With extremely long battery life, strong performance, stylish looks, and a host of business-friendly features in a lightweight chassis, the 13-inch Dell Latitude E4300 provides a compelling option for highly mobile business users. However, the E4300's performance and long battery life come at a premium. Though the system starts at $1,549, our configuration came with extras such as an extended battery slice and a high-performance solid state drive, pushing the MSRP of our review unit up to a pricey $2,794. However, if you've got the budget, you'll find few systems with this combination of portability, endurance, and power.
The E4300 is one of the most stylish business notebooks we've tested. The polycarbonate and aluminum chassis features a tastefully minimalist design with squared edges, with a handful of blue status lights dotting the top of the keyboard. Our review unit was black, but unlike most business notebooks, the E4300 is available in blue and red. The standard six-cell battery is a blemish on the uniform design, as it not only bulges out uncomfortably from the back, but also is painted in a mismatching silver.
With its lid closed, the E4300 measures 1 inch at its thinnest and 1.3 inches at its thickest points. With the optional battery slice attached to the bottom, the thickness increases dramatically to 2 inches at its thickest. The E4300 weighs a full 5.2 pounds with the slice attached, and 3.8 pounds without it. The LenovoThinkPad X300andX301, by comparison, weigh only 3.3 and 3.4 pounds, respectively, when equipped with their six-cell batteries.
Keyboard, Touchpad, Pointing Stick
The E4300's full-size keyboard has its keys in all the standard positions. Touch typists who like a highly tactile feel will prefer the Lenovo X300's springy keys, but can still thrive with the E4300's decent, if unremarkable, feedback.
Like its main competitor, the E4300 offers both a pointing stick and a touchpad. The tiny touchpad offers little surface area for movement, though tweaking its driver settings made it easy enough to navigate. The pointing stick affords greater accuracy, but its rubber nub is indented in a way that makes it both coarse and slippery at the same time. We found our finger slipping frequently as we tried to move around the desktop.
The 13.3-inch, LED-backlit display offers impressively bright, vibrant images and strong viewing angles. Watching a DVD of Star Wars: A New Hope, we were pleasantly surprised by the trueness of the blacks in outer space scenes and the brilliant fidelity of other colors like the blue sky over Tatooine or the gold metal on C-3PO's chassis. At half-brightness, the screen was well illuminated; at 100 percent, it was overkill.
Like many 13.3-inch displays with 16:10 aspect ratios, the E4300's screen has a native resolution of 1280 x 800. However, we would have preferred the larger workspace provided by a 1440 x 900-pixel resolution, something the E4300's main competitors, the Lenovo ThinkPad X300 and X301, both offer.
The E4300 is equipped with an ambient light sensor, which is supposed to make subtle adjustments based on available light, raising the brightness in well-lit rooms to compete effectively with other light sources, while dimming the screen in darker locations to save battery life. Unfortunately, in several well-lit rooms, the hyperactive light sensor annoyed us by continuously raising and lowering the screen's brightness every few seconds, even though we were sitting still and the overhead lights remained constant. In a darker room, the sensor calmed down and adjusted itself only once, but was still less useful than simply changing the brightness manually. Fortunately, deselecting a box in Dell's control panel software disables the sensor, a choice we recommend.
Multimedia and Sound
Though marketed as a business system, the E4300 had better sound and video quality than many consumer notebooks we've tested. As stated above, DVD playback was incredibly smooth, with truly vibrant colors and sharp images and true blacks. Watching streaming high-def video on Fox.com produced similar results. When watching movies or listening to streaming music via Napster, the sound coming from the speakers was loud, clear, and free from distortion. We would most certainly recommend the E4300 for giving presentations to smaller groups.
The E4300 accommodates a couple of advanced interfaces, but as a trade-off, offers only two USB ports. The right side of the system features an optical drive, mic and headphone jacks, an ExpressCard/34 slot, a FireWire port, and the lone USB port. The left side has a Smart Card reader, a VGA-out port, and an eSATA port, which doubles as one of the USB ports. The front lip contains a memory card reader, while the back houses the Ethernet port. We appreciate the ability to connect to high-speed storage devices offered by the eSATA and FireWire ports, but we wish there was one additional USB connector.
Though the E4300 comes standard with Windows Vista, you can configure it with Windows XP, which is how our review unit arrived. Therefore, we were not able to run PCMark Vantage, our standard benchmark for today's business systems. However, in the older PCMark05 benchmark, the E4300 and its 2.4-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU scored a strong 5,787, well above our average of 3,714 for XP-powered notebooks.
For this kind of price, we would hope for a discrete graphics or switchable graphics option. However, the Latitude E4300 is available only with an integrated Intel GMA 4500HD graphics chip. The GMA 4500HD offered mixed performance results, returning a strong score of 2,210 in 3DMark03--600 points above our category average for ultraportable notebooks--while scoring a slightly below-average 775 on the more-demanding 3DMark06 test.
Not surprisingly, the E4300 did not fare well on our gaming test. On F.E.A.R., the system garnered a measly 24 fps at 800 x 600 and an unplayable 14 fps at its 1280 x 800 native resolution.
Impressive Solid State Drive
The lightning-fast Samsung 64GB SSD really shined, both in synthetic tests and real-world use. The power of this solid state speedster was apparent from the moment we first powered on the E4300 and saw it boot Windows XP in a remarkable 36 seconds.
On the LAPTOP Transfer Test (copying a 4.97GB folder of mixed media) the drive managed a transfer rate of 31.4 MBps, nearly double the category average of 18 MBps for all ultraportable notebooks. However, that's almost 10 MBps slower than the Intel 80GB SSD managed on the HP EliteBook 6930p.
Wireless and Battery Life
The Intel WiFi Link 5300 802.11a/g/n card offered solid performance, transferring data at rates of 19.2 Mbps and 16.9 MBps from 15 and 50 feet respectively, when 17.9 Mbps and 15 Mbps rates are average for this category of notebook. Integrated mobile broadband cards for AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon Wireless are available as options.
With its default six-cell battery, the E4300 lasted 5 hours and 39 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi). When the additional battery slice was added, that time increased to an epic 10 hours and 59 minutes. The increase in battery life is not without its drawbacks: the $199 battery slice adds 1.4 pounds to the notebook's weight and 0.7 inches to its thickness, making the E4300 2 inches thick and 5.2 pounds. The machine was still easy to carry with the extra heft but less pleasant to use on one's lap.
Dell Latitude On: Not Quite Instant On
The E4300 comes bundled with a unique feature called Dell Latitude On, which launches instead of Windows when you hit a secondary power button instead of the adjacent main one. When we first hit the button, we were hoping that this would be an instant-on operating system similar to Device VM's Splashtop, which is now included on systems from ASUS, Lenovo, and HP Voodoo. Unfortunately, the version of Dell Latitude On installed on our E4300 review unit was so limited that it wasn't worth using.
In its publicity materials, Dell claims that Latitude On has a Web browser and offers wireless connectivity. However, the version on our E4300 had no Web browser, chat client, or real-time e-mail. Its only functions were viewing a calendar, contact list, and recent e-mails imported from Microsoft Outlook. This information was not synced in real time but was instead sent to Latitude On at the time we opened Outlook; the only e-mails we saw in the Latitude On environment were those already seen. Worse still, you can't compose new messages or reply to others in this environment. And if you don't use Outlook, you can forget about using Latitude On at all. A Dell representative said that our version of Latitude On lacked an upgrade that would make real-time syncing and Web browsing possible, and that these features are available on the E4300 systems shipping to consumers today.
Business-Friendly Software, Warranty
Security-conscious businesses will appreciate some additional E4300 features. In addition to optional fingerprint and Smart Card readers, the system is bundled with Embassy Security Center, an application that includes password management for Windows and preboot logins, security management, and the ability to manage TPM chips. Our unit also came with an Intel Active Management Technology application that allows a business' IT department to remotely manage the E4300 online.
Dell covers the E4300 with a standard three-year limited warranty that includes mail-in service. For a $99 upgrade, onsite service is available. For a $178 upgrade, small businesses can purchase three years of ProSupport, which is designed for offices with limited or no IT staff.
We can't help but compare the Dell Latitude E4300 to another business-oriented, 13-inch ultraportable, the Lenovo ThinkPad X300, as well as its update, the ThinkPad X301. Like the Latitude E4300, the X300 and X301 are both ultra-thin, use SSDs, and come with a combination of a TrackPoint and a touchpad. The E4300 offers a much faster processor (2.4 GHz vs. 1.4 GHz) and slightly better graphics performance than even the fastest configuration of the X301. The E4300 also lasts significantly longer, even without its extended battery slice, besting the X301 by more than 2 hours (5:39 to 3:29). However, when it comes to size, weight, ease of typing, and screen resolution, the ThinkPads are just a bit more pleasing to use. If you can deal with its extra heft and somewhat mushy keyboard, the E4300 offers an industry-leading combination of endurance and processing power.