Living with a Dell Precision 5540 Mobile Workstation
Just when you think you’ve got a great mobile computing solution, something always comes along to upset the apple cart. In my case, it was mostly drones — more specifically, the 4K footage from my Mavic Pro drones. In addition to the added compute demands of rendering and encoding 4K video, consumer drone footage benefits mightily from substantial post-processing to reduce noise, correct artifacts, and perform color grading.
My two-year-old Dell XPS 15 9560 has been a great workhorse for photo and video editing but has been limited by its 4-core CPU and thermal issues (even after I hacked on it with various thermal fixes). Plus there is a whole new generation of GPUs since its 1050, for applications like Lightroom and Photoshop that take advantage of them. So I went shopping.
Shopping for a High-Powered Laptop
By default, I looked at the newest model XPS 15, the 7590, but early reviewers seemed to be having the same thermal issues as the earlier versions. I also looked closely at the HP and Lenovo mobile workstations, but the components I wanted — latest generation i9, Turing GPU, and 4K touch display, all in one 4-pound chassis — weren’t all available at the time. They are starting to be, and I look forward to working with some of them over time. But I needed something sooner, so I took a chance and purchased one of the first Dell Precision 5540 units.
The Precision 5540 is very similar to an XPS model, with a few workstation twists, like the option for a Quadro GPU and some thermal tweaks, along with being certified for a lot of creative and engineering software. Early units even said XPS on the back flap, although now they say Precision. Physically the Precision 5540 looks nearly identical to my 9560, and in fact while I’ve had both of them in use I’ve found myself being frustrated at a missing file only to realize I’m on the wrong laptop.
Dell also provides about the same extensive set of ports it has for several years. There is a USB-C port that is now Thunderbolt 3 compatible, HDMI, 2 traditional USB ports, a mic/headphone jack, and a welcome SD card reader. Hard-wired Ethernet is long gone, but Dell does ship a USB-C Ethernet dongle along with the machine. Video callers will be thrilled that Dell has squeezed the webcam into the tiny bezel above the screen, instead of having it next to the keyboard.
You can get the Precision 5540 with Windows 10 Home, Pro, or Workstation (if you choose the 6-core Xeon). Linux is also available. RAM ranges from 8GB to 64GB, and hard drives from 256GB to 1TB. If you want either the T1000 or T2000 GPU, you’ll probably also want the large battery instead of an extra drive bay. The only screen option advertised to support 100 percent of Adobe RGB is the 4K IGZO4 Touch version. Selecting it will also require the large battery and configuring 2 RAM modules. After Dell’s online discounts, the 5540 is priced similarly to a high-end XPS 15.
The Precision 5540 Is a Performance Beast for a 4-pound Laptop
By the numbers, the Precision 5540 is a large upgrade over my last-gen XPS. The 8-core i9-9980HK has a lower base clock than the 9560’s i7 (2.4GHz versus 2.8GHz) but it boosts to a maximum of 5GHz and doesn’t throttle nearly as much. Running Cinebench R20 (CPU rendering) the 9560 crashed to a low of .8GHz, helping reduce its score to just over 1000. The 5540 never went below 2.9 GHz which, along with its 8 cores, allowed it to score over 3200. That performance ratio was more than matched in Intel’s XTU benchmark, at 2800 versus 850.
Similarly, the Quadro T2000 is a big upgrade. 3DMark’s TimeSpy jumped from 1800 to 3200, for example. The results for FireStrike were also good, jumping from 5000 to 7400. Following along with a monitor on the CPU temperature and clock speed, a small amount of thermal throttling occurred, but the CPU was always able to perform above its base clock.
However, this is still a lot of processing power and heat crammed into a small package, so it isn’t immune from throttling. A combination of heavy CPU and Nvidia GPU load will cause the system power limit to come down, which in turn can reduce clock rates down to their base clock.
What? No RTX?
Having just covered Nvidia’s big push to roll out its RTX capabilities to “Creatives,” I was well aware that even though the T2000 GPU in the Precision 5540 is a beast by mobile standards, it doesn’t have any of the dedicated RTX functionality. In the end, I decided I’m okay with that. It isn’t clear how much true RTX capability is in applications Nvidia touts, so I don’t know what the performance gain would be.
In particular, while I do a lot of rendering, encoding, and image processing, I don’t game on my laptop (much) or use it for ray tracing very often. Similarly, serious AI work will still be the province of my desktop machines or the cloud, which have beefier GPUs and more GPU memory. Plus, the mobile workstations with real RTX GPUs are even heavier and more expensive. If Nvidia is successful in establishing RTX as a permanent part of its architecture, I’m sure that will change over time.
“Kitbashing” to Save Some Bucks
A favorite term in our family comes from model railroading: Kitbashing to upgrade a pre-designed building model is one of our favorite activities. Doing your own computer upgrades can be just as rewarding, and even more profitable. Dell wanted an uplift of something like $700 to equip my machine with 32GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD. I found I could buy the equivalent or better components for about $250 (Crucial 2666 RAM and a top-rated Adata NVMe SSD) and install them myself.
I did find that the security settings in the BIOS had to be turned down a notch before it let me boot of my new drive — that I had cloned from the one that came with the Precision 5540. Then I used the excellent PC Mover utility from Laplink to get my apps, files, and settings across from my old machine. It’s not perfect, but having tried many tools that claim to do this over the years, it is the only one I’ve found that is actually worth using.
Using the Dell Precision 5540
Overall, the Precision 5540 is a joy to use. The screen is stunning and capable of being incredibly bright. Having the (optional) fingerprint reader in the power button makes returning to the machine simple and intuitive. And the machine is fast. It not only benchmarks fast, it feels fast and is responsive (which you’d certainly expect from all that power under the hood). You can order it with a spinning hard drive as the primary drive, but I find it hard to believe that would ever make sense.
Unfortunately, much like many other Windows computers, the Precision 5540 continues to struggle with sleep-related issues when running Windows 10. The first one I ran across was that the default “connected standby” or whatever the current term is for the default sleep mode is, would enable the machine to fire back up after I closed it and put it in my photo backpack. Forcing it to hibernate solved that problem, but it really shouldn’t be a problem at all in a state of the art high-end machine. The other issue I had with two different units is that after resuming from sleep the WiFi speed was crushed to less than 10% of what it had been before. Interestingly, I didn’t see this when the 5540 first shipped, but has been easily repeatable for the last couple weeks. Updating drivers (from either the Dell or Intel site) doesn’t seem to fix it, although turning WiFi off and on again does. I really hope Dell gets on top of this soon.
Overall, I’m satisfied with the Precision 5540. It performed perfectly on the road in Europe to process 360-degree panoramas and lots of 4K drone footage, and around the US on several different projects. While the 5540 pricing starts at $1,240, a fully-configured unit prices out at just over $3,000, so it isn’t for everyone. I’m pleased with my choice and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to those with similar needs and budgets, although both the Thinkpad X1 Extreme 2nd generation and the HP ZBook Studio G6 should be worthy competitors. I’m assuming that Dell can fix the annoying WiFi issue.
For Mac users, look for the rumored 16-inch MacBook Pro by the end of 2019. I do wonder if its screen will actually be larger than the 15.6-inch current standard for high-end 15-inch machines, or if the 16-inch moniker is just marketing. It’ll be interesting to see what Apple provides for GPU options for it, as that is one area where they have tended to lag behind Windows competitors.