While Dell’s newest netbook, the Latitude 2100, has the same Intel Atom processor, RAM, and operating system as its Inspiron Mini line, the Latitude is made of tougher stuff. That’s because it was created for students, especially those from kindergarten through eighth grade; although it does have some crossover appeal for road warriors. Packed with education-friendly features and sporting a durable design, it’s larger and heavier than most netbooks on the market. At $499 for our configuration, it’s not the least expensive netbook on the market, but its excellent ergonomics and peppy performance send it to the head of the class.
Student Rugged Build
Dell understands that kids can be rough on laptops, which is why the Latitude 2100 is covered in rubber casing, which makes it easy to grasp and protects the lid and underside of the system from scratches and bruises. This child-friendly laptop will be available in five fittingly named colors: School Bus Gold, Chalkboard Black, Ball Field Green, Blue Ribbon, and School House Red.
A network activity light, centered atop its sturdy lid, glows when the Latitude 2100 is connected to the Web. While it is intended for teachers to monitor network activity and identify students who might be surfing in cyberspace instead of working on an assignment, it gives the system some added aesthetic flare. A Dell representative said that education software developers will be able to incorporate this light into their programs as well; for example, an instructor might be able to discern when a student has accomplished a given task.
With its six-cell battery, the Latitude 2100 weighs 3.4 pounds, and increases to 4.2 pounds when you include its AC adapter—which is the size of a normal charger, rather than the compact adapter, typical of most netbooks. This netbook weighed down our adult notebook bag, and will surely be cumbersome for a younger student. But Dell has designed a special cart that will make it easy to charge, store and move them from one classroom to another. (See Education Features.)
On the left side of the system are VGA, USB, headphone and microphone jacks; on the right are two additional USB ports and an Ethernet port. A 3-in-1 memory card reader is on the front edge of the system.
Spacious Keyboard and Touchpad
The Dell Latitude 2100’s larger build allows it to accommodate a comfortable and spacious keyboard. Reminiscent of the Samsung N110’s, its matte black raised keys provided nice tactile feedback; the right Shift key is full size and directly below the Enter key. And because kids’ hands can pick up germs quickly, Dell will offer the keyboard with antimicrobial protection for $20. Above the keyboard are three volume controls for raising, lowering and muting.
Similarly, the touchpad is spacious and comfortable. The 2.5 x 1.5-inch pad felt smooth, wide enough for navigating the desktop, without much backtracking. Rather than integrating the mouse buttons on the trackpad like Dell attempted with the Inspiron Mini 10, the Latitude has separate right and left mouse buttons. Though slightly mushy, they allowed us to accurately make selections.
Click to enlarge
Typical of some of the latest netbooks, the Latitude 2100’s 10.1-inch, LED-backlit display has a 1024 x 576-pixel resolution. While there are 24 fewer vertical pixels, which limits the amount of lines of text on the screen, the Latitude’s matte screen produced clear images and bright colors. When we watched an episode of 30 Rock on Hulu.com, vertical viewing angles were good, and tilting the screen to its maximum 120-degree angle didn’t cause any glare. Dell will offer the Latitude 2100 with a resistive touchscreen for an extra $30, allowing users to make on-screen selections with just the tap of a finger.
Audio and Webcam
The 0.5-inch wide bezel that surrounds the screen is larger than we would have liked, but accommodates dual speakers that vertically straddle the display. The speakers provided fairly loud playback; we could hear Tina Fey’s voice in that 30 Rock episode from across our small apartment. Listening to Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb” was clear but, understandably for such a small system, lacked bass.
Above the display is a 1.3-megapixel Webcam, which provided extremely clear images in a Skype video chat. A colleague saw little motion blur when we quickly waved and could even make out facial details. The microphone on our unit did not work.
Click to enlargeIn addition to its student-rugged design and the network activity light, Dell has designed the Latitude 2100 to easily fit into the classroom environment. The company will offer custom-built “Mobile Computing Stations” for classrooms; these carts will be able to store up to 24 netbooks, recharge them, and connect them via Ethernet. Additionally, the netbooks can be ordered with remote management software that will allow teachers and administrators to control the PCs.
Configured like the majority of netbooks on the market, the Latitude 2100’s 1.6-GHz Intel Atom N270 CPU and 1GB of RAM (though our review unit came with 1.5GB of RAM, this option is not available for consumers) running Windows XP provided typical netbook performance. Its PCMark05 score of 1,697, however, was not only 308 points above the category average but was the highest score achieved by any netbook we’ve tested. This strong performance carried over into our day-to-day computing tasks; simultaneously conducting video calls over Skype and surfing the Web with multiple tabs open didn’t cause any system hang ups.
The Intel GMA 950 integrated graphics chip with 128MB of shared memory delivered a score of 748 in 3DMark03, which is 115 points higher than the Samsung N110, though 7 points lower than the category average. Its 3DMark06 score of 122 was 36 points lower than the category average, but a downloaded high-definition 720p video clip played back smoothly with no hiccups or pauses. Using Handbrake, we transcoded a 5-minute-and-5-second MPEG-4 video clip (114MB) to the AVI format in 29 minutes and 19 seconds, which is 6 minutes slower than the netbook average.
Hard Drive Performance and Options
Click to enlargeThe 16GB solid state drive in our Latitude 2100 (also available with larger 5,400 rpm hard drives up to 250GB in space) combines speedy boot times and protection (as a result of its lack of moving parts). It booted the system in a relatively speedy 35 seconds. This SSD may have enough storage space for some educators, but we quickly ran out of room when trying to install our benchmark programs.
On the LAPTOP Battery Test (Web surfing via Wi-Fi), the Dell Latitude 2100’s six-cell battery lasted 4 hours and 47 minutes. Given the size of the battery, we were disappointed that the netbook provided 90 minutes less runtime than the average six-cell netbook. The Samsung N110 and ASUS Eee PC 1000HE, for example, provide more than seven hours of endurance. Dell will offer this netbook with a three-cell battery option for $25 less, as well, which should provide half the runtime.
Click to enlargeThe Latitude 2100’s 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi card provided a solid connection for working on the Net. Delivering 19.8 Mbps and 18.8 Mbps from 15 and 50 feet, respectively—both slightly above average—we were able to maintain a strong signal far from our access point. Streaming a video clip of Saturday Night Live on Hulu.com and music over Blip.fm were void of any pauses.
Configuration Options, Software and Warranty
The Dell Latitude 2100 starts at $369, and will be configurable on Dell.com. While our $484 review unit came with a 16GB SSD and six-cell battery, other models will come with mechanical hard drives up to 250GB and three-cell batteries. Customers will be able to add a touch-screen option for $30.
The Latitude 2100 comes with relatively few software applications, which is a good thing considering the rather small amount of space on the SSD version. Dell packages the system with its WLAN Card Utility, which makes it easier to connect to wireless networks. Dell covers this netbook with a one-year warranty and 24/7 toll-free technical support.
Dell’s Latitude 2100 provides students with a netbook that is durable and comfortable to use. The $499 asking price is a bit steep for a 10-inch netbook, even one that’s this rugged, but Dell will presumably offer volume discounts to those who purchase higher quantities. While it will fit into a backpack, its larger size and heavier weight may give pause to potential buyers. Those looking for a more affordable, slimmer netbook can snatch up a $379 MSI Wind U120 or an $399 ASUS Eee PC 1000HE, both of which provide significantly more runtime. Nevertheless, the Latitude 2100 is a solid pick given its range of educational features and ruggedness.