The Dell Precision 3540 Video Review
Michael Alba posted on July 29, 2019 |

Full Written ReviewPerformance on a Budget with the Dell Precision 3540 Mobile Workstation

Video Transcript: Sometimes you need a mobile workstation that’s easier on your wallet than on your simulations. And that’s what you’ll get with the Dell Precision 3540, the latest entry level mobile workstation from Dell. It’s thin, light, and affordable, but that means a hit in performance. Is it too much of a hit for engineers and designers? Let’s take a look.

The Specs

You have a choice of four different CPUs on the Precision 3540, but they’re all limited to 4 cores. The best of those options is the 8th generation Intel Core i7-8665U, which has an 8MB cache and a base clock speed of 1.9GHz. For single-threaded applications like most CAD programs most of the time, that clock speed is on the low side, and you may see a slow performance as a result. And for multi-processor applications, like Nastran and other FEA solvers, four cores is also on the low side compared to other mobile workstations.

The GPU selection is also limited. To one, in fact: the AMD Radeon Pro WX 2100. That has just 2GB of GDDR5 VRAM, which, again, is on the low side. As are memory and storage, with the choice of 4 to 32GB of RAM, non-error-correcting, and up to 2TB of SSD or hard drive storage.

The ports are actually pretty good. On the left side is a barrel power plug, a USB-C Thunderbolt, and a USB 3.1. On the right is a lock slot, Ethernet port, HDMI, two more USB 3.1, a headphone jack, and an SD card reader. You can also configure the 3540 with a smart card reader.

The Performance

To be blunt, the Precision 3540 performed poorly in most of our benchmark tests. In SPECviewperf 13, a benchmark of professional graphics performance, the 3540 scored well below average in every single category. Those reflect viewsets including SOLIDWORKS, CATIA, Creo, Maya, 3ds Max, and more. The 3540’s best scores were in SOLIDWORKS and NX, and its worst was in the energy viewset.

In SPECworkstation 3, a benchmark of overall workstation performance, the 3540 again scored below average in every category. But a little less below than before. SPECworkstation runs a bunch of tests based on industry segments such as product development, media and entertainment, financial services, and more. The 3540 did best in the General Operations segment, and worst in GPU Compute.

In PassMark PerformanceTest, which is a general performance benchmark, the 3540 finally got a couple scores above the average. These were for 2D graphics and disk speed. Memory speed was also pretty much up to par. Its 3D graphics score, however, was predictably poor, and the 3540 got the second lowest PassMark rating of any computer we’ve reviewed.

In spite of its low benchmark scores, or perhaps because of them, the Precision 3540 has an incredible battery life. The 7966mAh battery is the best we’ve seen yet, in fact. If you optimize for battery life and don’t do anything strenuous, you could get up to sixteen and a half hours out of the battery. We actually got those numbers more than once. If, on the other hand, you push the laptop as hard as possible, with no regard for optimizing performance, it’ll give you just over two hours of use. That’s a big window, but we found that in more typical use cases, we averaged almost nine hours of continuous use. So the 3540 truly is an all day battery for most users.

The Rest

The Precision 3540’s 15.6 inch display is capped at a 1080p resolution, which, if you’re used to 4K, looks about as good as the original 1972 edition of Pong. Okay, it’s not that bad, but it would’ve been nice to see a higher res option available. It also would’ve been nice to see more touch screen options—if you want touch, you have to take a hit on the color coverage, which on our display was 99 percent of sRGB and 74 percent of Adobe RGB.

The display does get pretty bright, however, with a hundred percent luminance of about 320 nits. There’s also a physical privacy shutter over the webcam, which I appreciate more and more these days. Hello, NSA. Goodbye, NSA.

The keyboard is very nice, with ample key spacing and travel as well as a dedicated numpad and the option of a pointing stick. The trackpad is fine, not the best out there but far from the worst. Just above the numpad is the power button which doubles as a fingerprint reader if you configure it that way. You can also configure a contactless smart card reader next to the trackpad, but our review unit didn’t have one.

The 3540 is a good looking computer, with a slim, clean, flat-black design. It’s also very light at 4.04 pounds. It’s so light that you can’t open the screen without holding down the base, making it a two handed operation to get this thing up and running. There’s also a noticeable creaking sound when you open the screen, like you just excavated the laptop from an Egyptian ruin  and it hasn’t seen the light of day for 5000 years. But nothing a little WD-40 can’t fix.

As you might expect from Dell, the price is one of the biggest advantages of the Precision 3540. It starts at $769 and it maxes out at just under $3100. Our review unit, which had the second best CPU, the AMD Radeon graphics, 16GB of memory and 512GB of storage, costs about sixteen hundred dollars.

Final Thoughts

I like the Dell Precision 3540. It’s thin and light, it looks good, it’s affordable, and the battery is killer. Unfortunately, its performance is just nowhere near other mobile workstations we’ve reviewed in the past. It’s closer to a consumer level device like the Surface Pro than a professional grade mobile workstation like the Dell Precision 7530.

That’s it for our review. Thanks for watching, now go do something else.

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