The charcoal-and-silver case is appropriately conservative-looking; measuring 11.5 inches wide, 8.5 inches deep (9.5 with the bigger nine-cell battery), and just a hair over 1 inch high, it's an easy fit for laptop cases or shoulder bags. The almost all-metal construction gives the Latitude D420 a reassuring sturdiness, and the system feels like it could stand up to the rigors of regular travel. Dell refers to this (and in fact, all of their Latitude, Precision, and Inspiron notebooks) as "RoadReady," a bit of proprietary jargon that means the designs have been tested to withstand reasonable extremes of humidity, temperature, and mild shocks and falls.
Like most laptops of its size, the Latitude D420's wide-aspect 12.1-inch WXGA UltraSharp display has a native resolution of 1,280x800. The small screen at that resolution makes for some potentially hard-to-read text, but we didn't have any trouble with basic Web surfing or word processing. The display's crispness partially makes up for the loss of impact that comes from a smaller display. While not the brightest notebook screen we've seen, it was easy to see in a brightly lit office environment.
Despite the overall compact vibe of the Latitude D420, Dell manages to cram a full-size keyboard into the case, leaving no oddly placed or hard-to-hit Chiclet-size keys. Both a pointer and a touch pad are included, catering to both major schools of laptop pointer control. There are also two sets of left and right mouse buttons, one pair above the touch pad and one below it. You can set up the touch pad for horizontal or vertical scrolling--a must for navigating long Web pages or documents.
The Latitude D420 has a fairly basic set of ports for a business machine, including two USB 2.0 ports and a mini FireWire port on the rear, plus a PC Card slot, an SD card reader, and mic and headphone jacks on the left side. Video output is limited to a basic VGA connection. For networking, there are Ethernet, modem, and 802.11a/g wireless; Bluetooth and either Cingular or Verizon WWAN are optional. Like other members of the Latitude line, the D420 includes a handy Wi-Fi Catcher; the Wi-Fi on/off switch doubles as a Wi-Fi detector even when the lid is closed or the computer is powered off.
Being an ultraportable system, there is no internal optical drive, but Dell offers a variety of optical drive options. Our review unit came with a Media Base which added a DVI output and parallel port, plus a DVD burner. If you just need a basic read-only drive, switching to a simple external DVD-RAM drive will knock $230 off the price.
For such a small system, our Latitude D420 review unit offered a decent set of components, including a 1.2GHz Intel Core Duo CPU, 1GB of DDR2-533MHz RAM and a 60GB 4,200rpm hard drive. Graphics are provided by Intel's Mobile Express 945GM chipset, which should be fine for office use and occasional media viewing. While every manufacturer seems to be hopping on the Core 2 Duo bandwagon, Dell's Web site mentions a Core Solo CPU as an option, but for now the only CPU choice available through Dell's configurator is the Core Duo in our review unit.
Performance-wise, the Latitude lagged behind other laptops with Core Duo CPUs, such as the Toshiba Satellite P105-S6024 (admittedly a larger desktop-replacement system), in CNET Labs' iTunes and Photoshop CS2 tests. The highlight of the Latitude D420 was its battery life--at 7 hours, 8 minutes (with the larger 9-cell battery), that's 3 hours more than the Lenovo 3000 V100, a similarly configured ultraportable Core Duo system.
The basic warranty on the Latitude D420 is Dell's three-year mail-in plan, which includes lifetime phone support. A variety of upgrade options are available. Moving up to three years of next-business-day onsite service costs an additional $99, while the three-year onsite Business Standard plan is an extra $317 and includes accidental-damage coverage and access to Dell's Gold level of support, which promises, "faster resolution of complex technical issues, easier access to advanced-level technicians, and more comprehensive support."