Lightning Review: Dell Precision M4400 – 15.4″ WUXGA Notebook PC

Dell Precision M4400 Specifications

Display: 15.4″ TN TFT LCD with Dual-CCFL Backlight (matte)
Aspect Ratio: 16:10
Pixel Format: 1920 x 1200
GPU: NVIDIA Quadro FX 770M 512MB (Driver 7.15.11.7607)
CPU: 2.80GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T9600
RAM: 4GB
HDD: 250GB (Seagate ST9250421ASG)
Optical: PLDS DVD+/-RW DU-8A2S
Connectivity: Intel Gigabit Ethernet (82567LM), Intel WiFi AGN (5300)
OS: Microsoft Windows Ultimate 64-bit (6.0.6001 SP1)
Other: Dell A11 (2008.12.18)

Vista Sucks Microsoft Windows Vista really does suck. My Dell Precision M4400 came with the Business 32-bit version and it was slow. Really slow. I don’t know why Dell pre-installs a 32-bit OS on a machine that has 4GB of RAM. I promptly upgraded the OS to Vista Ultimate 64-bit but it only increased the speed by just a bit. A notebook with an Intel Core 2 Duo running at 2.8GHz should make any OS run fast. Just not Vista. Contrast this new M4400 to my trusty and old Inspiron 9300 that I got about 3 years ago. The 9300 is still a capable machine: 1.7GHz Pentium M (Dothan, 533MHz FSB), 2GB RAM (1GB x2, DDR2 553MHz), 100GB 7200RPM HDD, NVIDIA GeForce Go 6800 256MB, 17″ TN TFT LCD with 1920 x 1200 pixel format (glossy), etc. The 9300 runs quite well with XP Pro SP3 installed. I made the mistake of installing Vista on my Inspiron 9300 right before I attended CES 2009. What a mistake that was! It was too darn slow, frustratingly slow to get any work done. All I was able to do was update my blog with a couple of posts and that was it. I uninstalled Vista and reinstalled XP and now it is running like a charm. I thought I needed a faster notebook but I’m wondering if I even need the M4400.

Because of that frustrating experience at CES, I decided that it was time to get a more powerful notebook PC. I had a budget of about $1500 and wanted a fairly powerful notebook. I had one requirement: a LCD with a 1920 x 1200 pixel format. That limited me to only a few models and to make a very long story short, I went to Dell’s outlet and purchased my M4400 for a very good price.

Shoddy Work The M4400 that I purchased was a refurbished unit and had three areas that needed attention. One: there is a hairline crack on the upper right corner of the LCD bezel. Two: the plastic cover that sits above the blue LEDs for the hard disk, WiFi, Bluetooth, etc. wasn’t secured at one end. Third: there were sticky goo in several places. The hairline crack on the upper right corner of the LCD bezel is bound to happen due to the positions of the rubber supports–there just isn’t one close enough to the corners of the LCD. The unsecured plastic cover I simply chock it up to shoddy work by the refurbishing department at Dell or a 3rd party company. The sticky goo goes in that same category: shoddy work. Other than those three things, the build quality of the M4400 is quite good and the overall chassis is quite durable-feeling and heavy.

Update 2009.04.08 4:13PM PDT: I called up Dell support yesterday in the hopes that I could get the hairline fractured bezel replaced. The folks over at workstation support scheduled me in for the very next day (that would be today)! A technician came at the time that he said he would (between 1:30PM and 2:30PM), took off the old plastic bezel, put on a new one and made me a happy customer. The M4400 is now looking pretty good. Thanks Dell!

IMG_2328_1600x1200

Good & Bad Design The keyboard is really good and is backlit but the three buttons underneath the trackpad doesn’t work very well. It would have been better if the left and middle buttons were combined to make a single left button. I really like how the power button feels when you push it: very solid and feels high-end. The LCD bezel is very thick on the top and bottom: it would have been better if Dell made the thickness the same as the left and right. The little pins that you push to eject the PC Card, SD card and ExpressCard are very difficult to use: you have to really shove it in there to make the cards come out and the lever to stick.

IMG_2335_1600x1200

Great LCD The LCD itself is excellent. The 15.4″ LCD is matte so there isn’t a lot of glare. Reflections are present but text and graphics are still much easier to see than in glare LCDs. The 1920 x 1200 pixel format is wonderful as I can open up two windows side-by-side to get work done with a lot more productivity. There is an ambient light sensor on the bottom LCD bezel that can control the brightness of the LCD as well as the backlight underneath the keyboard. The LCD has two CCFLs that make it very bright.

Bottomline I like the M4400 for its sturdy feel and competent performance under XP 64-bit. The performance was not very good with Vista 64-bit with the fan running at full blast more often than not. The fan would also spin up and spin down repeatedly to the point where I got annoyed. I really do like the LCD and would have purchased the 1920 x 1200 version with a RGB LED backlight if I had the chance. If I had to pay full price for the M4400, which can easily reach above $2000, I would not consider it a good buy. I understand that there are certain risks to getting a refurbished unit but I thought the quality of the unit was sub-par even for a unit that was just a hair above US$1200. Would I recommend the M4400? Not at full price.

I have uploaded several photographs of the M4400 up on Flickr with text describing external features of the M4400. I also did a quick test to see how quickly the M4400 will boot and it seems with a few starting applications like AVG, Spybot – Search & Destroy, and NVIDIA’s Taskbar Utility. The M4400 booted in about 1 minute with all the starting applications loaded and quite a bit less than that to the login prompt. You can watch the video right here:

Update 2009.04.11 3:43PM PDT: Just in case you are in the market for a very fast 15.4″ notebook PC with a lot of pixel real estate with quite a bit of graphics power, the machine that was reviewed here is on eBay. Sold!

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