Pity the poor Netbook. Once the belle of the personal computing ball, this type of small, low-cost PC has virtually fallen off a cliff during the past 12 months. The reasons for this sudden change of fortune are complex, but the chief among them are the rise of Apple's similarly priced iPad and the lack of Netbook performance improvements over the years. PC makers have added features, from 3G to touch screens, but could do little to boost Netbooks' anemic speed. The final nail was probably the introduction of low-end ultraportables, many with AMD's Fusion platform, that could cost as little as $450 but felt much more powerful than Netbooks with Intel's Atom chip.
One of the only new Netbooks we've seen in 2011 is this updated version from Dell's Latitude business line. The Latitude 2120 pushes the definition of a Netbook to the edge, with options for a touch screen, a higher-resolution display, and twice the RAM of a typical Netbook. Our $608 review unit has a dual-core Intel Atom N550 CPU, 2GB of RAM, and a 250GB hard drive, but skips the touch screen and 1,366x768-pixel display (that build runs about $140 more).
For a Netbook, it's not only capable, but solidly built and easy to type on--but any Netbook over $400 is a tough sell. The Lenovo ThinkPad X120e and HP Pavilion dm1z both have faster AMD Fusion E-350 CPUs and higher-resolution 11-inch screens and cost less than the Latitude 2120.
|Price as reviewed / starting price||$608 / $414|
|Processor||1.5GHz Intel Atom N550 Dual Core|
|Memory||2GB, 667MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||250GB 7,200rpm|
|Graphics||Intel GMA 3150|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Home Premium (32-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||10.4x7.4 inches|
|Height||0.9 - 1.6 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||10.1 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||3.2 pounds/3.9 pounds|
Netbook designs usually have to walk a fine line. With prices that typically hover around the $300 mark, there's only so much a company can invest in design and materials, but as a part of Dell's business line, which carries a premium price over consumer models, this Latitude can get a little fancier.
The Latitude 2102 reminds us of Netbooks we've seen aimed at education markets, as a protective rubber coating covers the lid and bottom panel, and the overall construction feels very solid and sturdy. That makes for a Netbook that isn't the thinnest we've seen, but looks like it could stand up to the rigors of frequent road travel. If this design looks familiar, that's because little if anything has changed since we reviewed the similar Latitude 2100 in 2009, except for the newer dual-core Atom processor. The two laptops even have the same small light on the back of the lid, originally meant for use in classrooms to help teachers make sure systems were on.
Like many business laptops, the Latitude 2120 is designed so that it can be remotely managed by an IT department, and Dell sells (or sold, as it doesn't seem to be currently available from Dell) a Mobile Computing Station cart that can dock up to 24 Netbooks at once for overnight charging and updates.
It's been a while since we were forced to contend with a 10-inch Netbook keyboard, but this is about as good an example as you're likely to find. Skipping the island-style keys found on nearly every laptop these days, the 2120 keyboard is a throwback to the kind of smaller, tapered-key design that used to be commonplace and is still found on a few business systems. As in the older 2100 model, the small touch pad is usable, but the left and right mouse buttons beneath it are small and give only minimal feedback when clicked.
One of the main selling points of the Latitude 2100 is its set of screen options. Our review unit has a standard 10-inch 1,024x600-pixel resolution display, although it's something of a rarity now, with most low-power laptops moving up to 11-inch 1,366x768-pixel displays. However, an upgrade to that resolution is available in a version of the 2120 that costs $80 more, or for about another $60 on top of that you can add a touch-screen display.
No matter if you get the standard or high-res display or the touch screen, all the different versions of the Latitude 2120 have matte screen coatings, which are preferred by many who hate overly glossy screens that are prone to glare and reflections.
|Dell Latitude 2120||Average for category [netbook]|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||3 USB 2.0, SD card reader||3 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
The Latitude 2120 has the same exact ports and connections we would have expected to see a couple of years ago. Bluetooth is missing, a bit of a shocker from a $600 Netbook, and you won't find anything like USB 3.0 or eSATA, nor the HDMI ports found on most 11-inch ultraportables.
Dell is offering several preconfigured versions of the Latitude 2120, ranging in price from $414 all the way up to $746. The lowest-end version has an Intel Atom N455 CPU and 1GB of RAM, and ditches Windows for Ubuntu Linux 10.10. On the other end of the spectrum is a configuration with the dual-core Atom N550, the previously mentioned HD display and touch screen, and 2GB of RAM. We tested a version that was in the middle, with the faster CPU and 2GB of RAM but the lower-resolution screen.
In performance, the Latitude closely matched other Netbooks with the same CPU, running slightly faster in some benchmark tests, slower in others. In hands-on use, the system behaved as one would expect a Netbook to, which is to say fine for moderate use, but prone to occasional slowdowns.