User-accessible components. Optional touch screen. Excellent battery life. ISV certified.
Single USB-C port. Stodgy design. No 4K display option.
- Bottom Line
Despite its bland looks, the Dell Precision 3520's excellent battery life will appeal to road warriors, and IT managers will like its upgradeability.
The Dell Precision 3520 (starts at $999, $2,208 as tested) is a business laptop that straddles both the old and new eras of mobile computing. From the outside, it's a rectangular black box that looks much the same as desktop replacement notebooks have for more than 15 years, and it comes with the robust business-friendly and IT features that Precision-brand workstations are known for.
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But once you open the lid, you're treated to a full HD glossy display with brilliant colors that nicely complements the laptop's other forward-looking features, including PCI NVM.e hard drive options and support for Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C. Perhaps the best feature for budget-conscious companies interested in future-proofing their investments is that unlike the Editors' Choice Dell Precision 15 5000, the Precision 3520 is easily upgradeable after purchase.
Boring Black Plastic
The Precision 3520 has the staid looks you'd expect from a rather large business desktop, with enveloping black plastic on the palm rests and lid cover that is actually pleasingly soft to the touch. It's certainly not an ultraportable, but neither is it as heavy as you might initially expect, weighing 4.79 pounds and measuring 0.97 by 14.6 by 9.94 inches (HWD). This puts it in the middle of a pack of competing 15-inch business laptops. The HP ZBook Studio G3 is a tad lighter at 4.62 pounds. The Precision 15 5000, meanwhile, is heavier at 4.97 pounds, and several Lenovo models top 5 pounds, including the Z50-75. With no optical drive, however, we wish Dell had pushed the weight down in an attempt to match the 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro's 4.02 pounds.
Unlike the chassis and the lid, the 15.6-inch display is anything but staid, boasting a full HD resolution of 1,920 by 1,080, and in-plane switching (IPS) for exceptionally wide viewing angles. The glossy finish makes the already-excellent-looking colors pop even more, but at the expense of glare protection. The glare will be a problem if you typically work in fluorescent-lit office environments, although it's no worse than other glossy displays we've tested recently. A further note about the colors: Dell says the Precision 3520's screen on our review unit can display 72 percent of the color gamut, while the non-touch, 1,366 by 768 display on the base Precision 3520 can only display 42 percent. When you translate that into what the naked eye experiences, the Precision's colors aren't quite as vivid as those that the MacBook Pro can display, with its support for a wider DCI-P3 gamut. Still, if you're a photographer, you'll appreciate that Dell is sticking with the more widely supported Adobe RGB gamut.
The port selection is adequate for a mobile workstation in 2017, and it includes a USB-C connector with Thunderbolt 3 support. Unfortunately, there's only one, which is half the complement you'll find on the HP ZBook Studio and just a quarter of the four USB-C Thunderbolt connectors on the MacBook Pro. USB-C and Thunderbolt peripherals are still few and far between, but it would have been nice for Dell to account for the future by adding at least one more. The remainder of the ports amounts to three USB 3.0 Type-A connectors, an HDMI port, an Ethernet port, an SD card reader, a headphone jack, and a SIM card slot.
Crack That Case
Companies with especially stringent IT security requirements will appreciate the option to add a fingerprint reader (the superior touch variety, not the one that requires you to swipe your finger) and a contactless card reader, both of which are installed on our test unit. They're both located to the right of the touchpad, which means that using the touchpad itself is a bit awkward if you're expecting it to be smack dab in the middle of the laptop. I found myself unwittingly pawing the contactless card reader area several times before realizing my mistake and moving over to the touchpad area. The keyboard helps somewhat with this problem, since the inclusion of the numpad relegates the letter keys to the left side of the chassis, centered above the touchpad. Number crunchers will welcome the 10-key numpad, and people who type all day long will find the keyboard reasonably sturdy with adequate travel for a laptop, though it's not quite as comfortable as the one on the Lenovo ThinkPad T470. Like the ThinkPad, the Precision 3720 also includes a pointing stick, which will be useful to some but will seem anachronistic to many others, especially given the accurate multi-touch touchpad.
Our review unit has 16GB of memory and a 512GB SSD, which is perfectly adequate even for frequent multitaskers and those who can't bear to wait more than a second or two for programs to launch. Storage and memory options are eminently customizable if that's not enough. You can order a Precision 3250 with up to 32GB of EEC memory, a nice option for running critical business applications that require additional memory error correction. Those same apps might also require ISV certification, which the Precision 3520 supports. You can select from among several sizes of solid state drives and spinning disk drives, including PCIe NVMe or SATA models, which max out at 1TB. But perhaps the best part of the Precision 3520's specifications isn't even on the spec list: Thanks to user-accessible components, you can swap out memory and storage later on by removing the six screws on the laptop's bottom cover. That's an increasingly rare luxury among high-end business laptops, one that's missing from both the MacBook Pro and the Precision 15 5000.
The HD webcam on our evaluation unit is an optional extra, and it delivered excellent quality for video conferencing but made for not-so-sharp still images in testing. It supports Windows Hello so you can log in via face recognition, assuming your company's IT security requirements allow it. Speakers are also fine for video conferencing, but they're surprisingly anemic for a laptop of this size when it comes to listening to music or watching a movie at full volume. They struggled to reach to the end of one of the rows of benches in PC Labs, so they'll likely have a problem filling even medium-size rooms. This is due to their placement on the laptop's underside, as opposed to the upward-facing speakers you'll find on the MacBook Pro.
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Dell covers the Precision 3520 with a one-year warranty, though also offers its business-focused ProSupport service plans as optional add-ons.
Choosing a processor for a mobile workstation is a game of give and take. Going with a traditional Intel Xeon CPU means gaining access to higher core counts, larger caches, and support for ECC memory, but giving up the power savings associated with an integrated graphics card. Our review unit instead has an Intel Core i7-7820HQ processor running at 2.9Ghz. It's not the best choice for business-critical applications that require EEC, but its onboard Intel HD Graphics 630 means significant power savings over a comparable Intel Xeon processor coupled with a discrete GPU. The best part is that the Precision 3520 also has a discrete GPU—a Nvidia Quadro M620—and comes with software that can automatically switch graphics processing tasks between the two for optimal performance and energy savings. (You can also configure the system to only use the Quadro or the HD graphics for all tasks). The result is very impressive battery life for a mobile workstation, with the Precision 3520 clocking in at 13 hours and 56 minutes on our battery rundown test. That puts it in contention with the longest-lasting ultrabooks, like the 15-inch MacBook Pro (15:09), and significantly ahead of other mobile workstations, such as the HP ZBook Studio G3 (6:04).
Graphics performance is good for a Quadro-powered laptop, but by no means best-in-class. The laptop performed slightly better than the comparable Quadro-powered HP ZBook Studio G3 on the 3DMark gaming benchmark (16,349), and delivered slightly fewer frames per second on our Heaven (53 fps) and Valley (58) game simulations at medium quality settings. On the other hand, it performed significantly worse than the Dell XPS 15 Touch, which comes with a Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050.
As a general-purpose business laptop, the Precision 3520 is an excellent performer, recording a class-leading score of 3,539 on our all-encompassing PCMark 8 productivity test, which simulates everything from videoconferencing to spreadsheet editing. It's also good at video encoding, matching the Xeon-powered HP Zbook Studio's time of one minute and four seconds on our Handbrake video encoding test. But its Intel Core processor is significantly slower than the HP when it comes to manipulating images in Photoshop: It took three minutes and 47 seconds to complete the same tasks that the HP finished in 3:02.
Striking a Solid Balance
The Dell Precision 3520 successfully combines portability, performance, and upgradeability, which will please IT departments and end users alike. Its lengthy battery life means it's also an excellent choice for road warriors who are constantly away from their desks. Still, many businesses will opt for the 4K screen and Xeon processor of the HP ZBook Studio G3, which is just as capable when it comes to performance, but suffers from a rapidly depleting battery. Others will gravitate toward the design of the Precision 15, which looks far less stodgy than the Precision 3520, but comes with a sealed chassis that makes upgrades impossible. If Dell had included a few more USB-C ports and an option for a 4K display, the Precision 3520 would easily steal the Editors' Choice award from the Precision 15 5000 Series. As it stands, though, companies will mostly chose the 3520 for its upgradeability, with the 5000 Series remaining the best overall choice for mobile workstations.
As a hardware analyst, Tom tests and reviews laptops, peripherals, and much more at PC Labs in New York City. He previously covered the consumer tech beat as a news reporter for PCMag in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, where he rode in several self-driving cars and witnessed the rise and fall of many startups. Before that, he worked for PCMag's sister site, Computer Shopper, where he occasionally dunked waterproof hard drives in glasses of water. In his spare time, he's written on topics as… More »
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