Dawnrunner as a company loves new tech. So when something new, fancy, shiny, speedy comes out we like to get our hands on it and ultimately attempt to break it (either spiritually or physically). We also have a lot of people ask us about the gear we use on set and the various pieces that allow our small crew to do the things we do. It just so happens that I got my hands on a Dell Precision M3800 Laptop, and this prompted my first review in a long-long time!
This piece of equipment will stun you from moment one. I was quite literally handed this laptop (after hearing the specs and expecting a behemoth of a machine) in a restaurant for the first time. Slim, lightweight, and built sexy! I could not believe the specs – i7 2.2 Ghz processor, NVidia Quadro K1100M (because if it doesn’t have an NVidia Qaudro – why bother in the film industry?) 16GB RAM and 2x 256GB SSD. I was stunned to silence – to be fair, I thought I was being joked with. I immediately ran out to get my hands on one in an effort to replace my old Dell Precision M6700 Covet. That was our de facto mobile edit suite – until now!
The first thing you will notice about the M3800 is it’s built like the “future” it represents. Aluminum and carbon fiber married into a slim and impressively sturdy design. You’ll also notice that, even packed away while rendering into a laptop bag – it stays wonderfully cool. Previous laptops have literally been used to fry up some eggs on set whilst rendering (I kid, but seriously.. the thought has struck my mind on several occasions). The design team at Dell also took the time and energy to really make the overall design pleasing in form and function. There are no sharp edges to catch on things, or to drill into your thighs while working on your lap. Everything is rounded, smoothed, and comfortable. I also took note that the power cable was not the bulky “brick” we’ve all become accustomed to hauling around. Dell took the time to toll that as well, and even it had a pleasingly small and rounded aesthetic.
When you open it up, if the pleasing aesthetics of the build didn’t already tickle your fancy, the absolutely stunning screen resolution will. 3,200 x 1,880 are you kidding me?! The color production and brightness levels are fantastic, although I did not have the opportunity to test it against a calibration unit I’m sure the results would be superb. The resolution is so crisp, bright, and clean that it shocked and awed the entire Dawnrunner crew. If that wasn’t good enough for you, yeah – it’s a touchscreen too. A very responsive and accurate one at that. This is one feature I was very not interested in initially, but I found it to be surprisingly useful while on set. There are times that there really is no way to get comfortable or spread out enough to use a mouse and having the touchscreen option was a nice backup. Now, I would never – ever be caught dead using Windows 8, so I only on very few occasions used the touchscreen.
If there’s one thing that matters most to the crew of Dawnrunner, it’s power. For a small crew that does the insane like we do, it’s critical that everything we own, every dime we spent, has an insane power-to-price/weight/size/durability ratio. There is just no other way to do it. When I tell you that this laptop, weighing in at slightly less than 4lbs, is a beast when it comes to being a filmmaking tool of mass editing…I’m not even kidding a little bit. I had every intention of field testing this unit, and having my Covet set up nearby so “real work” could get done. I stopped carrying the Covet on set the very next day – and haven’t since. We are talking about editing 5k footage, coloring, tracking, transcoding, Adobe After Effects compositing/FX and even a small amount of 3D work in Autodesk 3D Studio Max. Nothing stopped this thing. There were the occasional long renders, load times, and I did crash it fairly severely a few times – but I abuse hardware for a living. The most impressive aspect of the M3800 was it got right back up and kept going.
It’s not very often that something can get by me without some criticism, and the M3800 was close. However, I do have to say I was a tad disappointed in the I/O – though I understand the need to sacrifice the bulkier ports (Gig-E for example) for the slim design. So I will give that one a pass. What I cannot give a pass to however is the battery life. Idle, the thing lasts a long time, but the moment you start using it for something other than surfing the web – it burns like wildfire on a windy day. For the average laptop user, student, office person this will likely not cause a problem. But when you’re knee deep in swamp and the closest power outlet to charge up is half a mile back at base camp – you want a little more than an hour to work with. A very small complaint would be the keyboard design. It felt very different than what I was used to, and although I cannot put my finger on exactly why (see what I did there?) I was not a huge fan. I got used to it quickly, and I’m sure most people will like its relaxed spacing and smooth finish. I just prefer my keyboards a bit tighter and sharper.
If you’re in the market for a professional grade system that can really leverage the power of NVidia Quadro graphics and a powerful CPU for a workstation feel in a slim and comfortable profile, take a good look at the Dell Precision M3800. I have already referred it to several colleagues, students, and budding filmmakers and will continue to do so!