Dell Latitude D830 User Review

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by Michael Arcilla

Overview and Introduction

This is a review of the Santa Rosa refresh Dell Latitude D830. First, let’s start with a little background of Dell’s Latitude series.

The Latitude series of laptops is part of Dell’s business line. As business machines, they are more focused on reliability, durability and subtlety (whereas the more consumer-oriented Inspirons tout more powerful media-centric features such as a high-end discrete graphics solution, dedicated media keys, more attractive price points, etc.).

Other series in this lineup include the Precision series (high-powered mobile workstations aimed mostly at high-end graphics professionals, particularly those with the need for 3D rendering) and the newly-released economy-class Vostro series, introduced to replace the now long-in-the-tooth business Inspirons. The Latitude sits squarely in the middle of both lines, providing a balance between high performance and price.

The Latitude comes in a wide variety of flavours, but for most people the choice really lies between the 14.1” 630, and the 830 which is the larger, 15.4” model. This model comes in as a desktop replacement, as its weight isn’t suited to lugging all around town.

The configuration I ended up getting was:

  • 2.2GHz Core 2 Duo T7500, 800MHz FSB, 4MB L2 Cache
  • 2GB DDR2-667 SDRAM
  • 120GB 5400rpm SATA HDD
  • 8X DVD RW Dual Layer drive
  • 15.4” WUXGA screen
  • 256MB NVIDIA Quadro NVS 140M
  • Touchpad with integrated UPEK Fingerprint Reader
  • Intel 4965 WLAN (802.11a/g/n)
  • 9-cell battery
  • Dell Bluetooth 2.0 (EDR)
  • Windows Vista Ultimate with media
  • 4-Year Next-Business-Day Parts and Labor On-Site Response Gold Warranty
  • 4-Year Accidental Damage Warranty

I also opted for a few accessories:

  • Logitech VX Revolution Cordless Mouse
  • Belkin Travel Surge Protector
  • Extra 90W AC Adapter
  • Western Digital Passport 120GB Portable Hard Drive
  • Interlink Electronics Bluetooth Remote Control

My total cost came to around $2,700, inclusive of shipping and taxes. This was a little more than I was prepared to spend, but I’ll go into more detail later on.

Reasons for Buying:

The reason I needed NEEDED to buy a new laptop was because my last Windows PC, the Compaq Presario X1000, was in serious need for repair. The hinges and power button action were cracked badly, the hard drive was heating up obscenely and the battery held a charge just longer than it took to hard boil an egg. I was, however, impressed with the high quality of the screen, in particular the high WSXGA+ resolution and the computer’s overall performance. I still had the MacBook Pro, but I wasn’t willing to sacrifice both performance and precious hard drive space on running two operating systems and maintaining project and work files for both OS’ on that same tiny hard drive. I work in advertising and events, and my primary use for the system would be Office 2007 Professional, especially Excel (for my cost estimates and budget controls), Project (for project management, especially critical when running multiple promotions and events at the same time) and PowerPoint (for presentations to clients). As I tend to take on other roles when needed, my computer had to be capable of handling Adobe CS3 (for rendering stage designs, advertising collaterals and other items), Premiere (for Audio-Visual Presentations)

I knew then that I would settle for no less than a 15.4” widescreen laptop with at least WSXGA+ or better resolution – preferring to move up to WUXGA. The system also had to be powerful enough to handle the load of specific software I needed to do my job without buckling or slowing down. Finally, my experience with the X1000’s flimsy plastic parts led me to look for a solid and durable, if not rugged build.

I was initially looking at three manufacturers:

  • Dell (on the primary recommendation of my wife, whose experience with them was top-notch),
  • Lenovo (First-hand experience with IBM Thinkpads was overall a good experience, not to mention the generally high reputation they enjoy with many people), and
  • HP (due to the overall aesthetic appeal and excellent after-sales service here in the Philippines.

On top of these three, I was also reviewing Asus’ latest laptops – in particular the G1. I wasn’t too sold on the look and feel of the current Toshibas, and I certainly didn’t like the “cheap” feeling I got with Acers.

The refresh came just in time for my purchase, actually. I was originally planning to get the Inspiron E1505 based on a recommendation from a friend, who has been a Dell user for a few years. Being from The Philippines (where Dell is neither a prevalent brand nor one with real significant retail market share), it was difficult for me to find and units to personally inspect. Ordinarily I would not have qualms with ordering a notebook I had never seen before, but I was getting worried with reviews of the E1505 being a bit on the chunky side. Thankfully, I found a reseller, CoolToyz, about an hour and a half from my house that would CTO various laptops and resell them in-store. When I found their website, I decided to drop by the store to check out the wide variety of laptops they had on sale. I was honestly not that impressed with the look and feel of the E1505, as it was bulky, felt a bit flimsy (especially the lid) and those white bumpers really rubbed me the wrong way. I had not considered the Latitude until I saw the D820 there, and I definitely liked its look and feel a lot more than the Inspiron, in spite of its subdued, very business-y appearance. Plus it felt like a tank (at least, compared to the 1505). With that experience, I decided the Dell laptop for me would be the Latitude series, in 15.4”.

Another unit they had in the store was the Lenovo Thinkpad Z61t. Now I loved the look and feel of this machine – almost enough to make me switch to the smaller screen size – but its relatively low resolution, lack of discrete graphics and ridiculously tiny touchpad turned me off. It was only when I read of the m and p variations did I start to take this series seriously.

Finally, there were the HP Pavillions in 15.4” and 17” models. Unfortunately, while I like the new look and styles of HP’s entire line of notebooks, their popularity made me reconsider. What good is a stylish notebook (assuming you buy it for that) if everyone and their grade school math teacher’s dog’s got it? Plus the lack of anything higher than WXGA+ on the majority of their notebooks made me scratch them off my list completely.

So that left me with only the Latitude and the Z61 Thinkpads to choose from.

Where and How Purchased:

I spoke to the official distributor and retailer of Lenovo Thinkpads in the country and discovered that, much to my dismay, my beloved Z61 series (all of them, the t, p and m) had been discontinued. While I was saddened at losing the prospect of owning my first ever Thinkpad (it was an lite class I had wanted to join, hahaha) I was also heartened at having my choices simplified for me. I had then initially thought of purchasing the D820 at the store. But bang for my buck didn’t add up, when a much better configuration could be had online for significantly less. Well, less if I discount the fact that I had to pay taxes, shipping and handling… and then have my cousin FedEx it all the way from New York to me here in Manila. It wasn’t too smart, once I factored in the taxes, intercontinental shipping, customs fees and, of course, customs bribes. Ah, graft and corruption.

Anyway, I was happy to hear that my cousin would be coming here for vacation in July – which gave me about two months to make up my mind and purchase the thing, taking building and shipping times into account.

And so began my obsessive quest to build my ideal workhorse. After fooling around with Dell’s online configurator for about three weeks, I was glad to hear that the D830’s would be given a Santa Rosa refresh – important to me as I wanted the improved battery life, and I wanted to future-proof it for at least three to four more years. Still, however, I held off on buying since there were still no options for discrete graphics. Finally, on the 15th of June, the new Latitudes received the nVidiaQuadros – in particular, the D830 got the NVS140m. I immediately picked up the phone and made an international phone call to place my order. Since I already knew exactly what I wanted, the call took all of twenty minutes. The CSR gave me multiple upgrades without my asking, such as the hard drive (I had asked for a 100GB), the Bluetooth card and the warranties (I had asked for 3-year business, he upgraded me to 4-year NBD with international coverage and Accidental Damage). All in all, it came to around 800 dollars more than I was willing to spend, but for the value I was getting (considering the relatively high price of components and accessories here in the Philippines) it was worth it. I also figured I was saving on international shipping so that gave me a bit more leeway.

I also told him that I was worried about the lead times on building and shipping as my cousin was set to leave in less than two weeks. He said he would try to expedite my case but could not promise anything. Amazingly, the accessories package arrived the following Tuesday, and the laptop package itself arrived two days later. Wow! All in under a week. That really blew me away.

Unfortunately, there was an error in the confirmation e-mail I received. The CSR had mistakenly added a Kensington Notebook Lock in my accessories order, and omitted the Interlink Electronics Bluetooth Expresscard Remote. I’ll address these issues later, under Customer Support.

Other than that, everything arrived as expected and in excellent time and quality. All I had to do now, was wait for my cousin to arrive… one week and counting…

Build & Design:

My wife and I picked up them up at the airport past midnight, and I could barely contain my excitement. We dropped them off at their house, and they came over the following morning. My package had finally arrived. Boy, was I giddy.

The first thing I did was open up the accessories package. Everything was there, as expected, including the notebook lock. In hindsight, I am glad for the mistake. I realize that there will be times I will have to leave my notebook attached to some projector or video system during an event, and the lock will only help me feel a bit more secure. But I digress.

Finally, after much personal and spiritual ceremony, I opened the laptop package. After wading through the two booklets, the 4 media (Vista Ultimate, Drivers and Diagnostics, McAfee Antivirus and Roxio Creator), and the two AC Adapters, I finally made it through to the laptop.

I was impressed with the weight build and feel of this computer – it just feels so much better when you hold it and you knowit’s yours. The body is constructed from a very sturdy magnesium alloy that is absolutely a wonder to hold. Bear in mind, however, that the LCD bezel and the frame of the keyboard area (the black border housing the speakers and keyboard) is plastic, and not magnesium. I’m not sure why they didn’t just construct the entire chassis in the alloy as I think it would have given a better feel to the whole thing. However, it feels very solid, and you get the immediate feeling that this baby is gonna last you a long while. I can attest to the fact that there is absolutely NO flex in the top casing, except when you grab both ends and twist it left and right. But even then, the flex did not affect the screen whatsoever. No ripples here, anywhere. The hinge action is superb, and I can easily open and close the system with one hand – the base does not lift when opening it.

It is, however, HEAVY. I thought I had grown used to the weight of my X1000, and thought I wouldn’t really get a heavier notebook unless I would move up to a 17”. But overall, the weight has not been that much of a problem for me since I’m already used to lugging close to 15 pounds of office stuff in my backpack.

Unfortunately, the build is not without its minor faults. First of all, there is a tiny gap between the lid and the base when the laptop is closed, giving about a millimetre and a half of wiggle when pressing the two together. Not too big a deal, except it spoiled what would have been an otherwise near-perfect build.

Second, the lid latch wiggles.

Here you can see it down…

…and then up, as I wiggled the catches.

And, as mentioned in the forums here, the Wi-Fi Catcher switch also has a bit of give. I was disappointed in these minor faults as I expected nothing but excellent construction and action from a business line.

The Wi-Fi Catcher down…

…and up.

As mentioned, the design is very understated and I was worried I was going to grow to hate its no-nonsense looks. Nothing has changed dramatically in the chassis and design from the previous D830 and 820 builds and it does not suffer for it. The charcoal-gray lid and base and the plain black inner frames seemed bland to me at first. What surprised me is that in the nearly two weeks since I’ve gotten it I’ve grown to like, if not love the overall look of it.

From the back.

Here is a series of size comparisons with my 15.4” MacBook Pro and Compaq Presario X1000.

From the left, D830, the MacBook Pro, and the X1000.

Taken from the left.

Back to back with the MBP

Face to face with the MBP again

The three systems stacked:

Stack Front

Stack Left

Stack Right

Stack Rear

One thing I nearly forgot to mention, and this is something I already posted in these forums. A few days after I received the notebook, I popped in LOTR: The Two Towers to watch before going to sleep. I had propped the notebook up on a stand on the edge of the bed, a comfortable viewing angle for my wife and I. Unfortunately, at some point in the movie I fell asleep. I know this, because I awoke to the sound of my laptop crashing the two and a half feet to the ground from the top of my bed. I was stupefied. I panicked, then slowly made my way to the edge of the bed, fearful of peering over to the floor.

When I finally did, I found the Latitude upright on its left side. I picked it up and found it without a scratch. The movie was finished and e-mail was still coming in.

Thank God for durability like this.

Build Features

Ambient Light Sensor

When I heard of the inclusion of an Ambient Light Sensor in the D830, I got excited. I thought to myself, “here is a good power-saving function that just happens to look pretty cool.” Unfortunately, in practice it doesn’t come off as impressive as the implementation found in the MacBook Pro. I found the shifting very subtle, almost indiscernibly so. And the ALS tends to err on the low side, meaning the brightness setting it chooses for the current environmental lighting conditions is usually one or two notches lower than I would have chosen. Even if you set the upper and lower limits in the ALS Preferences to higher values, the sensor adjustments are not relative values. Rather, they are absolute to the available light. This means that in the darkest conditions, it will still choose your lowest brightness preference. But in increasingly brighter conditions, it will choose a setting based on an absolute set of values relative to the lighting, and not relative to your settings.

Below are the lighting controls, activated with the key and the cursor keys:

Unfortunately, there is a command key here that is telling of Dell’s OEM tendencies.

 

At first I thought it had something to do with the keyboard, but upon inspecting the Quickset Program…

…I found no mention of the + right arrow key. Pressing this combination does absolutely nothing. Even in the Performance Monitor, this combination has no effect whatsoever on the CPU activity monitor. It turns out this key is used to activate the Dell equivalent of the “ThinkLight,” that is, a keyboard illumination lamp. Unfortunately, this feature is obviously not on the Latitude D830. Instead, it can be found only on the ATG model. I really wish they would use a different key set for their different models.

Ports

Now  let’s go over the various I/O ports. First up, the left side:

Here we can see the:

  • Steel Reinforced Notebook Lock Slot – the Lock Slot, designed for locks from Kensington and the like, has been reinforced with steel, making it more difficult to simply rip the lock off, gouging the plastic.
  • Air Vent – Warms up and blows fairly firmly when needed.
  • 1394 Firewire port – Primarily for high-speed data transfer from devices such as digital video cameras.
  • Microphone In – Self-explanatory, though I haven’t needed to use this at all.
  • Headphones Out – Sel-explanatory, output quality is surprisingly good.
  • Expresscard Slot – I don’t see any real use for this in the future, other than a storage / charging slot for my Interlink Electronics Bluetooth Remote
  • Wi-Fi Catcher toggle and Status Light – I love this feature. Primarily serves as physical toggle to turn the wireless card(s) on and off. It can be configured to control either the Wi-Fi card, the Bluetooth card, or both. The secondary function serves as a Wi-Fi scanner. When you push this switch to the right and hold it there, you can get four different feedback indications:
    • Solid Green: Unrestricted Access Point available
    • Flashing Green: Searching for AP networks
    • Solid Yellow: Restricted or Weak AP network found
    • Flashing Yellow: Error
    • No LED: No networks found
  • PC Card Slot (PCMCIA) – A legacy slot, at this point. I don’t see any future need for this for me, unless I can find a PCMCIA media card reader for SD/MMC and / or Compact Flash cards.
  • Smart Card Slot – Security measure, Smart Cards can be used in conjunction with passwords and / or the biometric scanner for enhanced security. These three can be used to lock down the BIOS, the Hard Drive, OS, or all three.

On the right side:

  • Media Bay – In my case, I opted for the DVD-RW optical drive. This can be replaced with a 6-cell battery or the floppy drive. All media bay devices are hot-swappable, meaning you can simply pull the existing one out and drop in another device without having to restart the Operating System.
  • Media Bay Release Switch – This is used to remove the media bay device. I will show later on how this is done.
  • 2 USB 2.0 Ports – Compatible with all USB 2.0 and 1.1 devices. I find it a bit annoying, however, how these ports are stacked too closely to each other. If you have a bulky flash drive plugged into one of these (or for that matter any USB connector slightly larger than the standard) you’ve effectively killed the use of the other one. Thankfully, there is one more USB port in the rear, but with some dongles larger than others, this may soon become an issue for me.

Rear Ports

  • Ethernet – Standard RJ-45 Ethernet Port.
  • S-Video Out – Primarily for TV-out. I would have liked HDMI or DVI instead of this, though.
  • Powered USB 2.0 Port – Compatible with all USB 2.0 and 1.1 devices, the additional connector here is available to power devices requiring more than 5V.
  • Modem – Standard RJ-11 Port.
  • Serial Port – Connects legacy serial devices such as older mice.
  • DB-15 (VGA) Port – Connects to VGA-compatible displays such as monitors and VGA-capable TVs.
  • AC Power – Port for the AC Adapter, to power the laptop and charge the battery/ies.
  • Air Vent – Warms up and blows fairly firmly when needed.

Under

  • Docking Connector – Compatible with all D-Family Docking Solutions. In case you want to spare yourself the hassle of reconnecting all your peripherals (such as an external monitor, mouse, USB devices such as hard drives, etc.) when stationary. You can connect all these to the dock and simply click the notebook into place and all these devices will be recognized and usable by your computer. I did not opt for the dock as I am seldom stationary, but my experience with docking solutions from IBM (Lenovo) finds this a very useful option.
  • Memory Module Cover –    One DIMM slot is available under this cover.
  • Air Vent – Warms up and blows more strongly than the two other fans on this system. Under heavy use and the system is plugged in, this tends to become quite warm, making it difficult to use on your lap for extended periods. I recommend a tray, a cooling stand or Belkin’s @home solutions when in bed or on a couch – or anywhere that isn’t at a desk.
  • Battery – You can choose between 6-cell and 9-cell batteries, and the form factors are identical. I like this very much as one of the reasons I disliked the Thinkpads was that the larger cell batteries would stick out from the body like a tumor.
  • Battery Release Catch – Push to release.
  • Strike Zone Protected Hard Drive – The Strike Zone is a “reinforced area of the platform base that protects the hard drive by acting as a dampening device when a computer experiences resonating shock or is dropped (whether the computer is on or off).” (from the system documentation.) Basically, if you happen to drop your Latitude, the hard drive should, theoretically, be safe.

Keyboard Features

Keyboard Overview

  • Sleep (Fn) – Puts the OS to sleep.
  • Battery Meter (Fn) – Launches the Battery Meter, so you can check on the charge status and health of your batter(ies)
  • LCD Fill Aspect (Fn) – Switches between widescreen (16:9) and standard aspect (4:3) ratio displays.
  • CRT / LCD Toggle (Fn) – Cycles between LCD only, external only and simultaneous video displays.
  • Speakers – Stereo speakers. They’re pretty loud, too, for the most part.
  • Trackpoint and Buttons – For those who just can’t live without their beloved Thinkpad analogues, the trackpoint is here for you. Personally, I don’t use it that much due to its finicky sensitivity, especially the push-to-click option. This can be disabled, however.
  • Touchpad and Buttons – As with most laptops, nothing new to say here.
  • Biometric Scanner (Fingerprint Reader) – Used to log in various credentials for BIOS, OS and website access with a mere swipe of a finger. The built in TPM system allows up to 21 unique prints to be saved. So, that’s your ten fingers, your ten toes… and I don’t know… your nose, I guess. In practice, I found it to be a major boon for logging into Windows. Also, on occasion swiping my finger wouldn’t work. It would accept the data, and then I’d get an error message, stating that “there are no fingerprints enrolled for this user.” When I manually type my user name and swipe my finger again, however, it works just fine.

But my experience with the Vault and actually successfully using it to log in to websites has been mixed. With the former, I simply can’t get it to work properly. With the latter, it would work…sometimes. The dialog box would pop up only sporadically whenever I surfed to web pages with login screens. And, strangely enough, after I formatted and reinstalled Windows, the Private Information Manager (that’s the name of the program) would only work on Internet Explorer. How VERY strange. I’ve consulted with three Gold techs on this issue and none of them have been able to solve it yet. I certainly don’t want to have to format and reinstall my OS once AGAIN just to solve this problem.

One thing I forgot to mark in the photo is the built-in microphone. It’s that tiny little hole immediately to the left of the right screen hinge, above the Num Lock and Pause keys.

Status Lights

  • Power Status Light – Turns on when computer is on
  • Hard Drive Status Light  – Blinks when data is being read from or written to the hard drive
  • Battery Status Light – Turns on steadily to indicate battery status, whether low or charging
  • Wireless Status Light – Turns on when Wi-Fi is enabled (see Wi-Fi Catcher)
  • Bluetooth Status Light – Turns on when Bluetooth is enabled (see Wi-Fi Catcher)

One key feature I wish this notebook had was a media card reader. I am glad that the generally useless (for me, at least) IR port was removed, but I also would have liked the option to replace the Smart Card reader with an SD/MMC/MS reader. Or, alternatively, use the front edge of the laptop and stick the reader there. Unless I’m unaware of a really good reason why businesses do not want this feature on their laptops.

With all that out of the way, let’s move on to the screen.

 

SEE PAGE 2 OF DELL LATITUDE D830 REVIEW >>>

 


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