Ten Months with a Luggable Server: The Dell M6500

According to Dell, my Precision M6500 shipped around May 15th of 2010, which seems right to me. It has been pretty satisfying, but not without bumps.

Nerd Specs
If you want all the gory details you can go to Dell and look at the Precision line here.

Suffice to say, it is a Quad Core i7, 64-bit, 17″ screen monster.

My particular one has Intel’s 1.73ghz Core i7 Q 820 processor, which with hyperthreading gives you 8 cores to play with. 7200rpm drive for the main drive. ATI FirePro M7740 for the display adapter. 8G of RAM.

It’s, ah, fast. In a word.

Especially for something I carry around all over the place. Work, Barnes&Noble, home, kids’ dance studio, etc. A day does not go by without travel of some sort.

Wow, that’s big!
Make no mistake, it is a physically imposing laptop. It’s a big, vaguely ominous grey rectangular slab of computer. To wit:

  • 8.4lbs/3.81kg
  • Width: 15.4″/393mm
  • Depth: 11.0″/280.5mm
  • Height: 1.35″/34.5mm(F), 1.5″/38.5mm(B)

Carrying such a thing is interesting, to say the least. After it arrived I had to buy another backpack in order to transport it. (Sometimes I think I am running a shelter for abandoned laptop cases.) And it is heavy. That 8.5lbs feels like a lot more like 28.5 after a half hour. And the “Slim” power supply is still the biggest one I’ve ever seen, except for the non-Slim one I use at my desk: that one is actually the size of a brick. Yowza.

So the overriding impression of it just sitting around is easy to some up: Big.

Why so Much Laptop?
I could be cheeky here, and say you always need the fastest laptop, the biggest laptop, etc., but the reality is for a lot of people this is way too much power. This is a work-provided laptop to do work-related things on, and that means development and testing of a highly concurrent logic database product. I have no trouble at all taxing all eight cores and all eight gig of ram. To be fair, I have no trouble taxing the sixteen cores and 32 gig of ram on the servers at work either, so, it is what it is. But if the extra hardware gets me through compilation and testing 10 minutes faster, it is worth it.

Like I said, you might not need the power, but if you do, the M6500 delivers.

Why a 17″ inch Screen? Heat.
This is something I ruminated over for a while. In the end I didn’t actually want the 17″ screen, and would have been happy with the same 15″ screen my last two laptops had. But, what I really wanted was a physically larger form factor to cool that quad-core processor.

Having bought and used a lot of laptops at work, it will come as no surprise to most of you when I say heat is the biggest cause of laptop failures. Packing that processor in the 15″ form factor made me nervous. The other developer who was buying at the same time had the same thought but went with the Alienware M17x. It’s a nice laptop, and as fast as the M6500, but I think I did better. More on that later.

So the reason it is big is not that it had to be, but that I was conservative with the size in respect to the CPU power. My CPUs are running flat out a lot, and heat is a real concern. Just because a manufacturer stuffs a quad core in there doesn’t mean they want or expect you to use it flat out for hours at a time.

In that respect, the M6500 is superbly engineered. Yes, the fans run a lot when I stress the system, but the CPU temperature is well-controlled.

So it is All Good, Right?
Well, I love the machine. I love the speed, the bedrock reliability, the extra bay which currently holds an SSD (and which the Alienware does not have!), the more than adequate graphics performance. The dock Just Works, the machine has tons of ports, and it has my beloved eraser-head mouse pointer. (Touchpads suck).

All perfect, right? Just what you need in a luggable server class machine, right?

Well…

Keyboard Design of Doom
Really, this is too bad. And, apparently common, as I look at Asus, HP and other 17″ laptops at BestBuy or Staples.

Some twit decided that because there was the room, they should shove a numeric keypad on the laptop. We can debate the merits of a numeric keypad if you’d like, but really, I’d rather not. I use it some, but wouldn’t miss it.

But now I hate numeric keypads all over the world.

Because the damn keyboard is not centered on the machine!

And because the keyboard is off center, the mouse pad/eraser head is off center too. This on a machine that people use on their laps. A machine that weighs nearly 9 pounds. In order to use it you have two choices. Either learn to type at an angle, or have the laptop constantly slipping off your lap because you are using it slid to one side. And if the M6500 slips and falls, it will probably dent your floor.

A pox on the design team’s houses for this decision. It really screws up the ergonomics of using it as a laptop. And it never stops irritating.

Look around people. Apple doesn’t do this. Their keyboards arrive sans numeric keypad, squarely in the center of the machine. Like God intended.

Sheesh.

Other Nits
Other than the really amazing size of this thing, the only other nit I have is that the front lip of the laptop when open is a bit sharp, so much so that I had to invest in a wrist rest to avoid the sharp edge. Depending on how you use the the laptop, your chair and desk situation, this may be irrelevant for you. I’ve become very fond of the wrist rest in general though, and bought another to carry in my backpack.

Oh, and the battery life, as you’d expect, sucks rocks. But that is the deal when you take a quad core processor and beat the hay out of it — you burn through the battery in under two hours. No surprises here, about what I expected. I bought a mobile server, but i didn’t expect to run it off a battery.

Wrapping Up
So, in the main, I really like this laptop. I love how hard I can thrash it and have it stay cool, how it stands up to server use for hours at a time. The display is great, graphics are pretty good, and the durability has been great. The extra drive bay is a real plus.

The keyboard is a tool of Satan. Really, it is a shame, because the feel of the keyboard is great, but the off-center placement is an abomination.

Would I buy it again? Tougher call. I’d really miss the extra drive bay, and I’ll certainly never go back to mere dual cores, but I might chance the heat for a 15″ display and a keyboard in the center. I note that the M4500 has a quad core option with a second drive, but with lesser graphics. If I was buying today, it would tempt me. But I would worry about heat, oh yes I would.

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