Introduction, Design, Features
An entry-level mobile workstation sounds like a contradiction in terms. Mobile workstations are the most powerful class of portable computers, built for demanding design and scientific work and certified by independent software vendors (ISVs) to run specialized apps. No one would call Dell’s Precision 7520 and 7720 machines for beginners; they’re the company’s fastest, most powerful rivals to the likes of HP’s ZBook 1517 G4Lenovo’s ThinkPad P51 and P71 for users who want sky-high levels of performance and expandability. Ditto for the Precision 5510 and 5520, thin and light systems that offer good performance yet are easy to take on the road.
But the Dell Precision 3520 is Dell’s introductory mobile workstation—one affordable enough for those just getting started ($2,386 in our test configuration) or those who needs might not require a mighty Xeon processor and Nvidia Quadro P5000 graphics. This includes people such as illustrators, graphic artists, Web developers, video creators, and podcasters, as well as some 3D modeling and CAD workers. Those doing high-end filmmaking, challenging 3D animation projects and VR development will want to look up the line, but must be willing to pay the price.
Apple MacBook Pro), so if you’re dead set on finding the thinnest and lightest 15-inch mobile workstation, the Dell 3520 is not it.
The Precision has ports on the left, right and rear of the machine. On the left, you’ll find a USB Type-C port with optional Thunderbolt 3, important for those who work in media production or with massive amounts of data since Thunderbolt 3 allows you to connect things like large hard drive arrays and multiple external displays. There is also a USB 3.0 port, an SD card slot for easy transfer of photos and videos from cameras and other recorders, and a Smart Card reader (for those who actually still use those things). As is the case with most mobile workstations these days, there is no internal optical drive.
On the right of the machine is a security lock slot, VGA output (in case you’re giving a talk somewhere), a SIM card slot in case you want mobile Internet, and a headphone/microphone combo jack.
At the rear, you’ll find the power button, RJ-45 Ethernet jack, HDMI 1.4 output and one more USB 3.0 port. There is also a fingerprint reader under the keyboard.
The Precision 3520 has a backlit keyboard which includes a full numeric keypad (not always found on 15-inch laptops). I found it comfortable enough to type on and pleasant feeling. It also contains a pointing stick for Lenovo ThinkPad diehards.
The touch pad, which measures 4 by 3 inches, felt exceptionally good. It has a matte finish with a little bit of tooth, making it comfortable to use. It also responded well to different gestures in Windows 10. Unlike some other computers in this category which have three mouse buttons both above and below the pad, the 3520 has three buttons on the top and two on the bottom. That’s rather smart as the middle button comes in handy in certain applications (such as 3D programs), though large numbers of users only ever use two.
The IPS display that came with the Precision 3520 that we reviewed was a touch screen with a resolution of 1,920×1,080 pixels. It’s a good-looking panel but somewhat reflective (as is often the case with touch screens). For those who prefer less a less reflective display, a non-touch anti-glare full HD display is also available (we’re ignoring the lowly 1,366×768 panel on base models). Keep in mind that the Dell’s display achieves a 72 percent sRGB color gamut. That’s pretty good for an entry-level machine. However, those doing color-critical work, such as color correction or photo retouching, may look to higher-end but pricier panels. Of course, you can also hook up an external display, but that is hard to take on the road with you.
When it comes to audio, the Precision 3520 sounds very good. The speakers are loud and both music and voice sound appealing. Of course, this is a laptop, so the built-in speakers can’t be compared to a good set of external speakers.
There are a range of CPU options available. Our 3520 came with a seventh-generation, quad-core Intel Core i7-7820HQ processor which has a base frequency of 2.9GHz and a maximum turbo frequency of 3.9GHz. It’s sufficient for lots of demanding applications and media production tasks including video editing. Other options include Core i5 processors as well as Intel’s Xeon E3-1505M v6.
The graphics card was an Nvidia Quadro M620 with 2GB of GDDR5 display memory. The M620 is an entry-level card that’s capable enough for 3D modeling and CAD work, as well as some GPU rendering software. Higher-end mobile workstations will, of course, have more muscular graphics cards, but depending on what you’re doing, the M620 can in many cases get the job done, unless you are a serious 3D artist or VR developer, in which case you’ll want to budget for a Quadro M2200 or P3000 or P4000—though we’re hardly talking entry-level anymore.
The Precision 3520 offers up to 2TB of storage via a 2.5-inch SATA hard drive or 1TB via a SATA or PCIe M.2 solid-state drive. Oddly, Dell’s configuration Web page won’t let you specify both an SSD and a hard drive. Our test unit had a speedy 512GB NVMe M.2 drive. Those seeking additional storage can attach external drives via USB or the optional Thunderbolt 3 connection.
In addition to Windows 10 Pro, our 3520 had one of the largest batteries we’ve seen lately—a beefy 6-cell, 92WHr power pack with ExpressCharge technology. This contributed to impressive battery life, as you’ll see in our benchmarks section.