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Dell Precision 3530 Review & Rating

No offense to Dell, but you can’t get a mobile workstation for $929. The configuration of the company’s entry-level Precision 3530 that carries that price has a Core i5 processor with integrated graphics instead of a discrete GPU, only 4GB of RAM, and a (guffaw, shudder) 1,366-by-768-pixel screen more suited to a child’s laptop than a design, rendering, or scientific pro’s machine. Load up the Precision 3530 with a Xeon CPU, Nvidia Quadro graphics, 32GB of memory, and a decent display, though, and now you’re talking: You’ve got the $2,960 unit seen here. It’s still limited to full HD rather than 4K resolution, but it’s a first-rate performer and a worthy kid sibling to the mighty, $5,500-as-tested Precision 7730 and slimline Editors’ Choice Precision 5530.

Basic Black and Bulky

Like the Precision 5530 positioned above it, the Precision 3530 is a 15.6-inch laptop with a variety of processor and storage options. But while the 5530 is billed as Dell’s thinnest and lightest mobile workstation (0.66 by 14.1 by 9.3 inches, 4.4 pounds), the 3530 is more conventionally hefty (0.96 by 14.8 by 9.9 inches, 5 pounds).

The CPU choices peak with the six-core, 2.7GHz (4.4GHz turbo) Xeon E-2176M that was also in our Precision 5530 tester; the latter goes further with a Core i9 option not available in the less expensive system, as well as Nvidia’s Quadro P1000 or P2000 versus the more modest Quadro P600. You can also get the Precision 5530 with a gorgeous 4K (3,840-by-2,160-pixel) touch screen, while the Precision 3530 only offers 1,920-by-1,080-pixel touch and non-touch panels. (I won’t speak of the ignominious base screen again.)

Memory maxes out at 32GB, usually non-ECC DDR4 but with ECC DRAM available for Xeon configurations. Dell also offers plenty of solid-state (SSD) and hard drive storage options to choose from; my test system had a single 512GB PCI Express NVMe SSD.

A veteran of MIL-STD 810G tests for shock, vibration, and other hazards, the Precision 3530 bypasses the sleeker design of the 5530 for the anonymous styling of Dell’s Latitude line—it’s a generic black slab with a logo in the middle of the lid. Ports are plentiful, though there’s only one Thunderbolt 3 port—it’s on the laptop’s left side, along with a USB 3.1 Type-A port, an SD card slot, and a SmartCard slot.

On the right, you’ll find another USB 3.1 port, plus a VGA port, an audio jack, a slot for an optional SIM card, and a security lock slot. Around the back are yet another USB 3.1 port, HDMI and Ethernet ports, and the connector for the beefy AC adapter.

Whoosh, There It Is

Medium-sized bezels surround the screen, the top one making room for an IR webcam supporting face recognition. (Camera-shy users can also access Windows Hello and bypass passwords using the fingerprint reader.) The camera captures reasonably well-lit and detailed images with little grain or noise.

When I inserted my SD card of MP3 music tracks, the Dell earned points twice: once for swallowing the card rather than leaving it sticking out to snap off in my briefcase, and once for the loud and clear sound from the front-edge-mounted speakers. There’s not a lot of bass, but the audio can easily fill a room with realistic tones. If you like background music while you work, however, be aware that the Precision’s cooling fan can kick up a ruckus. Even with the fan, the system can get uncomfortably warm in a lap.

Dell lists the 3530’s antiglare non-touch display as offering “72 percent color gamut” without specifying which one; the supplied PremierColor utility offers a choice of “Vibrant (Full),” sRGB, HD and SD video, and a couple of reduced-blue-light palettes rather than print’s Adobe RGB or cinema’s DCI P3. That said, you can tweak brightness, contrast, gamma, and color temperature.

But if higher-end workstations give more professional color control, the Precision’s 1080p screen is quite pleasing, with ample brightness—though the 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro is brighter still—and wide viewing angles. Colors are rich and saturated, with inky blacks and wedding-day whites, and fine details are crisp (although 4K video editors will naturally prefer a system that offers a 4K screen option).

The keyboard is pleasing, too, with plenty of travel and a soft, snappy typing feel—a little too plasticky to match the best Lenovo ThinkPads, but better than average. The Ctrl and Delete keys are in their proper opposite corners; a nice, big keypad awaits number crunchers; and there are dedicated Page Up and Page Down keys. (Home and End, alas, are combinations with the Fn key and cursor arrows.) Cursor jockeys can choose from Dell’s trademark blue-ringed pointing stick, with three buttons below the space bar, and a two-button touchpad. Both glide gracefully.

Pulverizing PCMark

We always note in these reviews that workstations are overkill for humdrum apps like Word and Excel, but the Precision 3530 absolutely crushed our PCMark 8 Work office productivity benchmark, its score of 3,876 among the highest we’ve ever recorded. (Part of it is that, while we’ve tested even more powerful workstations, many have had 4K rather than 1080p displays, and pushing the extra pixels lowers PCMark results.)

The system also rocketed through our Cinebench processor measurement and Handbrake video-editing exercise, showing the advantage of its two extra cores over its Precision 3520 predecessor, though it narrowly lost both events to its same-CPU’d Precision 5530 stablemate.

Dell Precision 3530 CPU chart

Related StorySee How We Test Laptops

One disappointing result came in our battery rundown, where the Dell lasted for just 8 hours and 38 minutes of video playback despite a big 92WHr battery—not a poor time, but nowhere near the stamina of several competitors.

As for our graphics tests, they played out like a dramatic reading of the Nvidia parts list: The test unit’s Quadro P600 finished ahead of the P500 in the Lenovo ThinkPad P52s and last year’s Quadro M620, but trailed the Quadro P2000 in the Precision 5530. All of these GPUs are optimized for different tasks than the gaming operations of Nvidia’s GeForce line, so you shouldn’t expect them to blaze through the latest titles even if some perform credibly in our Heaven and Valley gaming simulations.

Dell Precision 3530 gaming chart

A similar story played out in our workstation-specific benchmarks. The Precision 3530 completed POV-Ray 3.7’s off-screen rendering exercise in 146 seconds (1,793 pixels per second), quicker than the 170 seconds of last year’s entry-level Precision and the 161 of last year’s HP ZBook 15 G4. But the Precision 5530 did the job in just 112 seconds (2,347 pixels per second).

In SPECviewperf 13, which renders and rotates solid and wireframe models using popular workstation apps’ viewsets, the 3530 delivered 57 frames per second (fps) in Creo and 58 in Maya. That beats the 37fps apiece of the ThinkPad P52s, but not the respective 77fps and 90fps of the Precision 5530.

All in the (Precision) Family

Indeed, it’s the Precision 5530 that casts a bit of a shadow over the 3530—not only for its more glamorous design and lighter weight, but for the fact that it doesn’t cost all that much more. Our 5530 test unit, which had the same processor, RAM, and storage as our 3530 but a faster graphics card and a 4K touch screen, was priced $687 higher. That’s not pocket change, but it’s not insurmountable to a workstation buyer who cares less about purchase price than power and longevity. When I tried configuring matching systems on Dell.com, the difference was barely $300.

That’s not to say the 5530 is flawless—its webcam placement is awful—or to say the 3530 isn’t worth a long look. It’s just to say you’ll have to juggle power, price, and portability as you shop.


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