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Dell Adamo--a MacBook Air alternative with 3G

The aluminum-clad Dell Adamo 13 is more than a MacBook Air wannabe. And it's worth another look, considering the high-quality construction and, most importantly, its integrated 3G option.

The aluminum-clad Dell Adamo 13 isn't a MacBook Air. But it's close enough to warrant another look at the ultraslim laptop and its integrated 3G option.

The Dell Adamo 13 is about as thin as a 13-inch laptop gets.
The Dell Adamo 13 is about as thin as a 13-inch laptop gets. Brooke Crothers

First, let's get the price comparison out of the way. The 13.4-inch Dell Adamo has come way down in price since it was announced in March 2009. The ultraslim laptop now sells for $999 with a 128GB solid-state drive, 2GB of memory, Intel GS45 integrated graphics, and a 1.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SU9400 ultra-low-voltage (10-watt) processor. It weighs in at just under 4 pounds.

The recently announced 13.3-inch MacBook Air sells for $1,299 with a 128GB solid-state drive, 2GB of memory, Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics, and an Intel 1.86GHz Core 2 Duo SL9400 (17-watt) processor. It weighs 2.9 pounds.

I use both an Air (the previous generation Air with the 1.86GHz SL9400 processor and Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics) and the Adamo. Enough has been said by me and others about the merits of the Air, so I won't repeat those plaudits here.

That said, the Adamo is a slick, well-conceived, high-quality machine with a few features that make the Air seem, let's say, less perfect. One thing I have always liked about the Adamo is that it has no screws. You won't find a single screw on the outside of the main aluminum enclosure (not including the aluminum screen enclosure, which has two screws). That's a nice design touch. The Adamo also packs eSATA and Ethernet connectors--not available on the Air. And the slightly larger 13.4-inch screen seems to be brighter and have a bit better contrast than the Air's.

The Dell-Ericsson WWAN (3G) PCI Express Mini Card.
The Dell-Ericsson WWAN (3G) PCI Express Mini Card. Brooke Crothers

But the most important point of departure from the Air is the availability of integrated 3G (see photo). When I'm traveling, a laptop quickly becomes little more than a worthless slab of aluminum (or plastic) if I can't get Internet access. And good Wi-Fi Internet access isn't always easy to come by. (This is one of the reasons I have gravitated more and more to my iPad 3G. And, along these lines, despite the obvious economics of a Verizon MiFi or smartphone WiFi hotspot, I still like the convenience and performance of built-in 3G.)

So, I ordered the AT&T 3G card from Dell, aka, the "Dell Wireless 5530 (Tri-band HSDPA 7.2/HSUPA 2.0 and GPS) PCI Express Mini Card," ($159.99 at Dell's Web site) and installed it.

Using a utility knife (the blade wrapped in a thin layer of tape, to make sure it doesn't scratch the Adamo), it's simply a matter of sliding three metal ears (Look Ma, no screws!): one on the front, two on either side. The bottom is released and the motherboard in all its well-ordered glory exposed. (See complete iFixit teardown here).

The card is initialized using the Dell Mobile Broadband Manager, after you have registered the SIM card with AT&T. And that's another nice feature. The SIM card slot is on the outside, a very convenient feature that is not on other Dell laptops like the Latitude E4200 (the E4200 puts it inside the laptop).

Inside the Adamo: the 3G card goes in the open WWAN slot. And that's where it resides now.
Inside the Adamo: the 3G card goes in the open WWAN slot. And that's where it resides now. Brooke Crothers

So far, connection speeds have been excellent. Pages load quickly and rival any Wi-Fi connection at Starbucks. In fact, the AT&T 3G connection is speedier than my iPad's AT&T 3G. But that may also be a function of the overall system: Let's face it, a dual-core Intel laptop is faster--in some cases, a lot faster--than an iPad.

Dell's Adamo is almost a bargain at $999 (with Windows 7 Home Premium, 64-bit) considering the quality of construction and all of the features Dell packs into a 0.65-inch thin laptop. And certainly is worthy of consideration vis-a-vis the MacBook Air if you want to stay in the Windows-only camp.

Updated at 11:50 p.m. PST: adding discussion about Verizon MiFi and smartphones with Wi-Fi hotspots versus 3G built into the laptop.