by Maciej Pilichowski
The Dell Latitude E6500 is a 15-inch business laptop designed to survive a full day of use and abuse ... and look good while doing it. The magnesium alloy construction, rugged paint finish and tough metal hinges make the Latitude E6500 more durable than older Dell notebooks. As impressive as that all sounds, what do actual users think? Keep reading to find out what one owner thinks of his new purchase.
For comparison, in Poland with on-site NBD service I would pay over $3,129.
Build and Design
The black color makes the E6500 finally look elegant—like an efficient tool for a serious job. The only resemblance of the old, gray and silver days are the hinges and battery. However, in pursuit of the business look somebody went too far and made all the edges very sharp. You won't cut your hand on the edges but placing your hands on the palmrest is not as comfortable as it should be. Additionally, the screen protective paddings are not placed around the lid (as in D610) but next to keyboard.
The laptop is very sturdy—for the first time I am able to lean on palmrest. The hinges work so firmly that it is even a bit difficult to open or close the laptop (when you tilt the lid back the keyboard goes up). The only weak point is the bezel below the screen—there is a lot of space between it and the screen and you can bend it easily. The flex is not that important, but the gap is so big that dust will certainly collect there.
The lid latch is not centered as in D610—it is placed a bit to the right. When the laptop is closed the left part of the lid is not pressed firmly against the palmrest and it rattles a bit. Nothing serious but after design lessons Apple gave such issues should be history in business class laptops.
One of the advantages of desktops over laptops is the ability to disassemble the computer and replace any part of it. The E6500 is more like a desktop in that Dell did not hide anything and provided a detailed service manual.
I was happy the new power supply is slim and lighter than before (~0.3kg comparing to ~0.42kg old brick) until I put the laptop itself on a scale. The nearly 2.7kg weight of the E6500 cannot be justified by its size. I'd call the E6500 is a "desktop replacement" rather than a portable machine.
There are several status LEDs (HDD, battery, Wi-Fi, bluetooth, num lock, caps lock, scroll lock and power status) placed at the top of the keyboard, another two (power and battery) next to the left hinge and one more at the plug for the power cord—all in blue and all unnecessarily bright.
One small thing that caused me a lot of trouble already is that the media bay security screw is missing (again) so I have to buy it on my own.
You can read a lot of warnings online against buying high resolution screens. I took a risk previously and I took the risk this time. I can only say, buy the highest resolution possible no matter what. I wear glasses and I want to read sharp, clear text instead of admiring big pixels so high resolution serves me well. One note—you can benefit from having high resolution when using modern desktop environments like KDE. The well known Windows system does not guarantee the same comfortable experience (I tried XP on D610 and Vista on E6500).
The colors are great—white is snowy white and with maximum brightness it even hurts my eyes so I dim the screen to about 60%. You can set the brightness manually or you can turn the ambient light sensor on to automatically adjust the brightness for you. In the first 10 minutes after booting it appeared that this feature was useless, in a pretty funny way. When I looked at the screen it seemed too dark, so I leaned forward to read the text. It was so easy to read that I leaned back and again I couldn’t see too much. The problem is I have a lamp behind me, so any movement changes brightness.
The viewable angles are not spectacular—wide horizontally, narrow vertically. It means that you have to tilt the lid back a bit for normal usage and tilt it towards you if you watch a movie. There is some minor light leakage at the bottom of the screen—not noticeable while working though. Just out of curiosity I pressed the screen directly (not the lid) and I noticed some slight distortions (ripples). However, the screens seems to be more solid than in older D610.
The lid won’t go any further.
The main drawback for me is the widescreen. In my opinion it is wrong to put them in a business class notebook—widescreen is only good for movies. While writing this review I was constantly switching from the D610 to the E6500 and back—4:3 just knocks the widescreen down when it comes to any writing/reading, the big margins are a distraction. On the other hand, zoom-to-width text decreases the number of lines. I will utilize the widescreen by placing some toolbars vertically (“Styles” pane in OOWriter for example), but it is a rather artificial solution to the problem.
I tried watching movies and I admit, they look great. Still, this is a Latitude series. Dell, know your target audience (or maybe you do, and this would be scary).
Speakers and Audio
This time speakers are placed next to keyboard—it is a pity, because a more ergonomic keyboard layout would be more welcome than some fancy speakers. They don’t provide better sound compared to the D610 and also sound more metallic. Also, the grills are very hard to clean. Not that I clean my laptop very often (I hardly do) but at least I wish I would be able to. Of course the next day after purchase one drop from nowhere left a beautiful stain on the left speaker. Perfect.
When you want to listen to music or watch movie using headphones—good news, the sound is clear, no electronic static, no hiss, when there is no sound, there is no sound—pure silence.
Processor and Performance
In normal usage I see a slight performance boost over the D610, but I didn’t expect any—I tested OpenOffice, GIMP, Opera and Firefox. If you intend to run Vista start up is rather slow and the devices are enabled and disabled two or three times (after each booting up), shutting down the system could be faster too. VirtualBox seems to run slower than on my 2GHz D610 with openSUSE 10.3 installed.
You already know why I wanted to buy the Thinkpad W500—the keyboard layout. The D610 has an OK layout but Dell decided to remove four keys in the E6500—the menu key, print screen, num lock and pause. For a laptop this is like a death sentence. I don't understand it. There is enough room for making some improvements like moving arrow keys slightly to the right, adding menu and win keys between alt and ctrl, adding gaps between pairs of F4-F5 and F8-F9. None of those were done—the layout is crippled even further. Bad!
Having an Fn key does not help too much because all Fn+key shortcuts are hardwired, for example Fn+F6 is a dead combo.
The keys are lowered a bit (relatively to the palmrest) which causes problems when typing. You cannot put down a hand in a rest position and press the arrow keys ... you have to hit the key with a finger from above. It feels unnatural and does not help curing RSI at all. And there is another obstacle when typing—the trackpoint cap is above the keys and I hit it more often in one day than using D610 in three years.
The key mechanism is precise and reliable—it is easy to press a key and if you are a fast typist you will like the E6500 key travel and nice touch. The delete key also has a bump so it is easier to find it without looking.
While typing you can feel slight vibrations—they are coming from HDD, not pleasant but more disturbing is a constant humming.
The so called "multimedia" buttons are a joke—odd way to press with no distinct feedback. Why couldn't they be just like regular keys? Mystery.
Touchpad and Trackpoint
When I first used trackpoint I was delighted—a pretty nice device to save my hands (I have RSI). But after a month I figured out that using it is maybe more precise than the touchpad but it is tiresome and from time to time it is stuck and the mouse cursor keeps moving. I attached an external mouse and from then on I never used the trackpoint at all. I use the touchpad from time to time, usually when I go out or when I forget about the mouse.
I wish the E6500 didn't have a trackpoint, it is waste of space and in this reincarnation and it is slippery which makes using it difficult. The touchpad could benefit from removing the trackpoint (and its buttons), but even with it the touchpad could be bigger—there is enough space for it.
The touchpad works fine, but I don’t like the white scroll markings—it does not match the elegant look of the rest of the laptop.
The touchpad buttons work in a pleasant way, unlike the trackpoint ones—you have to use some force to press them. In default installation the middle trackpoint button (scroll button) does not work with the touchpad, only with trackpoint.
Input and Output Ports
The part I somehow missed when I read the reviews of E6400 is that it lacks TV-out (S-Video). It has DisplayPort (finally we have digital signal for video), but no TV-out? Of course there is no adapter included—user has to find one on his/her own. The notion of selling $1,000 hardware and saving $5 on a cable or $0.10 on one screw is killing me.
I am angry at Dell for this and I am angry at myself for not noticing it has no TV-out.
The placement of the audio ports is unfortunate—they are placed on the right, so using headphones and a mouse at the same time is troublesome. Moreover, there is a media bay on the right too, so even more troubles when using the DVD drive. Those audio ports could be placed safely in the front.
Some say the E6500 has four USB ports, I say it has three—one port is eSATA/USB combo. I tried a bit and it didn't fit—maybe if I tried another angle, maybe if I tried a bigger hammer, maybe if I had an extra warranty for such experiments ... But I don’t want to push my luck any further, so... three USB ports for me.
One USB port is PowerShare one, which means it can charge external device even if the computer is off. All of the sudden I took a liking to my non-AA Cowon D2.
It is nice to have a camera and microphone built-in but I don't chat online at all (maybe in the future I will use the camera for eye-tracking tasks) so I cannot tell if they are great or not, they simply work. The camera and microphone are literally part of the screen bezel so the camera points in a fixed direction. On the bright side, when the camera is activated, a small blue LED is turned on next to the camera (you should know when they are watching you).
Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
No complaints here, connections work as expected and I am very pleased with the Dell bluetooth mouse (no reason to use touchpad or trackpoint).
I am glad to see a hardware switch for wireless devices—you can configure it to switch Wi-Fi, bluetooth or both of them. There is also signal catcher button but for now it just informs it does not control any wireless networks and such feature will be enabled in early 2009 (according to Dell website). A bit hilarious, however I don’t care because it is pretty cumbersome to press this button, even with software upgrade I doubt it will do any good.
The DVD drive does not make any vibrations other than what I consider "normal" for DVD. One interesting change is tray eject—now it is barely ejected at all. At home I prefer the old way, when the tray comes out in a half, but those who travel may like this minimalistic behavior better—almost no chance to break the tray. After tray is ejected you to pull it all the way out, as always.
I performed two tests: 100% screen brightness, Wi-Fi on, bluetooth on, no sound, CPU 100%, sleep mode disabled and hibernate set to 5% of batteries. With such settings I played a DVD in fullscreen and the battery lasted for 97 minutes.
With the screen set to 50% brightness, Wi-Fi on, bluetooth on, no sound, CPU 5-30%, sleep mode disabled and hibernate set at 5% of batteries. I used Opera to download a big file in the background. After 112 minutes the battery meter showed 49% and my patience was over so I stopped downloading, started OpenOffice and continued writing this review. After another 77 minutes computer turned off (189 minutes in total).
This level of battery life is quite OK with me. I didn't expect a notebook with WUXGA screen to be a longevity champion—I will survive through a lecture and this counts for me.
The BIOS has nice options to prolong the battery life—ExpressCharge lets you choose the charging speed (I left "slow" intact, according to Dell not all batteries allow fast charging) and the ability to disable charging at all (this can be switched on the fly).
Heat and Noise
Dell did a nearly excellent job dealing with heat and noise. First of all the E6500 does not heat up—I used both CPU burn-in and Prime95 to torture the CPU for more than two hours, I managed to get the CPU at 78 degrees Celsius (according to I8kfanGUI) and the palmrest kept the temperature of the human body, the bottom of the laptop was lukewarm and the only warm part (but not hot) was the left speaker. This is a major improvement because the bottom of my D610 is burning hot. So you can say the E6500 is lap friendly.
The E6500 can keep the fan off for a long time—you can additionally tweak power management profiles to keep the laptop very quiet. The only sound is the disk drive humming/clicking and some electronic hiss (I cannot locate the source of it). I have to admit the humming is not noisy but when you have to focus it can be annoying.
When some heat builds up the fan is turned on to about 2800rpm up to about 3100rpm—this is a low speed range. Using just OpenOffice does not trigger the fan at least for several hours, watching on-line videos does—after about 20 minutes, watching DVD—after 5 minutes (in this case fan is inaudible actually because of the the whoosh of the spinning disc). If the low speed is not enough fan kicks into higher gear—~3900rpm. It is the level of some serious number crunching—I get immediate headache from the noise, but on the other hand I can take a break (better than any on-screen reminder).
The heat and noise department looks like a big success. But that's not true entirely. The minor issue is using flat grills on the intakes of the air vents—in the D610 the fins of the grill are slightly rotated. It doesn’t guarantee perfect air flow but adds some safety. But the huge mistake is air exhaust—it is placed on the left, not at the back. So not only it is more noisy when running (the lid does not muffle the noise anymore), but you have to smell characteristic hot-hardware odor. The hot exhaust also makes it unpleasant to put your left hand next to the laptop. And since I use the mouse with my left hand (to save my right one for typing, I am right-handed) I am furious when I feel hot air on my hand.
I mentioned sounds made by the hard drive—by default the drive "clicks" (like a watch). After a while it gets on the nerves. The NBR forum has some lengthy threads about this issue. You can do things to prevent the clicking noise but still the hum of the disk can be heard.
Dell: Dell just reassured me that my order was correct; the package was delivered as promised. That was the end of any contact with them. Other than the fact that their outlet website is not the best I have seen it serves its purpose. At least I managed to buy two computers using their web page without too much time spent.
Western Digital: I am genuinely disappointed in them. I tried to solve the clicking HDD problem and I posted a question about WD software at the same time to WD and also at NBR forum. WD answered incorrectly ("replace your disk”) after a week. By comparison I got a 100% accurate answer at the NBR forum the very same day I asked the question (thank you, Tinderbox).
The Dell Latitude E6500 is a powerful beast without any doubt. However, if I had another chance (and more time) to buy a notebook, would I buy it again? Although I love the cooling improvements and the build quality, no, I wouldn't. I would try to buy a Thinkpad W500 instead, my choice from the beginning. The W500 does not solve all the issues I mentioned but the keyboard—absolutely the most important input device for me—is better (layout + number of keys). So I cannot honestly recommend the E6500. Still, it might suit you better than me.
I would like to thank my friends, Pawel and Krzysiek, for helping me buy a new computer—what would I do without you guys? Thank you very much!
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