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Dell gets rugged to pump up sales

The Latitude XFR D630 is basically a Latitude D630 in full body armor built to withstand extreme temperatures, falls, moisture, dust, and more.

The Latitude XFR D630 from Dell is not sexy.

But that's not the point. The PC maker's first ruggedized notebook isn't having a New York coming-out party with runway models a la the colorful Inspiron and XPS laptops from last summer. But the company does hope that an option for a tough exterior whets the appetites of some of its most loyal customers, large IT departments.

Latitude XFR
Dell's first rugged notebook, the Latitude XFR D630. Dell

The Latitude XFR D630 is basically a Latitude D630 in full body armor built to withstand extreme temperatures, falls, moisture, dust, and more.

Dell isn't really breaking any new ground here. Panasonic has been doing its Toughbook thing for a while now, and neither is Dell trying to beat Panasonic with lower prices. At a starting price of $3,899, that's more than the lowest-priced configuration of the Panasonic Toughbook CF-30, the Latitude's closest equivalent. So why rugged and why now?

Dell has been in turnaround mode for about a year now. Recent earnings reports seem to indicate that there's still much more that needs to be done. Sure, Dell has been trying a lot of new things, all at the same time, and, yes, it can be a tad dizzying. One need only review its stream of press releases over the past year to understand the cacophony that is its corporate message. The slew of new products and strategies, many taken directly from its own customers' suggestions, do include some trendy and new (for Dell) ideas: Linux! Colors! Green computing! New focus on design! Retail!

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But it's the arguably boring, ostensibly more practical enterprise niches Dell is going after that might be the keys to reinvigorating the company. Dell is spending a lot of energy lately on the business notebook segment. (See the Latitude XT Tablet announced in December.) The people who buy the XFR D630 likely won't buy it for its looks or cost, but for easy compatibility. The Latitude XFR D630 is just a ruggedized version of the Latitude D630, which is a standard issue for many IT departments. Dell is hoping that its customers will simply swap in the XFR version for certain employees that require tougher notebooks.

Director of product management for Dell's commercial notebooks Brett McAnally says the ruggedized Latitude is "100 percent compatible" with other Latitude D-series notebooks. That means common batteries, AC adapters, software, and more. "When IT wants to update, it can update in a standard way," McAnally said.

Dell's consistent mantra for the past year has been "simplifying IT," and this fits in well enough with that strategy. But there are lots of questions the company still needs to answer. Will Dell be stuck playing catch-up with its peers after abandoning the one thing that made it different--and incredibly successful--from everyone else? And it's still defining exactly what kind of company it wants to be. Consumer friendly? Or business focused?

With a bit of momentum in product shipments on its side, a renewed sense of purpose, and no pesky corporate scandals hanging over its head, the company has a clean slate and a chance to stake out a new identity over the course of this year. So far, what that will be is still a little murky.