Dell's New Adamo Laptop

Dell has released its best-looking laptop just when consumers may be opting for a more utilitarianand cheapernotebook

Dell's (DELL) new Adamo laptop is by far the best-looking product ever to come out of Round Rock, Tex. Before you complain that Dell's ultra-utilitarian approach to design has set the bar pretty low, I'll add that the Adamo is a good-looking machine by any standard. The question is whether such a luxe laptop, which starts at $1,999, makes sense.

Given the sickly economy and industry trends that are steadily driving down laptop prices, it's a fair question. The Adamo practically begs to be compared with Apple's (AAPL) MacBook Air (from $1,799) and Lenovo's (LNVGY) ThinkPad X301 (from $1,999). Though the thinnest of the three, the four-pound Adamo is nearly a pound heavier than its competitors. And because it is top-heavy when the lid is open, it feels weightier than it is.

If you're thinking about looks, the Adamo scores pretty high. It has a black or silver aluminum case with an attractive, etched design. And the top four inches or so of the lid are covered with a thin piece of opaque glass that serves both as a visual element and as a window for the antennae hidden behind it.

In a first for a Windows laptop, the Adamo has none of those Microsoft (MSFT) or Intel (INTC) stickers that leave a gooey mess behind if you try to remove them. The back is free of doors or visible screws, which means the battery, like the Air's, is not user-replaceable. The Microsoft certificate of authenticity, required if you ever need to reinstall Windows, is hidden under a hinge cover that is held in place by a couple of small magnets.

Under the lid, there is a sculptured, backlit keyboard that, in my opinion, is not as good as the ThinkPad's. The high-resolution 13.4-inch display is very sharp and bright, though the polished surface, while ideal for photos and video, is less than optimal for text and susceptible to nasty glare under some lighting conditions.

The problem with this class of laptop is that no matter how spiffy the outside looks, what's inside the box is generally pretty mundane; performance is limited by the need to keep power consumption low and by the fact that there's not much room inside the case. The ultra-low-voltage Core 2 Duo processor is far from Intel's fastest, and graphics performance is mediocre. With 2 gigabytes of memory, there's enough processing power for most office software uses, but forget about editing movies or gaming. On the upside, battery life, while maybe an hour short of Dell's claimed five-hours-plus, is good for its class, and the Adamo runs cool and quiet.

Instead of a spinning hard disk, there are 128 gigabytes of solid-state storage, which leaves only about 80 GB free after loading Windows, Office, and a few applications. That's plenty of space for most work requirements, but there's no built-in DVD drive. And if you want to load a few movies to watch on a long plane trip, the limited storage can start to pinch. (A version with an external Blu-ray Disc drive, a slightly faster processor, 4 GB of memory, and a built-in AT&T (T) Mobile Broadband modem costs $2,699.)

The Adamo, like others in this high-cost, relatively low-performance class, is intended as a niche product. The problem is that this sliver of the market is shrinking with the arrival of a new type of thin, light notebook that offers many of the advantages in a more utilitarian package and at less than half the cost. I'll go into a lot more detail on this new class of notebook in an upcoming column.

Still, Dell has made a noteworthy design statement with the Adamo, and I expect to see more iterations with bigger screens. The irony is that this flash of design comes just when Dell's traditional strength—plain, low-cost utility—is again driving purchasing decisions.

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