Performance on a Budget with the Dell Precision 3540 Mobile Workstation
Michael Alba posted on July 17, 2019 |
The Dell Precision 3540 mobile workstation.
The Dell Precision 3540 mobile workstation.
Earlier this year we looked at the Dell Precision 7530, one of Dell’s most powerful mobile workstations. The latest laptop in the computer maker’s Precision line, the Dell Precision 3540, is an entry-level mobile workstation. While it doesn’t match the 7000 series in performance, it comes with advantages of its own that make it a good option for certain workflows.

The Specs

The Precision 3540. (Image courtesy of Dell.)
The Precision 3540. (Image courtesy of Dell.)
Aesthetically, the Precision 3540 is much nicer than the 7530. The chassis is cleaner, the bezels are thinner, and it’s much lighter, weighing in at just 4.04lb (compared to the 7530’s somewhat uncomfortable 7.48lb). With its flat black finish, the 3540 is a sleek and professional-looking laptop.

Outside aside, the machine’s internals are where the 3540 falls behind the 7530. The processor selection in the 3540 is quite limited. The best CPU you can get for the workstation is an Intel Core i7 with 4 cores, whereas the 7530 offers both an Intel Core i9 option and two Xeon options with 6 cores each. As for the 3540’s GPU, if you want a discrete one (you have the option of sticking with integrated Intel graphics only), it’ll be the AMD Radeon Pro WX 2100 with just 2GB of GDDR5 VRAM. There are no NVIDIA options at all, let alone the choice of a Quadro card. Here’s the full list of processors available with the Precision 3540 (asterisk denotes our review unit):

  
  • CPU

o   Intel Core i7-8665U (4 Core, 8MB Cache, 1.8GHz up to 4.8GHz Turbo, 15W, vPro)

o   *Intel Core i7-8565U (4 Core, 8MB Cache, 1.8GHz up to 4.6GHz Turbo, 15W)

o   Intel Core i5-8365U (4 Core, 6MB Cache, 1.6GHz up to 4.1GHz Turbo, 15W, vPro)

o   Intel Core i5-8265U (4 Core, 6MB Cache, 1.6GHz up to 3.9Ghz Turbo, 15W)

  • GPU

o   *AMD Radeon Pro WX 2100 (2GB GDDR5)

o   *Intel UHD Graphics 620

The memory and storage options are also quite limited in the 3540 compared to the 7530. Whereas the 7530 can be configured with up to 128GB of non-ECC memory (up to 64GB ECC) and a whopping 6TB of SSD storage, the 3540 is capped at 32GB of non-ECC memory and 2TB of SSD storage. We had 16GB of memory and 512GB of storage in our review unit.

The I/O ports on the 3540 are similar to the 7530, though the 3540 doesn’t offer a Mini DisplayPort, and it’s got 3 USB 3.1 ports and 1 USB-C, while the 7530 has two of each. The USB-C port is Thunderbolt compatible, and it’s used as the charging port with the 90W adapter that shipped with our unit. You can also choose an adapter with a 7.4mm Barrel port, which is located right next to the USB-C port on the right side of the 3540. Other than the USB ports, the 3540 offers an RJ45 Ethernet port, an HDMI port, a headphone jack, an SD card reader, a security lock slot, and an optional smart card reader (which can be configured as contactless or not). You can also configure the 3540 with a fingerprint reader, located on the power button on the top right corner above the keyboard.

The 3450’s display is another of its weak points. There are a number of configurations for the 15.6-inch display, the worst of which has a resolution of 1366x768 and only 45 percent sRGB color coverage. Slightly better is a 1920x1080 resolution with 45 percents RGB coverage, and better yet is a 1920x1080 resolution with 100 percent sRGB. Unfortunately, there’s no higher resolution available. There’s only one configuration that offers a touchscreen, and that’s the 1920x1080 with 45 percent sRGB. Our review unit was the touchless 1920x1080 with 100 percent sRGB option. Just above the display is the optional camera and microphone combo, which comes with a physical switch to open and close the lens—a nice privacy feature.

The starting price of the Precision 3540 is a budget-friendly $769. If you spec out the 3540, it’ll cost just over $3,086, about a third of the max price of the 7530. The price of our review unit, with the Core i7-8565U, Radeon Pro WX 2100, 16GB of memory, and 512GB of storage, worked out to $1,666.56.

The Performance

In our benchmark tests, the Precision 3540 performed about as well as could be expected from an entry-level mobile workstation. Its low-tier AMD graphics card struggled in SPECviewperf 13, a benchmark of graphical performance across a number of CAD platforms, including CATIA, NX, SOLIDWORKS and more. The 3540 scored below average in every category—often well below average. Here’s how the 3540 compared to the 7530 as well as the Microsoft Surface Pro 6 and Lenovo ThinkPad P1:

*Data unavailable
*Data unavailable

The 3540 looks quite pitiful compared to its more powerful cousin, the 7530. It performs slightly better than the Surface Pro 6 in most categories (it loses in Creo), though that’s hardly an achievement, as the Surface isn’t really a mobile workstation. When it comes to graphical processing, the 3540 falls flat.

The next benchmark we ran, SPECworkstation 3, bore similar results. SPECworkstation tests a computer’s performance for industry segments such as product development, media and entertainment, life sciences, and more. As with SPECviewperf, the 3540 scored below average in each category. Here’s how the Precision 3540 compares to the same three workstations shown above when running SPECworkstation:

The 3540 lands well shy of the 7530 and ThinkPad in all categories save for general operations, where it’s tied with the 7530 (which itself underperforms in that category). The 3540 often outperforms the Surface Pro, but the two computers are even in the financial services segment. The 3540’s poor relative performance is probably due in part to its 4-core CPU, as the Precision 7530 and ThinkPad P1 each have 6 cores, not to mention bigger caches and faster clocks. Even the Surface Pro has 6 cores, though its cache size is the same as the 3540 (8MB) and its max clock speed is slower (though its base clock speed is faster).

The final benchmark we ran was PassMark PerformanceTest, a general-purpose assessment of a computer’s capabilities. PerformanceTest rates a computer in five categories: CPU performance, 2D graphics performance, 3D graphics performance, memory performance, and disk performance, and then aggregates the results into a score called the PassMark Rating. Here’s how the Precision 3540 scored in each category:

The Precision 3540 trails behind—often well behind—in most categories, keeping just ahead of the Surface Pro. It manages to best the 7530 in two categories, 2D graphics performance and disk speed, and it squeaks ahead of the ThinkPad in memory speeds. For all that, the 3540 gets a PassMark rating of 4337, the lowest we’ve seen in a review unit other than the Surface Pro 6.

These benchmark results suggest that, in terms of computational and graphical performance, the Precision 3540 is closer to the Surface Pro 6 tablet than the Precision 7530 mobile workstation. If you’re willing to take that much of a hit on performance, you might as well go with the Surface Pro: it’s cheaper, lighter, and has a better (if smaller) display.

In fairness to the Precision 3450, it does have one exceptional strength: its battery life. The 3540’s 7966mAh battery lasts longer than any other laptop we’ve reviewed this year. In our high efficiency tests, which test how far a battery can go under ideal conditions (low screen brightness, battery saving mode on, airplane mode on, etc.), the 3540 survived for an average of 16 hours and 26 minutes. Until now, I thought those kinds of numbers were simply an aspirational stretch pulled out of thin air by OEMs.

In a test of high performance battery life, with screen brightness at max, no power saving options on, and processor-heavy applications running, the 3540 fared less well, making it to just over two hours of use. In our test of more typical working conditions, with default power saving options, a comfortable screen brightness, and a miscellaneous spread of applications and activities, the battery lasted for about 8 hours and 53 minutes. That’s an excellent full day or more of unplugged use.

The last test we ran on the Precision 3540 was on the display. To the naked eye, the 3540’s display is nothing special. I’ve been spoiled by 4K monitors of late, so the 3540’s 1920x1080 display is noticeably low res in comparison. I also miss having a touchscreen. However, the matte display does well to avoid reflections and the screen gets fairly bright.

Using a Spyder5ELITE colorimeter, we determined that the 3540’s color gamut is mostly as advertised. It covers 99 percent of the sRGB color space and 74 percent of Adobe RGB. Recall that the 3450 can be configured with even less color, down to 45 percent sRGB coverage (and unknown coverage of other color spaces). As it stands, the 3540 is typical in the 100/75 sRGB/Adobe RGB coverage seen in most mobile workstations (aside from those that make a point of fully covering Adobe RGB, like the Precision 7530).

The average luminance of the 3540’s display, at 100 percent brightness, was 319.9 nits. With an average black level of 0.36 nits, the display had a contrast ratio of 890:1.
With an average Delta-E of 2.05, the 3540’s color accuracy isn’t bad, but it’s far from the best we’ve seen. It’s good enough that most users won’t notice any discrepancies, and those who do and would be bothered by them probably require a higher quality display in general.

It’s rare to find a display that’s perfect to every pixel, and the 3540 is no exception. At 100 percent brightness, the luminance of the display differs by as much as 10 percent in the top corners, and the color accuracy deviates by a Delta-E as high as 6.5 in the top left. Discrepancies of this magnitude are typical, and most users won’t ever notice them.

Overall, the 3540 got a monitor rating of 4/5. Keep in mind that this score is reflective only of the display accuracy, and does not take resolution, scope of gamut, or other factors into account.

The Rest

The keyboard, trackpad, and pointing stick on the Precision 3540, with the fingerprint reader and power button in the top right.
The keyboard, trackpad, and pointing stick on the Precision 3540, with the fingerprint reader and power button in the top right.
The Precision 3540 offers excellent input controls. The keyboard is comfortable, with generous key spacing and travel, and it includes a numpad, which is always welcome for professional users. The trackpad is good as well. It’s not the best you can find, but it’s not uncomfortable to use like some low quality trackpads. The 3540 also includes a pointing stick for those users who enjoy them (mine was untouched, but to each their own).

The thermal management on the 3540 is decent, with the laptop never getting too warm and the fan remaining mostly silent. Some laptops seem to always need the airflow, but the 3540’s fan almost never kicked in outside of when it was performing the most strenuous of tasks. Of course, that could be due to the comparatively low power requirements of the 3540’s processors.

Here’s how the Dell Precision 3540 fits in on a price/performance curve of workstations we’ve reviewed this year:

Ultimately, the Precision 3540 targets the budget-conscious mobile workstation user, and its entry level specs, low resolution display, and underwhelming performance attest to that. However, it looks professional, and it’s perfectly suitable for lightweight tasks such as dealing with an overflowing inbox or reviewing a design change PDF. And with the 3540’s truly outstanding battery life, you can do those lightweight tasks all day long.

Pros

In the Middle

Cons

  • Fantastic battery life
  • Slim, sleek and lightweight design
  • Affordable price
  • Display is fine, but limited to 1080p resolution
  • Nice keyboard; trackpad is good but could be better
  • Poor performance in processor-heavy applications
  • Few configuration options
Watch our video review of the Dell Precision 3540 here.

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