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Review: Dell's Ubuntu-powered M3800 Mobile Workstation is a desktop destroyer

I finally got my hands on Dell's M3800 Mobile Workstation and found an impressive machine.

031615 dell m3800 laptop ubuntu
Credit: Dell

Dell has offered a Linux (Ubuntu) option on some laptops (and servers) for a few years now. Considering my general love for all things Linux, combined with my (often) overpowering desire to play with new hardware, it's rather odd that I've never gotten my hands on a Linux-powered Dell laptop.

That rather egregious offense has now been remedied.

Right in front of me sits the Dell M3800 Mobile Workstation – a 15.6-inch laptop that doubles as a Linux-powered desktop replacement.

No. "Desktop Replacement" doesn't really do this rig justice. This beast of a machine is a desktop destroyer. 

The Guts

The model I got my nerdy little hands on was packed with the following specs:

  • Intel Core i7 (quad core at 2.3GHz w/6MB of cache).
  • Nvidia Quadro K1100M graphics w/2GB of RAM.
  • 15.6-inch Ultra HD touchscreen display (3840x2160 resolution). This is the resolution that "UHD" or "4K" TV sets use.
  • 16GB of RAM.
  • 256GB Solid State drive.

In other words: A beast. An absolute beast, I tell you. Enough horsepower to make Tim "The Toolman" Taylor proud (with a price tag to match – this configuration runs around $2,200).

Let's put aside that crazy high-resolution screen for a moment and focus on the rest of the hardware.

To get this out of the way right now: It's fast. Very, very fast.

To give you an idea of the speed here – I have a Sony-built Core i5 laptop (with 8GB of RAM, and a pretty standard 5200 rpm laptop hard drive) that I have been using for video editing work. One of my most recent video projects took roughly 70 minutes to render (1080p) on that Sony machine. I copied over that project to the Dell M3800 and used the exact same software (Kdenlive) and settings to render the video. It finished the job in 12 minutes.

See also: Review: Google's Nexus 9 is an awesome tablet, with some caveats

In other words: The M3800 was (nearly) 6 times faster, and would save me almost an hour of rendering time. Part of the difference is, surely, the faster processor. But also the faster RAM, the solid state drive, and the (far more advanced) graphics card in the M3800.

Which brings me to the graphics card. The 2GB Nvidia Quadro. Two gigs of RAM. That's as much RAM as this, very nice, Nexus 9 Android tablet sitting next to me has… in total.

One of the greatest tests of any video card – in my humble opinion – is to throw a few video games at it. So I loaded up Steam and installed a few games that I had a high level of familiarity with, and I was consistently blown away.

Example: I installed Civilization V (the Linux version, naturally). This is a strategy game, but it's a very 3D one (and can be rather taxing on a system). I set the resolution to the full "4K" resolution (which I was surprised so many games supported) and set every single graphics setting to the highest level. And it ran… oddly well. I experience the occasional stutter – and a tiny bit of lag – but overall it was damned impressive. Dialing back either a handful of the graphical options or lowering the resolution to something more reasonable (such as a full 1080p) got rid of those stutters entirely.

Now, here's why that is so great: This testing was done entirely using the, Open Source, Nouveau driver. There are also proprietary Nvidia drivers that the M3800 ships with (or can be obtained from nvidia.com). And you know what? The closed source Nvidia driver definitely provided a noticeable performance improvement – but the performance with the Open Source driver was, already, absolutely fantastic.

See also: Ultimate guide to Linux desktop environments

The Nvidia card isn't the only part of this system that worked well with Open Source drivers – everything else did as well. Everything. It all worked great, right out of the box, with every Linux distribution I tried.

The M3800 ships with Ubuntu, which it works great with. But, as a Linux nerd, I needed to know how well this piece of hardware ran with the other Linux distros I'm likely to use. So I installed openSUSE. And elementary. And Fedora. Every single system ran great with absolutely zero issues. Not once did I need to go hunting on a forum for details on how to get my Wi-Fi (etc.) working. Out of the box this laptop supports Linux, in general, incredibly well.

Which makes me happy.

One (slightly weird) quirk worth mentioning: This unit has no built-in Ethernet port. It ships with a USB-to-Ethernet dongle that worked well when I tested it (admittedly, that test was simply to see if it worked before reverting back to Wi-Fi… which is what I usually use anyway). I'm not sure if I think this is a problem or a great feature. I don't usually plug into an Ethernet network very often… so I suppose… it's a good thing?

The Display

Let's talk a bit more about this display, because it's fairly ridiculous. In a good way.

It turns out having a full "4K" screen packed into only 15.6 inches makes for some serious pixel density. Which is amazing for all the same reasons that having an Ultra-HD/4K TV is amazing. You can play four 1080p videos, simultaneously, tiled in a grid. How crazy is that?

But this resolution, in this size of a screen, also has a major downside: Some stuff just gets too damned small.

I installed a number of different desktop environments in my trials with the M3800 and found that some of them were almost completely unusable due to how astoundingly small the user interface elements were rendered.

MATE (the fork of GNOME 2), for example, was pretty brutal to use. Simply clicking on the items in the status bar was a non-trivial challenge – even the text on the buttons were difficult to read. If I put my face right up against the screen I could see how clear and crisp these elements were displayed, but with your face at a reasonable distance from the screen, the user interface items were downright miniscule.

And don't even ask me about how maddening it can be to resize a window on an older desktop environment like MATE on this screen. Trying to get your mouse cursor positioned right on the window border is enough to drive a man to the brink of insanity.

That said, I don't think I'd consider this a failing of the M3800's screen. More simply, it's just the fact that many pieces of software (and desktop environments) don't handle resolution independence as effectively as they could.

Some noteworthy exceptions: Ubuntu's Unity environment and GNOME Shell. Both handled this ultra-high resolution exceptionally well and provided a great example of how beautiful the rendering can be on both. KDE as well, after a little bit of tweaking, scaled very nicely to this resolution. As did Enlightenment (E19). All four of those environments proved to be great options for a screen like this. MATE, Xfce and LXDE – which are all a bit more "old school" – weren't really usable at all.

Again, while I don't consider this a downfall of the M3800 (quite the opposite), it is certainly something to bear in mind if you are considering picking one up. If you're not happy unless you're running the Xfce desktop environment... then you need a different laptop.

The Form Factor

The M3800 is made up of a combination of aluminum and carbon fiber – it's sturdy, and even the plastic parts have a good feel to them. It's a bit big and heavy (a hair over 4 lbs) to carry around with you, but not so much so that it feels clunky or cumbersome.

Its lines are sleek and it's a bit thinner than you'd expect considering the specs. When you pick it up by the sides it doesn't bend or creak in the slightest. It feels… well made.

But there is a problem.

The trackpad. I don't love it. It's big and high-quality feeling… which is good. But it's not my favorite trackpad ever. Button clicks just didn't register with a reassuring "click" like I typically like. Luckily, this laptop also has a touchscreen, which helped a little by providing an extra means of clicking. But I didn't feel that either input method provided me with the accuracy I often needed. Which means I ended up plugging in a USB mouse a lot of the time. Not the end of the world – and certainly not the first laptop to have this issue – but worth noting. The trackpad is good enough for usage here and there, but not for long stretches of precision mouse manipulation. What can I say? I'm picky about my trackpads.

Now, on to something good. The keyboard.

It is fantastic. The key spacing, the feel of the keys themselves, the shape of the keys (they have subtle curves in the tops)… it's all excellent. I wouldn't call this the best keyboard I've ever used on any computer, but it might be in the running for the best keyboard on a laptop. And that's saying something (I'm even pickier about my keyboards than I am about my trackpads). In fact, I'd say the high quality of the keyboard more than makes up for the shortcomings of the trackpad.

And there's one touch on the keyboard that I found to be absolutely awesome.

The font. I don't normally think much about the font used on keyboards, but this one really jumped out at me. It's this Sci-Fi-looking, almost pseudo-Star Trek inspired font that makes the system look like it's from the 23rd century. Opening the lid to reveal this slightly space age-looking keyboard (with nice back lighting) makes for a great first impression. It's a little touch, but I love it.

The Verdict

This is not a Chromebook. This is, in fact, the polar opposite of a Chromebook.

It is (comparatively) expensive. It's big. It's not feather-light (about 4 lbs), though quite a bit lighter than you expect it to be considering the size. It's powerful as hell. The battery life isn't anything to write home about (about 4 hours of really intensive use, including gaming) which means you won't want to be far away from a power outlet.

And… I really dig it. I don't believe I've ever been as impressed with the visual quality of Linux (as a desktop operating system) as I was when I ran GNOME Shell on the M3800. This, right here, is a "show off" machine. If I were to bring this to a Linux conference and set it up on a table… it would draw attention.

If you're a casual user who needs to do some web browsing and word processing, you do not need this machine. You could probably get a machine for 1/5th of the price that will do what you need quite well.

But if you're doing graphic design or video editing, this laptop is absolutely stellar. Same goes if you are a software developer – the screen is easy on the eyes, the keyboard is great to type on for extended periods of time, and the speed of this rig… holy cow. It's a great choice for developers.

Or for gaming. If I were to show up at a LAN party, put down this beast of a laptop, and booted up Linux to play, say, DOTA 2 or Team Fortress 2… it would turn heads.

To sum all of that up: This is a "no compromise" complete mobile workstation with fantastic Linux support. It's not cheap, but if this is the type of system you need – and I know many of you do – the price is worth it.

Also the screen is bonkers.

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