The Latitude E4300 is one of the two ultraportable laptops in Dell’s new E-series release. Designed for business customers, the laptop carries a hefty starting price of $1,834 Canadian although that price can be negotiated down significantly with volume.
The E-series caught my eye as I’d previously owned a Latitude D820, which has served me very well for the past two years. I’ve even dropped it on concrete with only a scratch. Dell Customer Service for Small Business was superb, delivering new keyboards overnight, or sending a technician over, the next day with almost no questions asked.
For a university student with 6-7 hours of lecture every other day, battery life and portability are key. The D820 comes in at 6.5 lbs, so I was looking for something a little more portable. The E4300 fit the bill at an advertised 3.3 lb starting weight. I’d actually ordered another laptop from the Dell ultraportable line-up earlier this summer – the XPS M1330. However, its keyboard was cheap and unresponsive compared to the Latitude D820 I had, so it was promptly returned.
The E-Series competes with the Lenovo X301 and the Sony Z laptops in the same price range. Almost all internal laptop components are drawn from the same manufacturers. In theory, one could price a laptop with a similar configuration for almost $1,000 less (Lenovo’s X200). That $1,000 premium you pay as a business customer is for high quality build, user interface components and prompt and reliable customer service. As you’ll see in this review, Dell certainly delivers with its top-rate customer service. Unfortunately, customer service alone is only part of what makes a good notebook, and the Dell E4300’s user interface devices leaves something to be desired.
The brushed metal look is gorgeous on the Dell E4300. It certainly looks sexy, and to Dell’s credit, this is also its best laptop yet in terms of build quality. The laptop feels amazingly solid with its magnesium alloy chassis. There is absolutely no hint of flex on the palm rest, or on the laptop screen. Attempts to twist or prod resulted in no ripples on the screen. It is worth noting how solidly built the metal hinges are. There was hardly any motion regardless of the positioning or angle of the screen. The 6-cell battery protrudes from the back of the laptop, and is hardly noticeable, although that is a matter of personal taste. Again, Dell has been outdone by its competitor Lenovo, which manages to fit in its own 6 cell battery without having it protrude.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The input devices are arguably the most important components to a premium business laptop. Business users spend hours on their laptop, and expect the highest, and most comfortable experience possible. Here is where Dell falls short of my expectations. The keyboard on the Dell E4300 is actually a step down from the keyboard on the Latitude D820 in my opinion. The keys are more textured, but feel lighter, cheaper and less responsive. They are also noticeably nosier – I’d subjectively put the increase in noise at about 200-300%. Also unlike the Latitude D-series, there is considerable flex especially in the lower right hand corner of the keyboard, where Dell has placed the Page Down and Page Up keys above the right and left arrow keys respectively. This may have disrupted the structural integrity of the keyboard. The lightness of the keys may also be due to Dell’s integration of the backlight feature on the keyboard, which I did not purchase. I’ve tried this keyboard out for a week, and still find it inferior in terms of responsiveness, and obviously noise, to the Latitude D820. The E4300 keyboard is only a few steps above the terrible keyboard on the XPS M1330.
To its credit, Dell has included a blue TrackPoint that is very effective. The precision and comfort in using the TrackPoint is a considerable improvement over the D-Series TrackPoint device. With it, there’s no need to ever take your hands off the keyboard to move it down to the touchpad.
Speaking of the touchpad, I found it inaccurate and sometimes detecting the motion of my hands and causing my cursor to annoyingly jump around while typing. It’s also very easy to inadvertently move into the areas of the touchpad with scrolling functions, which is also very annoying. These failures may be due to the change in drivers from Synaptics to Alps as reported previously. My touchpad on my D820 used a Synaptics driver, so that may explain the performance difference.
As soon as I turned on the computer for the first time, I was disappointed to find tinges of yellow-orange splotches on the default Latitude brushed metal background for my desktop. I tried watching several television shows that had worked flawlessly on my previous laptops, only to find yellow splotches laying over the skin texture of individuals' faces. The laptop LCD also came with two vertical yellow lines down the right hand side that are visible when viewing a black screen. Perhaps these incidents and manufacturing failures are isolated only to my laptop.
The horizontal viewing angles were quite good. The laptop screen was also significantly brighter due to the LED backlighting compared to my D820 with CCFL screen. There are 15 levels of brightness that you can adjust to using Fn+Up or Fn+Down. The forth and fifth level of brightness is equivalent to the maximal brightness on my Dell D820 screen, which says a lot about how much brighter the screen is. Vertical viewing angles were poor, but it’s unlikely you’d ever watch anything on the laptop from those positions.
I actually went to the Sony Style Store to directly compare the screens of both the Sony Z and the Dell E4300 with the Sony Z the clear winner in both resolution and contrast. The E4300 screen is simply not that sharp. Reports of the X301 screen operating at a brilliant 300 nits show that premium ultraportables can and should have beautiful screens.
Business laptops are not renowned for their audio. While in a plane, or in a boring lecture, you would most likely want earbuds or headphones to listen to music. I did try out the speakers. They are significantly tinny, with little bass, regardless of the volume one chooses.
Latitude ON Reader
One of the most talked about features for the new E-series has been the Linux-based instant-on feature. When rolled out fully in November, Latitude ON will enable you to use Microsoft Office, access email and use an internet browser. So far, the only feature it allows is synchronizing with your Outlook and reading emails. The interface is satisfactory, and comparable to the Dell Media user interface found on the consumer series. It’s a gimmick more than anything else at this point.
Dell Control Point
The Dell E4300 comes with Dell Control Point software in the same vein as Lenovo’s ThinkVantage software. I found the power features particularly useful with a variety of advanced options that allow you to control power down specific components of your laptop such as the optical drive or media card.
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