Dell's Latitude: Who Needs Bells And Whistles?

The new models from Dell may look stodgy, but they deliver solid performance

This is shaping up as a year of radical redesign for notebook computers. The new models will feature all the comforts of the desktop--from big, bright displays to massive disk drives. Modular designs will allow you to mix and match disk drives, CD-ROMs, and extra batteries. And a completely new "thin, wide" shape, big enough to support a 12-in. screen but barely an inch thick, should prove popular.

Compared with this kaleidoscope of innovation, Dell Computer Corp.'s new Pentium-powered Latitude XPi laptops seem positively stodgy. They look a lot like the units they replace. They're not modular, and they lack CD-ROMs and fancy sound systems. But they may be just the laptops for businesspeople on the go who are looking for steak rather than sizzle.

CRISP AND FAST. Indeed, the new Latitudes are no slouches. They come in two basic models: the $2,999 P100SD, with a 100-megahertz Pentium and a 10.4-in. passive-matrix screen, and the $3,999 P133ST, with a 133 Mhz Pentium and an 11.3-in. active-matrix display. Both include 540-megabyte hard drives and 8 MB of RAM. New video adapters from NeoMagic give fast, crisp displays. The Latitude's weight, a bit over six pounds, is typical for notebooks of this class. My experience suggests that you should get a good four hours-plus from the lithium-ion battery.

Buyers will probably be smart to spend $399 to double the memory, to 16 MB, and an additional $200 to increase disk capacity to 810 MB. But you may enjoy significant savings if you're upgrading from an older Latitude XP or XPi. Dell has done something all too rare in the laptop business--gone to some lengths to protect customers' investments.

"Anything you've ever purchased [for a Latitude XP] since August, 1994, will work on your new notebook," says Latitude brand manager Wesley W. Laird. That means the new XPs will fit into existing docking stations. Extra batteries, spare hard drives, and memory upgrades can all transfer from old XP laptops to new.

TWO-IN-ONE. The savings can add up. A docking station that allows easy attachment to a network and hooks up to accessories such as a CD-ROM or desktop monitor goes for $229, while a spare battery fetches $199. Salvaging components becomes more important as companies replace some desktops with laptop-dock combinations, a trend Dell sees as critical to success in the corporate market. "Information managers definitely don't want to buy two computers for any individual," says Laird.

I was impressed by the original XPi last summer. In fact, I delayed returning an evaluation loaner to Dell for months because I didn't want to give it up. The new models fix the two worst deficiencies of the originals. Dell has added sound that's a bit primitive, but serviceable. The trackball, which needed frequent cleaning to remove the oil and other crud picked up from your fingers, has been replaced by a Logitech version that uses more robust optical tracking rather than mechanical contact.

One major consequence of Dell's decision to stick with its basic design is that there is no room for an internal CD-ROM drive. That knocks the Latitude out of the multimedia market, but Dell says its mainstream business customers don't mind. A battery-powered portable CD-ROM drive is a $349 option.

There are a lot of fancier notebooks on the market, and more will be appearing in coming weeks. But for solid, untemperamental performance, these new Dells are tough to beat.

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