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Dell Latitude E6500 Notebook Review

Posted on Tuesday, November 18th, 2008 at 6:09 pm (0) comments

From its sharp lines and matte black body to its metal hinges and dual input mouse, it is clear that the revitalized Latitude line has put on its poker face and is ready to do business. A quick glance makes it clear that Dell has set its sights on the business world, attempting to take a shot against the ever popular Thinkpad series. Certainly, Dell is no stranger to the portable market. They have looked around and incorporated many popular features, styles and options into its new E-series Latitude notebook. The result is a notebook that looks professional, but under the hood it carries goodies that even enthusiasts can enjoy.

Starting at about 5lbs, the Latitude neatly packs an array of features and hardware that makes it a formidable powerhouse and an excellent mobility platform. While it caters to business professionals with things like fingerprint and smartcard readers, it still offers a bevy of high end options such as solid state drives and LED backlit screens. Clearly, Dell has taken a cue from Apple and Lenovo in designing this notebook and was pretty successful at plucking out the features that people drooled over. One would have to acknowledge that they have done a good job at creating a reasonably priced competitor in this market.

E6500 Front

Our test model came with the following configuration:

  • Intel® Core™ 2 Duo T9400 (2.53GHz, 6M L2 Cache, 1066MHz FSB, 35 Watt)
  • 15.4″ UltraSharp™ Widescreen Samsung Panel with WUXGA (1920×1200)
  • NVIDIA Quadro NVS 160M (256MB)
  • 64GB Samsung RBX S2 Solid State Drive
  • 2GB DDR800 RAM
  • 24X CD-RW/DVD w/ Cyberlink PowerDVD™
  • Dell Wireless™ 1510 802.11a/g/n Draft Mini Card
  • Dell Wireless® 410 Bluetooth Module with UWB
  • Mobile Broadband Capable (ATT, Verizon or Sprint)
  • 85 WHR 9 cell lithium ion battery.
  • Internal English Backlit Keyboard
  • Integrated Webcam with digital microphone
  • XP SP3 Vista Downgrade

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Design
Right out of the box, the first thing one would notice is the brushed aluminum surface. The aesthetic here is great and it looks very nice in the photos. The surface even felt cool to the touch as metal should. Upon close inspection, however, the brushed metal surface actually felt flimsy and seemed very subdued. As a result, the surface seemed like fake plastic rather than anything else. Incidentally, it is also very easy to scratch, resulting in highly noticeable scars (Whoops, Sorry!)

The other issue that we experienced was that the surface flexed significantly under pressure. This only added to the feeling that it didn’t seem to actually be metal. It appears that a lack of structural support within the chassis on the lid coupled with what must be very thin aluminum for the casing is the root of this issue. The greatest concern here is that one would not want to use the top as a writing surface, or accidentally place anything on top of the notebook. One should also avoid applying any excessive force to the surface or grasp the notebook near the middle of the lid.

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The rest of the notebook features a matte black design that follows the business-black tone very well. At first glance, it is impressive and well designed. But one will quickly realize that this sexy black has a cost: fingerprints. It could best be described as a fingerprint magnet, where every surface is ready, able, and willing to bear an imprint of whoever touches it. In fact, you can probably see this in the photos we took! Other than that, the contrast of the polished elements, such as the Dell logo, give the notebook a professional yet sophisticated look. Even the glowing blue status lights are simple, well placed and refined.

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The Latitude also features heavy duty metal hinges for the lid that are reminiscent of Thinkpads. Not just for show, the Latitude’s hinges provide a good, stable, wobble free support for the screen. Dell also reduced the amount of “specialty” media buttons to include only volume up, volume down, mute, and power, which only reinforces the minimalistic design. Overall, the design projects a very clean, sharp image that gives a no nonsense, down-to-business look that comes together very well in this package.

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Keyboard
The full-size keyboard itself is very functional, and feels good to type on. The keys are quiet, but give a tactile response that is just right. Remarkably, Dell has done a decent job at creating a keyboard that is approaching the quality and feel of the famous Thinkpad keyboards. The keyboard is noticeably simple, with all white lettering accented by a blue trackpoint. One thing worth noting: key placement is standard and natural, which is always a plus.

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Backlight
A page taken from Apple’s book, the keyboard has an integrated backlight that is bright and functional. Not only do the keys illuminate, but a white-blue light is visible from the crevices under the keys. While it looks great, there is a caveat in that the backlight only activates upon keypress — which often leaves you guessing for the first key.

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Dual Input
Like many Thinkpads, the Latitude offers dual mouse inputs in the form of a touchpad and trackpoint.

The touchpad is smooth and features two buttons along with specialized software that allows for touchpad gestures for scrolling and other functions. One minor annoyance was that we would often inadvertently trigger one of these features, such as screen zooming. Luckily, you can turn these features off easily via the software control panel. The other issue we faced while typing, was that it would be easy to trigger the touchpad with your palm, sending your cursor to undesirable locations mid-sentence, causing grief when working with documents. Out of the box, the touchpad was not sensitive enough. This makes a user swipe their finger excessively due to the large screen resolution. While this is easily fixed via software settings, Dell should consider readjusting the default settings from the factory.

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The trackpoint, another feature reminiscent of the Thinkpad, features a concave surface that is easy to manipulate thanks to the textured nubs. The purple color seemed out of place, but nonetheless it worked very well, making use of the three buttons above the touchpad. Dell did a good job of making sure this worked as expected.

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Connectivity
The Latitude comes with a Swiss army knife assortment of ports and connectivity options. While offering a vast assortment of ports, Dell has put careful thought in their placement, ensuring a clutter free front, and making it friendly for both right and left handed users. Since Dell opted to put most of the ports on the side and towards the rear, it means that most of the attachments and obtrusion would remain out of the way of either mice or documents.

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On the left: USB, eSATA, VGA, Express Card Slot and SD Card Reader.

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On the right: DVD Drive, PCMCIA, SmartCard, Wireless Control, Firewire, Microphone, Headphones, and two USB ports.

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On the back: Ethernet, DisplayPort, and Power.

Optional Internal Devices: Bluetooth with 2.1 and UWB, Wireless WAN w/ GPS, and Wireless LAN card with B/G/N options.

In terms of connectivity, the Latitude provides almost everything one could ever need. In fact, it had more than we ever needed. If we had to search for a fault, we could only wish for a DVI port, since DisplayPorts are not as widespread yet. However, Dell offers a DisplayPort to DVI adapter as an accessory on their website.

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Display
Our Latitude E6500 came with a matte 15.4” WUXGA (1920×1200) display made by Samsung. When we first powered on this notebook, it was as impressive as could be. Colors were bright, resolution was crisp and sharp. However, we quickly noticed that, like many other screens, the astounding brightness actually resulted in over-exposure, poor color reproduction and poor contrast levels. Images often were too bright, and washed out. Light colors such as beiges were poorly represented. For a professional screen and a high end display, this is almost unacceptable. We also found that while horizontal viewing angle was great, vertical viewing angle was much more restricted. The combination of these factors turned out to be a surprising disappointment, as the screen seemed to be one of the major features of this notebook. We find it a little odd that this would be acceptable to Dell and Samsung, so we have to wonder if it was a fluke. Color and contrast aside, for the most part images were vivid and clear. Even though the screen manages to smash 1920×1200 pixels onto a 15.4” area, small text was still crisp and legible, although we would highly suggest increasing font-sizes to spare your eyes the strain.

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Under the hood, the display is powered by a Nvidia Quadro NVS 160M with 256MB of DDR3 dedicated graphics memory. The Quadro series is geared toward professional applications such as CAD and 3D rendering, however is also proficient at gaming. Other sites tell us that the Quadro NVS 160M shares similar traits to the Geforce 9300 series. We found that for the professional user it did as advertised, but for gaming applications it was simply adequate, offering decent framerates for popular games such as Call of Duty or Halflife 2.

Included with the notebook is an Ambient Light Sensor that, if configured, automatically adjusts the brightness of the display and enables the backlit keyboard. We found that, in practice, the Ambient Light Sensor didn’t always work well, often selecting a setting that was too dim. This then required manual adjustment of the brightness, making it practically useless. We eventually just turned it off.

Battery Performance
Our review unit came with a 9-cell, 85 watt-hour extended battery which provided an above average battery life in exchange for a larger battery pack that extended out from the frame of the notebook.
For us, the 9-cell battery operated well with exceptional standby times, and at the low end survived a respectable 2 hours with full brightness and full load.

Dell also offers 6-cell batteries that sit flush with the notebook, and an extended 12-cell battery that attaches via the docking port. Dell claims that the 12-cell battery pack, combined with the 9-cell extended battery would offer a full day’s worth of computing.

Solid State Drive
Our Latitude came equipped with the Solid State Drive (SSD) option. We found that the notebook really shined with this addition. Manufactured by Samsung, the SSD made a significant impact in performance. From power on, the boot time seemed marginal at about 45 seconds, but the drive really strutted its stuff when restoring from hibernate at an astounding 14 seconds. Standby restore times seemed almost instantaneous. We were thoroughly impressed with how much of an impact the SSD drive made on these times. Further, we suspect that the SSD also helped with battery life performance. In addition, while the Latitude offers shock protection for conventional drives, the SSD has no moving parts, so vibration and shock is a non-issue here. If that weren’t enough, since the SSD is silent, the only sound from the notebook comes from the fans or the optical drive. In light of all these advantages, the SSD is a very worthwhile option.

Sound
Like most notebooks, the speakers leave much to be desired. While the case itself features quite a large perforated grill, it is merely a façade as the speakers only occupy a small portion of that space. The speakers were capable of reaching a substantial volume, however at some points created tinny, cracking noises when the volume exceeded the speaker’s abilities.

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Summary
Overall, Dell has brought a notebook that incorporates a vast array of features that are highly competitive in the existing business-notebook market. It offers high end options and enthusiast perks such as a backlit keyboard and solid state drive. The only major pitfall that we have to caution about is the WUXGA screen option which may not be the best choice for anyone who needs accurate color reproduction. Otherwise, the design is smart, clean and very well put together, albeit we wished the lid was stronger. For the price point, it can definitely give Lenovo and HP a run for their money. We think that for Dell’s effort, they are putting on a serious attitude and marching forward in the right direction in their battle for supremacy in the business-class notebook market.

The good:
* Looks Great
* High resolution screen (1920×1200 on a 15.4″)
* SSD Option – faster, quieter, shock proof, lower power draw.
* Backlit keyboard
* Dual-navigation
* eSATA Port
* Nvidia Quadro NVS 160M Graphics
* Very quiet
* Powerhouse specifications.
* Optional WWAN, Bluetooth 2.1 w/ UWB
* Competitive on Price

The bad:
* Screen feels over exposed (too bright and washed out) at full brightness.
* Quality of lid (lots of flexing, seems cheap and even feels like plastic).
* Display port instead of DVI
* Speakers are average, cracking noises.