It’s available with a potent Intel Xeon or Core i9 processor, but otherwise the Dell Precision 3551 (starts at $939; $2,692 as tested) doesn’t let you forget it’s the company’s entry-level mobile workstation.
Its screen options top out at full HD resolution. While it has Nvidia Quadro professional graphics, its 4GB Quadro P620 ranks eighth of Nvidia’s nine laptop workstation GPUs. If you want a 4K display or faster graphics, you’ll have to step up to the Precision 5000 or 7000 series.
The Precision 3551 is a capable platform for 2D computer-aided design (CAD), if not 3D rendering or virtual reality, but it’s overshadowed by its stablemates.
A Relatively Portable Package
With its Intel UHD 630 integrated graphics, the $939 base model of the Precision 3551 doesn’t really qualify as a workstation. Actually, with its pitiful 4GB of RAM and 1,366-by-768-pixel display, it barely qualifies as a low-end Chromebook.
My $2,692 test unit is much less limp, with an eight-core Core i9-10885H CPU, 32GB of memory, a 512GB NVMe solid-state drive, and a 1080p touch screen backed by the Quadro P620.
The operating system is Windows 10 Pro, though Windows 10 Pro for Workstations and a six-core Xeon W-10855M are available. (An option for error-correcting-code, a.k.a., ECC, memory is not.) You can outfit the Precision 3551 with up to 64GB of RAM and a 2TB SSD plus 2TB SATA hard drive, though machines with the hard drive carry a smaller battery. Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth are standard issue.
The notebook is a silver aluminum slab measuring 0.98 by 14.1 by 9.3 inches—a fifth of an inch thicker than its mid-2019 predecessor the Precision 3540—and weighing 4.16 pounds. That’s hardly ultraportable territory, but it’s not too portly compared to most 15.6-inch workstations; the Lenovo ThinkPad P53, for instance, is 1.2 by 14.9 by 9.9 inches and 5.5 pounds.
The bezels around the screen are unfashionably thick, but the top bezel makes room for a face-recognition webcam with a sliding privacy shutter. The power button doubles as a fingerprint reader, giving you two ways to enjoy Windows Hello logins.
On the Dell’s right flank are a microSD card slot, a SIM card slot for optional mobile broadband, an audio jack, two USB 3.2 Type-A ports, HDMI and Ethernet ports, and a security lock notch. The left edge holds a round connector for an AC adapter, a Thunderbolt 3 port, and another USB-A 3.2 port.
Despite the barrel connector, the power brick sent with my test unit had a USB-C cable, preventing the use of USB-C or Thunderbolt peripherals when the laptop’s plugged in. Since workstations spend most of their time on AC power, that’s a mistake.
The Keyboard’s a Plus, the Screen’s a Minus
The brightly backlit keyboard makes room for a numeric keypad (the Enter key is slightly small) and has real Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down keys instead of making you pair the Fn key and cursor arrows. Typing feel is good, perhaps a bit rubbery but reasonably snappy and comfortable.
You get two pointing devices: a two-button touchpad, and a three-button pointing stick embedded in the keyboard. The middle button is a bonus for CAD and other independent software vendor (ISV) applications. Both work smoothly and precisely.
High-end mobile workstation screens offer 8-bit or sometimes 10-bit color, but the Precision 3551’s touch screen is a 6-bit panel that covers an unremarkable 45% of the Adobe RGB gamut, so colors don’t dazzle—they’re bland and washed out instead of vivid.
Contrast is decent, and white backgrounds aren’t too dingy, but brightness is only fair and fine details not particularly sharp. It’s a passable economy display, but it won’t satisfy demanding graphics professionals. I’d recommend an alternative, a non-touch screen rated at 100% of the sRGB gamut.
The 720p webcam captures reasonably bright and colorful images, though its focus is fairly soft and there’s some digital noise. Speakers located at bottom front pump out enough audio to fill a small room, but it sounds muted even at top volume. You can make out overlapping tracks, but there’s no thrust or bass, and background notes get swallowed up.
Like other Precision workstations, the 3551 comes with Dell Optimizer software that uses artificial intelligence to analyze your application use and tweak settings for max performance. Dell Power Manager gives you fine control over battery use, while Dell Command Update keeps the drivers, BIOS, and firmware fresh. The system carries a one-year warranty.
Performance Testing: A CPU Letdown
While the Quadro P620 is near the bottom of Nvidia’s mobile workstation GPUs, the 2.4GHz (5.3GHz turbo) Core i9-10885H is near the top of Intel’s eight-core laptop processors. Unfortunately, not only is it overkill for an affordable system, but it’s handicapped in the Precision 3551.
How so? Dell runs the CPU at 35 watts here instead of its usual 45 watts, so the system noticeably trailed the only other Core i9-10885H laptop we’ve tested (the HP ZBook Create G7) in our processing benchmarks. It was still formidably fast, however.
For this review’s performance comparisons, I pitted the Precision 3551 against four other mobile workstations. Two, the previous-generation Precision 3540 and the 14-inch HP ZBook Firefly 14 G7, skew toward the entry level. Two others, the Lenovo ThinkPad P53 and the HP ZBook 15 G6, are higher-end systems. You can see their basic specs in the table below.
Productivity and Media Tests
PCMark 10 and 8 are holistic performance suites developed by the PC benchmark specialists at UL (formerly Futuremark). The PCMark 10 test we run simulates different real-world productivity and content-creation workflows. We use it to assess overall system performance for office-centric tasks such as word processing, spreadsheet work, web browsing, and videoconferencing. PCMark 8, meanwhile, has a storage subtest that we use to assess the speed of the system’s boot drive. Both yield a proprietary numeric score; higher numbers are better. (See more about how we test laptops.)
The Precision 3551 balked at PCMark 8’s storage test (which has become mostly moot with today’s fast SSDs, anyway), but it easily hurdled the 4,000 points that indicate excellent productivity in PCMark 10. Like all workstations, it’s wasted on the likes of Microsoft Office or Google Docs.
Next is Maxon’s CPU-crunching Cinebench R15 test, which is fully threaded to make use of all available processor cores and threads. Cinebench stresses the CPU rather than the GPU to render a complex image. The result is a proprietary score indicating a PC’s suitability for processor-intensive workloads.
Cinebench is often a good predictor of our Handbrake video editing benchmark, in which we put a stopwatch on systems as they transcode a brief movie from 4K resolution down to 1080p. It, too, is a tough test for multi-core, multi-threaded CPUs; lower times are better.
Even a throttled-down Core i9 is still impressively strong, though the ZBook 15’s Xeon topped it in our benchmarks. The quad-core, 15-watt Core i7-8565U in the Precision 3540 was seriously outclassed.
We also run a custom Adobe Photoshop image-editing benchmark. Using an early 2018 release of the Creative Cloud version of Photoshop, we apply a series of 10 complex filters and effects to a standard JPEG test image. We time each operation and add up the total (lower times are better). The Photoshop test stresses the CPU, storage subsystem, and RAM, but it can also take advantage of most GPUs to speed up the process of applying filters.
Its mediocre display keeps us from recommending the Precision 3551 for photo editing jobs, but if you’re so inclined it certainly won’t keep you waiting. Few laptops in our review database have posted quicker Photoshop times.
3DMark measures relative graphics muscle by rendering sequences of highly detailed, gaming-style 3D graphics that emphasize particles and lighting. We run two different 3DMark subtests, Sky Diver and Fire Strike. Both are DirectX 11 benchmarks, but Sky Diver is more suited to laptops and midrange PCs, while Fire Strike is more demanding and lets high-end PCs and gaming rigs strut their stuff.
The Quadro P620 isn’t a gaming GPU, though it can handle some casual gaming or light entertainment after spending a day with ISV apps.
Next up is another synthetic graphics test, this time from Unigine Corp. Like 3DMark, the Superposition test renders and pans through a detailed 3D scene, this one rendered in the eponymous Unigine engine for a second opinion on the machine’s graphical prowess. We present two Superposition results, run at the 720p Low and 1080p High presets and reported in frames per second (fps), indicating how smooth the scene looks in motion. For lower-end systems, maintaining at least 30fps is the realistic target, while more powerful computers should ideally attain at least 60fps at the test resolution.
This gaming simulation produced much the same result as 3DMark, confirming that the Precision 3551 won’t be mistaken for a gaming laptop but can outrun systems with integrated graphics and the lowest-end GPUs.
In addition to our CPU measurement, Cinebench R15 has an OpenGL exercise that uses that popular vector graphics application programming interface (API) to tap the GPU for hardware-accelerated rendering of a brief animated movie of a car chase. Results are displayed in frames per second (fps); higher numbers are better.
We also use the POV-Ray 3.7 CPU benchmark. The Persistence of Vision Raytracer is a free software program that makes tons of calculations to determine pixel colors and (optionally) put them on screen. It exercises processor cores and threads and the floating-point unit, not the GPU (it doesn’t use the ray-tracing features of Nvidia’s RTX series GPUs). The benchmark times (in seconds; lower is better) the off-screen rendering of a photo-realistic scene with multiple light sources.
The 3551 is clearly a big improvement on its Precision 3540 predecessor and handily outperformed the ZBook Firefly.
Finally, there’s SPECviewperf 13, the most realistic and challenging workstation benchmark we run and the one we give greatest weight. This test uses viewsets from actual ISV apps to render, rotate, and zoom in and out of wireframe and solid 3D models, with results listed in frames per second (higher is better). The viewsets we use are from PTC’s Creo CAD platform; Autodesk’s Maya modeling and simulation software for film, TV, and games; and Dassault Systemes’ SolidWorks 3D rendering package.
The ThinkPad P53 and ZBook 15 are out of the two Precisions’ league, mainly due to their Quadro RTX graphics, but the 3551 posted creditable numbers for an entry-level workstation.
Battery Rundown Test
After fully recharging the laptop, we set up the machine in power-save mode (as opposed to balanced or high-performance mode) where available and make a few other battery-conserving tweaks in preparation for our unplugged video rundown test. (We also turn Wi-Fi off, putting the laptop into airplane mode.) In this test, we loop a video—a locally stored 720p file of the Blender Foundation short film Tears of Steel—with screen brightness set at 50 percent and volume at 100 percent until the system quits.
I said that workstations are usually plugged into wall outlets, but the Precision 3551 showed remarkable stamina—its battery life would honor an ultraportable laptop.
Verdict: It’s All in the Component Mix
Suitably configured, the Precision 3551 can be a fine entry-level workstation, but besides sending a suboptimal AC adapter with our test unit, Dell arguably sent the wrong processor—unless you’re crunching giant datasets, the Core i9 is an odd match for a low-end display, and it hikes the price in the process. Dell’s next-level-up Precision 5550, equipped with a slightly more modest Core i7-10750H CPU and a superior Quadro T2000 graphics chip, actually costs $103 less than the 3551 here (and it runs its CPU at 45 watts, to give you all the speed you paid for).
- Lackluster screen, with no 4K option
- Supplied AC adapter uses the sole USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 port
- $939 base model brings a spork to a gunfight
The Bottom Line
The Precision 3551 ably fills the bottom slot in Dell’s mobile workstation lineup, but a cost-no-object CPU choice made our test unit too expensive for its market segment.
Dell Precision 3551 Specs
|Processor||Intel Core i9-10885H|
|Processor Speed||2.4 GHz|
|RAM (as Tested)||32 GB|
|Boot Drive Type||SSD|
|Boot Drive Capacity (as Tested)||512 GB|
|Screen Size||15.6 inches|
|Native Display Resolution||1920 by 1080|
|Variable Refresh Support||None|
|Screen Refresh Rate||60 Hz|
|Graphics Processor||Nvidia Quadro P620|
|Graphics Memory||4 GB|
|Wireless Networking||802.11ax, Bluetooth|
|Dimensions (HWD)||0.98 by 14.1 by 9.3 inches|
|Operating System||Windows 10 Pro|
|Tested Battery Life (Hours:Minutes)||16:50|