A great ultraportable business notebook needs several key components, including speed, security, durability and endurance. The 12-inch Dell Latitude 7280 (tested at $1,830; starting at $1,029) has all of the above, thanks to its 7th-generation Intel Core i7 processor and impressive battery life. Plus, this lightweight system is built to survive short drops.
Although we wish the screen were more colorful, companies looking for a portable and potent laptop for their employees will be pleased with the Latitude 7280.
Design: The Right (Soft) Touch
The Latitude 7280's black magnesium-alloy chassis is thin and nondescript, with a glowing-white power-indicator light on the front edge. The soft-touch paint used on the lid and deck gives the chassis a good feel and makes it easy to grip.
Our review unit included the Latitude's optional IR webcam and fingerprint reader, found above its screen and to the right of the keyboard, respectively.
Dell placed the Latitude's HDMI port, a USB 3.0 port, an optional smart-card reader and an optional Thunderbolt 3 USB Type-C port on the left side of the notebook. The laptop's headphone jack, SD memory reader, headphone jack and Ethernet port are on its right side.
Our test unit included a manufacturing problem we've seen before in other laptops: Its underside was unbalanced, with the bottom-right corner not lying flush when on a table. When placing my wrists on the deck to type, I noticed the right corner moved down and touched the table underneath, repositioning the far-left corner in the air. When Dell shipped us a replacement unit, we noticed the same issue, but to a lesser degree that we may not have noticed had it not been for the first unit.
Durability and Security: MIL-SPEC Tough
The Dell Latitude 7280 is built for the long haul. The notebook passed 15 MIL-SPEC-810G tests. This means it can survive drops from 30 inches (onto plywood) and heavy blasts of dust, and the system can be operated in extremely high and low temperatures (from minus 20.2 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit).
For $35, you can add a trio of security readers (smart card, contactless smart card, fingerprint sensor), to give the notebook a variety of verification methods. The fingerprint sensor isn't exactly easy to use, though, as it's recessed into the deck, making it hard to activate for Windows Hello login. In fact, the system kept telling me the sensor needed to be cleaned, even though my hands were not dirty.
Our model features an integrated infrared webcam (an optional $21 upgrade available in the Core i5-7300U and Core i7 units that Dell marks as configurable) that allows for Windows Hello facial recognition. Once the system was set up, unlocking it was as easy as looking into the webcam.
Display: Bright, But Needs More Color
While watching a trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 on the Latitude, I appreciated the panel's brightness and sharp image quality, but the colors were just blah. The system's well-illuminated 1080p display allowed me to easily see fine details such as Rocket's whiskers, Baby Groot's bark pattern and Drax's body markings. In terms of color, the screen didn't pop, leaving Gamora's typically vibrant-green skin dull.
Our colorimeter readings backed up my impressions, as the Latitude's screen produced 73 percent of the sRGB spectrum. That's below both the score from the EliteBook (116 percent) and the average for ultraportable notebooks (98 percent). The panel on the ThinkPad (67 percent) offered even fewer colors.
The Latitude emits up to 289 nits (a measure of brightness), which is higher than the 239-nit EliteBook and the 184-nit ThinkPad, but just below the 303-nit average for ultraportable notebooks. That's bright enough for 45-degree viewing angles to the left or right, where it darkens just slightly.
Keyboard and Touchpad: Swift Typing Ahead
The Latitude 7280's backlit keyboard enables speedy typing. On the 10fastfingers.com typing test, I click-clacked my way to 77 words per minute, nearly reaching my 80-wpm average. The ease of typing offered by the laptop is owed, in part, to its keys' 1.7 millimeters of travel and 60 grams of required actuation force -- measurements that are well within our preferences (1.5 to 2.0 mm, 60 grams).
The Latitude's 3.8 x 2.0-inch touchpad is flanked by a pair of discrete left and right buttons that sit below it. The surface accurately tracked my input and smoothly responded to two-finger page scrolling and three-finger app-switching gestures. Its discrete buttons provided a solid feel to each click.
Audio: Kinda Scratchy
Streamers, beware: Though the Latitude 7280 blasts enough volume to fill a large conference room, it emits annoyingly scratchy audio. I heard varying degrees of distortion on everything from Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles" to Migos' "T-Shirt."
I opened the Waves MaxxAudio Pro sound-adjustment utility to try to fix the distortion, but I could erase it only by disabling the switch underneath the playback speaker icon in the app. Unfortunately, this also reduces the amount of volume the system produces, to where it barely filled a small conference room.
This configuration of the Latitude 7280 features a 7th-Gen Intel Core i7-7600U processor and 8GB of RAM, which enable speedy, productive multitasking. I saw no lag after splitting the screen between 12 Chrome tabs (including Slack, Gmail and TweetDeck) and a streaming 1080p YouTube video. Only after adding a round in Minecraft on top did I notice any stuttering on load times, though it was still usable.
The Latitude earned a high score of 8,008 on the Geekbench 3 general performance test. The lower-tier, previous-generation CPUs in the EliteBook (Core m5-6Y57; 5,739) and ThinkPad X260 (Intel Core i5-6300U; 6,424) produced predictably lower scores.
The 256GB solid-state drive in the Latitude 7280 we tested was faster than a traditional hard drive, but other SSDs outpaced it. So although the Latitude finished our file-transfer test in 53 seconds for a speed of 96 MBps, faster speeds were achieved by the EliteBook's 256GB SATA-3 SSD (145.4 MBps), the ThinkPad's 256GB SSD (157.1 MBps) and the ultraportables average (182.7 MBps).
The Latitude 7280 excelled in our productivity testing, finishing our OpenOffice spreadsheet macro test in 3 minutes and 12 seconds. That beats the EliteBook (4:32), the Lenovo ThinkPad X260 (4:12) and the average (6:06).
The Latitude 7280's integrated Intel HD 620 graphics earned it a fairly pedestrian score of 56,318 on the Ice Storm Unlimited graphics test -- very similar to the 56,633 average for ultraportable notebooks. The EliteBook (Intel HD 525) and the ThinkPad (Intel HD 520) earned slightly higher marks of 59,071 and 59,489, respectively.
When you're ready for a break from work, the Latitude 7280 can handle some modest gaming. The system ran Dirt 3 (set to 1920 x 1080 pixels and medium graphics) at 46 frames per second, surpassing our 30-fps playability threshold and the 35-fps ultraportable average.
I highly recommend you invest an additional $42 on the optional four-cell battery. If you do, you can leave the Latitude 7280's power cable at home, as the notebook lasted 12 hours and 29 minutes on the Laptop Mag Battery Test (continuous web surfing over Wi-Fi). That beats the times posted by the EliteBook (9:23), the three-cell version of the ThinkPad (8:16) and the average for ultraportable notebooks (8:10). Only the ThinkPad, with its optional six-cell battery, lasted longer, at an incredible 17:14.
The Latitude 7280's 0.9-megapixel webcam is pretty average, capturing just enough detail and accuracy to make people identifiable, but nothing more.
So although I could recognize myself in the selfie I shot with the laptop, my face and sweater looked fuzzy; there was an overall graininess, and the red wall in the background looked light orange.
The Latitude 7280 won't make your hands sweat, but it heats up a bit on the bottom. After we streamed 15 minutes of HD video on the notebook, our heat gun picked up cool temperatures on its touchpad (87 degrees Fahrenheit) and G and H keys (90.5 degrees), but not on its underside (97 degrees), which breached our 95-degree comfort threshold.
Dell gave the Latitude 7280 a fairly clean installation of Windows 10, only adding a handful of its own utilities. Command | Update keeps the system up-to-date on software and drivers from Dell; Command | Power Manager optimizes battery life, among other things; and SupportAssist organizes system info and support links.
We reviewed a customization of the Core i7-7600U model that starts at $1,619 and includes vPro technology and the six-cell battery. A model upgraded with a 256GB SSD, a 1080p display with an IR camera, a fingerprint reader, a smart-card reader and contactless a smart-card reader costs $1,830.
The $1,029 entry-level Latitude 7280 sports a Core i3-7100U processor, 4GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD, a 1366 x 768 display and a three-cell, 42-Wh battery. The Core i5-7200 CPU model of the system costs $1,169 and includes 4GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD and a 1366 x 768-pixel display.
If you're thinking about getting one of the lower-tier models, we highly recommend investing in several upgrades, including a 1920 x 1080-pixel display ($77) and the four-cell, 60-Wh battery ($42) that comes standard with other models.
The Dell Latitude 7280 packs speedy performance, a bright display and fantastic battery life into a thin, light design that's easy to carry. However, the screen isn't as colorful as we'd like, and the price can get pretty high, depending on which configuration you choose.
Among competing business notebooks, the HP EliteBook 1030 G1 offers great audio, but at the cost of performance and speed. For a faster hard drive, nearly 5 hours of extra battery life and a better price, consider the $1,160 configuration of the Lenovo ThinkPad X260, but keep in mind that it has a dimmer display.
Overall, if you're looking for a productivity powerhouse with a great display, a comfy keyboard and power to spare, you'd be hard-pressed to do better than the Dell Latitude 7280.
Photo credits: Jeremy Lips/Tom's Guide