When this laptop arrived at our labs, we wondered one thing – it’s a Dell Precision 3540. Under Dell’s Precision lineup of laptops, it’s all about doing heavy work like 3D graphics and video editing. We have to reevaluate and come up with a new testing method since all of its hardware is not meant for consumers.
With that, here comes our review of the Dell Precision 3540, with an entirely different review format.
A bit of an introduction
The Precision lineup is meant for professional applications. We’ll go more into detail since this laptop does come with a few other software to enhance your user experience. The full name of this family of laptops is “Dell Precision Workstations” as they are meant to be portable workstations, with thinness and weightlessness to match.
Of course, the price of these laptops is not meant to be compared with any consumer laptops since Dell Precision laptops are mostly meant for businesses. You will have to pay a premium, but that premium comes reliability and real quick customer service with their technicians arriving at your doorstep to fix your laptop in front of you.
It’s a classically designed laptop with a sleek matte blackish grey color. It retains the professional look since this is indeed a machine made for professionals. It’s rather thick though not that heavy, which again is alright since its thickness does help in cooling performance.
In terms of I/O ports, it’s decent. On the left side, you have the power jack, Thunderbolt 3, and a USB 3 port. At the right side, you get a Noble lock slot, Ethernet, full-sized HDMI, double USB 3 ports, a headphone/microphone combo jack and a microSD card reader.
The last one is my only gripe with this laptop. I much rather have a full-sized SD card reader than a micro. Why? Because there are adapters to change from a microSD to a full-sized SD card. It’s not possible to do the other way around.
The 15.6-inch screen
Opening up the laptop reveals a big 15.6-inch screen. It’s a rather standard IPS LCD screen with thin bezels on both sides and a somewhat small chin. The forehead is jarringly huge and it accommodates all of the sensors there.
Unfortunately, even with such a huge forehead, there is no Windows Hello face unlock feature. However, you do get a physical slider to cover up the webcam.
The screen itself isn’t bright enough to be used outdoors – which is fine by me since these laptops are designed to be used as a portable workstation to be carried around, not as much as battery-powered workstations.
In terms of the screen quality itself, I instantly realize that it is a little on the warmer hue with an emphasis on the green color.
Decent keyboard & trackpad
The keyboard in itself is pretty good. It’s a little too stiff for my liking but the keys bounce back real quick. The keys themselves are a little too small, though. I like how Dell made a clear divider for the number pad.
As for the trackpad, it is not the best in the market. The tracking isn’t particularly responsive and the palm rejection could use some improvement as well. There is a pointing stick as on this laptop if you prefer that.
One nice addition here is that the power button is also a fingerprint scanner. However, there is no way of telling if the button is pressed while turning on the laptop. There is no tactile feedback and you just have to guess.
Okay, let’s just talk about the specs first. For our configuration, we have this list of hardware:
- Intel Core i5-8365U
- AMD Radeon Pro WX 2100 with 2GB VRAM
- A single stick of 16GB DDR4 RAM with 2666MHz
- 256GB SATA III SSD
The first thing that struck me as weird is the CPU itself. Why does it come with an ultra-low voltage processor? This CPU has a base clock of 1.6GHz, although it boosts to 4.1GHz. On our Blender classroom render test, the Dell Precision 3540 struggles, and drops to below the clock speed of 2.1GHz within 10 minutes of rendering. Yet the temperature of the CPU is below 75°C. Perhaps this is how Dell controls throttles performance for the sake of hardware longevity, though I can’t help but think that there is some unutilized thermal headroom here.
Then comes the GPU itself. We don’t have any baseline for these workstation GPUs but we can tell you that 2GB of VRAM means that it’s mostly meant to be an entry-level workstation that is meant to handle simpler 3D models.
Out of curiosity, I ran some conventional benchmarks to see how it performs.
Secondly, the issue is the storage medium. I am not sure if Dell intends to do this, but there is only one M.2 slot here for the SATA III SSD. 256GB is insufficient and we can see that there is another 2.5-inch mounting bay which is blocked by the M.2 slot. Since Dell didn’t include any mounting hardware inside the box (like ASUS VivoBook Ultra A512), users can’t upgrade it themselves.
About Dell Precision Optimizer
This is an AI-based optimization software that needs a better explanation of what it does. On the surface, it is a hivemind type of service that learns an application’s hardware demand and tries to allocate the appropriate resources for it.
Launching the optimizer application shows you a bunch of other applications that the Dell Precision Optimizer has already learned. There are many applications by Autodesk and Adobe found on this page – but there is one oddball here. Blender isn’t in this list. And I have no idea why.
According to Dell Precision Optimizer’s website, the license differs accordingly. The standard license will have its optimizations limited to only the applications that have been learned, whereas the Premium license can learn any application’s need through AI. But then again, how much does DPO actually help?
Not much. We tried DPO on Adobe’s Media Encoder CC to render a 4K 30fps video that is downscaled to 1080p in mp4 codec. Firstly, the DPO app itself gave me a tonne of issues as it kept asking me to reboot over and over again. Eventually, it stopped prompting me, and I did my test.
When the test results came, I had to redo my test again. Why? Because of sanity checks. I can’t find any consistency in the time taken to complete the render. With or without optimizations, it takes around 910 minutes on average. Generally, turning off the optimizer is slightly faster, though it did result in one render that went above 1000 minutes to complete.
Honestly, I’m not even surprised since the Dell Precision Optimizer is still limited by whatever hardware is inside the laptop. The real benefit here could be optimizing the power scheme to squeeze out longer battery life while maintaining a better quality of life – like eliminating screen tearing. From our experience using the Dell Precision 3540 as a video editing machine, it performs just like any other devices we’ve used so far – barring the lack of CPU horsepower when performing warp stabilizer in Premiere Pro.
In terms of the overall user experience and the I/O ports, it’s actually quite solid. That extra Thunderbolt 3 port at the left side is a huge plus.
For the hardware, I really recommend getting a configuration with a better CPU. This Intel Core i5-8365U processor is just not sufficient for rendering work.
Maybe Dell should explore AMD’s Ryzen processors as an alternative? They offer better base clocks with similar boost clock speeds. Looking at the market now, AMD-powered laptops are much lower in price, yet still with 4 cores and 8 threads.