Dell Latitude D420 with Core Duo and Windows Vista Review

by lixuelai Reads (123,367)

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The Dell Latitude D420 is the smallest notebook currently offered by Dell. It is a fusion of the discontinued Dell Latitude D410 and X1. It combines notable traits from both and offers great portability, power and versatility. Starting at $1199 it also offers great value featuring an Intel Core Duo ULV processor, 12.1in widescreen LCD, ExpressCard slot, a host of wireless options, and great battery life.

Specifications of the D420 Reviewed:

  • Processor: Intel Core Duo U2500 ULV 1.2GHz
  • LCD: 12.1in WXGA (1280 x 800) Matte
  • Graphics: Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950, up to 224mb shared.
  • Memory: 1GB DDR2-4200. 512MB soldered onto motherboard
  • Hard drive: 60GB 4200RPM Toshiba 1.8′
  • Wireless: Intel 3945ABG
  • Optical: External D-Bay 24x CD-RW/DVD Combo
  • Dock: MediaBase with 24x CD-RW/DVD Combo
  • OS: Windows XP Professional SP2
  • Input: Full-size keyboard with touchpad and pointing stick
  • Battery: 6-Cell with ExpressCharge
  • AC: 65W AC Adaptor
  • Dimensions: 11.63"x8.27"x1.00"

Reasons for buying:

As a college student portability is extremely important to me. I purchased a Dell Latitude X1 in March 2006 with the intention of carrying it around frequently. The X1 was a great notebook that is extremely light and small. However, the 1.1GHz Pentium M ULV felt sluggish at best. This was especially apparent when multitasking. The X1 just could not handle the load of many programs running at once.

Another major factor was heat. While the D420 is no where near perfect in this area, the X1 was a lot worse. The fan-less design is great for quietness. However, after using the notebook for a period of time the keyboard will get uncomfortably warm. This was very annoying when a cooling pad is not available. Furthermore, the heat caused a number of malfunctions on the notebook. Needless to say the D420 with a small fan is a great improvement.

Besides the D420 I considered the Lenovo Thinkpad X60. While the quality of the X60 is undoubtedly better, I could not justify the price of the X60.

Where and How Purchased

The D420 was purchased from Dell Outlet. I have been a great fan of Dell Outlet as it offers much lower prices on basically new items. Many of the refurbished laptops were never used or returned under the 21-day return policy. They carry the same warranty as new and do not take forever to build. The major downside is the lack of customization but with so many available one can easily find the perfect match. I purchased this laptop on 12/9/06 and received it on 12/15/06. Overall the experience was excellent. So far I haven’t been able to find a single defect.

Design and Build

The build quality of the Dell D420 is great overall. It feels very solid and the steel hinges are very tight though not as tight as the X1′s. The magnesium alloy casing felt rigid and when pushing the back of the LCD it did not cause LCD distortion. Unlike the X1 which uses the hinges to keep the LCD shut the D420 goes back to the more common latch design.

Another major change was the placement of the battery. On the X1 it was placed to the back of the notebook. This offered a number of advantages. When using the extended 6 cell battery the battery protrudes a little and can be used as a grasp for holding the notebook with one hand. On the D420 the battery is placed in the front. The 9 cell battery sticks out a bit. Unlike the X1 battery the D420 battery does not serve a secondary function. There are some benefits however. I for one like to have my ports in the back and the front placement of the battery enable you to open the LCD with one hand which was very hard to do on the X1.

Aesthetically the D420 is a smaller version of the current line of Dell Latitudes. I prefer the darker, more business-like feel to this laptop however it is nothing to write home about. An interesting difference between the X1 and D420 lie in the placement of the power, hard drive and battery indicators. On the X1 they were placed at the bottom of the palm rest. When the LCD was closed the LED were hidden which was rather inconvenient. On the D420 the indicators are on the right hinge which is a small but definite plus.

Size comparison:


Lenovo N100 vs D420 (view large image)


D420 vs X1 (view large image)


D420 vs Toshiba Port g R100 (view large image)


D420, X1, R100 stacked (view large image)


Above view of D420, X1, R100 stacked (view large image)

Performance:

Even without benchmarks the performance difference was obvious compared to the X1. The D420 runs everything I throw at it fine including some light gaming. The Core Duo U2500 at 1.2GHz processor is very fast for its clockspeed. In fact, it is comparable if not faster than the Pentium M 2GHz in my Inspiron 710m for everyday computing. I can easily run a virus scan and watch a HD movie (720p) at the same time. The other two options for processor are the Core Duo U2400 at 1.06GHz and the Core Solo U1300 at 1.06GHz. The U2400 is a sweet spot for those looking to have a Core Duo system yet also wants the lowest power usage and heat output.

Memory is extremely important in today’s computing. The D420 offers up to 2GB of DDR2-4200 (533mhz). This, however, is an extremely expensive option. 2GB is achieved by using a 2GB stick in addition to the 512MB soldered onto the motherboard. Due to motherboard limitation only 2GB instead of 2.5GB is addressable. A more realistic upgrade is 1.5GB of RAM. This is highly recommended for running this system under Windows Vista due to the integrated GMA950. 1.5GB will cost an extra of around $90 if upgraded aftermarket which is a very reasonable price.

The D420 uses Toshiba’s 1.8′ hard drives. The spindle speed is 4200rpm. While this is rather slow it is not a huge drag on the system. Hard drive capacities come in 30GB, 60GB, and 80GB. 100GB may be an option soon.

In terms of optical drives the D420 is very similar to the X1. It features no internal optical option but does provide an external D-Bay. To some the lack of an internal optical drive is a deal breaker, however it lowers the weight and size of the system significantly. For important discs I use imaging software to copy it onto the hard drive as an ISO. This way I can access these discs even if I don’t have the D-Bay on hand. The MediaBase also has an optical drive and with the D-Bay the D420 can be turned into a 3 spindle system.

Benchmarks

SuperPi

*note SuperPi is single threaded

Notebook Time
Dell Latitude D420 (Core Duo ULV 1.2GHz) 1m 57s
Dell Latitude D420 (Core Solo ULV 1.06GHz) 2m 11s
Dell Latitude X1 (1.1 GHz ULV Pentium M) 2m 40s
Dell Latitude D410 (2.00 GHz Pentium M) 1m 36s
Lenovo ThinkPad X60s (1.66 GHz LV Core Duo) 1m 23s
Dell Inspiron 710M (1.70GHz Pentium M) 2m 04s
Fujitsu LifeBook P7120 (1.2 GHz ULV Pentium M) 2m 32s
Dell XPS M1210 (2.00GHz Core 2 Duo T7200) 1m 02s

 

PcMark05

PcMark05 Dell D420 (1.06GHz Core Solo) Dell D420 (1.2GHz Core Duo)
HDD — XP Startup 4.42 MB/s 4.43 MB/s
Physics and 3D 39.98 FPS 49.2 FPS
Transparent Windows 137.27 Windows / s 135.68 Windows/s
3D — Pixel Shader 8.51 FPS 8.42 FPS
Web Page Rendering 1.05 Pages/s 1.6 Pages/s
File Decryption 23.08 MB/s 29.77 MB/s
Graphics Memory — 64 Lines 270.88 FPS 299.68 FPS
HDD — General Usage 2.66 MB/s 2.67 MB/s
Multithreaded Test 1 / Audio Compression - 1162.47 KB/s
Multithreaded Test 1 / Video Encoding - 180.86 KB/s
Multithreaded Test 2 / Text Edit 27.19 Pages/s 54.39 Pages/s
Multithreaded Test 2 / Image Decompression 5.54 MPixels/s 14.14 MPixels/s
Multithreaded Test 3 / File Compression 1.12 MB/s 2.68 MB/s
Multithreaded Test 3 / File Encryption 6.09 MB/s 14.33 MB/s
Multithreaded Test 3 / HDD — Virus Scan 3.98 MB/s 11.16 MB/s
Multithreaded Test 3 / Memory Latency — Random 16 MB   5.61 MAccesses/s 6.12 MAccesses/s

 

HD Tune Hard Drive Results

Minimum 2.5 MB/sec
Maximum 21.2 MB/sec
Average 16.7 MB/sec
Access Time 19.6ms
Burst Rate 61.8 MB/sec
CPU Usage 3.0%

 

Keyboard and Touchpad:


D420 keyboard (view large image)

The D420 features a full size keyboard. The feel of the keyboard is great. There is no flex and the key travel is great. However compared to a Lenovo N100 keyboard the Lenovo keyboard is still superior. The touchpad is good and the pointing stick a nice bonus. I would have liked to have a firmer pointing stick.


(view large image)

Connectivity and Docking:

Compared to the X1 the D420 has an extra USB port, an infrared port, and PCMCIA slot. The built-in CompactFlash reader that’s featured on the X1 is missing on the D420.

 


Dell D420 left side (view large image)


Dell D420 right side (view large image)


Dell Latitude D420 back side (view large image)

 


Dell D420 in media base right side view (view large image)


Dell D420 in media base left side (view large image)


Dell D420 in media base back view (view large image)

The MediaBase is great for using this laptop at home or office as a desktop replacement. It has DVI, VGA, 4 USB ports (1 also serves as the D-Bay port), Parallel, Serial and an optical drive. The docking process is simple. You pull a lever for the notebook to be popped off the base and then pull the notebook out. To dock simply align the notebook and press downwards.

Screen:

The Samsung screen on the D420 is great and noticeably better than the screen on the X1. It features a matte finish and offers good brightness and contrast. There is some light leakage however it is generally unnoticeable. The built in brightness sensor is a nice novelty but hardly useful. In general the screen is adequate for the purpose of the notebook.


D420 vs Lenovo N100 vs Acer 3000 (view large image)

Speakers and Microphones:

D420 Speaker and microphone

Like the X1, the D420 only has one speaker. The speaker is located at the top left of the keyboard. The sound, while not horrible, lacks bass. This is a problem in nearly all notebooks. For system sounds and some casual music it is adequate though headphones are strongly suggested. The sound device in the D420 is Sigmatel STAC HD Audio. It provides decent sound through headphones. For better sound quality an Audigy 2 ZS soundcard can be plugged into the PCMCIA slot and will offer superior audio experience.

The D420 features a small microphone about an inch below the speakers. It is very useful for chatting over Skype or similar services. Because of the closeness of the microphone to the speaker, reverberation can be heard in conversations. However this can be dealt with by changing the microphone sensitivity and speaker volume (or by wearing a headphone).

Communications:

The D420 came equipped with Intel 3945ABG WiFi Card, Dell 350 Bluetooth and built-in IrDA. There are options for mobile broadband solutions via an empty mini-pci express slot. The Intel 3945ABG is adequate for most users however frequent travelers who use WiFi extensively may opt to upgrade to an Atheros AR5006EX WiFi card.

A WiFi finder is built into the notebook. It is a nifty feature for finding WiFi hotspots while the computer is off.

Heat and Noise:

Unlike the X1 which is dead silent, the D420 is rather loud. In a quiet room the fan is noticeable at medium speed. However it is no where close to being an annoyance. I can work comfortably in the library with the fan on max without being a disturbance. What is an annoyance is the placement of the vent. The vent blows hot air directly at the hands of a right handed user which becomes uncomfortable rather quickly. When the notebook is doing intensive work, the right side of the notebook gets much hotter than the left. However, it is a lot better than the X1 even though the Pentium M ULV on the X1 ran a lot cooler. I tested the temperature of the CPU under load with CoreTemp and it topped out at nearly 90C while the highest the X1 got was around 70C. Still, working on the D420 is a lot more comfortable over an extended amount of time than on the X1.

A problem I encountered with the Intel Core Duo processor is the poor underclocking. The lowest that the voltage can go is .925v while the Pentium M ULV can go as low as .725v. It appears to be a limit set by Intel rather than how much the CPU can actually be underclocked.

Battery:

The battery life with a 6 cell battery is good. I average around 3 hours which is more than enough to get me through the day. With the 9 cell battery life should be around 5 hours. While this is adequate for my needs, the X1 offered superior battery life. With a 6 cell battery and underclocking, the X1 managed nearly 5 hours. However the dual core processor and other performance enhancements more than justify the loss in battery life.

The charger included with the D420 is small though larger than the one that came the X1. There are options for either a 65w or 90w charger. The 90w charger should offer faster charging time though the 65w that came with my D420 worked quite well. Furthermore the MediaBase comes with its own charger. This allows you to keep one charger with you while leaving the other hooked up to the MediaBase at all times.

Dell D420 with Windows Vista:


Dell D420 running Vista (view large image)

Finally I thought I would share my experience upgrading my D420 to Vista. I obtained a copy of Windows Vista Business from my college and installed it. The installation with the D420 was exceptionally smooth. ALL the hardware was detected and correctly installed. In fact, the only software to get the notebook as I wanted was Dell Quickset. I had some problems getting the Quickset to work until I found a version of Quickset for Vista on Dell Support.

I had some worries on how well the D420 would handle Vista and the higher hardware requirements which were quickly dispelled. Aero Glass is enabled by default and works great on 1GB of RAM. I did find that the 30GB hard drive would be insufficient for Vista. The 60GB is adequate for system and program files. Overall upgrading from XP to Vista cannot be easier and the D420 runs very well under Vista.

*A note to those who are looking to benefit from Vista’s ReadyBoost. In order for this to work the BIOS setting on the internal USB hub has to be set to High Speed (USB 2.0).

Conclusion:

The Dell Latitude D420 is a great notebook for those who want an ultraportable design without sacrificing computing power. The build quality of this notebook is excellent and the price very competitive. Despite some design flaws, notably the location of the vent and the useless brightness sensor, this notebook excels in its primary function as a business ultraportable. Compared to its predecessor the Dell Latitude X1, the D420 is a great upgrade that will be all ready to handle the demands of newer software and Windows Vista.

Pros:

  • Fast
  • Light weight at 3.0lbs with 4cell battery and 3.2lbs with 6cell
  • Good battery life
  • Widescreen matte LCD
  • Lots of wireless options
  • Excellent MediaBase and compatible with Latitude Docks

Cons:

  • Runs hot
  • A bit noisy with fan running at max
  • Slow 4200rpm HDD
  • Placement of vent on right side of notebook
  • No internal optical drive

 


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