Dell Latitude E6420 vs. Lenovo ThinkPad T420: 14-inch Business Notebook Battle

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These 14-inch models are two of the most popular business machines available today. With a similar feature set and price range, what makes us pick one over the other?

What Are “Business” Notebooks?
Business-class notebooks (Dell Latitudes, Lenovo ThinkPads, HP EliteBooks, to name a few) differ from consumer notebooks in several important ways.

  • Warranty/Support: business support is completely separate from normal consumer-level support. It has better response times (especially when shipping out parts or replacement systems) and is domestic.
  • Build Quality/Design: unlike the 99% of consumer notebooks constructed of plastic, business notebooks include a stronger metal internal support structure to prevent wear and tear on the circuit boards. Additionally the notebook’s exteriors are more industrial and thankfully absent of glossy plastic.
  • Ports: business notebooks include quite a bit more than the bare essentials. Most come with an ExpressCard slot for adding additional ports. Furthermore they often include DisplayPort over HDMI and a legacy VGA port. Some larger business notebooks even have serial ports for connecting to legacy hardware
  • Wireless: business notebooks include beefed-up wireless connectivity. This includes but isn’t limited to additional reception antennas, better antenna placement, and higher-end wireless cards (such as the Intel 6200/6300 series).
  • Battery Life: extended batteries and battery slices aren’t often found on consumer notebooks; they are however an option on most business notebooks. They can extend battery life up to 50-100% compared to just the standard battery.
  • Optical Drives: IT departments continue to use optical drives for loading software, imaging, and data transfer. While consumers might have left the technology behind in favor of online downloads, businesses will take longer to get to that level.
  • Anti-glare Screens: glossy-surfaced screens are not practical to use in well-lit environments like offices; anti-glare/matte coatings make a lot more sense.
  • Operating Systems: Windows 7 Professional is the OS of choice for business notebooks – “Home Premium” isn’t found on corporate fleet notebooks.

The Lenovo ThinkPad T420 and Dell Latitude E6420 we’re looking at today are “true” business notebooks. That is, they are top-end models with all the available bells and whistles. Some notebooks are billed as “business class” but are really little more than consumer laptops with better warranty support; examples include the Dell Vostro series, HP ProBook, and lower-end Lenovo ThinkPads. They’re constructed of mostly plastic and are missing a lot of the features mentioned above such as better port selection and wireless connectivity, extended battery options, optical drives, and the Windows 7 Professional OS.

Here are the specifications of the notebooks in our comparison:

Lenovo ThinkPad T420 Dell Latitude E6420
Price as Configured $1,229 $1,284
Operating System Windows 7 Professional Windows 7 Professional
Screen 14” 900p anti-glare 14” 720p anti-glare
Processor Intel Core i5-2520M dual-core Intel Core i5-2540M dual-core
Graphics Card Nvidia NVS 4200M 1GB Integrated Intel HD graphics
RAM 4GB (8GB max.) 4GB (8GB max.)
Storage 500GB 7200RPM 320GB 7200RPM
Optical Drive DVD burner DVD burner
Battery Life 9:50 w/ extended 9-cell 8:45 w/ extended 9-cell
Wireless Card Intel Advanced-N 6205 Intel Ultimate-N 6300
Weight 5.34 lbs. w/ 9-cell battery 7 lbs. w/ 9-cell battery
Thickness 1.2 in. 1.06~1.28 in.
Ports DisplayPort, memory card reader, Ethernet, VGA, ExpressCard, 3x USB 2.0, eSATA, mini-Firewire HDMI, memory card reader, Ethernet, VGA, SmartCard, ExpressCard, 4x USB 2.0, eSATA

Items highlighted in red indicate which notebook has the advantage. Please see the full reviews for each of these notebooks:

Design and Build Quality
While the purpose of business notebooks isn’t to look good on a display shelf, I’ve yet to see anyone complain about a good-looking design. ThinkPads look generally the same as they have looked since they were introduced about 20 years ago. The Dell Latitude line has evolved quite a bit however; this latest-generation E6420 has a classy design with a contrasting color scheme. Another plus for the Dell is its all-metal exterior; the ThinkPad’s exterior is all plastic. The ThinkPad has just as much structural integrity though thanks to its internal metal support structure. Nonetheless the edge goes to Dell.

Both notebooks come standard with a lowly 720p resolution however our T420 has the upgraded 1600×900 resolution (900p), which has about one-third more space than 720p. This equates to a lot more working room and the ability to use two windows side-by-side. Additionally the 900p display is noticeably more colorful than and not as cold as the Dell’s 720p display. The T420 wins this round as configured but in reality it’s a tie since both notebooks can be configured the same.

Keyboard and Touchpad
I like the light and accurate feel of the E6420’s new keyboard; despite this the ThinkPad’s still has the edge in tactile feedback. Additionally the T420 has a better layout; the delete, home, end, pgup, and pgdn keys are nicely arranged in a square at the upper right. The E6420 has an ace up its sleeve – it has available keyboard backlighting and the T420 doesn’t (it still uses the functional ThinkLight above the keyboard however). Despite the lack of backlighting the edge here goes to the T420.

The touchpad is another area of contention; the touchpads themselves are both excellent but the ThinkPad’s pointing stick is has a more familiar feel and is more accurate. Again the edge overall goes to the T420.

Weight and Battery Life
The T400 series ThinkPad has always weighed within a few tenths; the T420 comes in at a rather light 5.34 pounds with the extended 9-cell and manages almost 10 hours of life. The E6420 is much heavier at seven pounds and has an hour less battery life with its extended 9-cell.

Generally these aren’t a concern on a business notebook but the T420’s speakers are utterly weak and the E6420’s are positively amazing (for a notebook); they sound full and get loud enough to fill a small room.

Other Differences
The T420 and E6420 are evenly matched aside from the items we’ve discussed thus far. There are some differences with the included ports: the E6420 has HDMI and a SmartCard reader whereas the T420 has DisplayPort and mini-Firewire. Their overall performance is comparable; both include dual-core Intel i5 processors, 4GB of RAM, and 7200RPM hard drives.

The Winner?
The Lenovo ThinkPad T420 takes home the trophy. The keyboard and touchpad are ever so slightly better; it weighs a lot less (5.34 lbs. vs. 7 lbs.), gets an hour more battery life and still comes in slightly cheaper. Having said that, I personally wouldn’t have a problem using either notebook on a daily basis.

The price of these notebooks will vary depending on many factors including the time of year and available coupons. Also don’t forget to check out the companies’ outlet stores for refurb and restocked units; these notebooks can often be had for several hundred less than retail. Go for whatever one costs less but if it’s too close to call, we’d go with the ThinkPad T420.



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