capsule review

Dell Latitude 2100 Netbook

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At a Glance
  • Dell Latitude 2100

Families, don't be surprised if you see the Dell Latitude 2100 show up in a classroom near you. As I've written in the past, Dell is aggressively targeting the K-8 education market with this line of rugged-looking netbooks. At the time I played with a preview unit, the machine seemed good. But now, a final review model has passed through the PC World Test Center, and it's time to grade its performance.

The multicolored 2100 certainly looks like a playground portable. Covering the outside of the case is the same familiar kickball rubber from your schoolyard days, with subtle branding on the lid and on the underbelly. (Samsung Go, I'm looking at you, pal!) Meanwhile, the spine of the netbook (the back of the battery) has a little plastic strip for personalizing the machine--you know, like a "This netbook belongs to..." tag. Now, while the coating resembles that of a ball, you shouldn't go kicking this thing around. "Ruggedized" doesn't exactly mean rugged. The 2100 definitely looks and feels fairly sturdy for the tasks at hand, but it ain't some OLPC.

Being purpose-built for education--and being able to take a beating from a classroom of hyperactive children--is probably the 2100's biggest selling point. Health-conscious parents will like the fact that you can clean the screen, according to Dell, by regular means (don't grab a sponge or dunk it in a bucket, though), and an antimicrobial keyboard option helps prevent the spread of germs. And I'm sure teachers are happy that Dell has placed a strip-light on the lid that indicates Wi-Fi activity (so that you can see when kids are getting distracted by Hulu or YouTube in class, I suppose). As for whether the tykes will want to carry it, the netbook weighs approximately 2.9 pounds and measures 10.4 by 7.3 by 5.7 inches. A little heavy, maybe, but probably a whole lot more manageable than a stack of textbooks to lug home.

Now, kids, if you've been reading along so far, I'd like to ask you to do me a favor and leave the room for a bit.

Are they gone? Okay. This machine is not for kids. It's for geeky dads who want to justify another tech purchase and maybe loan it to their children during the day. A bare-bones box with Ubuntu sells for $369 sporting the Intel 1.6GHz Atom N270 CPU, 512MB of RAM, and a 16GB solid-state drive. The fully loaded model we received (in tasteful playground-ball red, of course) runs Windows XP on 1GB of RAM (upgradable to 2GB) and a 80GB hard drive; it sells for $559 (as of 7/31/09). I know that education is expensive, but are you willing to drop that many ducats on your child's netbook?

If you're wondering why the price is that high, the simple-resistor, 10.1-inch touchscreen is the most likely culprit. That said, the screen is the 2100's biggest, neatest feature. You'll find that the 1024-by-576-pixel panel has some good aspects and some bad. (That's the native resolution, by the way. You can go higher, but you'll have to drag across a larger desktop.)

First, the good: Indoors the screen looks nice enough, and while it's not exactly razor-sharp, your child probably won't complain. In our use, the colors were only slightly muted. Streaming video from Hulu ran at a steady clip with no major gaffes. And there's no denying that a touchscreen is pretty snazzy. All it took was a quick recalibration (the software, oddly, didn't come preinstalled on the netbook, but it is downloadable from Dell's support site), and it worked like a charm. With fairly solid accuracy, I was able to navigate Web sites or highlight chunks of typed text for deletion.

The downside of the display: It's so muted that even after you put it at the brightest setting on the cloudiest day, you'll be squinting to see what you're typing. I should know--that's what's happening to me right now as I compose this review in a playground, reaquainting myself with my inner child. The only fair, close comparison would be to see how well the 2100 performs next to the Asus Eee PC T91. Unfortunately, that hard-to-find model isn't making much of an appearance here in the United States. If all this touchy talk turns you off, opt for a plain screen and save a few bucks.

The audio, in a word, is horrid. Tinny, tiny speakers bracket the screen, and they crackle and chirp at low volumes. I guess that's one way to ensure that these netbooks won't disturb other children in class...and for teachers, it'll be pretty easy to spot when a student is tuning you out (look for the headphones). Even the mousiest first-gen Acer Aspire One sounded better.

Speaking of mice, the touchpad feels almost microscopic to my meaty mitts. Just looking at the small touch zone makes my fingers ache. There's a world of difference between me and an eighth grader, of course (the kid has more hair). But making an input device the size of the one on the Toshiba NB205-310 would've been a whole lot better than potentially inflicting kids with carpal tunnel. The keyboard, at least, is just big enough; the main QWERTY keys feel good and have the standard button layout. Nothing fancy. The function buttons are teensy, the volume control and mute buttons are huge--and that's it. If you're looking for banks of shortcut keys, look elsewhere.

Underneath the childish exterior, the 2100 has a few other cool optional extras, namely a Webcam, the ability to upgrade from 802.11b/g to 802.11n, and Bluetooth. (An optical drive is, naturally, an external option.)

Last but not least, let's talk performance and battery life. The Latitude 2100 got a score of 34 in WorldBench 6 tests, just a hair below average for netbooks--nothing to panic about. As for the battery life, the machine survived around 6.5 hours (or just about a full school day). It may not be the longest-lived device around, but at least it'll work as long as a student does.

I should add that the 2100 ran nice and quiet, but a little hot. I found that with prolonged use, the lower-left quadrant warmed up a bit. The effect wasn't anything to complain about, but I did notice it.

Does the Dell Latitude 2100 jump to the head of its class? Well, it's certainly the most mature (and the beefiest) take on a netbook in recent memory. And, yeah, if you can look past the price it's a good option for your young scholar--and then when he or she brings it home at the end of the day, maybe Dad can borrow it to tinker in an Ubuntu partition. That's assuming you don't mind that kind of cost for what's billed as a child's computer. Make the Latitude 2100 a little less boxy and kid-oriented, and I'd consider using this touchscreen PC myself.

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At a Glance
  • Dell courts classrooms with this Latitude's kid-friendly touchscreen, but the big-boned netbook skimps on space.


    • A good touchscreen implementation
    • Rugged-like


    • Big and bulky
    • Skimps on hard drive space
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