If Dell’s XPS 15 went to engineering school, it would graduate as the Precision 5530 (starts at $1,519; $3,647 as tested). Billed as Dell’s lightest, thinnest, and smallest 15.6-inch mobile workstation, the Precision 5530 is not a “lite” or lower power/more portable entry like HP’s ZBook 14u G4. Instead, it competes with HP’s and Lenovo’s full-bore, over-5.5-pound ZBook 15 G4 and ThinkPad P51 respectively, with a potent Intel Xeon processor and Nvidia Quadro graphics, while weighing about 4 pounds. Indeed, since it has the first six-core “Coffee Lake” Xeon chip we’ve seen in a mobile workstation, the Precision outruns those quad-core systems—and replaces the ZBook 15 G4 as our Editors’ Choice in the category.
A Serious Xeon/Quadro Loadout
The $1,519 starter configuration is decidedly modest, with a Core i5 CPU, Intel integrated graphics, 8GB of memory, a 1TB hybrid hard drive with 8GB of cache, and a 1080p display. Soaring to $3,647, my test unit combined a 2.7GHz (4.4GHz turbo) Xeon E-2176M, 4GB Quadro P2000 graphics, 32GB of non-ECC memory, a 512GB NVMe solid-state drive (SSD), and a 4K (3,840-by-2,160-pixel) touch display.
The memory ceiling is 32GB; ECC memory is not an option despite the Xeon processor, which isn’t even the top choice—that would be the 2.9GHz Core i9-8950HK, the same chip offered in the top-end 15-inch version of the 2018 MacBook Pro. Storage can climb to 4TB in the form of one M.2 SSD plus one 2.5-inch hard drive. The software preload stars Windows 10 Pro for Workstations, a special release for systems with four or more cores. Dell bundles a Precision Optimizer utility that tweaks performance settings for popular apps; a $175 premium version applies AI analysis to, the company claims, dramatically improve the throughput of your favorite programs based on how you work.
Style-wise, the Precision 5530 is one handsome slab. The motif is black brushed aluminum with wraparound chrome accents, and a carbon-fiber-patterned palm rest and keyboard deck. It measures 0.66 by 14.1 by 9.3 inches—trimmer than the slimline Lenovo ThinkPad P52s (0.8 by 14.4 by 9.5 inches), let alone a full-size 15.6-inch mobile workstation like the HP ZBook 15 G4 (1.0 by 15.2 by 10.4 inches). The base model squeaks under the four-pound line at 3.93 pounds, though the test unit I have in hand, with a touch screen and a larger 97-watt-hour battery, is closer to the 4.4-pound P52s. (Even so, compare the ZBook 15 G4, at 5.8 pounds.)
On the laptop’s left side are a headphone jack, a Thunderbolt 3 port, an HDMI port, a USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type-A port (we won’t mind if you call it a USB 3.0), and the connector for the shirt-pocket-size AC adapter. On the right are another USB 3.1 Gen 1 port, an SD card slot, a security lock slot, and an XPS-style battery-gauge button. I can hear purists harping that a single Thunderbolt 3 port is skimpy compared to the two of the ZBook or the four of Apple’s 15-inch MacBook Pro, but Thunderbolt 3’s daisy-chaining abilities help offset that, and you’ve got to compromise somewhere for a machine this svelte. Dell bundles a Thunderbolt-to-Ethernet dongle in the box.
Leading With Your Chin
The stylishly skinny bezels of what Dell calls its InfinityEdge display mean that the Precision 5530, like the Dell XPS 13, has no room for a webcam above the screen. Instead, the camera’s centered below it, so while its images are above average in brightness and certainly sharp, your Skype colleagues will mainly look up at your chin and into your nostrils—unless you happen to type something, in which case all they’ll see are your enormous knuckles.
Your own view will be considerably nicer, because the Precision’s IGZO-based touch screen is a highlight. The panel is somewhat reflective when switched off, but largely free of glare and mirror images during use. Brightness and contrast are ample, and viewing angles are broad. Fine details pop, thanks to the 4K native resolution of the tester’s panel, and colors are rich and saturated. Photos, charts, and rendered objects all look vivid and engaging to my eyes.
In other audiovisual news, the bottom-mounted speakers pump out adequate sound, easily loud enough to fill a room and realistic enough to enjoy streaming audio and MP3s. Don’t expect much in the way of bass response, but overall, the sound is closer to FM than AM radio.
The backlit keyboard features a buttonless touchpad, which is odd because many workstation independent software vendor (ISV) apps not only make heavy use of mouse buttons but rely on a middle button. Still, at least the touchpad itself glides and taps smoothly. The keyboard lacks a numeric keypad (as well as dedicated Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn keys, which are doubled up on the cursor arrows); it has a somewhat shallow, rubbery feel, but reasonably snappy feedback. I managed 84 words per minute (wpm) with no errors in an online typing test, but I didn’t feel the crisp control I’ve felt with my favorite laptops.
Major Workstation Grunt
If you think 84wpm is impressive, you haven’t heard the rest of this Precision’s benchmark numbers.
The Precision 5530 earned over 3,200 points in our PCMark 8 Work Conventional office-productivity test, which is excellent (particularly for a system with a 4K screen, which tends to drag down that score). But its six CPU cores absolutely pummeled our Cinebench processor and Handbrake video-editing exercises—it completed the latter in 40 seconds, just half the time of the ThinkPad P52s and 17 seconds ahead of the HP ZBook 15 G4. The Precision also won our Adobe Photoshop image-editing race, albeit by a slender margin.
Its Quadro P2000 GPU was no match for the mighty Quadro P5000 in the HP ZBook 17 G4, which dominated our 3DMark, Heaven, and Valley graphics and gaming simulations (the ZBook 15 G4, given the advantage of a 1080p rather than 4K screen, won the native-resolution subtests in Heaven and Valley).
Workstation and Battery Trials
Now, that’s all to the good. But none of these systems is designed with gaming in mind, which is why we run a few workstation-specific benchmarks, as well.
In POV-Ray 3.7, for example, the Precision 5530 performed an off-screen ray-tracing exercise in 112 seconds—quicker than the P52s, P51, and ZBook 15 G4 (211, 143, and 161 seconds respectively).
In the ultra-demanding SPECviewperf 12.0.2, which renders and rotates solid and wireframe models using popular workstation apps’ viewsets, the Precision managed 64 frames per second (fps) in Creo, 52fps in Maya, and 100fps in SolidWorks—literally punching above its weight with the P51 (70fps, 49fps, 100fps) and ZBook 15 G4 (67fps, 45fps, 91fps).
The Precision 5530 also posted a respectable time of 11 hours and 6 minutes in our battery rundown test, trailing a couple of heavier workstations, such as its near-14-hour Precision 3520 stablemate, but showing more than enough stamina to get you through an extra-long workday.
Lightest and Fastest in Class
More “Coffee Lake” 15.6-inch workstations are coming, and they’re bound to be fierce competitors and Editors’ Choice contenders, but few if any will be as sleek and light as the Precision 5530. The latter bridges the gap between full-size mobile workstations suited for crunching through datasets or creating renderings and lighter models intended mostly for just showing those completed renderings to clients or colleagues. Like its XPS 15 sibling, it’s a standout in its field.