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Dell hopes tough guys still buy laptops

Recession aside, the $4,299 ruggedized laptop gets an internal tuneup and a new exterior material the PC maker is calling Ballistic Armor.

Dell Latitude E64 XFR
Second-gen ruggedized Latitude from Dell. Dell

Dell is back with a slimmed down version of its fully rugged 14-inch laptop.

Like the company itself, the XFR's second-gen improvements on the device are incremental and in some cases, slightly experimental. The E6400 XFR is the name of what used to be the Latitude XFR D630. The laptop gets an internal tuneup, boasting better processing power (Intel Core2Duo), discrete graphics enabled by better cooling. The new XFR also keeps most of its original features: touch screen, a solid-state drive, mobile broadband, GPS, and long battery life. In this case, Dell says an additional battery pack will keep the laptops going for up to 13 hours.

The XFR is strengthened by a new exterior material the PC maker is calling Ballistic Armor, which replaces the magnesium alloy used in its other laptops. It's allowed the machine to be trimmed down--it's now 8.5 pounds instead of 9 pounds--and also strengthened: it meets military specifications for ruggedness and can withstand a 4-foot drop rather than 3.

Ballistic Armor was developed by a partner company and licensed exclusively to Dell. It's a hybrid, nonmetal polymer designed to better absorb shocks and withstand the elements. That Dell is experimenting with different materials is intended to signal its willingness to try new things and focus on creating different options for targeted customers.

In this case, that's military contractors, government, and utility company field workers, law enforcement, and other groups that are not known for being particularly gentle with their computers.

Oddly enough, Dell doesn't feel particularly bashful about launching a laptop that starts at $4,299 at a time when many people are having trouble paying their mortgages and others are afraid to even look at their 401(k). Unlike its most high-profile upcoming launch, the high-end consumer laptop called Adamo, about to hit shelves as consumer spending drops off of a cliff, Dell appears to believe XFR is almost perfectly timed for its target demographic at this particular moment. The machine is nowhere close to being considered cheap, but that's not a problem for the federal government agencies and Department of Defense employees the XFR is aimed at.

"With the stimulus package under way, we're getting lots of interest," said Patrick Burns, a member of Latitude's product marketing team.

It will also available for the first time outside of the U.S., in Canada and much of Western Europe.