For the past few months, the feeling of lugging around a 15-inch mid 2012 MacBook Pro has been something literally painful, especially for my back. I’m living a pretty mobile lifestyle now, where I have to go from one place to another, giving workshops, participating on events or attend meetings. Doing that with a 3 kg laptop on my backpack, is like asking for trouble in the future. It has been an issue for at least a year now, therefore, I’m on the market for something lighter but doesn’t hinder me from doing my regular coding practices, which most of the time, involves graphical programming.
What are my options?
Initially, I was torn apart between choosing something significantly lighter than the MacBook Pro (those sleek ultrabooks), or, something that’s just a few grams lighter, but offers an upgrade in the graphic card department (those massive gaming laptops). I was researching for months for this and I finally conclude that my top priority was a significantly lighter laptop. Afterwards, I need to choose a model that offers me a discrete graphic card, so I can still work with TouchDesigner. No offense to those gaming laptops, I do still want them, but I guess, this isn’t the perfect time to do so.
So, having said that, I ended up choosing between this Dell Inspiron 7460 and Asus Zenbook UX310UQ. Both are light. Dell weights around 1.65 kg and the Asus is around 1.4 kg. Those are significant, close to half of my old MacBook. Both also have a discrete graphic card, which is a GeForce 940MX. This tool said that this card is 1.2x faster than GeForce 650M which inhabits the old machine. Not significantly faster, but I know that the old MacBook can handle lots of stuff, so I’d be very happy if I could do those inside a lighter machine. So, those 2 factors were good enough for me.
Now, the dealbreaker, are 2 things. The Dell features 2 things that I can highly appreciate. The first one is an upgradable RAM. I can go up to 32 GB in this one. The Asus, since it’s an ultrabook, doesn’t offer that. Even though, both come with 8 GB of RAM from the beginning, my previous MacBook already has 16 GB. So, I figure, this could be something that I value in the future. I may start with 8 GB first and see how it all goes from there.
The second one, is a ethernet port. Now, this is something that I know I need when the time arrives. For example, I sometime need to configure my Raspberry Pis. But most of the time, I know that I have to do that “headless” (no additional monitor). That’s when I need to share my connection through ethernet port so I can SSH to the Pi. Also, I may have to configure other network devices such as IP camera or OpenBTS box. Scenarios like that would require me to have an ethernet port ready.
With those in mind, I made the decision to grab a Dell Inspiron 7460 as my portable day-to-day machine. And after few days of using it, here are my impressions.
The Hardware Performance
The hardware is good. The first noticeable thing is the thin bezel for the monitor. So, it has a 13 inch body but possesses a 14 inch monitor. It looks beautiful. The monitor is also fantastic. Bright, clear colors, emanate from the screen, making it very pleasant to use for work. However, the thin bezel, does have its trade off. Dell decided to put a webcam in the bottom side of the monitor. So, a Skype video call requires me to adjust my seating position, so that the camera doesn’t focus on my beard, which of course, would be awkward for the person on the other side.
The keyboard works very well too. Typing on it feels perfect. I do have to adjust a the travelling distance a bit, compared to my old MacBook, but after few days, it feels fine. The touchpad though, can feel a bit tricky. Sometimes I feel I have to push it a bit to work. But the good news is, the default Windows 10 gestures work accurately. May be a bit too accurate, because I often accidentally zoom in the browser, because my both of my thumbs are in the touchpad.
Strong On The Inside
This machine comes with a 128 GB SSD + 1 TB hardisk. The SSD is pre-configured with a Windows 10 OS, so booting process is super fast. Plus, I have twice the storage space than I have before. So the first thing I set was to keep the 1 TB hardisk as the main storage, be it for documents or applications. I keep the SSD strictly for OS and drivers. But overall, this is a good setup.
The i7 7500U 2.9 GHz processor also works well here. I can compile openFrameworks C++ project that computes 3D shader, inside Visual Studio 2017 in a breeze. So happy for this one. The aforementioned 8 GB DDR4 enables me to do that compiling while communication through Slack and doing other browser based activity in Chrome, a smooth experience. So far, so good.
The 2GB GeForce 940MX GPU also performs well for my setup. I can do visual 3D graphic coding inside TouchDesigner without having to push the graphic card too much, but still results in a smooth framerate. Even though the fan runs fast, showing that the GPU is working hard, I still can get 60 fps when doing a pretty expensive trick inside it. Again, my MacBook Pro would behave this way too, so, the Dell is doing just fine.
From gaming point of view, I haven;t actually tested that much to be honest. But, playing Doom 3 BFG Edition (a 2012 re-release of Doom 3), requires me to play in 1600×900 with no anti-aliasing to get a smooth visual. Playing it with a full 1920×1080 resolution (the maximum resoultion for the Dell’s monitor) with 2x anti-aliasing, results in teared graphic and some weird noises playing. A testament of a drop in framerate. So, I think form gaming, this graphic card wouldn’t be able to handle newer games with high fidelity 3D graphics. Luckily, I don’t have that many games in that category in my Steam library. So, this one doesn’t affect my judgement that much.
The battery is also pretty good. So far, in full 100% charged battery, I can work for ~6 hours. The activity includes normal browsing in Chrome, reading, managing server via Powershell (WSL rules!) as well as communicating via Slack. That’s a pretty respectable number. The right side on the keyboard does feel a little warm, but doesn’t hinder me from typing comfortably.
I’m a Happy Developer
All in all, Dell has managed to produce a very usable machine that would support my daily programming activity without having to break my back while traveling. So far, it’s a very satisfying experience. With a very competitive price, I believe that Dell has another winner in their recent catalogue. I would highly recommend this laptop to anyone looking for a light laptop with discrete graphic card.