Dell M6400 Review


Hardware reviews is not something I have done much on this site, but when I mentioned sharing my thoughts once my new Dell M6400 came in, I got some comments and even some e-mails asking me to post my thoughts.  So…here goes!

First, a little background.  I was running a Dell M90 that was a little over two years old.  In mid April, my system suddenly refused to boot up.  After some diagnostics run by our hard working IT department, it was determined that the video card was bad.  Dell had no replacement video cards in stock at the time, so they offered to replace my M90 with a brand new M6400.  I jumped at the chance and after about 10 days, my new system arrived!

Since it was a replacement system, I didn’t have much control over the specifications.  They were picked out by Dell to be “equivalent or better” to my M90 system.  Here are the specs:

Intel® CoreTM 2 Duo P8700 (2.53GHz 3M L2 Cache, 1066MHz) Dual Core
Windows XP Professional 32bit
17″ UltraSharpTM WUXGA (1920×1200) LCD Display
NVIDIA Quadro FX 2700M, 512MB Discrete
4.0GB, DDR3-1066MHz SDRAM, 2 DIMMS
160GB Hard Drive, 7200RPM with Free Fall Sensor
8X DVD with Cyberlink Power DVDTM
9 Cell Battery
Intel® WiFi Link 5100 802.11a/g/n Draft Mini Card
Internal English Backlit Keyboard

Now if I was setting the specs, I would have gone for a faster processor, 8GB of RAM, the FX3700 video card, and a larger hard drive.  I wasn’t going to complain though.  🙂  I was getting a pretty good deal here.  One upgrade that I had IT do was swap out the 160GB hard drive for a 320 GB drive.  Having lots of space is nice!

When we received the system our IT group put our “standard enterprise” software package on it which included MS Office 2007, Norton Endpoint virus protection, and a few other odds and ends.  I picked up the system and of course immediately installed SolidWorks.  I had to hit the ground running ASAP.

There were three major features that I immediately fell in love with on this system.  The first is the Numeral Pad on the keyboard.  Yeah, it’s a BIG laptop…but that is what you are going to have to live with if you truly want a mobile workstation.  Having a FULL keyboard is nice when I’m on the go.  The second feature is the backlit keyboard.  I never thought about how handy of a feature that would be, but I absolutely love it!  If you are in a dark room it is a must.  Dell did a very nice job in that it immediately comes on when it senses any action around the keyboard.  The third thing is probably the most surprising – the display.  I had the same WUXGA 1900×1200 on my M90, but I swear to you this one seems brighter and more crisp that what I had before.  (Yes..I knew where the brightness and contrast settings were on the previous system.)

We left Windows XP 32 bit on the system and I was off to the races.  Performance was good.  Everything seemed faster than my M90 as it should be.  Since I didn’t get a chance to run any benchmarks with the old system I don’t really have anything to compare to.  The graphics performance was good.  Not what I would call the best, but good.  I experienced a few glitches here and there, even with the latest SolidWorks certified drivers.  Before I really had much time to tune or troubleshoot the graphics issues, I ran into a slightly larger problem.  This problem really didn’t have anything to do with the system.  The current project I am working on is a large and complex assembly that had been pushing our machines to the limits of 32 bit operating system.  We turned on the 3GB switch and I had some SERIOUS stability issues.  Graphics performance was slow and unpredictable.  There were other “weird” issues that started popping up.  I almost immediately disabled it and everything returned to its previous state.  Looking back, I’m not quite sure why I started out with 32 bit, but after a few weeks, it was apparent that I was going to need a 64 bit OS very soon.

So, after running the system for a few weeks with Windows XP 32 bit.  The M6400 “headed back to the shop” (IT) for a re-format to Vista 64bit.  Why Vista 64 over XP 64?  Well, I relied on some of the best resources around.  My fellow users of the SolidWorks Community.  After polling many of my fellow SolidWorks users across the land, all were consistently saying I should go to Vista 64 bit.  Not only has it proved to run FASTER than XP 64 bit in several benchmarks, it seems to have less bugs, which if you think about it really makes sense.  Do you think Microsoft will be tripping over itself to fix bugs in Win XP 64 bit?  I didn’t think so either.  (A big thanks to Anna Wood, Devon Sowell, and Lou Gallo for their valued advice!)

Since I am in the middle of a “BIG” project (that is probably an understatement), we decided to purchase another 320 GB hard drive and put Vista 64 bit on it.  (They are only about $130.00 right now).  This way, if I had some show stopper issues with Vista 64, I could swap out the drives and be back up and running in Win XP 32bit almost immediately.  Also as part of this “upgrade” we added an additional 4 GB of RAM to the system.  Total cost for the RAM was not far off the price of the new hard drive.

This was my first full-time experience with Windows Vista.  I must say overall, I really like the new user interface.  Yeah, it is overkill in some areas and Vista  is a resource hog, but when you have 8 GB or RAM and no 2GB limit, suddenly that really isn’t all that big of a deal.  One thing I learned quickly is that the Certified video driver from SolidWorks requires that the Windows Aero interface be enabled.  During setup, our IT group had disabled it and I didn’t notice right away.  Props to Anna Wood and Ron Bates on the SolidWorks Forum for reminding me of this.

Outside of having to go out and find some new printer drivers and a few issues with Adobe CS3, the transition to 64 bit has been smooth.  You can run 32bit or 64bit browsers which comes in handy since Adobe Flash is not yet supported for 64 bit browsers.  (Come on, seriously, what is up with that Adobe!!)  Not having to worry about running out of virtual memory has been REALLY nice!  A few months back I was hoping to hold off on going to 64bit until Windows 7.  But since my work required it, I have become quite comfortable with Vista.  One of the things I REALLY like is the fact that you can setup your own shortcuts in the left side bar of your “My Computer” windows.  Another nice feature in Vista is that you can open multiple windows using Windows Photo Gallery.  This has come in handy for some Technical Editing I am doing for an upcoming book on SolidWorks by Alex Ruiz.

There were some posts on the SolidWorks Forum where users were having issues with the system when it goes into hibernate mode.  This was supposed to be addressed with a new BIOS from Dell.  I always turn hibernate mode off and shut down my system at night, so I can’t say for sure that all has been fixed there.  It appears that many folks that were having the issue before are no longer experiencing the same problems.  I’ve also heard of a few issues with the FX3700M video card.  Since I don’t have one in my system, I can’t really comment on that.  If you are considering getting one with that card, I would check out the SolidWorks Forums.  All of the recent comments seem to indicate there are less problems with that now with the BIOS revisions and some new Certified SolidWorks Video Drivers.

I hope some of this information is helpful to those interested in purchasing an M6400.  So far I am REALLY happy with the system and would recommend it to anyone looking for a good mobile workstation.  If you have any questions, feel free to post them in the comments and I’ll answer them if I can.

Stay tuned…more to come!

UPDATE:  Check out my review of this system as I upgraded it to Windows 7!