Dell Precision 5550 Review: The Smallest and Thinnest 15” Mobile Workstation
Michael Alba posted on September 11, 2020 |
New mobile workstation balances great design with good performance, but at a cost.
The Dell Precision 5550 mobile workstation. (Image courtesy of Dell.)

The Dell Precision 5550 mobile workstation. (Image courtesy of Dell.)

The Dell Precision 5550 is the world’s smallest and thinnest 15” mobile workstation, according to Dell. Indeed, with almost no bezels around the display and a slick carbon fiber finish on the base, the Dell Precision 5550 looks great and feels premium. It’s definitely the nicest Dell mobile workstation we’ve ever reviewed on engineering.com.

But looks aren’t everything, so how does the Dell Precision 5550 hold up as a mobile workstation for engineers? Let’s dive in.

Contents:

  1. Specs
  2. Performance
  3. Dell Optimizer
  4. Display
  5. Battery
  6. Price
  7. Verdict

1. Specs

(Image courtesy of Dell.)
(Image courtesy of Dell.)

Here’s a breakdown of the Precision 5550’s configuration options:

The Precision 5550 offers some great CPU options—all higher-end 10th gen chips. However, the GPU selection is weaker. The 5550 tops out with the Quadro T2000, which lacks the RT Cores (ray tracing) and Tensor Cores (machine learning) found in the Quadro RTX cards, and is limited to 4GB of VRAM. It would have been great to see at least a Quadro RTX 3000 option available.

The 5550’s memory options are strong, with up to 64GB of RAM, including ECC options. Storage options are also great with up to 4TB total capacity available across two SSDs, allowing for a RAID 0 or 1 configuration if you want it.

The 15.6” display is available in 4K with a touch screen, or as a touchless version with half the res.

If it’s the smallest and thinnest mobile workstation around, the Dell Precision 5550 is assuredly not the lightest. Its base weight is a very reasonable 4.06lbs, but it gets close to 4.4 if you opt for the bigger 86Wh battery rather than the base 56Wh. If you put a premium on weight, you can get below four pounds on mobile workstations like the ThinkPad P1 line.

As for ports, I hope you like USB-C, cause you’ll get three of them with the Precision 5550. The two on the left are Thunderbolt 3 compatible while the one on the right is limited to USB 3.1. There’s also a security lock slot on the left and an SD card reader and headphone jack on the right.
(Image courtesy of Dell.)
(Image courtesy of Dell.)

Though there’s no USB-A ports on the Precision 5550, Dell is nice enough to include a dongle in the box that turns one of the USB-C ports into a USB-A/HDMI combo.

The Dell Precision 5550 also includes a fingerprint reader on the power button, top right of the keyboard. Unlike most laptop fingerprint readers, this one manages to successfully read my print nearly all the time. It was flaky at first, but after a week or so it gave me no trouble at all and unlocks the 5550 quickly and reliably.

(Image courtesy of Dell.)
(Image courtesy of Dell.)

While we’re on the keyboard, the 5550’s keys are nice to type on, but just a touch too shallow for my preference. Below the keyboard is a gigantic trackpad reminiscent of recent Apple MacBooks. And while the trackpad isn’t as good as those devices—no Windows machine is—the 5550’s trackpad is very useable, and the extra size is surprisingly nice to have. It’s quite sensitive, however, so every now and then it would register an unintended left click.

(Image courtesy of Dell.)
(Image courtesy of Dell.)

2. Performance

The Dell Precision 5550 hits an interesting niche in terms of performance. With its great CPU (the i7-10875H in our review unit), the 5550 performs very well in many benchmarks. But its middling GPU (the T2000 for us) drags it down in others.

Here, take a look at the 5550’s SPECworkstation 3 performance. This comprehensive benchmark covers dozens of different workloads across several industries with a mix of CPU, GPU, and storage workloads. The imbalance between the Precision 5550’s CPU and GPU is clear next to the SPECworkstation results from the Acer ConceptD 7 Pro, a mobile workstation with a slightly less powerful CPU (the 6-Core i7-9750H) but a much stronger GPU (the Quadro RTX 5000).

Legend:

  • Red: Best score (higher is better)
  • Blue: Industry group
  • Yellow: CPU workloads
  • Green: GPU workloads
  • Gray: Storage workloads

Nearly without exception, the Precision 5550 scores higher than the ConceptD 7 Pro in CPU workloads. And the opposite is true for GPU workloads. Storage workloads go back and forth between industry groupings. If you average the results, the ConceptD 7 Pro comes out slightly on top, due to its much superior graphical scores.

We can highlight that discrepancy with SPECviewperf 13, a subset of SPECworkstation that focuses on graphical performance in professional applications such as SOLIDWORKS, Creo, CATIA, Maya, and more. With its weaker GPU, the 5550 only hits about 40 to 80 percent of the Acer’s viewport performance in any given viewset.

And on the flip side, the results from Cinebench R20, a benchmark focusing solely on CPU performance, highlight the Precision 5550’s strongest spec.

Note: The Cinebench R20 score for the Core i7-9750H (Acer ConceptD 7 Pro) was obtained from this database and has not been independently verified by engineering.com.
Note: The Cinebench R20 score for the Core i7-9750H (Acer ConceptD 7 Pro) was obtained from this database and has not been independently verified by engineering.com.

Finally, the CPU/GPU tradeoff can be seen in PassMark PerformanceTest, a consumer-oriented benchmark of general system performance. Here’s the Precision 5550 against the ConceptD 7 Pro once more:

The biggest differences are in the CPU test, in which the 5550 takes a hearty lead, and the 3D graphics test, in which the ConceptD 7 Pro dominates. The Acer also aces the disk test, but that’s thanks to its RAID 0 setup—configuring the 5550 with RAID 0 should close that gap significantly. However, overall, the Precision 5550 achieves the higher PassMark rating.

So how to classify the performance of the Precision 5550? This mobile workstation is a perfect example of why it’s important to understand your typical workload. If you need strong graphical performance—think of a responsive viewport in CAD applications—you’ll want a better GPU than that offered in the Precision 5550. But if graphics take a backseat to general computation—think programming, for instance—the Precision 5550 knocks it out of the park.

Ultimately, the balance of power means that the Precision 5550 achieves average overall performance compared to the other laptops we’ve reviewed this year. That’s not a strike against it—the Precision 5550 is a mid-tier mobile workstation, sandwiched between the Precision 3000 and 7000 series. There are other Precisions with better performance, but none that match the thin and compact form factor of the 5550.

3. Dell Optimizer

There’s one more aspect of the Precision 5550’s performance that must be accounted for, and that’s Dell Optimizer. This is pre-loaded software that Dell describes as “built-in AI that learns how you work” by “intelligently and dynamically optimiz[ing] the system’s performance using AI and machine learning.”

Dell Optimizer attempts to optimize the system in several ways, from the performance of individual applications to the audio experience to power and battery performance. But does it work?

Let’s focus on applications. The idea is that you pick an application—say SOLIDWORKS 2020—and after a period of learning the app, Dell Optimizer will, well, optimize it. You can do this for up to five different applications.

As you can see above, we trained the 5550 on SOLIDWORKS 2020. It took a few hours of learning before we got the green check mark. We chose SOLIDWORKS because it has a built-in benchmark that we could use to compare the before/after optimization performance. Here’s what we found:

Each set of results is an average of five trials of the SOLIDWORKS benchmark.
Each set of results is an average of five trials of the SOLIDWORKS benchmark.

There you have it: Dell Optimizer walks the walk, achieving marginal improvements in the SOLIDWORKS benchmark. The gains may not be crazy, but it seems the Precision 5550 will let you wring just a little more juice out of your five favorite applications.

4. Display

The Dell Precision 5550’s 4K touchscreen display is one of the best we’ve seen this year. It’s an incredibly bright display—over 400 nits at max brightness—but it’s a bit glossy, so reflections can be a problem in bright light. The display provides excellent color coverage, with both 100% sRGB and 100% Adobe RGB. It’s also got great color accuracy with an average Delta E of 1.49.

The 5550’s display uniformity is a little lower than usual, with luminance deviating by as much as 19% around the display and color accuracy by as much as 6.4 Delta E. However, these variations aren’t noticeable to my eye.

The Precision 5550 comes preloaded with a Dell application called PremiereColor which can be used to fine tune the display. It allows you to adjust the gamut, contrast, color temperature, gamma, and more. You can even set different color gamuts to different applications, so the 5550 will dynamically adjust its display as you alt-tab your way through the day.

5. Battery

For a mobile workstation with a lot of points in the plus column, one of the biggest plusses of the Precision 5550 is its battery life. We tested the 86Wh battery and saw the best battery life of any laptop we’ve reviewed this year (note that there’s a 56Wh battery configuration of the 5550 as well).

Our average use of the Precision 5550 gave us 5 hours and 34 minutes of battery life—almost an hour ahead of the next best option. This involved a range of common applications and no extra efforts to preserve battery life. When we did do our best to preserve battery life, lowering the screen brightness to 10% and turning on power saving mode, we managed to stretch the 5550’s battery life to 13 hours and 23 minutes—enough to watch six or seven movies on your next long haul flight. However, when we turned up the heat and stress tested the battery, we only got an hour and 24 minutes out of the 5550.

There are two main features of the Precision 5550 that work to improve battery life. The first is Dell Optimizer, which, in addition to boosting the performance of individual applications, also uses machine learning to elongate battery life.

The power section of Dell Optimizer.
The power section of Dell Optimizer.

The second feature is the 5550’s thermal design. Thermals play a huge role in laptop performance, and Dell has always proudly boasted of its superior thermal design, a tradition which it continues with the Precision 5550. One feature of the 5550 is that its thermal profile can be customized at the BIOS level to trade off between better battery (running cooler and quieter) and better performance (running hotter and louder). Users can pick between four options: optimized, cool, quiet, or ultra performance mode.

All our battery tests were conducted in the default Ultra Performance mode—it may be possible to achieve yet better battery life in one of the other thermal profiles. Oh, and if you don’t feel like digging around in the BIOS, you can also control this and other power settings in another built-in app called Dell Power Manager:

6. Price

The price of the Precision 5550 leans towards the high end of the spectrum given its level of performance. Our configuration is valued at $4181.15, in the middle of the 5550’s starting $1999.00 and fully specced $6332.30. At that price, you’re definitely paying a premium for the thin and small form factor. Performance-wise, here’s how the 5550 compares to the other mobile workstations we’ve reviewed this year:
Price/performance comparison based on all benchmark results, with double weight given to SPEC benchmarks.
Price/performance comparison based on all benchmark results, with double weight given to SPEC benchmarks.
The Dell Precision 5550 is the priciest laptop we’ve reviewed this year, yet it sits just above the performance average. More performance is available on the market for less money, on average—but the numbers shift depending on whether you focus on CPU performance, graphics performance, or other performance metrics:

7. Verdict

I’ll say this about the Dell Precision 5550: it’s my favorite Dell laptop by a mile, and it’s my favorite mobile workstation from this year so far. I always ask myself whether or not I’d want to use a particular laptop for my own work, and for the 5550 the answer is yes. It’s got enough horsepower for my typical workload and it offers a great touchscreen display, nice keyboard and trackpad experience, compact and premium form factor, and phenomenal battery life.

The biggest downsides of the Precision 5550 are that it’s a tad pricey for the performance and its graphical options are quite limited. But if you’re hunting for a mid-tier 15” mobile workstation and have a bit of extra room in your budget, the Dell Precision 5550 is strong option to consider.

Stay tuned for our video review of the Dell Precision 5550.


Recommended For You