Dell Latitude 13
With the 2009 introduction of the Adamo, Dell signalled that it wanted to claim some of the reputation for mechanical design that Sony, Apple and even LG had made their own. The Latitude 13 is one result — a very thin 13in. notebook that uses brushed metal and black plastic to back up Dell's claim. Slim it certainly is, measuring 1.65-1.97cm thick, although at 1.52kg it's not that light.
Still, there are some immediate benefits to this approach, not least that the design- and budget-conscious can once again visit Starbucks to work without shame. However, there are compromises — especially in the model Dell sent to us, which comes with a Celeron processor, 2GB of memory and a standard hard drive (250GB, 7,200rpm) rather than a solid-state disk (SSD). Others in the range have Core 2 Duo ULV chips, more memory and an SSD (64GB for £78 ex. VAT extra): this is entry level, and it shows in the performance.
First impressions are positive. The various LEDs are in a tasteful white, and once the compulsory gaudy Intel and Windows 7 stickers are removed and their glutinous residue wiped clean (enough already with the stickers: it's not a Panini album), it looks the business.
The slimline Latitude 13 borrows some design ideas from the stylish Adamo range
The 13.3in. LED-backlit screen is half a centimetre thick, which is nice, but if you move very far in any direction from looking at it face on, the colour rendition is badly affected. This is particularly noticeable if you're watching video close-up, where it's quite hard to position your head to get acceptable results. The screen's 1,366 by 768 resolution is also a bit feeble, and the anti-glare finish reduces sharpness and picks up fingermarks. When that's all topped off with Intel embedded graphics and a 1.3GHz Celeron 742 processor with 1MB of Level 2 cache, it's no machine for watching HD video (it stutters) or DVDs (no optical drive). It's fine for standard-resolution streamed or ripped video though.
Without a docking port, any expansion has to go via the two USB ports, one of which is also eSATA, the ExpressCard slot or the SD card reader. Just a thought, Dell: instead of having a blank plastic dummy card, why not make that a microSD card adapter? This seems a parsimonious selection, but with almost everything on USB 2.0 these days the role of the desktop dock has been largely supplanted by USB hubs, so it won't matter in most cases. There's a Gigabit Ethernet port, audio in/out and a good old-fashioned 15-pin analogue VGA connector, and that's your lot.
The Latitude 13's slimline AC adapter (left) and blue LED-illuminated power input (right)
The underside is also fashionably unscarred by utility. With no replaceable battery, memory or hard disk upgrade options, the only features are six cross-head screws, six rubber feet and a selection of Art Deco-style ventilation slots. The power supply is small and flat, but won't lie on a surface due to the protuberances of the mains input and the flappy rubber cable tie: it does have a glowing blue ring on the output plug, though: this is more useful than you might think when trying to diagnose faulty mains sockets.
Which you'll end up doing. In use, it's hard work to keep the 6-cell Li-ion battery going for more than about 2.5 hours: don't do very much, do it dimly and keep off the wireless, and you'll get a bit more — but it's not an all-day breakfast. With a Windows Experience Index (WEI) of 2.9 (out of 7.9), dragged down by that underpowered processor, it's best to stick to online browsing, word processing and some light spreadsheeting with this version of the Latitude 13. To be fair, the remaining WEI component scores, apart from those for 2D and 3D graphics (both 3.2), are more respectable: 4.9 for memory (RAM) and 5.9 for Primary hard disk (disk transfer rate).
By no particular coincidence, online browsing, word processing and light spreadsheeting is what most workers in most enterprise jobs do most of the time. Add that particular sort of task to the Latitude 13's VMWare and Citrix certification, and you have a machine that's good enough and looks better.
In its entry-level configuration, the Latitude 13 is underpowered for anything more than basic enterprise tasks. Perversely, this may recommend it to IT departments, who discourage users trying to play games, watch videos or load software from the internet: the low price is also appealing. It also helps to get the most from a rather anaemic battery. Users will be mollified by the thin profile and solid good looks, and Dell's continued design adventures into the acceptable are to be encouraged.