Dell Latitude D820 with Core 2 Duo Review

by rbdesign Reads (98,588)

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by Martin Rochon-Brazeau, Canada

Introduction

The professional look of the Latitude D820, paired with a workstation class video card, is reason enough for Dell to call it a business notebook. While I agree that it would be a great tool for a business, the D820 could also be an excellent notebook for a student looking for performance, ease of use and occasional gaming. If equipped with the Quadro NVS video card, it can be quite useful for a business application such as AutoCAD, but can also provide the user with extra power for gaming breaks. A great desktop replacement with long battery life, but not a back breaker either.

The Dell Latitude D820 also comes with a standard 3 year warranty. Great for business, but once again quite useful for that student on a tight budget who cannot afford to spend extra money down the road to fix his learning tool. The only downside of this particular model is the price. This is where the business budget and tax returns come into play. If you’re a student and your budget is limited, a different model would probably be a better choice for you.

I will try to review this laptop as objectively as possible, but as with all reviewers, I might get a bit biased here and there. My opinion might differ greatly from seasoned notebook reviewers since this is my first portable, but I’ll do my best!

This is my configuration:

  • Intel Core 2 Duo T7200 (2GHz) 667Mhz Dual Core
  • Genuine Windows XP Home Edition, SP2, with Media
  • 15.4 inch Wide Screen WUXGA LCD Panel
  • 2.0GB, DDR2-533 SDRAM, 2 DIMMS
  • 512MB NVIDIA Quadro NVS 120M TurboCache (meaning 256MB on board and 256MB shared with the ram)
  • 80GB Hard Drive, 9.5mm, 7200RPM
  • 24X CD-ROM Drive
  • Dell Wireless 1390 802.11g Mini Card
  • 9 Cell Primary Battery
  • 6 Cell Media Bay Battery
  • 3 Years next business day onsite Support

My laptop in all it’s glory.


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Not too many accessories here. The OS installation CD, the drivers CD, Power adapter and Media Bay battery.


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Reason for Buying

I have been looking at buying a laptop for quite some time now. My search for the best possible laptop for my needs started about a year ago when I realized I could use a portable to bring to class. As a full time worker and part time student, a laptop could be useful for work and also to take notes when I’m at the university. Since my handwriting is quite deplorable, I realized that I would need this machine sooner rather than later. The first laptop that really caught my eye was the Acer Travelmate 8200. It had a powerful processor, a great video card and decent battery life. I was just about ready to buy this model, when I realized I should spend my money on my upcoming wedding rather than on something I didn’t really need at the time. I resumed my search shortly before the wedding and heard from various channels that the new Core 2 Duo was just about to come out in laptops. The TM8200 was equipped with the Core Duo, but not Core 2 Duo and at that point, I also started to adjust my requirements. I was starting to wonder if a great video card was all that important. It’s nice to be able to play games on the go, but when would I be doing this anyway? I would either be in class or at work with the laptop. None of these situations are conductive to a great gaming session. So instead of buying a machine that would play the very latest games at decent frame rates, I went for a machine that could stay unplugged for as many hours as possible.

This is when I started looking at the Dell Latitude D820. I read reports that it could last a good 5 hours with a 9 cell battery and that you could also configure it with an extra media bay battery. I was sold! I figured that if you could get close to 5 hours of unplugged time with a 9 cell, the extra 6 cell might add a couple of hours (at least) to this. I was hoping for at least 6 hours of battery life since I’ll be taking two back to back 3 hours university classes in January and I didn’t like the thought of the laptop dying halfway through a lecture.

It’s important to note that there are also other options for extra long battery life, such as a laptop with no dedicated video card, smaller screen, etc. All of these options might be attractive to other consumers, but since I’m a gamer at heart, I needed a machine that could be used for at least a little on the side gaming.

I also considered buying a laptop that would offer 3 to 3.5 hours of battery life and then buying an extra battery, but after reading about long term battery life, I gave up on this idea. I didn’t want to invest my money on extra batteries and have them die after a few months because I only ended up using only one most of the time and didn’t store the other one properly. I also didn’t want to carry too many accessories with my laptop and didn’t want the trouble of changing batteries all the time.

When and Where I shopped

I decided to buy my D820 directly from Dell Canada. The thought of getting a Dell laptop from another store wasn’t very attractive to me. Why deal with a secondary merchant when you can get the goods straight from the source? I had also heard that calling, instead of buying online, could get you a better price. I called a Dell representative on October 27th, 3 days before my birthday, and started configuring my machine.

I was quite pleased by the whole experience. I was expecting the rep to be quite pushy, trying to sell me all kinds of things I don’t really need, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. He was suggesting upgrades here and there, but because I had a specific configuration in mind, he quickly realized that I wouldn’t go for anything else than what was on my list. At one point, I said something that confused the poor man to no end. He didn’t know what to say next or how to get out of the situation. Let me explain. Dell had a business sale that week; you could buy a 1GB stick of RAM for 119$. The D820 I was configuring came with a "free" upgrade to 1GB of RAM. If you upgraded to 2GB or RAM through the configurator, it would cost you 250$. Quite ridiculous. I asked the representative if the free 1GB upgrade was on two DIMMS or only 1. He said two, so I asked how much it would be to have it on only 1 DIMM. It would cost 90$. So if you add the 90$ to have only 1GB on 1 DIMM and then bought the extra 1GB with the sale they had at the time (119$), it would cost you 209$. This price is lower than the 250$ it would cost you to have 2GB through the configurator. I explained this to the Dell employee, told him that if he lowered the price of the upgrade to 2GB to only 209$ (40 dollars less) I would upgrade right away with him. Otherwise, I would just buy the extra stick on my own and save 40$. He just couldn’t understand what I meant. He ended up telling me that he would put the 250$ 2GB upgrade in and then go ask his manager if they could do something for me. They ended up giving me an extra 95$ off the total price of the sale, which is more than my 40$, so I was happy with that decision.

Before we closed the deal, I asked the rep about the Vista upgrade program. He mentioned that with windows XP Home, the only way I could upgrade was to wait until the OS came out and then call Dell Tech Support. They would then sell me an upgrade for a fixed price, lower than the street price. If I were to upgrade to XP Pro, for only too much money, I could get a free upgrade to Windows Vista when it came out. I decided to pass on this "free" upgrade.

I also inquired about a price matching policy. My question was "if the price of the exact same model goes down next week or in so many weeks, can I get a refund of the difference". That’s when the Dell representative started laughing. He told me that "it would never, ever happen. This is one thing that Dell Canada will never do". A bit weird coming from a Dell employee; I was expecting a very serious "no", but ended up getting a "are you well?" answer. At least I tried!

The total cost, after the 95$ rebate, was 2233.00$ canadian plus shipping and tax. Shipping was 125$ to my location and tax was the standard 15% that we Canadians have to pay. The price was a bit more than what I was prepared to pay, but considering I get a 3 year next day on site warranty, I feel it was worth it.

Build, Design and Screen

The laptop looks very professional: Silver case with black accents and the "inside" is all black with silver accents. No out of place colors or weird lights that serve no particular purpose. I’m quite pleased with the overall appearance. The last thing I want when I boot up my laptop is a seizure inducing light show.

The screen is very crisp and doesn’t reflect light very well. The 1920X1200 resolution is a bit on the high side, but after setting the DPI to 144 and using big icons, I can see things quite clearly. Even at 120 DPI, the text the text is very easy to read. I can’t find any flaws to the screen itself, but I haven’t looked very hard. Since this is my first laptop, I can’t compare this one to past experiences, but the overall feeling is that this is a super screen. My 19 inch CRT monitor or even my 17in LCD at work can’t compare with this one. The brightness level is adjustable from 1 to 8, 1 being the lowest, still readable under normal light conditions but a bit dim, and 8 being the brightest setting. At this level, the screen is very bright and can be read very easily. I had no dead pixels and no other problems with this screen.

There is however very minimal light leakage at the bottom of the screen. This can be observed when the screen is completely black and in the dark. Since I rarely stare at a black screen, this is not an issue for me. Purists might find it annoying though so I have attached the best picture I could take of the phenomenon. You’ll notice the light leakage with the regular lighting on. For some reason the screen is all blue, even though the background was pure black when I took the pictures. There’s also what appears to be a dead pixel, but I can’t see this at all with regular use. Maybe my camera has a dead spot. The second picture shows the light leakage in the dark. You’ll note that it’s much more pronounced in the picture than in reality. I can barely see the light coming out the bottom of the screen.

Minimal light leakage (enhanced by camera)


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Minimal light leakage in the dark (also enhanced by camera)


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Sound and Speakers

I tried a few games and used the internal laptop speakers and the sound was quite good. Music also sounds ok, but again, it can’t be compared to a good pair of headphones or even decent desktop speakers. I mostly use this without sound or with headphones at the moment, so this is not a big issue. The sound can be quite loud, but this could be improved. Unless someone can suggest actual tests to perform, I’m not sure what else to add about this. Simply put, the speakers are satisfactory for normal office use and headphones are, in my opinion, a necessity for gaming.

Processor and Performance

I used Super Pi to see if my brand new Core 2 Duo was performing up to my expections. The results are below, as well as a comparison with other similarly clocked processors/laptop.

Notebook Time
Dell Latitude D820 (2.0GHz Core 2 Duo) 1m 02s
Asus V6J (2.16GHz Core 2 Duo) 53s
Dell Inspiron e1705 (2.0GHz Core 2 Duo) 1m 02s
Lenovo ThinkPad T60 (2.0GHz Core Duo) 1m 18s
Toshiba A100 (2.0GHz Core Duo) 1m 18s
Samsung X60 (1.66GHz Core Duo) 1m 29s
Sony VAIO FS680 (1.86GHz Pentium M) 1m 53s
IBM ThinkPad T43 (1.86GHz Pentium M) 1m 45s
HP dv5000z (2.0GHz Sempron 3300+) 2m 02s

 

The hard drive is very responsive and copy tests have shown quite fast. I have also included results from HDTune. The hard drive seems very responsive and copying files is quite fast. Access times are also very good and the computer takes less than a minute to boot up.


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I also ran a PCMark benchmark in order to compare my Latitude D820 to other notebooks.


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Comparison table for PCMark05.

Notebook PCMark05 Score
Dell Latitude D820 (2.0GHz Core 2 Duo, 512MB NVIDIA Quadro NVS) 3,895 PCMarks
Fujitsu LifeBook A6010 (1.66GHz Core 2 Duo, Intel GMA 950) 2,994 PCMarks
Fujitsu N6410 (1.66GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400) 3,487 PCMarks
Alienware M7700 (AMD Athlon FX-60, Nvidia Go 7800GTX) 5,597 PCMarks
Sony Vaio SZ-110B in Speed Mode (Using Nvidia GeForce Go 7400) 3,637 PCMarks
Toshiba Tecra M6 (1.66GHz Intel T2300E, Intel GMA 950) 2,732 PCMarks
Asus V6J (1.86GHz Core Duo T2400, Nvidia Go 7400) 3,646 PCMarks
Sony VAIO FE590 (1.83GHz Core Duo) 3,427 PCMarks

 

Video Benchmarks and Gaming

Although video benchmarking software such as 3DMark05 and 06 can give you an idea of the gaming capabilities of a notebook (or any pc for that matter), I’m a strong believer that real game tests are better suited to tell you how well a particular machine performs at the all important task of gaming.

I ran 3DMark05 and 06 as I was quite curious at how well the NVIDIA Quadro NVS 120M would perform. Here are the results.


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3DMark05 Comparison Results:

Notebook 3D Mark 05 Results
Dell Latitude D820 (2.0GHz Core 2 Duo, 512MB NVIDIA Quadro NVS) 1,919 3D Marks
Dell Inspiron e1705 (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400) 1,791 3D Marks
Acer TravelMate 8204WLMi (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1600 256MB) 4,236 3DMarks
Alienware Aurora M-7700(AMD Dual Core FX-60, ATI X1600 256MB) 7,078 3D Marks
Lenovo ThinkPad T60 (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400 128MB) 2,092 3D Marks
Asus V6Va (2.13 GHz Pentium M, ATI x700 128 MB) 2,530 3D Marks
Fujitsu n6410 (1.66 GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400 128MB) 2,273 3DMarks
HP Pavilion dv4000 (1.86 GHz Pentium M, ATI X700 128MB) 2,536 3D Marks
Dell XPS M1210 (2.16 GHz Core Duo, nVidia Go 7400 256MB) 2,090 3D Marks

As you see, this is no high end video card, but it should perform quite well with older games. Since I like to push my computers to their limit, I tried a few new games in order to gauge how well (or bad) they would run on my new notebook.

Oblivion

This game runs quite well at 720X480 with detail levels set at medium. Outside, my FPS vary from low 20s to high 30s and inside dungeons/house, it can go anywhere from 50 to 90 some. Your mileage will vary here depending what you’re doing, but the game is quite playable and enjoyable. Of course, it’s not as pretty as on a computer with a high end video card, but the point here is that yes, you can play oblivion if you absolutely need to play then and there.


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Prey

This is a game that I enjoy quite a lot, but haven’t gotten around to completing yet. I started the game and did a quick run of the beginning. Frame rates varied from the low 20s to high 30 again, but I would have to say it stays pretty close to 30 most of the time with spikes here and there. I played at 1024×768 resolution with medium detail settings.


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Dark Messiah of Might and Magic

This one I’m quite fond of and I’m very happy to report that it plays very well on the D820. At 1280X800, with low shadows, medium GFX details, water reflect all, HDR off and everything else on High, I manage around 30-40FPS wherever I am.


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Heat and Noise

The notebook is extremely silent. There’s even an option in the bios to enable a "silent mode" for the hard drive. This means that even under stress, the laptop will do it’s best to remain as quiet as possible. This seems to be working extremely well; I have tested it with the option on and then off. When it was on, I couldn’t hear anything and when off, I could hear the occasional clicking of the hard drive when I was accessing it.

The keyboard is also very quiet. No loud typing sounds here. I find this very good since I’ll be typing my notes in class and the last thing I want is to disturb everybody in class.

I haven’t noted any heat issues with this particular model. It does get a little bit warm on the top left side, where the fan is (and probably the video card), but it’s nothing to be afraid of. The same can be said of the bottom of the notebook; it’s a bit warm to the touch after playing games, but I don’t think it would be uncomfortable if it were to be on your lap.

Keyboard and Touchpad

The keyboard looks like a standard desktop keyboard minus the number pad. I find the insert/home/delete keys to be in an acceptable spot, as well as all the other regular keys. It’s very quiet and the keys are regular sized. There is a bit of flex to the keyboard, if I push hard on it. It doesn’t bend at all with regular typing, but if you tend to push very hard on the keys to write, you might see it move a little.

I’m not a big fan of touchpad so I don’t have much to report on this. Simply put, it works. There’s also a pointing stick, but I’m more afraid of it than anything else. It’s in the middle of the keyboard, but doesn’t get in the way of typing. I’m guessing it can be very useful once you get used to it, but I always carry a mouse with me. Maybe someday I’ll be forced to use it. I certainly hope not, I love my mouse. There are 4 mouse type buttons, 2 on top and 2 at the bottom of the touchpad. They seem to be functioning as right/left mouse buttons should. They work, but I don’t use them at all.

There’s a volume control on the top of the keyboard that include a mute button. This can be useful when you don’t want to plug in your headphone and don’t want to hear those windows sounds. The power button is located right in the middle of the top part of the keyboard and it’s a bit bigger than the volume buttons. If you don’t look at what you’re doing, you might accidentally press on it while trying to mute the notebook, but since the button itself is curved inwards, you’ll probably recognize it as the power button and let go just in time.

Input and Output Ports

The latitude D820 has 4 USB 2.0 ports, 1 internal phone modem, 1 PC Card slot, 1 ExpressCard slot, 1 IrDA port, headphone and microphone jacks, a 1394 Firewire port, COM and VGA out port, Ethernet connection and power port to plug it in. Since I know nothing about the uses for a PC Card, ExpressCard or Firewire, I can just report that they are present. The USB ports are located in good spots; two on the right side and two on the back/right side. The Ethernet connection is also at the back/right side. On the left, you’ll find the PC and Express Card slots and the headphone and microphone jacks. I think the location of all these are pretty good, but I’m not sure if someone who uses all of these would also agree.

 


Right side of Latitude D820 (view large image)


Left side of Latitude D820 (view large image)


Back view of Latitude D820 (view large image)


Underside view of D820 (view large image)

Wireless

I selected a Dell Wireless 1390 802.11g Mini Card as my wireless card. I didn’t go for Bluetooth since I barely know what it is and none of the other gadgets I have use it anyway. I have tried to setup a wirelss network at home using only a desktop wireless card and this laptop, but failed miserably. The laptop did connect to the desktop once and it can see networks; when at work, I can see several networks floating around, but since it’s not nice to connect to other people’s network and since they’re secure, I couldn’t actually test a real connection.

Battery

Battery Eater Pro was used to figure out approximately how long the battery would last. Since the theoretical value I came up with is over 7 hours, I didn’t want to test it out by writing notes for 7 hours straight. Not only would I get bored, but my wife would probably not like it either. Battery Eater Pro managed to eat away my 9-cell battery and 6-cell media bay battery’s power in only 3:03. This was with WiFi on, screen at maximum brightness and an optical mouse plugged in. I disabled all power saving features, turned off the screensaver and let it do it’s thing. I’m quite surprised in only lasted 3 hours, but this number is supposed to be the absolute lowest amount of time the batteries will last.

Under normal usage, with power saving features on, low screen brightness and settings at max battery, my battery meter reports that I still have a little over 7 hours of battery life. I guess we’ll see if this is true when I get to sit in a class for 6 hours in January. Until then, I can only assume that Battery Eater Pro really eats away the batteries like there’s no tomorrow. A minimum of 3 hours is pretty good in my books, especially considering most notebooks these days have a maximum of 3 hours.

Operating System and Software

The system came with Windows XP SP2 installed and other so called "goodies". The extra installed software included google desktop and toolbar, McAfee antivirus and protection suite (trial), and several useful Dell utilities. I ran the benchmarks before and after I removed all of those extra goodies. What I reported in this review are the "before" benchmarks. I thought that by removing some of the 59 processes at start-up, I could obtain a significant speed increase and some higher benchmarks. While reducing the running processes to 31 at start-up did produce some higher numbers, the difference is not that great. I managed maybe 50 points extra in 3dmark05 and close to 50 points in PCMark05. The Super Pi test was the same and the gaming benchmarks were also similar.

I did however get rid of McAfee asking me every 2min if I want to really use this program. I was starting to wonder if that software was written for people who just like to randomly click on everything, not paying attention to what they are doing. First you’re assaulted by the registration window, then you open up a program and it asks you if you really want to run it, then it tells you that you should really upgrade to another version. Quite annoying. Bye bye McAfee!

While the extra software can’t be considered bad (it could prove useful to non-power users), it would be better if it were not included in my opinion. It doesn’t slow down the computer all that much, as per benchmark results, but it goes slow it down a little. A little loss of performance is big in my world and that’s not acceptable.

Customer Support

I can’t say I had to use customer support for technical issues with the notebook. I guess that’s a good thing since you don’t want to buy a machine such as this and have to call them right away because you’re having problems with it. Hopefully I’ll never have to call them, but I’m pretty sure it will happen at some point. Let’s just hope it won’t be anytime soon.

Conclusion

I really like my Dell Latitude D820. It performs like I was expecting, the battery life is excellent with the additional 6-cell media bay battery and it’s gaming power is close to what I was hoping for. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this model to any professional looking for a solid system for work related task or to students looking for a good machine that can game a bit on the side.

Pros

  • Very fast and responsive system
  • Can do light gaming
  • Silent across the board
  • Beautiful screen with good resolution
  • Extra long battery life

Cons

  • A bit expensive
  • Could use better dedicated video card
  • RAM upgrade options through Dell overpriced.


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