Thursday, February 28, 2008

dell latitude d830 review

dell latitude d830 review

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.

dell latitude d830

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


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.

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.

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.

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