Dell PCs at CES 2019 – Commercial Differentiation Via Technical Innovation

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  January 9, 2019

The annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas hosts thousands of vendors pitching new and improved products. But like a lot of what you see on The Strip, there’s less than meets the eye in many of these pronouncements. These range from trendy tchotchkes to dressing up fading products for one last go-around to bandwagon climbers hoping to make a buck on improbable new “trends” (remember 3D TVs?).

But CES also highlights its share of winners, including member companies that use the show to launch impressive new solutions, enhancements and innovations. This year, that list clearly includes Dell which was honored with nine CES 2019 Innovation Awards spanning its PC, workstation and display portfolios. The company also noted that it has secured two U.S. EPA awards for its recycling and Circular Gold initiatives.

Awards are always nice, but the fact is that Dell’s product innovations also set the company’s solutions apart from competitors’ efforts. Let’s take a closer look at some of Dell’s new and improved offerings to get a sense of how this process works.

Latitude 7400 2-in-1 – Killer design?

Late last week, Dell pre-announced the latest addition to its Latitude family of business notebooks, the new Latitude 7400 2-in-1. Some controversy emerged when a few commentators called the new system a “ThinkPad killer” – a reference to Lenovo’s line of enterprise-focused notebooks.

This issue of the Review includes a detailed commentary by Rob Enderle on the issue, so I won’t delve too deeply into it myself. But I will note that the deaths of iconic products tend to be slow-motion affairs triggered by significant changes in the market that established players ignore or avoid and that innovators anticipate and fully leverage. In other words, “killer” events depend as much on the victim’s cluelessness as they do competitors’ premeditation.

What does the Latitude 7400 2-in-1 include that makes some believe it fits into this category? In essence, near 24-hour battery life, biometric (facial recognition) security, a new hinge that allows the 2-in-1 to be opened single-handedly, high portability without compromising performance and some new esthetic points.

Looking a bit closer, the near-24 hours of battery life isn’t guaranteed. Instead, Rahul Tikoo, Dell’s VP of Commercial Mobility products, says the system “is designed for 24 hours of MobileMark ’14 run time on a single charge using the 78Whr battery option.” But even that is notable and will be of great interest to on the go businesspeople, as will Dell’s ExpressCharge which charges the battery up to 80 percent in just an hour.

The Latitude 7400 2-in-1’s facial recognition features are based on Intel’s Context Sensing technology, integrated with Microsoft’s Windows Hello. Basically, this enables what Dell calls Express Sign-In, so when the user sits in front of a system, it detects his/her presence, wakes up, scans for facial recognition and starts the Windows Hello login process. When a user leaves, the system recognizes their absence and locks itself to remain secure. That’s likely to be attractive to many executives and workers, particularly those who work in busy office settings and open cubicle environments.

Dell’s new “variable torque hinge” is an interesting bit of technology that the company demoed at a recent analyst event. The hinge keeps the 2-in-1 firmly closed yet it can be opened far more easily than typical notebooks, including single-handedly. Is it a “killer” technology? No, but it demonstrates a singular ‘elegance’ of engineering that has become a watchword of Dell products over the past decade or so. Other new features include a new Titan Gray machined aluminum finish, a reduced footprint (making the new Latitude the world’s smallest commercial 14-inch 2-in-1) and the presence of Dell’s ocean-bound plastics packaging (a first for Latitude products).

So, does the Latitude 7400 2-in-1 spell the end of the line for Lenovo’s venerable ThinkPad line? We’ll have to wait and see for the answer to that question. To its credit, Lenovo never lost a step with the ThinkPad brand after acquiring it from IBM in 2005, and ThinkPads continue to define “enterprise-class” laptops for thousands of satisfied customers.

At the same time, the past decade has seen Dell evolve from a volume producer of pedestrian notebooks and desktops to a leading vendor of eye-catching, technologically sophisticated business and consumer endpoints. The Latitude 7400 2-in-1’s remarkable battery life and facial recognition features are notable additions that are sure to appeal to many business customers.

If Lenovo can’t respond in short order, its customers will reasonably ask, “Why not?” When Dell sales personnel come to call with the new Latitude 7400 2-in-1, Lenovo customers may well answer, “Why, yes.”

XPS 13’s top-mounted webcam + Inspiron 7000 2-in-1’s Garage Hinge

Dell also added new features to its XPS and Inspiron lines. In the former case, the XPS 13 finally has a top-mounted webcam. That might not seem like a big deal, but the fact is that complaints about the webcam’s previous location (at the bottom left hand corner of the display) regularly appear in XPS 13 reviews. I personally feel the issue is minor, at best, but people’s fixations are what they are.

Problem was that the XPS 13 also boasts an Infinity Display that numerous other vendors eventually tried to emulate, with an ultra-thin bezel that was too thin to accommodate available webcam technologies. At CES 2019, Dell revealed that the latest XPS 13 incorporates a miniscule new 2.25-mm HD webcam located at the center-top of the display. The new system also leverages Intel’s latest 8th gen Core processors (meaning it remains the most powerful 13-inch laptop in its class), Dolby Vision video technology and a new frost anodized color option.

Dell also added design points to new 13-inch and 15-inch Inspiron 7000 2-in-1’s, including what the company calls a first of a kind “garage-in-the-hinge” that accommodates a Dell Active Pen included with the system. That’s a handy feature that should also make losing Active Pens (which cost around $50 each) less likely, meaning it offers both functional and financial benefits.

Inspiron 7000 2-in-1s also include what Dell calls Adaptive Thermal technology which enables the devices to automatically change their power profiles depending on their location. If a user has the 2-in-1 sitting on his/her lap to watch a movie or surf the Web, the system powers down to generate less heat. When it’s placed on a table or desk, it ramps up to full power and productivity.

Final analysis

These aren’t the only endpoint improvements that Dell announced at CES 2019. The company also made notable additions to its Dell Cinema solution that are designed to enhance sound clarity, color saturation and video streaming. Additionally, Dell added new functions and discussed future capabilities for its Mobile Connect software which enables integration between users’ smart phones and their PCs.

The new XPS 13 and Inspiron 2-in-1 features are well-designed additions that significantly enhance those portfolios and should appeal to many or most users. As such, they show how Dell is making significant, customer-focused improvements in its endpoint portfolios at the same time it is using the new Latitude 7400 2-in-1 to hone strategic efforts against competitors, like Lenovo.

These points are all to the good for Dell and its consumer and corporate customers. However, they also demonstrate how able, knowledgeable vendors can turn an internationally recognized event with tens of thousands of attendees to their advantage. Sure, countless vendors try to use CES to pawn off junk technology or announce fealty to trends whose value is mainly transparent. But in the announcements coming from Dell and a few others, conference attendees and watchers will find far more than meets the eye.

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