the 17" wide aspect 1920x1200 pixel screen. That's significantly more real estate and resolution than the 15.4" 1680x1050 screen of the M70, the predecessor to the M90. At about 14.5" x 9", the M90 display is great for 3ds max, which can use the extra width for the command panel. In particular, by expanding the command panel to two columns (as shown on the right in the figure figure below), you can get at any rollout without scrolling. It gives you a better overview and saves time. The M90 lets you expand the command panel and still have plenty of room left over for the viewports.

The M90 I reviewed also had a new NVIDIA graphics card, the Quadro FX 2500M, which replaces the Go1400 used in the M70. I understand that the "standard" graphics card for the M90 will be the the Quadro FX 1500M, which is in the same category as the Go1400, though with some new features and better performance. The 2500M is for the wealthy and the power-mad.

Speaking of wealth, I didn't get prices for the line of new Precision laptops, so you'll have to go the the Dell site for that.

One thing I didn't notice: fan noise. I had to put my ear up to the unit to hear the tiny, high-pitched whine of the fans.

The M90 I tested had 2GB of physical memory, one dual-core T2600 processor running at 2.11GHz, and a system bus running at 667MHz. (A 533MHz model will also be available.)

I was impressed with the results of preliminary informal testing, which indicated that the M90 performed 3ds max renders about as fast as an HP xw6000 desktop tower unit with dual 2.8GHz Xeon processors, 1GB of physical memory, and a Quadro FX 2000 graphics card. Even though the xw6000 is a three-year-old machine, it's something to see a laptop with one (dual-core) 2.11GHz processor keeping up with a tower workstation with two 2.8GHz processors.

I also found some Viewperf tests for the M70 online and thought that might make an interesting comparison point. The table below shows the comparison between the M90 (my testing) and the M70 (existing tests) for the Viewperf 8.1 3DSMAX test.

M70 35.57
M90 49.46

In other words, nearly a 40% increase--right in the range suggested by the processor testing I mentioned earlier.

The M90 is designed as a desktop replacement, for the person who wants one machine to use at home and at work. So while portabilityis a requirement, weight is not the primary consideration. Starting at 8.4 lbs with a 9-cell battery and travel module, the M90 is not the lightest laptop around. With its magnesium alloy chassis, it does feel like a rock solid machine.

Naturally, there is always something better coming down the road. I am always torn between buying now and getting more computer for less money 6 to 12 months from now. In this case, the "something better" is Intel's Next Generation Micro Architecture (NGMA), which will be embodied in the Merom processor, expected in the second half of 2006. Check out this article for more on Merom.

Taking the M90 on its own merits, though, it represents a significant advance for those who want to run heavy-duty applications like 3ds Max on a laptop.

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