Dell Latitude E6400 ATG review

12 Aug 2008

A fine debut for the new Latitude E-series family, with only the price remaining to be seen.

It wasn't so long ago that we clapped eyes and hands on Dell's newly-redesigned Vostro range of laptops, designed expressly for the needs of smaller businesses. Now comes the turn of its premium business range, and the launch of Dell's latest Latitude E-series. To celebrate the occasion, PC Pro has an exclusive first look at the 14.1in Latitude E6400 ATG.

Pluck the E6400 ATG from it's unassuming brown box and it's clear that this is no lightweight business portable. The letters "ATG" stand for All Terrain Grade, which is Dell's answer to the Getac and Panasonic ranges of ruggedised laptops. In short, this laptop is designed to survive the kind of harsh treatment that would leave your average laptop needing a trip to the repair centre.

It's only semi-ruggedised, however, so there's no sign of the massively over the top armour-plating or rubberised, waterproof flaps that are de rigeur on laptops such as Getac's B300, or Dell's own, albeit currently US-only, XFR laptop range.

That's not to say that the E6400 ATG is a shrinking violet, though, far from it. Grab the Dell between both hands and, while its 2.98kg weight is incredibly heavy for a 14.1in laptop, it makes up for it with astounding solidity.

The rough, textured finish of the black reinforced lid immediately feels reassuringly protective, and the whole chassis is impressively free of undue flex. A single catch serves to keep that lid firmly closed, and the neat silver surround keeps unwanted objects from slipping between the keyboard and display and causing any unsightly scratches.

Tilt back that display however, and while the Dell's exterior could be described as being a touch utilitarian, the interior is subtly stylish. Gone is the two-tone black and silver styling of the Latitude D630 and its stablemates, and in its place lies a minimalist expanse of black interrupted only by the strip of blue glowing status lights at the keyboard's top edge.

Dell has made a few practical changes to the design too. The red 'Task Lights' of the Latitude D630 ATG, which served to illuminate the keyboard in low-light situations, have been supplanted by a backlit keyboard. Matched with a sensor to dynamically alter the screen brightness, it makes for a laptop that remains usable even in the gloomiest of environments.

And wherever you happen to be, the E6400 ATG is an eminently comfortable companion. The new keyboard feels very different to that of Dell's previous laptops, but that's no bad thing. Each key has a good amount of travel and a positive action matched with a lightness which makes for effortless touch-typing. Layout-wise, the half-height Enter key is a less than popular addition, but the good feel goes a long way towards making amends.

Like many of its business-centric compatriots, there's both trackpad and trackpoint in evidence, but while the former is free from any issues, we were less enamoured with the latter. It may have just been an issue with our pre-production sample, but the trackpoint was set slightly beneath the level of the key-top, and we found it difficult to grip the point without our finger regularly slipping off onto the adjacent keys.

But, apart from its sturdy build, the final component of the Dell's All Terrain Grade certification comes courtesy of the matte 14.1in display. It's unremarkable in resolution terms, our model sporting the standard 1,280 x 800 pixels rather than the higher resolution 1,400 x 900 option, but the astounding brightness gives away the fact that the E6400 ATG is equipped with a sunlight readable display. Even under intense office strip lighting the highest brightness setting is blindingly bright.