by Derek Lim
The Dell Latitude D830 is the successor to the Latitude D820, a mid sized business notebook with a 15.4" screen and the new Santa Rosa platform. Weighing in at nearly six pounds it tips the scales at the upper end of the thin-and-light category. Pricing as of this writing starts at $899, and like most Dell notebooks there are plenty of customization options available.
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My Latitude D830 is configured as such:
Reason for Buying
When I began looking for a laptop nearly a month ago my primary objective was to find a solid machine that would last me through four years of college. My last notebook was an old Inspiron 500m which I deemed sufficiently thin-and-light for heavy travel and light tasks so I began looking into a larger, more powerful machine though I did not want a full-out desktop replacement. As this notebook would also be a graduation gift, price was not an object and I wanted something that was really something!
Being a long time Dell user, my initial inclination was towards a Dell, but I looked into machines of other brands as well. HP and Asus dropped out early on due to cosmetic preferences, but I put some consideration on the 14 and 15 inch Lenovo T60 series.
A few of my friends own older Thinkpad models and have nothing but praise for them. Indeed, Lenovo is known for superior build quality though typically at a price. By all means the T60 is a beautiful machine, but I was put off by a couple of small details. My biggest qualm is that I cannot stand having a battery stick out. Apparently that seems to be the current trend with a lot of smaller machines sporting bigger batteries and the 14-inch T60 was no exception. I wasn't terribly fond of the port configuration either, particularly the positioning of display and telecom ports on the side of the chassis and the lack of an S-video output. The small touchpad and some very minor aesthetic points also put me off. The 15 inch T60 was a bit better but it still lacked an s-video output and was a tad bit too heavy.
Subsequently I went to Dell. After deciding against Inspiron and XPS notebooks - I hated those big white Inspiron bumpers and there isn't a 14 or 15 inch XPS - my choices came down to the Latitude D630, D830 and Precision M65. The D630 was the thin-and-light of the group but suffered from the same issue as the 14 inch T60 in that the battery stuck out and it was missing an S-video port. Reviews I read about the D630 also mentioned poor sound and a loose battery. The D830 addressed most of my concerns with the D630 but I fretted over the weight of a 15 inch notebook. After changing my mind several times, the D830 finally won me over.
Up and running (view large image)
After deciding on a machine I poked around the Internet for coupons and discounts, though I did not find many for the Latitude line. I did discover that Dell was offering $400 off the price of each Latitude configured over $1,600 and figured it wouldn't get much better than that. Dell's customization and order process is very straightforward and I made sure to spend plenty of time agonizing over choices like integrated versus discrete graphics or 9-cell versus 6-cell batteries. All in all it was a smooth and pleasant shopping experience. The machine arrived just over a week after I ordered it.
Package contents (view large image)
The computer shipped with everything shown here. The container was divided into two sections, a cardboard container for the power supply, media bay battery, resource disks and documentation and a styrofoam crate for the actual computer. I was actually somewhat surprised that the notebook came with printed documentation; the last few Dell machines my family bought came with a short pamphlet telling you how to plug in the computer in several different languages.
When I first pulled the D830 out of its protective envelope boy was I impressed. Things have changed since the days of my 500m. I expected the build quality to be good, but it was unexpectedly good. It's really quite solid. It's also very pleasant to look at it; I think the rather subdued appearance is much nicer than the flashy white-bumper Inspiron.
Closed (view large image)
When I first opened up the machine I found the hinges quite stiff with pretty much no play. The outer shell of the notebook is made of a magnesium alloy though the inner surfaces are still made of plastic. The chassis has no flex whatsoever; I can pick it up by a corner without a problem. Unfortunately though there is a bit of flex in the screen and palmrest, but it is much less than that of older Dell machines. The latch is a bit loose but the travel is very small. The overall build quality might not be on par with that of the Thinkpad series but it is getting close.
The front of the notebook is clean of features save the latch.
Front (view large image)
The right side houses the optical drive and two USB ports. The optical drive can be removed and replaced with the media bay battery while the computer is on; it acts like a plug and play device.
Right (view large image)
The left side has an air vent, an IEEE 1394 port, mic and headset jacks, ExpressCard and PC card slots and something called a wifi-catcher which tells you whether you're in range of a wireless network. It is triggered by the small switch to the left.
Left (view large image)
The back of the notebook has Ethernet, S-video, USB, modem, serial, VGA and power ports. Another USB port would have been nice; even the D630 has four.
Back (view large image)
Finally, on the bottom of the machine you can see the battery, StrikeZone, memory cover, fan vent and docking port, but the primary battery is actually a tad bit loose, though I didn't notice until I took it out and put it back in. The media bay battery fits nice and tight.
Bottom (view large image)
Like I said before, I'm very fond of the somewhat simplistic Latitude design. Save for the small curves that make up the corners of the machine the lines of the laptop are straight and parallel forming a nearly rectangular solid. I think this gives it a more rugged and balanced appearance than wedge shaped notebooks which seem to be appearing more and more these days. The two tone color scheme also contributes to the smart appearance of a business laptop.
The keyboard looks like a typical Dell keyboard; it's very similar in appearance to the keyboard on my 500m. I found that the keyboard is generally more pleasant to use; the keys have a slightly greater travel and a greater amount of feedback as well. There isn't any flex in the keyboard as far as I can tell, though I am not a terribly hard typist. Overall it's a decent keyboard, good, but nothing special.
The touchpad feels the same as the one on my 500m. It's responsive and easy to use, but again, nothing terribly special. I really like the buttons under the touchpad. Instead of having a short, hard click the D830 has buttons that have a longer, softer click to them which I just find to be rather nice. The same can be said for the power button and media buttons.
I don't use a pointing stick very often; in fact there isn't one on my 500m, but I found it to be less responsive than the touchpad and harder to use. I tended to overshoot where I was aiming much of the time. It may just be because I don't have much experience with the trackpoint. The buttons for the trackpoint are the same as those for the touchpad with that same long, soft click.
I don't like having a bunch of multimedia buttons cluttering up the front of my computer, so I am glad that the D830 only has three. There are three buttons to control the speaker volume: higher, lower and mute.
Keyboard, touchpad, trackball and media buttons (view large image)
According to the various reviews I read, the D820 seemed to have a rather lacking screen and I was afraid this problem would carry over to the D830. Initially I felt that my fears had come true, but after further consideration and comparison, I find that the screen is quite nice, though it's certainly not perfect.
One of the first things I noticed when I turned on the computer was the unusually large amount of light leakage coming from the bottom of the screen. With both screens set to a blank screen saver under identical lighting conditions the screen on the D830 shows somewhat more light leakage than the screen on the 500m. In the following picture the D830 is on the left and the 500m is on the right.
A comparison of light leakage (view large image)
However, once it's up and running, the D830's screen is noticeably brighter than that of the 500m; you can tell by just how much more light it throws on the keyboard. Again, the D830 is on the left and the 500m is on the right.
A comparison of screen brightness (view large image)
Concerning viewing angles; the horizontal viewing angles are pretty good, but the vertical viewing angles leave something to be desired. This seems to be the case with most laptops I've used though.
Horizontal viewing angles (view large image)
The fuzziness in the pictures is generated by my poor picture taking skills, but I'd like to mention that I am not using the native resolution. The icon and taskbar sizes at the native resolution were too small for my eyes so I had to revert to a lesser resolution.
Vertical viewing angles (view large image)
I've heard numerous comments about the screen being "washed out" and colors being "faded", but unless I'm running on batteries and thus, less than full brightness, I don't find any of these to be problems, Even without any sort of brightness or contrast tweaks the screen is quite useable and ultimately the high amounts of light leakage don't seem to affect the performance of the display.
Screen at half brightness (view large image)
One of the reasons I turned down the D630 was a that speaker quality was reported to be pretty bad. I usually use headphones when listening to movies or music but I'd like to have a decent set of speakers for the rare times I don't. That being said, the speakers on the D830 are pretty good as far as laptop speakers go. Being set on the sides of the keyboard means they are quite clear when I am sitting at machine and the sound carries itself pretty well even across the length of a living room. The sound does start getting fuzzy at really high volumes, but my ears usually start to ring before it gets to that point.
Processor and Graphics
In high school I did quite a bit of CAD work on my 500m for my school's robotics team. Autodesk Inventor 8 took more than a minute to load. Inventor 10 took twice that and ran at a crawl once it started. It was rather frustrating. As I would be majoring in engineering in college, I figured I could use a discrete graphics solution which led me to select the NVS 140 GPU as I read that it was optimized for "business" applications such as CAD. I have not done anything GPU intensive since purchasing this machine so I'm not certain about the real world performance of the NVS 140.
The single core AMD Barton processor in my desktop is clocked at 2.3GHz and I have not known it to really struggle with anything I threw at it. Subsequently I did not think I'd need the fastest processor I could get and went with the 2.0 GHz Intel T7300 because it was a nice round number. Recently I needed to do a fair amount of video encoding and I split the task between the D830 and my desktop. I daresay I was somewhat surprised as to how much faster the T7300 was compared to the older AMD processor. Encoding a certain video file was nearly twice as fast on the D830. I guess there's no doubt that multiple cores are the wave of the future.
Operating System and Software
I'll come right out and say that I'm not very fond of Vista. I'm even less fond of the fact that Microsoft really isn't giving me a choice as to what OS I want to use. I bought my D830 with Vista in the event that I would be forced to upgrade in the near future but with the intention of using XP until then. I chose Vista Business because it is supposed to be the Vista equivalent of XP Pro which I have been happily using for a long time.
Vista came preinstalled along with Roxio Creator and Cyberlink, neither of which I need or use.
While waiting for my D830 I learned that Dell's stock drivers for the NVS 140 were rather poor. Indeed, there was a noticeable amount of lag every couple seconds when opening and closing tabs or moving windows around. It was recommended that I should use Nvidia's Forceware drivers in place of the stock drivers, so I looked around for a compatible version. Revision 160.05 did not officially supporting the NVS 140, but it definitely improved my system's graphical performance. It was not free of problems though; I noticed that standby stopped working properly after the driver update and I'm sure there were bugs that I did not notice.
Afterwards Vista ran quite smoothly. A cold boot took just under a minute.
Installing a fresh copy of XP was a pain. My XP installation CD cannot recognize SATA drivers. I had to switch the HDD controller to ATA mode, install the OS, install the SATA drivers and switch the HDD controller back to its default setting. Dell's resource CD only included drivers for Vista so I downloaded XP drivers for the D830 from Dell's technical support site. Some of these XP drivers did not want to work with my machine and I had to use the corresponding Vista drivers. All in all the installation process took a full morning, but I eventually got the system in working order with Windows XP.
Benchmarks and Performance
All benchmarks, unless otherwise stated, were run under the preinstalled Vista configuration using stock drivers.
Super Pi comparison results:
|Dell Latitude D830 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300)||0m 59s|
|Fujitsu E8410 (2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7500)||0m 55s|
|Sony VAIO FZ (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300)||0m 59s|
|Dell XPS M1330 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300)||0m 58s|
|Lenovo ThinkPad X61 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300)||1m 01s|
|Lenovo 3000 V200 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300)||0m 59s|
|HP dv2500t (1.80GHz Intel 7100)||1m 09s|
|Lenovo ThinkPad T61 (2.00GHz Core 2 Duo Intel T7300)||0m 59s|
|Lenovo ThinkPad T60 (2.00GHz Core 2 Duo T7200)||1m 03s|
|Toshiba Satellite P205-S6287 (1.73 GHz Core 2 Duo Intel T5300)||1m 24s|
|Toshiba Satellite A205 (1.66GHz Core 2 Duo)||1m 34s|
PCMark05 comparison results:
|Dell Latitude D830 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, Nvidia Quadro NVS 140m 256MB)||4,690 PCMarks|
|Fujitsu E8410 (2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7500, NVIDIA 8400M G)||4,618 PCMarks|
|Sony VAIO FZ (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, Intel X3100)||3,377 PCMarks|
|Dell XPS M1330 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, NVIDIA GeForce Go 8400M GS)||4,591 PCMarks|
|Lenovo ThinkPad X61 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, Intel X3100)||4,153 PCMarks|
|Lenovo 3000 V200 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, Intel X3100)||3,987 PCMarks|
|Lenovo T60 Widescreen (2.0GHz Intel T7200, ATI X1400 128MB)||4,189 PCMarks|
|HP dv6000t (2.16GHz Intel T7400, NVIDA GeForce Go 7400)||4,234 PCMarks|
|Fujitsu N6410 (1.66GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400)||3,487 PCMarks|
|Sony Vaio SZ-110B in Speed Mode (Using Nvidia GeForce Go 7400)||3,637 PCMarks|
3DMark05 comparison results:
|Notebook||3D Mark 05 Results|
|Dell Latitude D830 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, Nvidia Quadro NVS 140m 256MB)||984 3DMarks *|
|Dell Latitude D830 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, Nvidia Quadro NVS 140m 256MB)||3,063 3DMarks **|
|Fujitsu E8410 (2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7500, NVIDIA 8400M)||1,925 3DMarks|
|Sony VAIO FZ (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, Intel X3100)||910 3DMarks|
|Dell XPS M1330 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, NVIDIA GeForce Go 8400M GS 128MB)||3,116 3DMarks|
|HP Compaq 6510b (2.20GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7500, Intel X3100)||916 3DMarks|
|HP dv6000t (2.16 GHz Intel T7400, NVIDA GeForce Go 7400)||2,013 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|
|Lenovo ThinkPad T60 (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400 128MB)||2,092 3D Marks|
|Fujitsu n6410 (1.66 GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400 128MB)||2,273 3DMarks|
* Score achieved using stock drivers and software delivered from Dell
** My second 3DMark05 score was achieved after updating the NVS 140 to Nvidia Forceware driver 160.05. This update also raised my Windows Aero score to 3.4, but did not seem to affect my PCMark05 score. Furthermore, a fresh installation of Windows XP using the same drivers did not significantly change either score.
Windows Experience Index Results
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Heat and Noise
When the laptop is idling it is very quiet. I can only hear it if I try to. When going about my normal business, it's very easy to ignore. Under a heavy load such as video encoding or benchmarking, the fan will start running at higher speeds. At this point a significant amount of noise is generated, but I believe it is from the moving air rather than the fan itself. Also, the optical drive makes a bit of noise when it is running, though that is pretty typical for optical drives in general.
When the laptop is idling it is also quite cool. The lower half of the keyboard and palmrest stays at room temperature while the upper half just gets a tad bit warmer. Under a heavy load the upper half will heat up a noticeable amount, but the fan does a good job of keeping the temps at a reasonable level. The bottom of the laptop and the air coming out the back can also get pretty warm under these conditions.
I did a simple test to emulate light use of the D830 under battery power. I turned the screen down to half brightness and let windows media player play music at a relatively low volume. This test was also done under the default Vista setup, prior to the installation of ForceWare drivers.
The 9-cell primary on its own reached 10% in a bit under three hours. Together with the media bay battery it reached 10% in just over four and a half hours.
Considering that my 500m could do three and a half hours on its one primary battery, I was a bit disappointed with the battery life at first, especially when owners of D620s and D630s were claiming battery lives of up to five hours. But considering I have a 15 inch WUXGA screen and discrete graphics I guess a drop in battery life is expected.
9-cell primary battery and 6-cell media bay battery (view large image)
In the days after I placed my order I spent much time questioning whether or not I had made the right choice. I anxiously awaited the arrival of my new piece of hardware, checking my order status religiously and wondering when it would ship. When it finally arrived I was not disappointed. I've been using it for two weeks now with very few problems.
I think the Latitude D830 is an excellent machine. Those who believe Dell only makes cheap, low end computers haven't seen one of their newer Latitude notebooks. Though its stats might not be as good as those of an XPS M1710 and its case may not be as good as that of a Thinkpad, the D830 is a high quality system with a high quality build and by all means a high quality notebook.