Dell, once the king of low-cost over-the-phone computer sales, has recently been trying to find its niche as a purveyor of luxury goods in what could charitably be called a stuttering economy. Having first gone for the high-end consumer market with its sleek Adamo notebookreleased in March, it has turned its sights to the corporate sector with the sleek, expensive and better equipped Latitude Z.
I had a chance to preview the Latitude Z before its release. It is indeed a great-looking machine, black with silver highlights. It's slim and lightweight (4.5 lbs. with basic battery, about 5 lbs. with longer-life battery), with a widescreen, impressively bright 16-inch display and full-sized keyboard that I found almost too large - I actually had to stretch slightly to hit a couple of the keys.
There are a number of nifty features that come with the Latitude Z, either standard or as options. (For a base price of $2,000, there had better be.) But the most anticipated feature - at least, the one that has featured in most of the pre-release speculation - is its optional ($400) inductive recharging stand, which charges the laptop without a wired connection.
There are a few inductive charging stands out there, most of them third-party devices for phones, media players, and other small gadgets. But the Latitude Z is the first mainstream notebook to come with the ability built in. The stand is a bright metal object in the shape of a sideways "U" - the notebook sits on top of the stand, held in place by a small lip in front. The idea is that you can drop the notebook on the stand, pull out a keyboard and work with the notebook while it charges. According to Dell, it should take 2 to 3 hours to fully charge a depleted machine, depending on the battery.
At first look, the stand is snazzy looking but seems like more of a gimmick than anything else. The lack of a power cord leading from the notebook to the stand might look good in a corporate office, but won't make much difference in the long run. And of course, the Latitude Z also comes with a more traditional power cord.
Inside the case
What will make or break the Latitude are its own features. It includes a 1.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor (upgradeable to 1.6GHz) and a separate low-voltage ARM-based processor - the Texas Instruments OMAP 3430 - for its Latitude ON alternate boot environment (more about that in a moment). Also standard are 2GB RAM (expandable to 4GB) and an Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 4500MHD.
While most notebooks and even netbooks still shy away from the more durable but more expensive SSDs in favor of traditional hard drives, Dell has decided that its Latitude Z will accommodate one or two SSDs. The base model has a 64GB SSD, with an option to expand to 128GB or 256GB; the secondary SSD is available in the same three capacities.
The notebook has two battery options: Dell says the standard 4-cell battery is good for about 4 hours, while the longer-life 8-cell battery ($69 as a replacement for the standard battery, $150 as an additional battery) lasts for 8 hours. While the standard battery fits snugly between two rather snazzy silver metal holders, the longer-life battery extends out a bit from the back of the chassis and adds about half a pound to its weight, but it could be worth it for the additional computing time.
Also included: 802.11a/g/n wireless networking, Bluetooth, a fingerprint reader, a contactless Smart Card reader, two USB ports (one of which is also an eSATA port) and an Ethernet port. (Unusually, the Ethernet port is behind the notebook's hinge, on the side of the battery.) It comes with Windows Vista Ultimate or Business, or Windows XP Pro.
Latitude ON for instant on
The Latitude Z sits its Windows 7 operating system alongside an instant-on (what Dell calls Latitude ON) Linux-based OS. This added functionality is so much a part of the Latitude Z that Dell has provided the instant-on OS with its own button, which sits next to the slightly larger power button on the upper right-hand side of the keyboard.
Unlike most of the other instant-on interfaces that I've seen, which tend to have highly simplified interfaces with large icons, Latitude ON has a more professional look, with menu drop-downs along the left top of the screen. As stated before, Latitude ON uses its own low-power ARM processor and is stored in flash memory; it is based on the GNOME application Evolution, and gives you access to e-mail, a calendar, an address book and the Web.
Latitude ON doesn't communicate with your local version of Outlook. It pulls your e-mail and other data wirelessly via Microsoft Exchange (individuals who don't use Exchange can use POP for e-mail access). Data is not synced between Latitude ON and your data on the SSD. According to Dell representatives, this is for security purposes, so that others won't have easy access to your data (although you can have a separate password for your Latitude ON boot-up). This basically means that if you don't use Exchange, Latitude ON won't be very practical.
There are a number of extra attractions that should attract style-conscious executives. The Latitude Z has a nifty backlit keyboard (the 2-megapixel Webcam can act as an ambient sensor so that the backlighting automatically goes on in low lighting conditions); the Webcam can also scan and capture documents such as business cards and save them to Outlook. The large touchpad is comfortable to use and supports multi-touch gestures.
The right side of the bezel (the frame around the display) responds to pressure from your fingers and brings up a customizable icon menu on that side of the screen; press the bezel near the icon and you can launch the associated application. I don't know how useful a feature like that will be in the long run, but it certainly looked cool.
One extra that'll cost you is the optional wireless dock, which connects your laptop to your external monitor and USB peripherals instantly as you enter your office. (The dock is connected to the peripherals via cables but connects to your notebook wirelessly.) It costs $350 and requires that your system have Dell's 420 ultra-wideband (UWB) mini card installed.
All this is very cool. But with all that said and done - the stylish look, the instant-on OS, the great display, the two SSDs, the wireless dock and inductive charger - the question is whether corporations have lifted themselves enough out of the recession doldrums to purchase what is, in essence, a luxury item.
Dell hopes they have; a company representative told me that the $2,000 notebook is being aimed at executives, salespeople, and others who need to present a successful image to their customers. That, at least, the Latitude Z will do.