by Tristan Osborn, Washington USA
For almost four years I've been using a Compaq Presario 1710TW (14.1" SXGA+ Pentium III-M; ~5.5 lbs) and wanted something of similar size and portability as a replacement. My main considerations, roughly in order of importance, were:
I was mulling over my choices when Dell released the Sonoma-based Dell Latitude D610 so I ordered one from Dell's Small Business website and it arrived February 24th. I've had it for about one month now, and overall I think it is an excellent machine. As I will explain below, the audio quality while using headphones is terrible, but otherwise this "thin & light" notebook is perfect for the user who desires a great balance of power and portability. In this review I will make most of my comparisons to the above-mentioned Presario 1710TW.
Dell Latitude D610 (view larger image)
Dell Latitude D610 Review Unit System Specs
Reason for Purchasing
I am currently a graduate student in a biomedical research lab and use my notebook primarily for writing, image editing and data storage. Relative portability is important to me as I frequently transport my machine back and forth between the lab and home. I often have several windows open with a lot of information displayed at once which is why a high resolution SXGA+ is important to me. I would have loved a 15.4-in widescreen SXGA+ screen but couldn't find anything affordable with that screen size that was below 6 lbs.
The D610 is a solid looking notebook -- noticeably thicker and burlier than my old Presario 1710TW, and from what I've read thicker and more durable than the Latitude D600 that it replaced in Dell's business notebook line-up. There is really not any flex when you pick the machine up by a corner, and the screen hinges are solid -- the screen doesn't wobble when you gently shake the notebook back and forth. The bezel surrounding the screen seems to be separated slightly near the bottom (just above the Dell logo -- see picture of keyboard below), although I didn't notice this until after I read about it in online forums. A dust-cover for the ports in back and for the docking port underneath would have been nice. Overall I give the D610 high marks for build quality.
Design & Aesthetics
If you prefer a simple notebook that isn't flashy (as do I), then the D610 is for you. The finish is an attractive silver/grey matte with lighter colored accents around the keyboard and touch-pad. There aren't a bunch of cumbersome quick-launch buttons: just volume up/down and mute, and the power button. Alongside these buttons are indicator lights for num lock, scroll lock, and caps lock, as well as Wifi and Bluetooth indicator lights (I assume it is Bluetooth -- I opted not to get this feature). Wifi is turned on/off via function keys (no physical switch). There are also indicator lights on the right-hand "hinge" of the LCD screen for power, HDD activity, and battery status.
The Latitude D600 apparently overheated on the palm rest -- this problem seems to have been fixed with the re-designed D610. I notice a small amount of heat on the left palm rest (just about where the Fn and start keys are), but nothing out of the ordinary. The bottom left-hand side of the notebook also gets warm, but I wouldn't think it would be enough to bother most people while using the computer on your lap.
The ventilation/cooling system seems adequate, with one large vent on the bottom left and an exhaust on the back left. The fan seems to be always on at a low level, but it is very quiet. Even when it kicks into high gear (which it rarely does) it is still pretty quiet. Regardless -- this is a bit disappointing compared to my Presario which was completely silent when idling (although louder than the D610 when comparing both at high fan speed).
The overall sound emanating from the notebook is fairly minimal, with the following exception: whenever a USB device is attached (a mouse or a USB audio device that I will describe below) there is a faint but perceptible electrical feedback noise. It is not noticeable in a normal work environment, which for me includes background noises from refrigerators, freezers, laboratory equipment, building vents, etc. In a quiet room it is definitely noticeable but faint (and drowned out by the sound of typing).
Overall I give the D610 excellent marks for design, with demerits for the fan being constantly on and the strange electrical feedback with attached USB devices.
Keyboard & touchpad
Ahh...a nice keyboard! The D610 seems to have one, especially compared to the Presario. I've heard a lot about IBM keyboards, but never having experienced one myself I can only say this: I've heard comparisons of the D610 keyboard to IBM keyboards. There doesn't seem to be much flex, and the keys feel firm (and are much quieter) compared to my Presario. I like the layout as well -- the large backspace key is located to the far right, which I've always preferred in a notebook keyboard. I don't use the trackpad or pointing stick much, but they both seem to be well designed. There is no dead-space on the trackpad and the buttons have a satisfying click to them. I would give the D610 excellent marks for the keyboard & input devices.
Dell Latitude D610 Keyboard View (view larger image)
The 14.1-in SXGA+ non-glossy screen is of decent quality, with the following pros and cons:
Because the drawbacks are minor, I'd give the screen good marks overall. Nothing special -- just good.
Size & Weight
The size & weight of the Latitude D610 breaks down as follows:
The notebook with DVD drive and AC adapter is therefore about 6.3 pounds. By comparison, the old Presario 1710TW with DVD drive and AC adapter was about 6.7 pounds -- although it was a little thinner. Other than being a little on the thick side, I'd say the D610 has average size & weight specifications for a notebook of its class.
Sound & Audio
The audio system is pretty standard for a notebook computer of this size. Speakers sound a little better than the Presario, but they do lack the bass & oomph that I prefer when listening to music. Personally, I have almost never used the built-in speakers in any notebook, preferring to use external speakers or headphones. However, the D610 has a serious problem in this regard: plug in a pair of headphones and I notice a very annoying background hiss, as if the headphones are picking up electrical feedback from the system. The hiss seems to vary in response to the video system doing work: whenever a window is re-drawn, re-sized, moved, minimized, etc, the background hiss gets worse. Also, the touchpad and pointer stick cause extra feedback. Oddly, whenever the hard drive is accessed, the hiss seems to temporarily abate. I've read quite a lot about this problem in online forums (including Dell's official forums), so I'll list some points concerning this problem here:
As you can see, I've obsessed a bit about this problem. I enjoy listening to music through headphones while working on my computer so for me this is a big problem. I contacted Dell product support and to make a long story short (see Service & Support for more details) they told me to send the system in for Depot repair. Unfortunately, I cannot send the system back as it is essential for my work right now, but I will definitely be sending it in for repair if Dell ever comes up with an acknowledged solution. I got so frustrated I purchased the Audio Advantage Micro by Turtle Beach, an inexpensive USB audio device that works well. This device solves the problem, although I still don't feel it is right that a brand new, $2000 machine should have such an annoying problem that essentially ruins the headphone-listening experience. Because of this, I have to give the D610 poor marks for sound & audio.
I personally think the D610 has a great I/O port arrangement: very little on the right side (I use a mouse 99% of the time and don't want any cords in the way); audio jacks & PC card slot on the left, most everything else in the back. Specifically:
Dell Latitude Right Side (view larger image)
Dell Latitude Left Side (view larger image)
Dell Latitude Bottom View (view larger image)
Dell Latitude Front View (view larger image)
A nice feature is the release latch for the modular bay on the side of the machine (see picture) rather than the bottom (as it was for my Presario), making it much easier to swap out the drive, especially with power cord, ethernet, mouse, etc attached.
Four USB ports is a nice bonus in this notebook. I always have a mouse attached, and often have the above mentioned USB audio device attached. That still leaves two open ports for USB drives, peripherals, etc. In my mind the D610 has an excellent I/O port arrangement.
Processor & Performance
The latitude D610 incorporates the latest "Sonoma" version of the Intel Centrino. I had high hopes that this machine would fly, and indeed, the D610 seems very responsive & performs well for what I do. As mentioned above, I'll often have powerpoint, photoshop, deepview (molecular image viewer), word, several instances of firefox, thunderbird, winamp, and a few other applications thrown in for good measure open at the same time. The old Presario would definitely bog-down, especially with graphics intensive apps such as deepview and specific powerpoint slides. So far the D610 has sailed through everything I've thrown at it. It hasn't crashed yet -- although windows explorer hangs from time to time (doesn't it always). I'm not much of a gamer, although I did download a copy of the Quake3 demo to see how it would run. I'll list the Quake3 results in the benchmarks section below.
Another common use for my notebook is to rip and encode music. I prefer Exact Audio Copy configured to encode with the LAME engine. My "benchmark" here is that the supplied DVD RW drive seems to be able to rip at up to about 7.5x (although it takes a while to get going that fast), and the encoding occurs at a "play/CPU" of about 10x (meaning a 10 minute song is encoded in about 1 minute). All together an hour-long CD is ripped & encoded to high quality VBR mp3 files in about 15 minutes.
Benchmarks & Battery Life
Super Pi: 1 min 37 sec (calculation to 2M digits) (see other notebook speeds for calculating Pi)
PCMark04: 3663 PCMarks
3DMark05: 722 3DMarks
3DMark03: 1879 3DMarks
Quake3: 87.5 FPS (high-quality settings), 325 FPS (low-quality settings)
The high quality settings for Quake3 were 1280x1024 with high details & all effects. The low quality settings were 640x480 with low details & most effects turned off.
In addition, I ran HDTune2.1:
I also tried Battery Eater Pro. I'm not sure if I did this right, but here's what I did: Started BEpro, selected either "classic" test (maximum load) or "idle" test (minimum load). Then I unplugged the AC, waited for BEpro to start, and then I checked the reported "time left" from the battery icon in the system tray:
I haven't actually timed the machine fully draining the batteries, but after normal use with the primary battery for 30 minutes, there was 83% remaining with a reported time left of 2 hours 24 minutes. I would estimate about 3 hours of light-duty computing from the primary battery alone. You could save a little weight with a 4-cell primary battery if you don't rely on batteries much.
Wireless & networking
I primarily use the Ethernet connection while at work -- no problems there. I don't use the wireless much, but I did hook it up to a nearby access point and it seemed quite fast. The wireless has no physical on/off switch -- it is controlled via the Fn key, with an indicator light that stays on when the wireless is on (doesn't blink with "activity" as do some Ethernet ports).
Support & Service
I ordered an additional AC adapter and Dell screwed up and only sent an additional AC adapter without the power cord. I don't see how you can consider an AC adapter without the power cord (the part that plugs into the wall) a functional AC adapter, so I contacted product support via email to notify Dell of the problem. In less than 24 hours they responded and shipped an entire new AC adapter, letting me keep the extra part.
I have also contacted Dell concerning the headphone feedback noise problem. I received quick responses; it's just that Dell was unable to solve the problem. I was first instructed to reinstall the audio drivers and disable specific system components. When that failed, I was informed I could send the system in for "system board replacement." Dell service personnel never answered my direct question, however, as to whether the problem can actually be solved (or indeed if they are actually aware of it). Not wanting to risk sending my notebook in for "repair," only to have it returned with the same problem, I opted not to send it in. If and when a solution arises, I will definitely have Dell fix the problem.
Overall I would give Dell average marks for the support & service. They respond quickly and when the problem can be solved, they take care of it right away. However, they tend to give "canned" answers and would sometimes ignore direct questions.
Overall I'm very happy with this machine. I think it would suit the mobile professional or student who needs a portable yet fast and responsive system for business and office applications quite well. I am especially impressed with the build quality and durability and the keyboard, but I am very disappointed with the noisy headphone jack issue, and cannot decide whether I would have avoided this machine had I known about this ahead of time. Given that it is easy to solve with external hardware (PC card or USB audio device) it's more of an annoyance with Dell's quality control than a true grievance. I can accept limitations of the system such as video or processor speeds. I have a hard time swallowing design or aesthetic problems on a machine that is brand new, especially one that requires me to carry around an extra piece of hardware to solve it.
Pricing and Availability
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