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The Essentials

E5400 (starting at $839) and E5500 (starting at $869)

Shipping sometime in August, the "Essential" laptops are the most base-level machines offered in the series. (A bit of code breaking: The "400" in the E5400's name denotes a 14.1-inch WXGA+ screen, while the "500" indicates a 15.4-inch WXGA+ display.) And as entry-level business laptops, they offer a lot of what one expects: VGA, ethernet, four USB 2.0 ports, PCMCIA and SD Card readers,  FireWire connectivity, and a fixed optical drive.

Dell still throws in a couple perks. The E5400, which weighs about 5.5 pounds, will have an option for mobile broadband. The 6.3-pound E5500 makes room for a serial port. If you ask me, while the serial connection is a nice perk for using legacy gear, the mobile broadband is a much tastier option. 

Though these two laptops have only integrated graphics (translation: Vista Molasses Edition), some people will just be happy to see a sub-$900 portable for basic business use.

The Mainstream Models 

E6400 (starting at $1139) and E6500 (starting at $1169)

Available now, these two are what Dell considers its mainstream offering. These step-up models are bigger and lighter than the two 5000 units, and they seem to offer a little more oomph where it counts. With 256MB nVidia-based discrete graphics cards driving their WXGA+ (LED-backlit)/WUXGA displays, these business laptops at least appear to be able to run Vista at a healthy clip.

Personally, I'm happy to see a 64GB SSD-3 hard drive in play here, not only because it helps to drop some weight (the 6400 weighs 4.3 pounds and the 6500 is 5.2 pounds) but also because it might improve performance. (The jury is still out on the benefits of SSD drives, though.) 

One option I'm truly jazzed for is an eSATA port. Let me just say this: If you're even remotely concerned about monkeying with huge data files, your machine needs to have an eSATA port at this point. Otherwise, you'll be sitting around waiting for transfers.

Oh, yeah, one more thing. With the introduction of this line comes a couple of custom paint jobs, if you tire of the boring black/silver notebooks. I'm waiting for the fuzzy-dice option.

The Semirugged Model 

E6400 ATG (starting at $2399)

Almost everything that I just said about the E6400 applies here, except this is the Tonka-tough ruggedized model. The hardy case looks like something ripped off the front of a Hummer, but the important thing here is that it meets the Military 810F spec for dust, vibration, and humidity resistance. (Also doesn't hurt to mention that it promises a 750-nit brightness for clear visibility of the screen outdoors.) So the next time you plan to do a HALO drop in order to make your next sales pitch, you should be covered when the ATG becomes available next week.

The Ultraportables

E4200 and E4300

Pricing hasn't been revealed yet for Dell's two new ultraportables set to ship in September, but these models are probably the two with the highest sex appeal (y'know, the flashy alloy cases, a variety of colors ... stuff like that). The E4200's 2.2-pound frame supports a 12.1-inch WXGA (LED-backlit) display and makes room for a few other features, among them a VGA-out, two USB ports, and an eSATA port. You'll have a choice between a 32GB or 64GB SSD-3 hard drive--but to be honest, I find myself wondering how much of a performance boost either will truly offer. One thing that you'll have to do without is an integrated optical drive.

By comparison, the 3.4-pound E4300 is about as well-rounded as you're going to get out of an ultraportable from Dell's stable. It has an integrated optical drive, a 13.3-inch WXGA (LED-backlit) screen, FireWire, two USB ports, and an eSATA port. Now, you can take this with a grain of salt, but this is probably the model that I'd consider laying hands on first, for its portability and flexibility--and the option to see if Dell will provide me one in pink. (No joke, pink is one of the colors.)

Of course, we haven't had a chance to kick the tires on any of these notebooks in the PC World Test Center just yet--but we are looking forward to doing that as soon as Dell hands over a couple of review units.

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