Dell, characteristically, has bided its time before entering the Tablet PC arena. Tablet PCs have been around for several years, but have struggled to become mainstream despite support from top-tier manufacturers such as HP and Fujitsu Siemens.
Dell has been circumspect about the format, but saw the building of Tablet PC functionality into Windows Vista and Intel's low-power Santa Rosa platform as key features in prompting entry to the market. The result is the Latitude XT, available for around £1,129.
The Latitude XT is impressive to look at: its slate-grey outer casing is mirrored inside the clamshell on the wrist rest; blue and silver highlights are used for buttons and key markings, and the visual design is generally very appealing. There is a blue power light on the lid section to remind you if the Latitude XT is turned on, along with a battery charge icon.
We like the Latitude XT's slimmed-down power supply, which is no taller or heavier than your average mobile phone (although it's a little wider and fatter). It's much easier to carry around than the usual laptop power bricks and we're happy with the slightly slower charge times that its 45W capacity offers as a trade-off. Hopefully, Dell will start a trend here.
This is a convertible Tablet PC that's likely to be carried around for significant periods of time in 'screen outermost' mode, ready for pen input. The problem facing manufactures is to incorporate a screen large enough to work with while keeping the weight down to a manageable level.
Dell uses a 12.1-inch screen on the Latitude XT, with a native resolution of 1,280x800 pixels. You can have an outdoor-viewable screen with a brightness of 400 nits or a more standard 220-nit LED backlit display.
Tablet PCs need to cater for handwriting recognition, form filling and other pen-based activities. However, it's not always necessary to use a stylus: less precise activities like opening applications or choosing and running a presentation can be handled simply by tapping at the screen with a finger.
Previous dual-mode (stylus/finger) touchscreens have used resistive technology, which requires considerable downward pressure to register with the digitiser, leading to accuracy and durability problems. The Latitude XT is currently unique in using N-trig's capacitive DuoSense technology, which supports 'zero-pressure' finger touch, employs advanced 'palm-rejection' algorithms to distinguish between intended and unintended contact, and uses a pressure-sensitive stylus for realistic inking.
Capacitive touchscreens on product such as the Apple iPhone 3G are relatively expensive to build, but are more accurate and easier to use than resistive units; there are also fewer layers over the LCD, resulting in a clearer, sharper display.
The Latitude XT weighs 1.61kg with the 4-cell battery in place, which isn't uncomfortably heavy for moderate periods of tablet-style usage, with the laptop held in the crook of an arm.
The system measures 297 by 25 by 218mm, and Dell claims that this makes it one of the thinnest 12.1-inch Tablet PCs on the market. However, if you want an optical drive you'll need to purchase the optional media slice, adding to both bulk and weight.
The keyboard is very impressive: it has plenty of key travel, which may not suit all tastes, but it's also rigid and delivers a responsive 'click', which makes touch-typing easier. Dell provides a touch pad and a pointing stick -- the latter nestles between the G, H and B keys and has its own left and right mouse buttons just beneath the space bar.
The screen section is framed by an array of buttons that help you use the Latitude XT effectively in tablet mode. The main power button is here, along with a bank of four that access Outlook, initiate system log off and shut down, rotate the screen and fire up a Dell applet for adjusting system features like the display, audio, power management and pen input.
All of these buttons need to be depressed quite a long way to have an effect, and the power button in particular needs to be pressed in and then held for a noticeable period before the system switches on or off. This takes a little getting used to, but does prevent accidental activation.
There's also a fingerprint sensor in the screen frame, along with a scroll wheel and back button on the upper right edge. These are for use in tablet mode only; with the XT in clamshell mode they are hidden under the keyboard facing edge of the screen.
The screen's swivel hinge feels solid and robust and if we have a complaint on this front, it's the locking system. This amounts to two small protrusions to the left and right of the keyboard section, which slot into recesses on the screen section when the laptop is closed and when it's in tablet mode. They make a stab at holding the screen in position, but are rather half-hearted and no substitute for a proper locking system.
Our review sample of the Latitude XT was powered by Intel's 1.2GHz Core 2 Duo U7600 processor and came with 1GB of DDR2 RAM, expandable to 3GB. The operating system is Windows Vista Business, with Windows Vista Ultimate and Windows XP Tablet PC Edition optionally available.
Graphics are handled by the discrete ATI Radeon Xpress 1250 chipset, while for storage there's a 40GB hard drive spinning at 4,200rpm. You can opt for hard drive capacities up to 120GB or choose solid-state storage in either 32GB or 64GB capacities. This is one of the pricier upgrades, with the 64GB option adding £561 to the overall price, with prices correct at the time of writing.
The Latitude XT comes without an optical drive. If you want one, you can add a MediaBase. This is essentially a slice that fits to the underside of the laptop, adding a DVD +/- RW drive and a number of additional ports and connectors. It will set you back £98.
Our review model had Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g), but not Bluetooth. There is also optional support for 3G/HSDPA connectivity: Vodafone is Dell's network partner and the internal HSDPA card will add £102 to the price (your Vodafone contract is extra).
If the HSDPA module is built in, there's pop-out antenna on the back left edge of the casing. This is on a rotating hinge so you can move it around to get the best signal. The antenna feels flimsy and is easily pulled right out of its socket, so it could easily get lost.
There are plenty of ports and connectors. On the left edge is a single USB 2.0 port and a 4-pin FireWire port. The right edge offers another USB 2.0 port, an ExpressCard slot, an SD card card reader and a pair of audio jacks. This side also has a mechanical switch for the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios and, right next to this, a button that runs an application called Wi-Fi Catcher. This shows all available wireless networks, their security status (locked or open) and signal strength. It's a quick step from here to the Wireless Manager to make a connection.
The back edge carries the mains power connector, VGA out, Ethernet and a third USB 2.0 port. There's also a small power connector for an external optical drive here.
With its 1.2GHz processor, the Latitude XT is not at the top of the performance league. Its Windows Experience Index (WEI) was 3.5 out of 5.9, which is well down our table of top performers. The WEI corresponds to the lowest component score, which went to Gaming Graphics (3D business and gaming graphics performance).
Other scores were more respectable, with 4.1 for RAM (Memory operations per second) and Graphics (desktop performance for Windows Aero); 4.4 for Processor (calculations per second); and 4.5 for Primary hard disk (Disk data transfer rate).
Battery life could be better, too. We got solid half-day's work out of the Latitude XT, but it needed a power boost during the day to keep it going and a charge at night to ensure that it was ready for work the next day. This is disappointing: the 6-cell primary battery or a second battery may be needed if mobile uptime is critical for you.
Dell offers a three-year basic warranty on the Latitude XT, which is welcome for business users.
The Latitude XT is an extremely handsome Tablet PC and a very usable one, thanks to its excellent screen and keyboard. However, battery life and performance are both disappointing. If you need an optical drive, HSDPA, Bluetooth, a bigger hard drive or (particularly) solid-state storage, you'll find that the price soon mounts up.
Additional editing by Shannon Doubleday