You read car magazines for reviews of wheels you want to buy–and of the odd machine that you’d never be able to afford in a million years but can admire from afar. That’s the Dell Latitude Z600 ultraslim laptop. Wait–a “sexy” Dell Latitude? It’s hardly practical–or economical–but if you’re into forward-thinking tech, this portable that starts at around $2000-plus is worth a good longing look. (Our review unit, as configured, sells for a mere $4323 with its wireless charger and base station).
First observation: The Z600 is wide and way thin. We’re talking a laptop with a 16-inch screen and only 0.57 inch thick (and weighs about 4.5 pounds with the standard 4-cell battery). It defies logic creating a machine this big, yet thinner than many ultraportables. You’ll want to take it everywhere and show it off, but since it has a 16-inch screen, you’ll have a tougher time finding a bag it will fit in. (For what it’s worth, Sony’s recently unveiled VAIO X Series ultraportables are a whole 0.02 inch thinner.) But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
Grab the Z600, and you’ll feel a supple, almost rubbery, black-cherry coating reminiscent of what Lenovo does on some ThinkPads. Open her up, and you’re greeted by a 1600-by-900-pixel panel. Along the right side, Dell’s TouchEdge LCD sensor technology replaces the need to clutter the machine with many shortcuts (you’ll find volume controls parked above the keyboard, plus an instant-on shortcut button–more on the latter in a minute). Just tap an indent near the bottom of the panel, and it pulls up an overlay of application shortcuts. Tap the frame, and it launches whatever program you configure. It works really well.
And the screen’s colors are crisp enough with still images. The backlit WLED panel does a great job reproducing the gamut of rich, dark tones like the ocean as well as those of bright, vibrant jungle scenes (think of the sample images in your computer’s Pictures folder), and it keeps looking sharp whether indoors or out. Glare is minimal. And 720p video installed on one 128GB solid-state drive (our machine came configured with two SSDs) runs smoothly–a small triumph for the integrated Intel 4500MHD GPU, no doubt.
Under the hood of this test rig: A 1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SU9600 CPU and 4GB of RAM. Aside from the two aforementioned hard drives, these are the kind of guts you’ll find in something like an Acer Timeline. Now, as much as like spitting out performance numbers, keep one caveat in mind: Our machine came loaded with Windows Vista Ultimate. Safe bet is that the computer you’d consider buying–assuming you have tons of cash–will come loaded with some flavor of Windows 7. That said, the Z600 got by with a 78 — fairly average, but impressive considering the size of the machine.
Want to get a little more life out of the machine–or not go into Windows proper? Try Latitude ON, a quick-firing OS that boots in 4 seconds. Not bad considering it runs off a separate ARM CPU, 512MB of RAM, and Linux. Log in and use a 3G WWAN (wireless wide-area networking) connection for easy access to e-mail, contacts, and calendar info synced with your Exchange server or over POP. Through it, you can view MS Office documents and PDF files. It’s obviously geared for the mobile businessman on the go. And you can also hit the Web.
Just don’t expect miracles. It won’t sync with Outlook in Windows. And if you’re trying to hot-swap between Windows and Latitude ON, you’ll encounter some idle time between powering down one OS and starting the other. (Spokespeople say that the ARM processor won’t cut deeply into battery life; we’ll keep you posted on what we find). Neat as all this may be, we’ve seen variants of a Linux quick-boot option in laptops from HP and Asus as well.
Dell also pops in a couple of proprietary apps you might actually use. The optional 2-megapixel camera works with the fairly impressive Dell Capture software to scan business cards; as long as you hold up a “normal” card, the app will read all the info and plug it into your contact manager. The software also scans documents directly into PDF format. You also have options for biometric lockouts, either via the FaceAware app that uses the Webcam or the fingerprint scanner that sits next to the keyboard.
Speaking of the keyboard, it feels, like the rubbery finish around the machine, soft to the touch, and the cut-out keys seem suitably springy and responsive. While it looks all lovely and well-framed floating in the middle of the computer, I can’t help wondering if this is the one area where form trumped function for the worse. I would’ve loved to see a little more room to make the keys a hair larger. And the top-row keys–from the “Esc” and function buttons to “Delete” at the end–seem disproportionately (and unnecessarily) small. You know what isn’t small? The multitouch mousing area and good-sized buttons.
Also a little out-of-the-ordinary and one of this laptop’s bigger selling points is the wireless laptop charging base station. This $250 add-on powers up the Z600 through a panel similar to how the induction coil works in the Palm Pre’s Touchstone charger. The laptop charges just as fast as if you plugged it directly into the power brick. And despite some bloggers crying about how big the charging station is, I can honestly say, after testing it, that it’s no larger than other elevated docking stations I’ve seen. It just does its job in high-tech style. What I really want, though, is a smaller, smarter charging pad that can feed the correct voltages to different devices. Hey, I’m allowed to dream. As for the battery life — whether you’re charging it via cool new wireless or an olde tyme cord — it only lasts 3 hours in PC World’s lab tests. That’s meager by just about every standard that’s worse than most all-purpose PCs, ultraportables, and even current-generation netbooks.
The other (but slightly less sexy) wireless option is a docking station. No dongles required, it works out the box with your Z600. It houses four USB 2.0 ports, along with DVI-out video, headphone, and mic outputs. Another excessive accessory that came with the Z600: The slickly matching 4X external BD-ROM drive that drives up the price further. But if you’re buying this machine, you aren’t what I’d consider “thrifty.”
Despite being so thin, the Z600 makes room for one USB 2.0 port, one hybrid USB/eSATA port, a DisplayLink video port, and a headset/mic jack. Cleverly hiding behind the screen–bracketing the battery–are power and ethernet jacks. Unfortunately, when trying to get so much done in so little room, some sacrifices must be made. The lack of a flash-card reader may not be a deal breaker for every executive considering this model, but it is for me. And the audio is a loud but tinny afterthought. Get headphones, stat. Beyond that, you get 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional 3G WWAN (mentioned earlier), and the ability to configure it for WiMAX.
The Z600 is a classy-looking machine. So much so that a test flight near the Macworld office area brought a couple nods. But is it perfect? No. Even though it’s amazingly thin and surprisingly light, it’s still a 16-inch laptop that you might find tough to fit into a travel bag. The Z600 may be perfectly suited as the interoffice status symbol, but for practical mobility I’d have asked for a laptop with a smaller screen. Keep the features, lower the price (and the screen size), and this could be a killer ultraportable.
Bottom line, the Z600 is very much not for everyone. In fact, I think they made this notebook just to sell it to Michael Dell and maybe a couple of his showboating buddies. But it boasts design smarts and a couple of tech innovations that I’d love to see trickle down to more mainstream portables (with slightly smarter implementations). Until then, I can dream