Dell Latitude D520 Review
by Dan Hunke
The Dell Latitude D520 is a standard aspect ratio road-ready business notebook following in the footsteps of Dell's Latitude D510 but sporting an updated processor and sleek new looks. Dell's small business web site states that the Latitude D520 offers a "balance of features that budget-conscious businesses value"; if they're talking about a well-rounded feature set coupled with solid battery life in a durable package, they're certainly right.
The Latitude D520 I purchased is configured as follows:
Through the Dell Small Business web site, this came to a total of $1,516.86 CAD (~$1374.22 USD) after tax and shipping (thank goodness for the new 6% GST).
Reasons for buying:
This machine was purchased for a non-profit organization and is intended for accounting and word processing while seeing a fair bit of travel. I wanted something durable and reliable with good battery life, but at the same time I wanted to get the best value possible. The only other brand I would have potentially considered would have been a Lenovo Thinkpad - but similarly outfitted any Thinkpad I could find was significantly more expensive.
Overall, reviews of Dell's Latitude line have been positive and have praised the machines labeled as "Road Ready" as being sturdy and reliable. Coupled with three years of Dell's fantastic CompleteCare warranty and Next Business Day service, I feel confident that this Latitude D520 should more than exceed its requirements while knowing that the organization's data is safe and well protected.
The Latitude D520 came in a standard brown Dell box - all business. Standard accessories are spare but include the power adapter and modem cable, user manuals and resource CDs. The notebook itself came well protected in foam casing (that my cats immediately attacked) and with the battery already 80% charged and inserted in the machine.
Build and design:
Having only previously used Dell's Inspiron line of notebooks, I was pleasantly surprised at the build quality of the D520. Solid plastic casing encompasses the machine, the screen is attached to the base with sturdy steel hinges, and the entire machine is built around a magnesium-alloy frame. Slight flex was present when firm pressure was applied behind the screen, but I had to exert significantly more pressure to get any movement out of the palm rests, keypad or bottom housing. In the rare (hopefully nonexistent) case that the machine suffers from a drop, it is equipped with Dell's Strike Zone technology to protect the hard drive from short falls. Finally, any attempts to twist the screen proved fruitless as there was non flex.
In the external looks department, the Latitude D520 brings nothing new to the table with the same gray plastic that has represented the Latitude line for years. Opening the machine up provides a nice internal contrast from the bland exterior with a strong solid dark gray design surrounding the screen and keyboard. While it isn't much of a looker from the outside, the Latitude D520 pleases the eye with clean dark looks while in its most important position: open and ready for use.
As I was on a tight budget with other priorities, I skimped slightly on the screen and outfitted this model with the basic 14.1" XGA display panel. It should be noted here that Dell does offer the option to upgrade to either a 15" XGA display (1024x768 pixels, for an additional $50 CAD) or a 15" SXGA+ display (1400x1050 pixels, an additional $100 CAD over the base display) for those who need something larger and/or a higher resolution. If this machine had been for my own use I would have sprung for the SXGA+ display in an instant as 1400x1050 is my ideal resolution for a 15" display, but sadly this was not the case.
Matte is the name of the game, and in my opinion is the only way to go on a notebook intended for business use. The screen is evenly lit, has excellent contrast and brightness and is highly viewable in all environments including direct sunlight. As seen below, light leakage is not significant and only bleeds from the bottom centre of the display.
Speakers and sound:
The speakers are located on the front of the notebook, on either side of the display latch. This is easily my least favorite placement choice as the sound is muffled when placed on a soft surface and has to rebound off something before making it to your ears regardless of setup. Sound quality is impressive, providing good clarity at any volume and excellent base for a notebook without an integrated subwoofer. In any case, this machine won't likely see much use of its speakers outside of the occasional presentation - but it will undoubtedly do an excellent job at that.
Processor and performance:
Depending on configuration, the Latitude D520 can currently be equipped with either an Intel Celeron M (410 @ 1.46GHz or 420 @ 1.60GHz) or an Intel Core Duo (T2300E @ 1.66GHz or T2400 @ 1.83GHz). Considering the insignificant difference between the Celeron and Core Duo options, I can't imagine why anyone would bother choosing the former as the speed difference between the two is quite significant - especially when multitasking. At the same time, I refrained from upgrading to the T2400 as I knew the T2300E would provide more than sufficient muscle for the task intended.
Even with only 512MB of RAM, system speed is lightning fast. Bootup is quick, applications open almost instantly and I have yet to experience any lag whatsoever and I doubt the eventual users of this machine ever will.
Super Pi Comparison Results (calculating Pi to 2 million digits of accuracy)
Dell Latitude D520 (1.67 GHz Intel T2300E)
Asus W3H760DD (2.0 GHz Pentium M)
Dell Inspiron e1505 (2.0GHz Core Duo)
Lenovo ThinkPad T60 (2.0GHz Core Duo)
Toshiba Satellite M100 (2.00GHz Core Duo)
Samsung X60 (1.66GHz Core Duo)
Dell XPS M140 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)
Sony VAIO FS680 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)
IBM ThinkPad T43 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)
Multithreaded Test 1
File Compression: 5.686 MB/s
File Encryption: 48.654 MB/s
Multithreaded Test 2
File Decompression: 43.857 MB/s
Image Processing: 19.897 MPixels/s
Multithreaded Test 3
Virus Scanning: 3951.058 MB/s
Grammar Check: 4.073 KB/s
File Decryption: 49.854 MB/s
Audio Conversion: 2560.130 KB/s
Web Page Rendering: 4.814 pages/s
DivX Video Compression: 63.248 fps
Physics Calculation and 3D: 90.356 fps
Graphics Memory - 64 Lines: 418.252 fps
The Super Pi and PC Mark scores speak for themselves, but I am impressed by the performance of the 7200RPM Hitachi drive. I was originally intending to outfit this machine with a 60GB 5400RPM drive but happened to buy while a free upgrade to the 100GB 7200RPM drive was offered and I'm glad I did; this drive out performs the one in the Zepto Znote 6214W I reviewed previously.
Heat and noise:
Under regular usage - browsing the internet wirelessly while listening to music streamed over the network - the fan stayed off and the machine ran cool and comfortable with the only noticeable heat gain being under the left palm rest (and this was minimal). The fan kicked in under heavy CPU usage but was nothing that would attract attention during a quiet meeting. This was all while the machine was sitting on my desk - as one of the fan intakes and the cooling for the memory are located on the bottom of the notebook, using it on a soft surface will most likely increase heat and noise noticeably but not significantly.
Keyboard and touchpad:
There is very little to dislike in this department; the Latitude D520's keyboard and touchpad are both solid with no flex except under significant pressure. The keys themselves click comfortably with a decent range of movement, are spaced out well and the control button is placed where it should be - to the left of the function key. The space bar is a good width and depresses even if tapped from the side.
The touchpad itself is comfortable to use if a bit small, and the included drivers can easily be set up for virtual scrolling. The large touchpad buttons are a dream to use as they are both quiet and offer a solid feeling when clicked.
Overall, I am pleased with the keyboard and touchpad offered by the Latitude D520. I am sad to see that the pointing stick of the Latitude D820 has yet to find its way down the chain, but many users are unfamiliar with the use of a pointing stick and I have a feeling it would be well received where this machine is going.
Input and output ports:
The Latitude D520 is well outfitted when it comes to ports. It sports 4 USB 2.0 ports ( two on the back, two on the right side), a PCMCIA slot that is Expresscard/34 compatible, VGA and S-Video out, Headphone and Microphone jacks, Modem, LAN, Firewire, Infrared, and Serial for legacy peripheral support.
Dell offers both 802.11 wLAN and Bluetooth as configurable options on the Latitude D520, yet I opted out of adding Bluetooth as it has zero use in the environment it is going into. Intel's 2200 chipset powers the wireless LAN portion of things and does a quality job of it, but I would expect no less out of the Intel chipset. Range is respectable and speed is almost exactly the same as every other 2200 chipset-based notebook I have ever used. There is nothing to surprise here, though the option to add Bluetooth if desired is a welcome one.
Configuring the Latitude D520 gives you the option of a standard 4 cell battery of a 6 cell for no additional cost. For me, the marginal increase in weight was easily worth the additional battery life so I jumped on the 6 cell. To put it straight - this battery does not disappoint. Over the week that this notebook has been in my possession I have experienced excellent battery life, well over 4.5 hours from full charge to battery warnings. Under less strident usage (such as taking wifi out of the equation) I can easily see exceeding 5 if not 5.5 hours of battery life with the stock 6 cell battery. To further impress, Dell offers a 6 cell media bay battery for $139 CAD that would effectively double battery life to well over a staggering 9 hours of constant internet-intensive usage. Under minimal usage - like working on reports with wireless disabled - I wouldn't put 11 to 12 hours of battery life out of the question, making this machine perfect for long flights and extended travel away from an outlet. When you do get back to an outlet, the ExpressCharge feature brings you back up to 80% capacity in an hour's time. To put the cherry on the cake, the battery life can be checked while the machine is off using a 5 LED battery meter built into the unit.
To sum it up, I'm impressed.
Operating System and software:
In my few years of owning and working with Dell notebooks, I have yet had to actually call Dell customer support for technical help. As this machine is going into the hands of those less technically inclined than myself, I am glad that the excellent warranty the machine is configured with includes 3 years of 24/7 technical support for those rare times when I am not readily available.
It has yet to be seen how one of those support calls go, but only the future will tell.
Overall I am very pleased with Dell Latitude D520. While this particular configuration lacks in high end bells and whistles like a top of the line processor or dedicated graphics, it does offer an excellent balance of power and capability housed in a way that I feel confident will last through the years of use and abuse I am sure it is going to see. Not every user is as gentle with their notebooks as I am, and I'm sure this one will put up with nearly everything that can be thrown at it.
Failing that, at least it has 3 years of CompleteCare warranty with Next Business Day service. If something terrible happens and the machine is immersed in a frozen pond or attacked by a vicious wolverine, the important data will have been backed up using the included DVD writer and the excellent warranty will take care of the rest.
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