By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc. May 28, 2104
I’ve been thinking about business laptops and PCs lately due to a confluence of recent events. First, both IDC’s and Gartner’s most recent PC market tracking surveys suggested a significant slowing in the declines that have plagued PC sales for the past few years. It’s too early to tell if this signals long term stability (with annual sales of about 300M units globally) or even an upward trend, but it still spells good news for PC makers who have been under the gun.
Second, Apple’s iPad sales have been essentially flat since Q2 2013, the company’s banner quarter in tablet revenues. That doesn’t mean that the iPad is failing—Apple still sold over $30B of iPads during Q2 2014—but the market’s leading vendor hitting a wall does suggest that all those breathy proclamations of the “end of the PC era” that captured the IT industry’s attention a couple of years ago were little more than PR smoke-blowing. The truth is that many or even most people continue to purchase tablets (and smart phones) as companions for PCs, not replacements.
That point was also curiously highlighted at last week’s launch of Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3. New company CEO Satya Nadella pointedly insisted that the company is “not interested in competing with our OEMs when it comes to our hardware.” But that was contradicted by Microsoft Surface design lead Panos Panay saying, “This is the tablet that can replace your laptop.” Panay may have simply been overly enthusiastic, but he underlined how important alternative businesses are to Microsoft given the shift toward cloud and other offerings where the role of operating systems is negligible or entirely invisible.
So can tablets, including the new Surface Pro 3, truly replace laptops? That depends. For consumers, especially those who use laptops and PCs for little more than media consumption, email/messaging, social networking and similar lightweight tasks, maybe so. But for business users, not so much. Let’s consider why that’s the case related to my testing of a new Dell Latitude 12 E7240, the company’s top end business class ultra-mobile laptop.
Under the Hood – Dell Latitude 12
Most ultra-mobile laptops are in the 11-13 inch range, and the Dell Latitude 12 that I tested sports a 12.5″ HD (1920×1080) WLED-backlit touch display (with Corning Gorilla Glass NTB) and clocks in at just under 3 pounds. It includes a 4th Gen Intel Core i5-4300U 1.9GHz V-Pro enabled processor (more on that later), 4GB DDR3L RAM, 128GB SSD, Windows 8.1 Pro, Intel Integrated HD 4400 graphics, Intel 802.11n wireless, support for Intel’s wireless display (WiDi) technology, and a warranty that includes 3 years of Dell ProSupport and 1 year of Dell Data Protection/Encryption (more later on that, also).
Onboard connectors include three USB 3.0 ports (one with power share/charging), one HDMI port, one Mini-DisplayPort, one GB Ethernet port and a SD card slot. Other features include an integrated HD webcam and microphone array, high quality audio speakers, backlit keyboard and swappable thin-line battery. My unit also arrived with a Dell E-Port Plus dock that supports up to two monitors. Additional options for high security environments include a SmartCard Reader/Contactless Smart Card Reader/Fingerprint Reader or FIPS Fingerprint Reader. The cost of the system I tested was $1,968.40, including the E-Port Plus dock and shipping.
The Enterprise Difference
A number of features differentiate the Latitude 12 from most consumer solutions, including the laptops and tablets often found in organizations supporting employee BYOD initiatives. Some are pretty straightforward, like the remote BIOS management and hard drive wipe (even when a system is powered off), services enabled by Intel’s vPro technology. Others include a range of optional Dell endpoint management, configuration deployment and imaging services.
The point of features like these is to simplify critical processes in organizations with large and/or geographically dispersed workforces. But other differences are a bit more subtle. For example, the Latitude 12 I tested is only one of four ultra-mobile 7000 models Dell offers that includes a touch display—the others all use a lower res (1366×768) anti-glare display more typical in business laptops and require mouse/touchpad and keyboard input. Similarly, the Latitude 5000 (mainstream) series offers just one touch model, and the Latitude 3000 (value) and Latitude 6 (professional) don’t support touch at all.
But why would that be the case since the Windows 8 operating environment is designed primarily for touch? Though no one at Dell discussed this point with me, I expect it reflects the preferences of business customers that want or need to migrate from older laptops and PCs to new endpoint systems but wish to minimize the intrinsic hassles of Windows 8. One can argue the value of Microsoft’s strategy of extending a common interface across its Windows endpoint platforms, but that doesn’t eliminate the steep user learning curve for Windows 8 that translates into lost time and productivity for employees. Dell understands that issue and is offering clients a way around it.
One last point: I haven’t used a docking port for a decade and a half, but the Dell E-Port Plus Dock that arrived with my test system is a pure pleasure. Not only is it easy to use, but it helped me unscramble that tangle of wires, cables and components that are common in my (and I expect many other peoples’) work space. The E-Port Plus Dock also simplifies using dual monitors via full size DisplayPort inputs.
So how did the Latitude 12 perform? Overall, extremely well. Though some would say it’s a bit heavier than some other ultra-mobile laptops, the Latitude 12 is about the same weight as my workhorse Dell XPS 13. More importantly, onboard features that are hard to find in most alternative laptops, including HDMI, an extra USB 3.0 port, GB Ethernet connection and SD card slot make up for any extra bulk. I found Dell’s estimated 7+ hours of battery life for the system to be accurate and more than adequate for my needs. Plus, the swappable thin-line battery (difficult to find in ultra-mobile laptops) makes it easy to pack-along extra power.
The 4th Gen Intel Core i5 processor delivered excellent performance for normal office tasks, and Intel’s integrated HD 4400 graphics was peppy and consistent. The HD (1920×1080) backlit touch display allows the Latitude 12 to support far higher and more pleasing graphics performance than many other business class laptops (including Dell’s non-touch Latitude 5000 and 7000 models). The matte black finish (courtesy of the carbon fiber material used to stiffen the top) gives the Latitude 12a solidly professional appearance.
Do I have any complaints about the Latitude 12? A couple. Like some other reviews, I noticed an excessive amount of flex in the keyboard. It isn’t a deal breaker, but it does stand out compared to my XS 13 and mars Dell’s otherwise clear focus on business class quality. In addition, at just 128GB, the SSD seems a bit puny, particularly given the Latitude 12 support for higher quality graphics. Of course, users who need additional onboard storage can always add a SD card, but the lack of a simple SSD upgrade option seems odd.
Otherwise, the Dell Latitude 12 is a terrific laptop that should suit the needs of business professionals looking for a high quality, ultra-mobile solution. But should Dell be looking over its shoulder at the new Microsoft Surface Pro 3 or what might eventually become a wave of similar, larger form factor tablets/hybrids? Not at this point. While Microsoft has certainly made significant improvements and clearly intends to go after business users (and not just Apple’s customers), the Surface Pro 3 suffers many of the same feature and performance limitations as other tablets.
More significantly, though, buying the Surface Pro 3 requires customers to buy into Microsoft’s essential, touch-centric strategic vision for Windows 8. That is clearly not the case of the Latitude 12 or the rest of the Latitude family. In fact, Dell has designed its Latitude portfolio to support the critical needs, preferences and practices of business professionals. In my opinion, that point in concert with the considerable strength of solutions like the Latitude 12 E7240 is more likely to please existing customers and attract new clients to Dell than it will inspire them to abandon the company for Microsoft or other ultra-mobile competitors.
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