Dell Latitude Z meets Lotus Symphony: What happens when you bring your IT to work?

Summary:There's a compelling case to be made for corporate users to bring their own IT to the workplace, but there are hurdles. Here's a tale of what happens when a new laptop meets an alternative office suite and tech support.

The vision of the corporate technology future goes like this: Workers will ultimately provide their own wares and equipment. It starts with the smartphone and ultimately moves to the laptop. To hear research outfits like Gartner tell it the future is one where IT costs are off-loaded to the users. But is that really the case? Probably not today.

I've been fascinated with the emerging trend of employees rolling their own IT and saw a nice experiment on the horizon. Dell provided me with a Latitude Z to review. For the uninitiated, Dell's Latitude Z is a luxury laptop. It's sort of a MacBook Pro and MacBook Air rival. It's light. It has a 16-inch screen. It's a sports car of a laptop. And it's the type of laptop some CEO—or well-heeled employee---would buy for himself and tell the IT department to support.

The big questions: How does it work when you bring your own laptop to work? How painful is it when you decide to be an odd duck with the productivity software?  What's supported (and not supported)?

For me, these questions needed some real answers. I'm tired of my Lenovo T61 brick and would like something lighter for travel. The general concept is to have the T61 lying around but primarily use my own gear—a poor man's Latitude Z like a Vostro v13.

For this experiment I went the fancy route with the Latitude Z, but the basics roughly line up with what life would be like if I brought my own laptop. The Z didn't have Microsoft Office installed and on my own dime it's unlikely I'll pay the extra for it either.

This review will touch on multiple points:

  • The hardware and what would drive you to bring your own gear to work.
  • Getting through the day without Microsoft Office in an environment that's Office dominated and using the alternatives available.
  • The support, or lack of it you'll receive.

Let's get rolling.

The hardware...

If you're going to bring your own laptop and make it your primary work PC you might as well go in style. Think MacBook, think Latitude Z and think something that makes you the cool kid at the meeting.

The Latitude Z fits that bill. The laptop even turned a head or two on New Jersey Transit—of course I was probably surrounded by fellow geeks but you take what you can get. To get real, the Latitude Z should have turned a few heads because it's damn pricey.

Indeed, the Latitude Z as tested was more than $3,800, but that includes a wireless inductive charger and a stand. Both of those things I just didn't know what to do with so I doubt I would order them in real life. The Latitude Z starts at $1,799 for a base package to $2,159 for the productivity package.

For comparison's sake I would be looking to spend maybe $800 at the most. .

A few specs to ponder for the higher end Latitude Z:

  • Windows 7
  • Intel Core 2 Duo SU9600 with VT (1.60GHz) 4.0GB DDR3 Internal Memory with Latitude On
  • 16.0 Wide Screen WXGA HDF+ Display WLED Panel and Camera/Microphone
  • 3 Year ProSupport for End Users and 3 Year NBD On-Site Service
  • 64GB Mobility Solid State Drive
  • 8X DVD+/-RW Slot Load w/Roxio and Cyberlink PowerDVD
  • Internal Backlit English Keyboard
  • Facial recognition
  • Business card reader
  • Fingerprint reader
  • 5 pounds if you have a six-cell battery

The laptop is pretty sweet even considering the fact that I didn't spend a lot of time figuring out the fancy business features. One comical point: The entire package from Dell included the kitchen sink, but skipped the Microsoft Office.

A few thoughts and observations on the hardware:

Advantages:

  • The screen is large enough to be a desktop replacement.
  • It screams alpha (and perhaps even stylish) male.
  • Even your Machead pals will notice it.
  • It fits on a NJ Transit train.

Disadvantages:

  • I'm not entirely sure I need or want a 16-inch screen.
  • Good luck firing this puppy up on a plane in coach.  It got along just fine on the train, but there's little chance that the Z flies well. I suppose you could be sitting behind some petite person that never puts her seat back in full recline in coach, but I usually get the big and tall types.
  • The screen doesn't fit into your standard laptop bag and that goes double if you're cramming gym clothes and a weightlifting belt into the backpack too.

But if you can convince the IT department to buy one of these Latitude Z's chances are you don't spend a lot of time in coach so many of those disadvantages are moot.

Unfortunately, I'm a coach guy.

Add it up though and it's clear that Dell has design chops these days and some of the perks of the Latitude Z can filter down to less expensive products in the portfolio. Bottom line: The Latitude Z is a fine option if you're going to bring your own laptop to work. Just don't expect it to be the perfect solution for road warriors.

Being an Office renegade...

Since the Latitude Z lacked Office I figured I'd explore some alternatives. My basic requirements and personal preferences:
  • I wanted a desktop suite for the most part due to travel requirements.
  • I wanted something that could manage multiple file formats, notably Office documents, well.
  • I wanted something that had a good user interface.

For this experiment, I went with the IBM Lotus Symphony 3.0 beta. Generally speaking, I liked it. You could tab through multiple documents on one screen and frankly you barely notice the difference from Office in many cases.

For me, Symphony works well. I'm not a power user so looking for something that can open various docs and look the part. I could open PowerPoint docs that were in the .pptx format, but if I altered them to send back I'd have to change to .ppt not a huge issue, but if you're volleying a doc back and forth it could get sticky.

For instance, If I were to alter a PowerPoint and save, Symphony would default to OpenDocument Format. That's just swell, but I'd rather stick to whatever format was sent to me. I could scroll to save as .ppt, but then there's probably another translation on the other side. Not a big deal, but could get weird. Symphony could use the .pptx format. Note: Personally I don't get the .pptx format or the point of it, but I'm not interested in going to war over it. I just want the docs to work with absolutely no additional work from me.

Simply put, an alternative Office suite with a cloud supplement works just fine for me. Symphony could replace Office and I would continue to use Google Apps and Docs as I do now. Or conversely, I could give some other suite a whirl. For that matter, I could download Office 2010 as a beta and avoid paying up front.

There was one area that went unsolved: Replicating what Outlook does. When it comes to Microsoft Office, Outlook is the go to app. I look at spreadsheets and presentations, but frankly wind up with Notepad more often than not as my word processor. Symphony didn't have an email client forcing me to largely rely on Outlook's Web mail, or OWA. That solution just won't cut in long-term.

The lack of an Outlook replacement had me looking for Outlook Express, which only exists on  Windows XP. Windows Mail is an option, but I couldn't get it started on the Latitude Z for whatever reason. If that can get hooked up to CBS corporate then I may be in business.

Bottom line: I've seen enough to determine that I don't need to buy Office when I buy a laptop for personal use.

The IT support conundrum...

The big question here is whether you should bother buying a personal laptop if you plan to use it mostly for work. My answer: Not in my case. My personal laptop could be a supplement for travel but little more.

This Gartner scenario---where users bring their own gear and the employer perhaps subsidizes equipment via an annual laptop stipend---will just have to wait.

I pretty much hit an IT support brick wall. Here's the short version:

  • IT doesn't support Windows 7 yet.
  • The VPN for Windows 7 isn't cooked up yet.
  • My corporate Office license wouldn't port over to my personal laptop.
  • Ditto for Outlook.

So if I'm going to do bring my own laptop to work in a bring-your-own-IT arrangement I'm confined to Web Outlook. I could buy Outlook on my own, but I still wouldn't have a VPN. I'm sure there would be some work around, but I'm not in the IT business.

The lesson: For this grand vision of users bringing their own infrastructure to work to happen corporate policies need to line up to support the move.

Topics: IBM, Dell, Hardware, Laptops, Microsoft, Mobility

About

Larry Dignan is Editor in Chief of ZDNet and SmartPlanet as well as Editorial Director of ZDNet's sister site TechRepublic. He was most recently Executive Editor of News and Blogs at ZDNet. Prior to that he was executive news editor at eWeek and news editor at Baseline. He also served as the East Coast news editor and finance editor at CN... Full Bio

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