Dude, Youre Gettin Less Dull

By eweek  |  Posted 2003-04-15

Dude, Youre Gettin Less Dull

Now that the dust is starting to settle over all the initial Centrino notebooks, you may be surveying the field to have a ready response to the question, "If you were buying a notebook today, which would it be?" This question hasnt actually come up for me yet, but maybe I need to go on more "stress interviews".

With notebook PCs so competitive, its easy to be nitpicky on design in the Windows camp. Compaqs just arent sexy, and their reviews tend to be lackluster. While the expanded touchpads on HP laptops are a clever input aid, they tend to look like UFOs with all those blue LEDs aglow, and quality problems with the early Vaios have kept me away from Sony.

I was tempted when Sony introduced the adorable SRX line, but stayed away, concerned that a 10.4-inch screen just wouldnt cut it. (While a new Japanese SRX is available through Dynamism, it appears that Sony has abandoned the line for now in the United States.) And while Gateways 450 line is an impressive homage to Apple Computers PowerBook G4, I wonder if Gateway will survive to service an extended warranty at this point.

Historically, Ive been partial to IBM ThinkPads, if other parties were paying, and Toshiba notebooks if they werent. Ive had mixed feelings about the TrackPoint pointing device, which invariably develops a tendency to wander like a high school valedictory address, but overall the ThinkPads excellent design and quality made up for it. Besides, IBM has started including touchpads on most models that can accommodate them now. If youve got funds to burn on an "ultaportable", the X series is a great package.

However, the last Toshiba Satellite that graced my home network had enough problems for its own Harry Chapin ballad. A 1-GHz Pentium III-based model that was purchased when that represented the top of the line, the paint wore off the wrist rest, leaving huge dark patches. (This put off observers who would question the wrist hygiene of its owner.) Worse, the machine had to be completely gutted save for the hard drive. The AC adapter blew, and the motherboard fried, taking its 3Com Wi-Fi card down with it. Thankfully, Toshiba was pretty lenient with the warranty period.

Dell is for Desktops

So, what about Dells new Pentium M offerings? Unquestionably, Dell sells a lot of notebook PCs and is invariably at the top of the market-share heap, thanks in part to the lock-in contracts it signs with corporate customers. Because of its great supply controls and tight relationship with Intel, its also always among the first to get the fastest processors. Ive often suspected, however, that this has led them to slack a bit in the notebook department.

Indeed, while Dell has made every desktop PC Ive ever purchased, Ive avoided the direct merchants notebook PCs. My aversion wasnt completely capricious since, as with the Vaios, I did experience problems with the early Latitudes that aped the original PowerBooks. But hadnt Dell redeemed itself since then?

Unfortunately, it hadnt, at least in terms of consumer-line aesthetics. For the past few years, Inspirons, with the asymmetrical color patches across the bottom, begged the question if the companys name was an acronym for Dreadful Exteriors Lessen Laptops. The new silver Inspirons look better, especially if you pass on the Trapper-Keeper-themed covers, but still have disconcerting blue accents. When will Dell understand that garish two-tone notebooks went out with Apples lime iBook?

So, if youre looking at styling, maybe the Inspiron line isnt for you, after all. Dells Latitude line, catering to the corporate crowd, is nothing if not more reserved; its uninspired, bulging bezels left you as cold as a dead battery. It says something when a vacuum cleaner introduces a more appealing industrial design than that of your flagship laptops.

However, that seems to be changing with the D series. These are easily the best-looking laptops Dell has ever produced, and probably the most ergonomic as well. They are sleek and stylish if a bit of a "me-too" silver slab. (In some pictures, the casing looks almost bronze, which would be nicely differentiated.) Overall, the flexibility of the D600 is impressive. Dell offers integrated Bluetooth and a combo 802.11a/b/g card that really lets you cover all your wireless bases if youre willing to forego the Centrino label. Dell even supports two flavors of infrared.

The company offers SXGA support on the 14-inch variety and serviceable 3D with a 32 MB Mobile Radeon. All the standard ports are there, as well as relatively recent notebook additions such as USB 2.0 and the somewhat more dubious Gigabit Ethernet. Dell also has a good half-pound or so advantage over the Gateway 450s.

Nitpicking in Nirvana

Unforutnately, there are a few configuration drawbacks. Dell includes a smart-card reader that, frankly, most people could do without, but its a fashionable check-off item in todays security-conscious enterprise. Unfortunately, unlike Gateway, Dell hasnt implemented IEEE 1394, so you iPod users are out of luck without a clunky PC Card.

Dell also recently released the slightly thicker and significantly cheaper D500 line. It dispenses with the smart card reader and Gigabit Ethernet, but unfortunately also the Mobile Radeon and SXGA option. Also, no DVD writer appears to be available yet for the D line. However, with the lineup at the beginning of what seems will be a long, successful run, you can expect one to be available as DVD+RW drives accommodate the series design.

Perhaps since this premium option isnt available, you can configure a reasonably loaded system for under $2,000 that includes all of the above options, including 512MB of RAM and an extra modular bay battery; carrying case; and your choice of three throwaway peripherals, including the miserable Palm Zire. Even without paying users to take the Zire off its hands, Dell certainly seems to be one of the value leaders in the Pentium M field.

Dell has even introduced an innovative docking system with the D line which, while a bit harder to sort out than it should be, allows you to orient the system at a good angle for use with an external keyboard, similar to the Sherpaq Oyster. While its hard to decide whether Dells recent commercials, starring the brown-nosing interns, are more obnoxious than the last round starring the ingratiating "dude" Steve, the Latitude D is definitely a step forward for the companys notebook efforts, at least on paper. Its the first Latitude that wouldnt get laughed out of a beauty contest with IBM and Sony, and in the Dell tradition, seems to have them both handily beat on price/performance.

Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin is a senior analyst at eMarketer. He has researched wireless communications since 1994 and has been covering technology since 1989.

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