Dell Latitude E4300 User Review

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The Latitude E4300 is one of the two ultraportable laptops in Dell’s new E-series release. Designed for business customers, the laptop carries a hefty starting price of $1,834 Canadian although that price can be negotiated down significantly with volume.

The E-series caught my eye as I’d previously owned a Latitude D820, which has served me very well for the past two years. I’ve even dropped it on concrete with only a scratch. Dell Customer Service for Small Business was superb, delivering new keyboards overnight, or sending a technician over, the next day with almost no questions asked.

For a university student with 6-7 hours of lecture every other day, battery life and portability are key. The D820 comes in at 6.5 lbs, so I was looking for something a little more portable. The E4300 fit the bill at an advertised 3.3 lb starting weight. I’d actually ordered another laptop from the Dell ultraportable line-up earlier this summer – the XPS M1330. However, its keyboard was cheap and unresponsive compared to the Latitude D820 I had, so it was promptly returned.

The E-Series competes with the Lenovo X301 and the Sony Z laptops in the same price range. Almost all internal laptop components are drawn from the same manufacturers. In theory, one could price a laptop with a similar configuration for almost $1,000 less (Lenovo’s X200). That $1,000 premium you pay as a business customer is for high quality build, user interface components and prompt and reliable customer service. As you’ll see in this review, Dell certainly delivers with its top-rate customer service. Unfortunately, customer service alone is only part of what makes a good notebook, and the Dell E4300’s user interface devices leaves something to be desired.

Configuration:

  • Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo SP9400 (2.40GHz, 1066MHz, 6MB Cache)
  • Screen: 13.3 inch, WXGA LED Backlit (matte finish)
  • Memory: 4GB DDR3 1066MHz RAM
  • Storage: 80GB 7200 RPM HDD
  • Optical Drive: TSSTcorp DVD+RW TS-U633A
  • Wireless: Intel 5300 802.11 a/b/g/n
  • Graphics: Intel X4500 HD
  • ExpressCard slot
  • Web Camera and Microphone
  • Battery: 56 Whr 6-cell
  • Standard E-Series 65 W Adaptor
  • Windows Vista Business with XP Pro Downgrade
  • Advertised Weight: 3.3 lbs
  • Price: $2,338.00 (Canadian including tax)

Build Quality

The brushed metal look is gorgeous on the Dell E4300. It certainly looks sexy, and to Dell’s credit, this is also its best laptop yet in terms of build quality. The laptop feels amazingly solid with its magnesium alloy chassis. There is absolutely no hint of flex on the palm rest, or on the laptop screen. Attempts to twist or prod resulted in no ripples on the screen. It is worth noting how solidly built the metal hinges are. There was hardly any motion regardless of the positioning or angle of the screen. The 6-cell battery protrudes from the back of the laptop, and is hardly noticeable, although that is a matter of personal taste. Again, Dell has been outdone by its competitor Lenovo, which manages to fit in its own 6 cell battery without having it protrude.

Keyboard and Touchpad

The input devices are arguably the most important components to a premium business laptop. Business users spend hours on their laptop, and expect the highest, and most comfortable experience possible. Here is where Dell falls short of my expectations. The keyboard on the Dell E4300 is actually a step down from the keyboard on the Latitude D820 in my opinion. The keys are more textured, but feel lighter, cheaper and less responsive. They are also noticeably nosier – I’d subjectively put the increase in noise at about 200-300%. Also unlike the Latitude D-series, there is considerable flex especially in the lower right hand corner of the keyboard, where Dell has placed the Page Down and Page Up keys above the right and left arrow keys respectively. This may have disrupted the structural integrity of the keyboard. The lightness of the keys may also be due to Dell’s integration of the backlight feature on the keyboard, which I did not purchase. I’ve tried this keyboard out for a week, and still find it inferior in terms of responsiveness, and obviously noise, to the Latitude D820. The E4300 keyboard is only a few steps above the terrible keyboard on the XPS M1330.

To its credit, Dell has included a blue TrackPoint that is very effective. The precision and comfort in using the TrackPoint is a considerable improvement over the D-Series TrackPoint device. With it, there’s no need to ever take your hands off the keyboard to move it down to the touchpad.

Speaking of the touchpad, I found it inaccurate and sometimes detecting the motion of my hands and causing my cursor to annoyingly jump around while typing. It’s also very easy to inadvertently move into the areas of the touchpad with scrolling functions, which is also very annoying. These failures may be due to the change in drivers from Synaptics to Alps as reported previously. My touchpad on my D820 used a Synaptics driver, so that may explain the performance difference.

Screen

As soon as I turned on the computer for the first time, I was disappointed to find tinges of yellow-orange splotches on the default Latitude brushed metal background for my desktop. I tried watching several television shows that had worked flawlessly on my previous laptops, only to find yellow splotches laying over the skin texture of individuals’ faces. The laptop LCD also came with two vertical yellow lines down the right hand side that are visible when viewing a black screen. Perhaps these incidents and manufacturing failures are isolated only to my laptop.

The horizontal viewing angles were quite good. The laptop screen was also significantly brighter due to the LED backlighting compared to my D820 with CCFL screen. There are 15 levels of brightness that you can adjust to using Fn+Up or Fn+Down. The forth and fifth level of brightness is equivalent to the maximal brightness on my Dell D820 screen, which says a lot about how much brighter the screen is. Vertical viewing angles were poor, but it’s unlikely you’d ever watch anything on the laptop from those positions.

I actually went to the Sony Style Store to directly compare the screens of both the Sony Z and the Dell E4300 with the Sony Z the clear winner in both resolution and contrast. The E4300 screen is simply not that sharp. Reports of the X301 screen operating at a brilliant 300 nits show that premium ultraportables can and should have beautiful screens.

Audio

Business laptops are not renowned for their audio. While in a plane, or in a boring lecture, you would most likely want earbuds or headphones to listen to music. I did try out the speakers. They are significantly tinny, with little bass, regardless of the volume one chooses.

Included Software

Latitude ON Reader

One of the most talked about features for the new E-series has been the Linux-based instant-on feature. When rolled out fully in November, Latitude ON will enable you to use Microsoft Office, access email and use an internet browser. So far, the only feature it allows is synchronizing with your Outlook and reading emails. The interface is satisfactory, and comparable to the Dell Media user interface found on the consumer series. It’s a gimmick more than anything else at this point.

Dell Control Point

The Dell E4300 comes with Dell Control Point software in the same vein as Lenovo’s ThinkVantage software. I found the power features particularly useful with a variety of advanced options that allow you to control power down specific components of your laptop such as the optical drive or media card.

Performance

With a 2.40GHz Cure 2 Duo Processor and having only an integrated card, the Dell E4300 packs similar performance to its bigger brother the Dell E6400. As a result I’ve included only a few performance benchmarks in this review.  The processor is effectively the same as the P8600, except in small factor a minor 3MB cache boost.

This was clearly evident when comparing the start-up times to Windows XP SP3. My E4300 reached the windows login page in 35 seconds, and finished loading windows in 61 seconds flat. In comparison, by D820 took 1:09 to reach the Windows Login, and an additional 1:44 to fully load Windows XP. Bear in mind that my D820 has more programs, but the difference is appreciably significant.

Note that all tests here were conducted under “Maximum Performance” setting in Dell Control Point. I’ve omitted the 3DMark05 Results due to the fact that the performance of the integrated Intel GM45 should be similar to the Latitude E6400.

SuperPi:

Hard Disk Drive

The supplied 80 GB 7200 RPM HDD is a Samsung HM081HJ. The performance was significantly better than the Hitachi 80 GB 7200 RPM that came with my D820.  I intend to get a SSD in a few months when the prices drop, which should improve performance.

Heat and Fan Noise

Heat is always a worry with ultraportable laptops. To combat this, Dell has gone along with the Intel SP9400 processor that features a lower voltage 25 watt processor, which means less heat. The E4300’s fan is whisper quite compared to my D820. The metal chassis does a very good job of absorbing the heat. The fan does a very good job in expelling heat to the side. The air is noticeably hotter than that from the D820 indicative of excellent heat removal. Compared to my D820, which gets uncomfortably warm, the E4300 is cool as a breeze. The palm rests always stay cool, while the temperature of the bottom chassis does get a little toasty when the processor is stressed.

Battery Life

While writing this review for about two hours on Microsoft Word using this laptop on the first level of brightness with wireless on, and some light internet browsing using Firefox, the Dell battery meter reads that there are 3 hours and 25 minutes remaining with 67% of the battery. You can expect between 5-6 hours using the Dell E4300 6-cell battery with some light office work. Battery life is therefore comparable to its competitors.

Wireless and Networking

I reached speeds of about 130MBps using the Intel 5300 Wireless Card to a D-Link Extreme 802.11 n router.
Input and Outputs Ports

The E4300 comes equipped with:

  • 2 USB ports with the ability to share power
  • 1 VGA
  • 1394 port
  • 1 docking connector
  • 1 RJ-45
  • 1 eSATA/USB Combo Port
  • 1 Headphone/Speaker Out
  • 1 Mic Port

It’s worth noting that the VGA output on my 22-inch monitor was quite good.


Conclusion

Aesthetically this is the sexiest Dell business laptop yet. Dell’s Customer Service for Small Business has proven its superb care once again. I tried very hard to love this laptop given my positive experiences with the Dell D820, and Dell Business Support previously, but ultimately couldn’t get over the engineering shortcomings for the $2,250 that I paid.  The screen is flawed, the keyboard flexes and is a step down in terms of responsiveness and noise to my Latitude D-Series notebook. When the user interface experience and performance is comparable to the XPS M1330 or the Lenovo U330, it’s hard to justify a $1,000 premium over those laptops. I wrote this whole review on the Dell E4300. It’s not a bad notebook. If the Dell E4300 lived in its own universe, it would be a solid notebook. But unfortunately competition exists, and its premium pricing is awfully high.

Pros:

  • Good Battery Life of 5-6 Hours
  • Superior Customer Service
  • Superior Build Quality and Durability
  • Good, Snappy Performance
  • Relatively Cool and Quiet

Cons:

  • Poor Screen Quality Compared to Competitors (See Sony Z and X301)
  • Unresponsive, Noisy Keyboard a Step Down from the Latitude D-Series
  • Expensive
  • Poor Audio Quality


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