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Dell Latitude D420 review: Dell Latitude D420

The Good Compact size and weight; HSDPA capability; fingerprint reader.

The Bad Very limited 3D-graphics capability.

The Bottom Line The D420's reliable performance, battery life and ability to get online at broadband speeds, with or without a Wi-Fi hotspot, make it one of the best ultra-portable laptops we've ever seen

Visit manufacturer site for details.

8.8 Overall

Review Sections

According to Dell, the Latitude D420 is designed for highly mobile users who value size, weight, battery life and durability over all other aspects of computer use. It's seductively small and light and has the added bonus of an integrated 3G data card, which allows it to get online anywhere with or without a Wi-Fi hotpsot.

Design
The Latitude D420 is attractive for a business laptop. It's not in the same realm as the Sony Vaio TX series, and its ugly gunmetal exterior doesn't do much for it, but its matte-black interior is very easy on the eye. The unit is extremely portable thanks to its 12.1-inch screen and 1.5kg chassis, which is barely noticeable when carried in a briefcase.

Dell has managed to incorporate an almost full-sized keyboard. The Return key is of the standard size and shape; the Tab, Caps Lock and Shift keys are of the right size and the Ctrl key is positioned to the left of the Fn key -- where it should be. As well as the ordinary mouse trackpad, Dell has managed to incorporate a trackpoint mouse 'nipple' between the G and H keys -- complete with corresponding selector buttons below the space bar. The mouse trackpad selector buttons are separated by a fingerprint reader for secure logins.


There's a trackpoint 'nipple' as well as the standard trackpad

There's no integrated webcam on the Latitude D420, so you can't make a visual record of meetings. Nor does it have an integrated optical drive, so you'll have to connect the accompanying Media Base for this luxury. To the left of the laptop is a PC Card slot, memory card reader and a couple of audio jacks. You'll find the power button on the right side near the hinge, a single USB port, and a hardware switch for enabling the Wi-Fi adaptor. This doubles as a Wi-Fi sniffer -- seeking out wireless networks whether the laptop is switched on or off.


The power button sits at the side, alongside a Wi-Fi sniffer switch

Dell has chosen to position the majority of the ports to the rear of the laptop. There are three USB ports, one four-pin FireWire port, an infrared port, a D-Sub video port and LAN and modem ports. Having most of the ports at the rear helps to keep everything neat, but you may run into difficulties when using the D420 on small desks when large USB devices stick out at the rear.

Features
The Latitude D420 is one of the first sub-2kg laptops to use an Intel dual-core processor -- most use a Core Solo or single core Pentium M processor. In this case it's the ultra-low voltage (ULV) 1.2GHz Intel U2500 -- the slowest in the mobile dual-core range. This is paired with 1GB of RAM -- an ample amount that shouldn't require users to reboot every few hours or close application windows to free up memory.



You won't be playing many games with the Latitude D420. There's no ATI or Nvidia card here -- just the integrated graphics adaptor that comes as part of the Intel 945GM chipset. It's fine for displaying presentations, images and videos, but struggles badly with 3D applications.

Our Latitude D420 sample isn't a Centrino laptop, but it's just as good as one. Its 802.11a/b/g Wi-Fi adaptor will let you connect to local Wi-Fi hotspots, but the fact the adaptor is Dell and not Intel-branded means it doesn't qualify for a Centrino badge. Impressively, the D420 has an integrated HSDPA 3G module, the SIM for which lives underneath the battery.

This allows the laptop to connect to cellular networks for Internet access at up to 1.8Mbps, from any location where there's 3G access. In places without 3G coverage, the adaptor connects via GPRS, the speeds for which are in line with standard dial-up data rates. Dell has an agreement with Vodafone so most D420s ship with a SIM card -- you just need to activate it via Vodafone when you receive it. Alternatively you can buy the D420 without an HSDPA card and save yourself £120. The SIM for the HSDPA module lives under the battery.

Access charges for 3G vary, but the basic package, Vodafone Data 250, will cost you £25 per month. This entitles you to 250MB of downloads per month with an additional £1 per MB if you go over your allocation. The Vodafone Data Unlimited service costs £45 per month for unlimited data downloads, subject to Vodafone's 'fair use' policy.

International access charges vary. The laptop comes with an 80GB hard drive. There's no integrated DVD or CD drive -- but there is one included in the accompanying Media Base docking station. This clips onto the bottom of the laptop and provides a few extra ports, including serial, parallel, DVI and an additional USB. It's possible to leave the D420 permanently attached to the Media Base, but it adds around 500g to the overall weight, pushing the total package up to 2kg.

The 12.1-inch display is of a very good standard, and it's good to see a laptop screen that doesn't use a glossy, reflective coating for a change. The display is connected to an ambient light sensor that adjusts the brightness of the screen depending on the lighting conditions in the room -- if it's dark inside, the screen lowers its brightness and vice versa.

The idea behind it is that battery life is prolonged as the screen is never brighter than it needs to be. The laptop comes with a three-year business warranty, which entitles you to 24/7 technical support. You also get a standard nylon carry case, or for £7 extra a rucksack carry case. Software isn't supplied in abundance -- you get Windows XP Professional Edition and Cyberlink PowerDVD DX as standard, so you may need to visit our Downloads channel to stock up.

Performance
We weren't expecting much in the way of performance from the Latitude D420. Sure enough, its bottom-rung dual-core processor clocked up a relatively low 1,911 in PCMark 2005. It's important to remember, however, that this score wouldn't have looked out of place on high-end desktop PCs a couple of years ago.

Gaming performance is nothing to write home about. The Latitude D420's integrated graphics adaptor score a paltry 145 in 3DMark 2006, and we didn't even bother running F.E.A.R on it -- it's unplayable. The laptop impressed us with its battery life, though. It lasted an impressive 208 minutes in a MobileMark 2005 test, so it should have enough stamina to last most users throughout the working day.

Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Elizabeth Griffin

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