This is a remarkable little powerhouse.  In the confines of a typically proportioned laptop it packs in the capabilities needed in a top-level engineering workstation type of PC for serious manufacturing design, industrial design or multimedia production.  It provides the processor power needed, the display performance and image quality needed, and the memory needed.  I installed several CAD products on it, including Ashlar-Vellum’s Cobalt solid modelling design system, that I already knew shows up the limitations of quite powerful Pentium-3 Pcs.  The Dell M50 proved a good platform for Cobalt.

This model has a 1.8MHz Intel ‘Mobile Pentium 4’ processor with 512k L2 cache, 512Mb of 266MHz SDRAM memory, a 55Gb hard drive, and, most importantly for the type of software to which it is oriented, a high performance display board with hardware OpenGL support.

It has an impressive array of connector sockets.  There are two USB ports, a serial port, a parallel printer port, an external display socket, an RJ-11 phone-line socket for the built-in V92 modem, an RJ-45 Ethernet connector, an S-Video output socket, mini-jacks for microphone, headphones and speaker, an IEEE 1394 Firewire socket, two PC-card slots (unused) and a docking station connector.  There is no need for PC-cards for modem or Ethernet.

The screen is Dell’s ‘Ultrasharp’ 15″ UXGA TFT.  It lives up to its ‘Ultrasharp’ slogan.  It is most brilliant, crystal-sharp picture I have ever seen.  It is designed for 1600 x 1200 display resolution, which is remarkably high for an LCD screen.  Certainly very high screen resolution is desirable for high-end design software, but I found that this was actually a bit too good in some ways!  What I mean is, it is better than either Windows or my eyes can handle well.

Dell Precision Mobile Workstation M50As display resolution is increased, the various display objects used in Windows get smaller because they are defined as so many pixels.  Windows does allow you to select three relative sizes of menu and other text, but I found that dialog boxes do not take notice of those settings, and displayed with minute text and tiny buttons.  I just could not work with it like that.  Even though so tiny, the text was actually very clear if I looked closely – a tribute to the screen system – but at normal viewing distance it was too small for me.  So I reset the Windows display to 1280 x 1024, which is still higher than provided on an average computer and quite adequate for top-end software.  But, because LCD displays, unlike tube monitors, are actually constructed with an array of pixels, the system displayed a warning that I had selected a non-optimum display resolution and should use 1600 x 1200 to avoid causing a blurry display.

I ignored that technically accurate advice.  I agree that using a software resolution different from the hardware resolution must cause some compromise as the pixels are ‘fudged’.  However, in fact, I could only just discern a slight fuzziness of text if I peered at it very closely.  Even so, the display quality was still so outstanding that anyone accustomed to very good quality tube monitors would consider it a ‘great leap forward’.  I stayed with 1280 x 1024 very happily.  Actually, I think 1600 x 1200 is really only suited to a somewhat larger screen.  I feel reluctant to criticise such a superb system, but it really seems a bit ‘too good’!  It is of course impractical to supply a larger screen without making the portable computer too large – the 15″ diagonal screen has only a 12mm frame around it.

The only thing that could be seriously criticised about this M50 is the lack of documentation about it, and possibly that was only absent because the model is so new.  I imagine the production models will be sold with a manual.  The computer I received had no manual whatever, and I could not find any electronic equivalent installed.

The genuinely ‘Ultrasharp’ screen is well supported by an INVIDIA Quadro4 500 GoGL display hardware with 64 Mb of DDR display memory.  This hardware matched the demands of the Cobalt solid modelling software’s interactive fully rendered display very adequately.  When I had tried it on my own PC with INVIDIA RIVA TNT display hardware, it had been evident that the software needed something better.  This portable should be able to do full justice to any top-end 3D design system, which is, of course, its target market.

Even so, the cost is not outrageous.  A few years ago you would need a A$30,000 Unix workstation computer that was a major furniture moving operation to relocate, in order to run this type of design software.  This little notebook considerably exceeds the performance of those, both in speed and display quality, and at a far lower cost – even if, at A$6,000, it is rather dearer than the average laptop.

This was also my first introduction to Windows XP.  It is supplied with XP professional installed.  I hated it at first, but got used to it quite quickly, and my dislike subsided after I found a more pleasant looking display ‘scheme’ than the start-up default one, which seemed to me rather like a teenager’s garish games machine.  That’s not Dell’s fault of course.  Microsoft won’t allow PC makers customise a pre-installed Windows at all.  The result is a system that seems aimed at domestic games players and web surfers who need to be kept away from technicalities – on a PC aimed at engineering professionals!  But blame Microsoft for that.  At least you can tweak it to look and work more sensibly, although you can’t block all the pop-up exhortations to sign up for Passport and suchlike absurdities.

Unlike many current Pcs, this one has a proper recovery CD for re-installing Windows – a far better solution than the ‘hidden partition’ recovery system commonly used with XP.  Since those are on the same hard drive, they are of little use if the drive fails, which is not such a rare event, especially on portables.  Also supplied is a re-installation CD for the Roxio EZ-CD Creator v5 and WinDVD.  There is no ‘bundled’ application software with this machine, which is sensible, since buyers of this type of unit would have their own ideas about what software they wanted.

Having a CD-writer built-in is a valuable feature on a portable, and neatly provides for back-ups and transferring the large chunks of data that would be associated with design work.

Intriguingly, this laptop has both the now-standard touch-pad pointer device and one of those awful micro-joystick things that IBM and Toshiba persisted with.  I presume Dell think the latter might appeal to former users of those rival makes.  However my observation has been that users of joystick laptops always plug in a mouse, whereas I have found the recent generations of touch-pads make it completely unnecessary to use an external mouse, at lest if you tweak their settings to suit you.  The only time the touch-pad seems a bit inadequate is if your work involves lots of dragging, which is a bit tricky.

The S-Video output would be great for people giving PowerPoint-type presentations, as it allows the use of any AV-capable TV set, which are more commonly available in boardrooms than computer projectors.  It can also serve of course, to show computer-generated animations.  Although I have referred to this machine as a portable engineering workstation (because of my background), it could equally well serve as a portable 3D animation studio.  The TV output would be very valuable in that role.

The most striking feature of it is, undoubtedly, that wonderful screen.  Whenever anyone passes my door, its brilliant image attracts their attention and they can’t help stop and say, “Wow!  What is that?”


Product Update – November 2009

This review was conducted some years ago and of course this computer is no longer available. Dell still maintain a range of mobile precision workstations, the M4400, M6400 and M6400 Covet.

This editor’s experiece of Dell computers (there are 7 desktops/notebooks/servers in this office) is that they are exceptionally robust, easy to maintain/upgrade and very reliable. The annoying thing is that models keep changing with high frequency – welcome to the world of IT.

We’d love to hear from anyone with experience of Dell Precision notobooks running CAD and engineering applications.