Dell Latitude's E-Family Values

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UPDATED: 8/12/08 -- 11:26 a.m. PDT

Today Dell unveils its new take on the business notebook with its "E" family of laptops. Trying to merge consumer sex appeal with business-savvy notebook features is no easy task--but that isn't stopping Dell from making the attempt. Is the new line merely business as usual, or is it--as the press materials say--"Business Unusual?"

Improved Battery Life

One of the promises of the new family is long-life computing. Dell promises "All day computing" with the introduction of the "E" family. Nineteen hours of battery life, according to the speakers this morning at the introduction event. You want to do the math on that? It's a little over nine hours with the 9-cell battery and another 10 hours if you tack on the battery slice that attaches underneath. Ah, but it still needs charging at some point. 

That's where the next buzzword comes in: Express Charge. The notion is that if you plug in the smartphone-sized AC adapter (nice and small compared to most bricks you have to lug around) you can recoup 80% of the laptop's power after an hour of charging.

If true, that will be amazingly handy when you're scavenging through airports trying to find an open outlet. And, it's another interesting design choice that makes it easier for "Digital Nomads" to charge devices through the USB port. Maybe it's just me, but I'm a big supporter of being able to charge my celll phone, MP3 player (or both) through the notebook even while the PC is off.

Speaking of the PC being off, Dell also announced their Latitude On technology. Y'know, instant-on technology. The spokespeople on hand at today's event were extradinarily coy, but the short version is this: Just about every basic function in everyday computing with be accessible in this system-within-a-system at the touch of a button. So, whether you deal with documents, check email, or browse the Web you'll be covered. So, is it working via a separate OS (Linux)? Is it a different CPU?

Steve Belt, Dell's Vice President of Business Client Engineering, won't say for sure. He didn't really go into much more detail beyond saying that it's an innovative hardware and software solution that "we didn't think of, initially."  

He did, however, confirm that if you operated solely in this Latitude On mode, the notebook could last for days. "It's like strapping a giant battery to your smartphone." Obviously, Belt hasn't seen my phone.  

The new ultraportables (E4200 / E4300 -- see below) shipping in September will be the first machines ready for the "On" technology as its made available. Me? I'll be anxious to see how well it works firsthand.

Better Security

Next up is improved security features. Dell can remotely track and wipe data from a notebook if reported stolen. But they really wanted to push this whole notion of a Control Vault. A separate subsystem, outside pf the operating system, locks down your data (end user credentials, for example). Couple that with contactless smart card reading and what they claim is an improved fingerprint reading and Dell could be making the right moves for catering to the business mobility set.

Design also is important in the new PCs. Dell's new cases are beefing up in some of the right ways. In particular, I'm happy to see a metal hinge and latch system--a step up from Dell's norm--for properly protecting your investment. And, borrowing from Apple's Air (and, technically, from Dell-owned Alienware's gaming notebooks), the new units have backlit keys, which will make low-light computing for hunt-and-peck typists easy.

IT managers, on the other hand, will probably appreciate the small and flexible docking-station options that work across the line, and they might find themselves delving into the Dell ControlPoint software. ControlPoint is an easily configurable application for handling everything from power management to customized security management. You know how a ThinkPad's ThinkVantage button acts as a gateway to a huge suite of apps that does everything but your dishes? The good news on Dell's modular application is that it can be set to specific usage profiles, offering quick and easy access to the system's guts with minimal headaches for the end user. Or so Dell promises.

Time to dig a little deeper into the details of each series. Here's a quick look at the announcements coming out the door, and my two cents on what I've seen.

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