Dell Latitude 13: Thin and Sexy, but Range-Limited
At a Glance
Dell Latitude 13
Dell's Latitude 13 is an elegant-looking ultraportable with a great keyboard, but limited expandability and poor battery life are significant drawbacks.
The Dell Latitude 13 ultraportable laptop inspires technolust when you first pick it up. It's sleek, it has a great keyboard, and it weighs less than 3.5 pounds without the power brick. The LED-backlit display looks pretty good for most desktop chores. And all of this laptop-PC goodness comes in a package just 0.65 inch thick.
Our Latitude 13 review unit shipped with an ultra-low-voltage Core 2 Duo SU7300 running at 1.3GHz; accompanying the processor is 4GB of RAM. The graphics hardware consists of Intel's integrated GMA 4500 HD, built into the laptop's chipset. That particular CPU-GPU mix precludes this Latitude from running all but the most casual games--but then again, this laptop is all business. Prices start at a reasonable $479 with a fairly low-end CPU and a lot less RAM; our test configuration is priced at $1044 (as of October 8, 2010).
As I dug deeper into the Latitude 13's specs, one ugly secret became apparent: the Latitude's integrated, nonreplaceable battery. Having an integrated battery isn't bad by itself--Apple's MacBook line has been doing that since the introduction of the unibody design. Somehow, though, Dell didn't get the full memo about built-in batteries: If you're going to have a fixed battery, make sure the laptop offers great battery life. Alas, the Latitude 13 posted low scores on our battery-life test, lasting 3 hours, 28 minutes. That mark is among the worst battery-life test results for ultraportable laptops we've seen, and it's largely responsible for the machine's very low overall performance score (battery-life tests are a significant part of our overall performance score for ultraportables). It limits this laptop's utility for cross-country or overseas flights, unless you're one of the lucky passengers who can access on-board power connectors.
Other than the battery life, the performance is about what you'd expect from a 1.3GHz SU7300. The Latitude 13 earned a WorldBench 6 score of 66--not an earthshaking score, but not a disappointing result for such a thin and light notebook. When running a Web browser with 30 tabs open, the laptop still seemed responsive. Opening up a few office applications didn't seem to bog it down. Certainly the 4GB of system RAM helped; you'll want to upgrade from the minimum 2GB if possible.
The Latitude 13 also disappoints due to its limited expansion ports. Only two USB ports are available on the rear; one is a combo eSATA port. Other than that, the laptop offers a five-in-one memory card reader and an ExpressCard 34 slot. As for connecting to a display, only a VGA port is present--no DVI, HDMI, or DisplayPort connector is integrated. You'll need to add a port replicator if you want digital output.
On the flip side, Dell's svelte business laptop still offers a lot to like. The keyboard has an excellent feel and a great layout for a subcompact laptop. The display is bright and highly usable for business and Web applications. Audio is surprisingly robust for such a tiny package, too: The speakers won't win awards for bass, but the overall tonal quality is neutral and pleasing.
Although the display is great for everyday apps, high-definition video (as played from WMV-HD files) demonstrated slight, though visible, motion artifacts. We found the viewing angles limited, as well. An integrated Webcam is built in, and works with Skype or most video-enabled conferencing tools.
At $1044 as configured, the Dell Latitude 13 is a pricey ultraportable. That price does buy you a 250GB, 7200-rpm hard drive, but a solid-state drive will cost you more. The network connectivity is great, and even 3G wireless broadband is an option. But for my thousand-plus dollars, I'd prefer to have all-day battery life.