Dell Precision M2800 Workstation review: A solid performer, but short on storage

Dell’s hardware portfolio includes a wide range of notebooks, including ultrabooks for mobile professionals, ruggedised systems for workers in challenging environments, and mobile workstations for power users such as engineers, scientists and financial analysts.

The 15.6-inch Precision M2800 is a robust mobile workstation that’s likely to spend most of its time deskbound, making occasional forays to client premises or other company locations. The M2800 range starts at £1,356 (ex. VAT), but Dell sent us the top-of-the-range model, which will set you back £1,613 (ex. VAT).

If you’re looking for an aesthetically pleasing design and a lightweight construction, then the Precision M2800 is not the notebook for you because, frankly, it’s a beast. Its starting weight is 2.56kg (5.64lbs), and our review unit came with an extended-life battery that adds extra weight, as well as forming a protruding wedge at the back of the chassis. 

If you do intend to carry this notebook around, you’ll need a bag that can accommodate a chassis 38cm wide, 28cm deep including that longer-life battery, or 25cm deep without it, and 3.34cm thick. The good news is that there’s a clasp to hold the lid and keyboard section securely together; the bad news that you’ll also have to find room for a chunky 130W AC adapter in your bag.

Design-wise, this is a standard-issue notebook with little to divert the eye. The silver lid lifts to reveal a black screen bezel and keyboard/wrist-rest area. The screen bezel is large — 13mm at the sides and 20mm at the top and bottom.

The chassis is very solid, though. There is a little flex in the lid, but only if you apply quite a lot of pressure, while the base is extremely robust. If you should ever have to transport the M2800, you’d probably get away without putting it into a shell case.

The notebook’s dimensions mean that there’s room for a separate number pad with full-sized keys. The keys are contiguous rather than island ‘Scrabble tile’ style — an increasingly rare configuration, but not one that bothers us. The keyboard is backlit with a brightness control on the right cursor key.

The keys themselves are soft touch and easy to use at breakneck typing speeds, and there’s absolutely no flex in the keyboard at all.

There are two pointing device options. The rather small touchpad has a pair of physical buttons beneath it, while a pointing stick sits between the G H and B keys and can be used with a trio of buttons that sit beneath the space bar (the middle button controls scrolling by default). The touchpad supports gesture controls, which you can turn on or off in a control panel. By default both pinch-zoom and rotate are turned off.

All preconfigured Precision M2800 models on Dell’s UK website have a (non-touch) 15.6-inch screen with a full-HD resolution of 1,920 by 1,080 pixels, although the spec sheet does also mention a 1,366 by 768 (HD) option. Our review unit’s full-HD screen offered plenty of scope for examining complex graphics, or viewing large spreadsheets, and you’ll have no trouble working with two documents open side by side. The screen’s matte finish makes it feasible to work in a range of lighting conditions — and if you should need to turn up the brightness, there’s plenty on offer here.

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You can expect a notebook of this size to provide plenty of connections and an optical drive, which it does. There are four USB 3.0 ports ranged around the chassis — two on the right, one on the left and one on the back. The back also has room for VGA and Ethernet connectors. On the right you’ll also find the optical drive, an ExpressCard slot, a headset jack and a small wireless connectivity toggle button. On the left there’s also an HDMI port and a SmartCard slot, while the front has an SD card slot. If you need yet more options, a proprietary connector on the bottom lets you attach a Dell port replicator.

The Dell Precision M2800 runs Windows 7 Professional, which makes sense as there are no touchscreen M2800 options, and the high-end ISV-certified desktop applications that this notebook is designed to run will not be improved by Windows 8.1. Our top-of-the range review sample was based around Intel’s quad-core 2.8/3.8GHz Core i7-4810MQ processor with 8GB of DDR3 RAM (expandable to 16GB) and a discrete AMD FirePro M4170 GPU.

For connectivity there’s Gigabit Ethernet, plus dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n/ac wi-fi and Bluetooth 4.0 courtesy of Intel’s Wireless-AC 7260 module. A SIM card slot in the battery compartment is available for the Dell Wireless 5570 HSPA+ mobile broadband option (not available in the US, and not present on our review unit).

Perhaps this notebook’s weakest core specification is its 128GB SSD. Yes, this is fast, but we had just 109GB of local storage free, which may not be enough for some users. If this is the case, you may want to consider stepping down to the next preconfigured model, which offers the same base specifications with a hybrid 1TB 2.5-inch SATA III hard drive/8GB SSD combo. Alternatively, you can configure your own setup at Dell’s website. Fujitsu’s slightly cheaper Celsius H730 mobile workstation, by contrast, comes with a 256GB SSD.

The Precision M2800’s Windows Experience Index (WEI) score, which has a maximum of 7.9 on Windows 7-based computers, was 6.7. The WEI corresponds to the lowest component score, and was jointly held by 2D and 3D graphics:

The graphics scores for the AMD FirePro M4170 are not at all bad, of course, but are eclipsed by the excellent processor and memory scores (7.7), and, in particular, the ‘perfect 7.9′ hard disk (SSD) result.

We also ran the more demanding Cinebench R15 benchmark, which has GPU (OpenGL) and CPU components:

As the graph shows, the Dell Precision M2800 shades the similarly specified Fujitsu Celsius H730 that we reviewed recently — most likely due to its slightly faster 2.8/3.8GHz Core i7 processor (the Celsius runs a 2.7/3.7GHz Core i7).

Large, heavy mobile workstations like the Precision M2800 are not primarily designed for working on battery power while on the move, but our review unit nonetheless came with a hefty 97Wh extended battery. Dell doesn’t make a battery life claim for the M2800, but our tests — based on power consumption measurements — suggest that you can expect just over six hours with middling screen brightness and a mixture of demanding workloads and idle periods.

If you want to use the Dell Precision M2800 for delivering presentations, you’ll be pleased with the audio quality from the twin speakers that sit on the front of the chassis. Volume is good, bass tones are better than usual, and the speaker separation is sufficient to detect stereo effects.

It’s not particularly portable, but the Dell Precision M2800 is certainly an impressive mobile workstation. Solidly built and equipped with high-end components, we have just a couple of niggles: the touchpad is too small for our liking, and the top-of-the-range model’s 128GB SSD should be at least 256GB.