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.
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.
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.
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.