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New fragility vs used solidity: Part 2 – Dell Latitude E4300 review

This is the second part of this two piece article, looking at two laptops which make a lot of sense as used buys.  In this final part we’ll look at Dell’s sleek Latitude E4300.

What’s awesome: Super-fast Intel 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo; magnesium alloy chassis feels very solid; exceptional keyboard action and optional backlit keyboard; optional Latitude ON instant boot.

What blows: Screen is bright but washes out quickly at vertical angles; refurbs with an integrated webcam are rare; six-cell battery provides four hours of varied use but sticks out.

Current retail price: Starting at approx $1,650 on Dell’s website and easily equipped at over $2,000, depending upon configuration.

eBay good or refurb condition: Approx $600-700

The second laptop I ever purchased was a used Dell Latitude. That was back in 1997 and it lasted for years; it would probably even turn on now if I knew where it was. Latitudes are typically manufactured to higher tolerances than Dell’s Inspiron and Vostro ranges and like their name, Latitudes are meant to withstand traversing the latitudes and longitudes of the globe.

What’s it got?

The E4300 keeps this tradition alive with a beautifully solid magnesium alloy chassis housing a superb keyboard and trackpad as well as a pointing stick.  The E4300 comes with a couple of processor options. I’m looking at a unit here with Intel’s SP9400, which is a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo with a whopping 6MB of L2 cache.  The E4300 is also available with a 2.26GHz processor if you need less power.  Other specs on my unit include a 13 inch screen, 7200RPM hard drive with 160GB capacity, 3GB RAM and Intel’s current generation GMA4500MHD graphics chipset with hardware Mpeg-2 decoding.  There’s also a DVD rewriter which slots into the side, Firewire, an SD card slot, USB 2.0 ports and crucially for multi-environment users, an anti-glare matte screen.  Unbelievably the E4300 weighs only 3.8lbs including the six-cell battery in a pretty thin chassis.  So now high retail price starts to make sense.

In use

Without a doubt the E4300 has the best keyboard I’ve used on any laptop, with key presses that have perfect feedback in my opinion.  It’s even better than my ThinkPad T61.  The pointing stick can execute a single click, the trackpad supports scroll and zoom, and there is a third mouse button. These are all nice touches in a world of disappearing buttons.  Some E4300s have a backlit keyboard which is perfect for using in a dark room or on a night flight.  There’s also an ambient light sensor which dims the screen, saving you from tired eyes and prolonging battery life.

The 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo, makes the E4300 extremely snappy in Windows 7 64-bit.  From menial tasks to audio editing the E4300 feels like a full power desktop replacement in an ultralight package.  I produced podcasts on it and yet it is light enough to hold in one hand as a netbook replacement.  High definition video played without a hitch, remember this has Intel’s onboard graphics chipset with the hardware HD decoder so the processor is able to laze around which watching most videos.  But even when watching high definition Flash content on YouTube there was no stuttering.

Dell has added some thoughtful power saving features to the E4300.  It can be set to switch off a variety of peripherals when running on battery, such as the DVD drive and network ports.  With the six-cell battery fitted this beast was good for around four to five hours of use with WiFi, when web surfing and performing general tasks.  There’s also a five point gauge on the exterior of the battery so you can see roughly how much charge is remaining,  Bear in mind that used laptops tend to have used batteries, so ensure you have enough spare cash for a new battery just in case the current one is in bad shape.

Choices choices

As an option, the E4300 can be configured from new to be Latitude ON ready. Latitude ON is a fast loading linux based operating environment. There are two levels of functionality; ON Reader gives basic access to email on the laptop but no internet access.  The full ON implementation is a system-on-a-chip offering internet access and days of battery life according to Dell. Some units are simply ON ready, which means they neither have ON Reader nor ON, but can be upgraded later. I haven’t tried an E4300 with the full ON implementation, and the feature only recently debuted on the Latitude Z.

On the downside the integrated webcam and backlit keyboard are options rather than standard fittings, so be careful if you’re buying a used machine. The screen, while very bright, fades out quickly at vertical angles.  Also, the six-cell battery protrudes from the rear of the laptop, similar to designs from other manufacturers, which spoils an otherwise sleek look.

Is it a worthwhile contender for your cash?

On balance the E4300 is an unbelievable deal at current eBay prices. It feels solid and yet it’s extremely light and has a faster processor than the base model. It also crushes the Acer Timeline series in performance and build quality.  Of course there’s more risk with buying a used laptop than a new one, so do your research and test before you buy if you can.  If you can live with that risk and if you get lucky , the E4300 is an amazing bargain.

Neil Berman

www.theonbutton.com

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Feb 4, 2010 - Posted by | Computing, Hardware, Reviews | , , ,

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