Dell's Latitude line has long been a favorite of businesses large and small because of its strong performance, good pricing, and long battery life. With the new 14-inch Latitude E6420, Dell has added a strong dose of style and durability to this tried and true formula, using a new Tri-Metal design with a durable magnesium frame that's built to stand up to abuse. Inside, the E6420 packs a punch, thanks to a second-generation Core i5 processor. Still, the $1,361 price tag for our configuration is a bit steep--even when you factor in the touchscreen. Is this Latitude worth it?
The Dell Latitude E6420's aesthetic screams "space age" while still looking right at home in the most conservative corporate boardroom. The gunmetal-gray brushed metal aluminum lid, matte chrome sides, and angular shape combine to make the notebook look like some kind of executive space cruiser. Meanwhile, the soft-touch, rubberized deck is as comfy as the inside of a corporate limousine. Add in a matte chrome accent on the bezel, matte chrome hinges, a zinc latch, and a bold orange stripe around the keyboard, and you have a truly unique design.
But the E6420's Tri-Metal chassis is more than just eye candy. A magnesium alloy internal frame and reinforced steel hinges combine with the matte chrome bumper and protective LCD seal to provide a business-rugged system that's MIL-STD 810G-tested and designed to protect against extreme temperatures, dust, and vibrations. A spill-resistant keyboard guards against your clumsiness (or someone else's).
The trade-off for all this durability is added heft. At 13.9 x 10.3 x 1.3 inches and 6.2 pounds with the nine-cell battery, the Dell Latitude E6420 is quite a bit heavier and larger than other 14-inch business notebooks. For example, the Lenovo ThinkPad T410 measures 13.1 x 9.4 x 1.3 inches and weighs 5.6 pounds with its nine-cell battery.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The Dell Latitude E6420's spill-resistant keyboard offers an excellent typing experience by combining strong tactile feedback with concave keys that grip your fingers and a comfy soft-touch palm rest that's easy on your wrists. We were able to achieve a rate of 86 words per minute with a 1-percent error rate on the Ten Thumbs Typing Test, higher than our typical 80 wpm score. The keyboard even has an adjustable backlight to help you see it in the dark.
For navigation, the Latitude E6420 has both a touchpad and a pointing stick. We're big fans of pointing sticks in general, because they're usually more precise than touchpads. Unfortunately, Dell's pointing stick, while accurate, has a concave cap that felt slippery under our index finger and left us longing for the grippable, textured nubs on Lenovo's ThinkPad line.
The generous 3.1 x 1.8-inch touchpad on the Latitude E6420 has a pleasant matte surface that made it easy for us to navigate around the desktop with great accuracy. After enabling gestures in Dell's easy-to-configure touchpad control panel, we were able to pinch-to-zoom with ease and conduct three-finger gestures such as Flick, which lets you hit the back button in your web browser. The two discrete mouse buttons offered solid feedback.
The Dell Latitude E6420 stayed pleasantly cool throughout our testing. After we streamed a video for 15 minutes, the keyboard measured 87 degrees Fahrenheit, the touchpad 85 degrees, and the bottom center a reasonable 95 degrees. We consider temperatures 95 degrees and lower acceptable and those below 90 degrees quite comfortable.
Display and Audio
The Latitude E6420's 14-inch, 1366 x 768 glossy touchscreen provided images that were sharp and bright, though not overly rich in color. When we played both a 1080p QuickTime Trailer of Cowboys & Aliens and a 720p streaming Flash episode of Fringe, images were crisp and free from visual noise. However, colors washed out significantly at even 45 degrees to the left or right.
The optional touchscreen digitizer on our unit ($100) allowed us to tap even small widgets and icons on the screen with great accuracy. It also supports two-finger gestures, so we were able to pinch-to-zoom on web pages or draw in two different directions at once in Windows Paint. However, considering that the Dell's screen does not rotate into tablet mode or support pen input, we don't think many businesses would choose the touchscreen over the standard one. Dell doesn't even include any touch-friendly software.
The Latitude E6420's speakers are adequate for listening to music or video in a small room. When we played both the bass heavy "Forget Me Nots" and the percussion-centric hip-hop song "Like a G6," we heard accurate, loud audio that wasn't tinny but wasn't particularly impressive.
Ports and Webcam
Because the Latitude E6420 is marketed to enterprise customers, it has a couple of ports which a lot of small businesses and consumers don't necessarily need. On the right side sits a Wi-Fi on/off switch, three USB ports (one of which has eSATA support), and an ExpressCard /54 slot, which is mainly useful for large businesses with specialized or legacy peripherals that use that connection. On the back are an HDMI port, Kensington lock slot, and Ethernet. On the left side are one more USB port (for a total of 4), VGA out, and a Smart Card reader, which is a port mostly used by large businesses for security purposes. An SD card reader sits on the front of the notebook.
The 2-megapixel webcam on the Latitude E6420 was able to provide sharp but slightly washed out images even in our dimly lit living room. However, whether we were shooting photos locally with the Dell Webcam central software or conducting a call on Skype, we noticed a fair amount of visual noise in these low-light images. Still, were impressed with the cam's ability to capture clear images in an environment where most cams show our head as nothing more than shadow.
Performance and Graphics
With its second-generation 2.6-GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, and 320GB 7,200-rpm hard drive, the Dell Latitude E6420 offers strong performance that's good enough for any business task you throw at it. On PCMark Vantage, a synthetic benchmark that measures overall performance, the E6420 scored a whopping 8,242. That showing is well above the mainstream notebook category average of 5,177 and much higher than the 2.6-GHz Core i5-powered ASUS B43J (7065)) and the Lenovo ThinkPad T410 (6,937). However, the Core i5-powered Lenovo ThinkPad T410s with SSD and discrete graphics managed an even more impressive 11,264.
The 320GB 7,200-rpm hard drive on the E6420 booted Windows 7 Professional (64-bit) in a reasonable 66 seconds, exactly on a par with the category average. The drive took just 2 minutes and 27 seconds to complete the LAPTOP File Transfer test, which involves copying 4.97GB of mixed media files. That's a rate of 34.6 MBps, much faster than the 26 MBps category average and the 28.3 MBps offered by the ASUS B43J, though Lenovo's ThinkPad T410s with SSD got an amazing 71.7 MBps on the same test.
The Latitude E6420 can also transcode video with great skill, as it successfully converted a 114MB MP4 file to AVI format using Oxelon Media Encoder in just 40 seconds, much faster than the 1:15 category average. It took just 26 seconds to transcode an HD video with Cyberlink Media Espresso, light years ahead of the 3:13 second category average.
When it comes to graphics, the integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000 chip allowed the Latitude E6420 to play 1080p video smoothly and to achieve a score of 5,060 on 3DMark06, a synthetic benchmark that measures overall graphics prowess. That's well above the 3,583 category average and faster even than the AMD Radeon 5470-powered ASUS B43J's score of 4,414.
In World of Warcraft, the Latitude E6420 got a playable 41 frames per second at native resolution. But we turned up the special effects, that number dropped to an unplayable 20 fps. On the more demanding Far Cry 2, the Latitude got just 23 fps at 1024 x 768 res, so you'll want to stick to less demanding titles between meetings.
Battery Life and Wi-Fi
With its nine-cell battery, the Dell Latitude E6420 lasted an epic 8 hours and 59 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous surfing over Wi-Fi. That's more than double the category average of 4:14 minutes and about 3 hours longer than the ThinkPad T410 with a nine-cell battery (6:02 ).
The Latitude E6420's Intel Centrino Ultimate-N 6300 Wi-Fi radio managed modest transfer rates of 26.9 and 15.4 Mbps at distances of 15 and 50 feet from our router, respectively. Those numbers are a little weaker than the 35.5/21.9 Mbps category averages.
Though our review unit had an MSRP of $1361, the Dell Latitude E6420 starts at just $699. For that price, you get a 2.1-GHz Core i3 CPU, 2GB of RAM, a 250GB 5,400-rpm hard drive, a six-cell battery, no touchscreen, no webcam, and no keyboard backlight.
However, you can configure the system with a choice of Core i3, i5, or i7 CPUs. You can also get anywhere from 2 to 8GB of RAM. Storage options include 5,400- and 7,200-rpm drives of various sizes, as well as SSDs. You can also choose between the standard 1366 x 768 screen, a 1600 x 900 version ($79), and a touchscreen 1366 x 768 display ($99).
Here's what we'd get: You can easily order the E6420 with a second-gen Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, a 320GB hard drive, and a sharper 1600 x 900 display (without touch) for a manageable $1,137. You'd just have to give up some clock speed versus our configuration, as well as features such as vPro and a Smart Card Reader.
Dell keeps the software pre-load on the Latitude E6420 extremely light. Dell Data Protection | Access allows you to configure the smart card reader, windows login, and the optional fingerprint reader. Dell Backup and Recovery manager allows you to preserve and restore your system in case of emergency. System and Devices manager lets you control the keyboard backlight and hotkeys. Dell Webcam central enables users to take photos or videos with the webcam. And Cyberlink PowerDVD lets you burn discs on the optical drive.
If you configure the Dell Latitude E6420 with Intel vPro technology, you also get Intel Management and Security. This software allows your IT department to get secure remote access to the system through Intel's Active Management Technology. They can also configure Intel Anti-Theft to disable the laptop remotely if it is stolen. We were surprised to find that Dell didn't include an encryption or secure erase tool like HP offers with its ProtectTools.
Dell backs the Latitude E6420 with a three-year warranty on parts and labor, which is a lot longer than the standard warranties we've seen from many competitors such as Lenovo. See how Dell fared in our latest Tech Support Showdown and our annual Best & Worst Brands report.
The Dell Latitude E6420 has a lot going for it: stylish looks, a great keyboard, epic battery life, and solid performance. Our $1,361 review configuration is a bit expensive for what it offers. Nevertheless, this notebook is a really strong choice that should be considered along with lighter options like the ThinkPad T410 and T410s.