Dell aims upgraded laptop at Mac-using creative pros

Looking for a profitable niche, the PC maker gives its 15-inch M3800 workstation a 4K display, Thunderbolt 2 and new storage options to coax video editors and others who use Apple laptops.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
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The Dell Precision M3800 laptop workstation now comes with Thunderbolt 2 ports and a 4K display.
The Dell Precision M3800 laptop workstation now comes with Thunderbolt 2 ports and a 4K display. Dell

Dell, trying to curry favor with video editors who are more likely to use a MacBook, updated its M3800 workstation on Tuesday with a super-high-resolution 4K display, a faster Thunderbolt 2 connection and more capacious storage options.

In a quest to return to the glory days it once enjoyed in the PC market, Dell is aiming the machine squarely at Apple. That rival managed to sidestep the disaster that was the PC industry in recent years by focusing on profitable premium models, chiefly its MacBook Air and Pro lines, and by leading the smartphone and tablet charge that caused much of that disaster.

Dell went private in February 2013 to try to rebuild its financial fortunes. A reviving PC market should help, but Dell still has nothing to compare with Apple's iPhone and iPad business, which carried Apple to new heights with fourth-quarter profit of $18 billion on revenue of $74.5 billion. Dell shrugged off the prospects of a lackluster PC market.

"We believe we can continue to grow our share even in a declining industry space," CEO Michael Dell said in an e-mail to CNET.

He noted that the company has increased its share 2.5 percent in the last year in the professional workstation market, that it's partnering closely with specialized software companies to support these machines and that Dell's new ultra-high-resolution displays cap its leadership in that related market segment, too.

The 15.6-inch M3800, more powerful than your average laptop but not a lot larger, is geared for people who need to push a lot of pixels around when creating or editing videos. To that end, it also has an Nvidia K1100M video card, a model with a 384-core graphics chip aimed at professionals in contrast to the consumer-oriented GeForce line. Software for video and image processing increasingly relies on the graphics chip, not just the main CPU, for computing muscle.

Although Dell is touting the M3800's video-editing abilities, the company also is pitching it for architecture, engineering, design and programming -- all markets where customers are willing to pay a premium for performance. For developers who like Linux, the new M3800 can run the Ubuntu version of the open-source operating system.

The previous M3800 touted a high-resolution screen at 3200x1800 pixels, but the new model offers 3840x2160 -- a resolution known as Ultra HD or 4K. Video often is shot in 4K even if it's only watched in conventional 1920x1080 HD resolution, so video editors are eager for displays that can handle the extra pixels.

Also new is Thunderbolt 2, an Intel communications port that can shuttle data at rates of 20gbps to external storage devices and big external displays. Thunderbolt is chiefly a Mac phenomenon, so including it on a PC makes it easier for pros to migrate to a Windows machine. Intel had hopes that Thunderbolt would become a fixture on mainstream machines, but USB connectors are vastly more common, closing the speed gap with Thunderbolt and gaining Thunderbolt's ability to support external displays.

With no new top-end Broadwell processors yet available, Dell is shipping the machine with the same Haswell-generation 2.3GHz Core i7 processor.

The Dell M3800 is 18mm (0.71 inches) thick.
The Dell M3800 is 18mm (0.71 inch) thick. Dell

The starting cost of $1,649 is a notch below the 15-inch MacBook Pro's $1,999 starting price, but the Dell price tag quickly steps up if you add fast solid-state drives that ship standard with the Mac. However, Dell's machine has two storage bays, allowing users to install both an SSD and a conventional hard drive for more storage space if desired. With both a 256GB SSD and 500GB 7200rpm hard drive and 16GB of RAM, the M3800 costs $2,246. That faster hard drive is another new option for the M3800.

Dell funded a study from Principled Technologies that shows the Windows machine outpacing a MacBook Pro in processor-intense video apps. Dell also won an endorsement from Adobe Systems, which sells Premiere Pro and After Effects video software, as well as Photoshop, InDesign and other titles. Also touting the M3800 was video production agency Sparksight, which switched from Macs to Dells for its video-rendering tasks (PDF).

Moreover, the M3800 offers touch-screen technology you won't find on a Mac today. Microsoft has worked hard to adapt Windows to a touch-screen future, and Adobe is following suit with touch-optimized versions of its software, like Photoshop and Illustrator. The M3800 is available with a year's subscription to Adobe's full line of software for $549, a $50 discount over the regular $600 per year cost for the Creative Cloud subscription.

-Connie Guglielmo contributed to this story.

Updated at 11:36 a.m. PT: To include a comment from CEO Michael Dell.