Dell Latitude E6400 XFR Offers Extreme Ruggedness

Dell is rolling out its Latitude E6400 laptop, the PC maker's latest fully rugged notebook. As it competes against Panasonic, Lenovo and other manufacturers in the "rugged" computing category, Dell hopes this new device, which combines business-laptop internal specs with military-grade protection features, will allow it to claim market share.

Dell is rolling out its latest fully rugged laptop-the Latitude E6400 XFR-in an effort to match what Panasonic has done with its Toughbook notebook line, while penetrating specific new markets such as construction and oil and gas exploration.

The new Dell Latitude E6400 XFR goes on sale March 10.

With an outer shell crafted from the same type of high-tech polymers used for military applications such as ballistic armor, the device can withstand a drop-and-impact of up to 4 feet while powered down-an improvement over the 3-foot limit on Dell's first generation of fully rugged laptops. While that might not sound like much, Dell's designers felt that 4 feet would increase the laptop's chances of survival if it fell from a truck hood or a command-center table.

For images of Dell's rugged Latitude E6400 XFR, click here.

When powered up, the Dell can be dropped from a height of 3 feet.

The Latitude E6400 XFR underwent 13 required tests, plus two additional ones, in order to meet the military standard. These tests included exposure to moisture, dust, and extreme heat and cold, not to mention dropping 1-inch ball bearings onto the blunt-force resistant screen from a height of 30 inches.

The 14.1-inch screen, available in touch and non-touch versions, has been designed with a boosted backlight and reduced reflectivity to increase daylight visibility. An included stylus allows for touch-screen utilization even when the user is wearing heavy gloves or has hands stained with oil or other smear-leaving materials.

For those professions whose field workers occasionally need total darkness very quickly, a blackout mode cuts the keyboard backlight and LEDs, while also dimming screen brightness.

The laptop comes equipped with up to a 2.66GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P9600 processor, Nvidia Quadro 160M graphics card and dual-channel DDR2 (double data rate 2) memory. It weighs 8.5 pounds and retails for $4,299 and up.

In the military, there's a saying that every PC or laptop needs a hard drive that can be removed in under 5 seconds; the Latitude E6400 XFR's drive, accessible through a flip-down latch on the side of the device, was removed during a test at eWEEK's offices in under 3 seconds.

Manufacturers have been boosting their visibility in the rugged-laptop marketplace as of late. In January 2009, Panasonic added new features and functionality to its Toughbook laptops, including boosted screen visibility and battery life.

The following month, Lenovo announced that eight of its ThinkPad laptops will conform to military-grade standards for pressure, humidity, temperature, dust and vibration.

Given their weight and cost, fully ruggedized laptops are not something a user would want to pay for, or lug around, "unless there's a reason, such as working in hostile and extreme conditions," says Leslie Fiering, an analyst with Gartner.

"Dell, by having rugged products, is doing account control," she added. "They can answer clients who ask, 'If I can buy everything from you, why can't I buy a rugged?'"

The semi-rugged category, however, where laptops are held to less-stringent standards, is a market that appeals not only to workers in tougher environments, but also enterprise users who need a computing device more reliable than a regular laptop.

Semi-rugged laptops "tend to be less expensive than they used to be because of standardization," Fiering said. "Companies are seeing a higher failure rate with laptops versus desktops, the repairs are more expensive, and laptops are three-year assets. So people look and say, 'Why can't I buy a ruggedized system?'"