Almost every school around the globe is looking for a durable, ultraportable laptop that can survive use and abuse in the classroom, and Dell promises they have the perfect solution in the form of the new Latitude 2100 netbook. The first Latitude netbook offers a low-cost answer to the specific needs of K-12 students, teachers and school administrators. We spent a few weeks testing the Latitude 2100 to see if it indeed is the perfect classroom companion.
Build and Design
The Dell Latitude 2100 is the first netbook from the Latitude family of business PCs and the first "serious" netbook we've seen that is so clearly focused on education. Dell claims its designers worked closely with hundreds of students, teachers, parents and administrators to create an education netbook that focuses on helping students learn. It's a little too early to tell whether schools will start filling their classrooms with Latitude 2100 netbooks, but this tough little laptop certainly has a lot going for it. The rugged, rubber-coated exterior, antimicrobial keyboard, and optional solid state drives should survive everything from a messy kindergartner to an accidental drop off the desk by a teacher.
Dell even found a way to help teachers make sure students are paying attention in class. A Network Activity Light on the top edge of the lid helps teachers monitor network use and identify students who may be surfing the Internet. The light stays constantly lit when the netbook is on and a web browser is closed, but the light begins flashing if a student opens a web browser or chat application ... so teachers can instantly see who needs to spend some extra time in detention. (Attention students: There's no easy way to disable the network activity light ... not even in the BIOS. Dell actually wants you to pay attention to your teacher.)
Our review unit of the Latitude 2100 features "School bus gold" exterior, but Dell also offers the Latitude 2100 in Chalkboard black, Schoolhouse red, Blue ribbon, and Ballfield green ... almost every color needed to promote your school colors. Build quality is quite good thanks to thick plastic construction and the thick rubber armor covering the top and bottom of the chassis. The matte black plastics used around the screen, keyboard, and palmrests show only minimal flex under heavy pressure. You can create ripples across the screen by pressing on the back of the screen lid, but other than that the Latitude 2100 feels rock solid. The keyboard is very firm and the screen hinges provide excellent tension. Sure, the design is thick and heavy for a netbook, but this bad boy will survive abuse that would probably break other netbooks. In short, this certainly doesn't feel like a $400 laptop.
The bottom of the netbook chassis shows a clean design with no easy access panels. Since the base of the netbook also doesn't have vent holes the rubberized bottom of the netbook keeps the internal components safe from spills in the classroom or at home. If the school IT manager wants to upgrade the RAM or hard drive they will have to remove the entire bottom of the netbook. That said, most schools will purchase extended service agreements from Dell for any repairs or upgrades ... so this shouldn't be an issue.
Screen and Speakers
The Dell Latitude 2100 uses a nice and bright 10.1-inch LED-backlit display panel with a 1024 x 576 native resolution. This is a little less that the standard 1024 x 600 resolution seen on most 10-inch netbooks, but the difference isn't particularly noticeable. Our review unit includes the optional touchscreen which has a semi-gloss surface similar to the screens used on most dedicated GPS devices. Vertical viewing angles are average, with obvious color inversion when viewing from below and some over-exposed colors when viewed from above. Horizontal viewing angles are okay but colors start to shift at wide viewing angles (possibly a result of the touchscreen layer).
The screen might not look special compared to every other 10-inch netbook on the market, but the optional touchscreen is a first for an education netbook and makes the Latitude 2100 something new for enhanced student interaction and easier special education teaching. The resistive touchscreen provides good accuracy, but the limited resolution of the 10-inch screen makes it a bit difficult for large fingers to move the cursor to small icons or specific lines of text on the screen. Unlike the ASUS Eee PC T91 netbook tablet that we recently reviewed, the Dell Latitude 2100 doesn't come pre-loaded with software that takes advantage of the touchscreen interface. In other words, you can touch the screen rather than use the touchpad or a mouse, but Dell doesn't include any useful applications to make the touchscreen interface more useful. I also can't help but question the usefulness of a touchscreen that cannot rotate into a tablet orientation for writing on the screen or for simplified Touchscreen use.
The built-in speaker performance on the Latitude 2100 is acceptable for a netbook but isn't particularly impressive. The built-in stereo speakers are located on both sides of the screen and are in the perfect position to direct sound toward the user. That said, audio quality is rather average with good highs but very little bass. The speakers get loud enough to fill a room with sound, but distortion starts to become obvious at higher volume levels and music sounds like it's being played from inside a tin can. On the bright side, the audio output from the headphone jack is good when paired with earphones or a good set of external speakers.
Dell Latitude 2100 Keyboard and Touchpad
The 2100 uses a new keyboard that feels like a strange hybrid of the keyboard on the Dell Mini 10 netbook and the keyboards on the older D-series Latitudes. The antimicrobial keyboard surface features a nice textured finish that makes typing easy and enjoyable. The key size and spacing might be a little small for adult hands, but younger students should have no problems typing school papers or emails to teachers on this keyboard. The keyboard is nice and firm with zero flex.
Dell was kind enough to include dedicated volume up, volume down, and mute buttons so students (and teachers) can easily adjust the volume for webcasts or video presentations. The power button also serves as a quick Windows shutdown key, but that might prove problematic from time to time since there's no way to stop the PC from shutting down if you accidentally press the power button.
The Dell touchpad used on the 2100 is a little small, but that's pretty common for 10-inch netbooks. Still, I feel like the touchpad could have been larger if Dell moved the volume and power buttons up and shifted the position of the keyboard up just a little. Despite the small size the matte touchpad texture feels fine and offers good sensitivity and smooth movement. The touchpad buttons have relatively deep feedback with cushioned clicks.
Input and Output Ports
The port selection on the Latitude 2100 is pretty basic, but perfectly sufficient for student needs. This netbook includes three USB 2.0 ports, VGA out, Ethernet, microphone and headphone jacks, and even a 3-in-1 media card slot. One surprisingly cool feature is the inclusion of two security lock slots. This allows schools to secure the netbooks to a computer lab on either side or attach a handle/strap for students to carry the netbook between classes.
Performance and Benchmarks
It's safe to say that most K-12 school districts don't require computers with extreme performance. Typing a school assignment in Microsoft Word, browsing the web while researching a class project, or maybe running some specific software for an advanced class is about as much work as most school laptops ever receive. This is why netbooks might make surprisingly good choices for schools.
The performance section of a netbook review is generally very boring compared to a full-featured notebook because most netbook have virtually identical specs. All Intel Atom-based netbooks have nearly identical performance in terms of actual real-world use. Overall performance with the Intel Atom platform is very reasonable for daily activities like Web browsing, email, using Microsoft Office, listening to music, and watching DVD-quality movies. If you're in a bind you can even use Photo Editing Software like Photoshop or GIMP for basic image editing.
The use of Intel GMA 950 integrated graphics is probably the only major limitation for netbooks. This integrated graphics processor (IGP) is powerful enough to handle displaying a PowerPoint presentation on a projector or watching DVD quality movies, but if 1080p video playback or video editing is your primary concern then you'll want to look elsewhere. We selected a family-friendly movie trailer and downloaded three different versions in 480p, 720p, and 1080p resolutions. We used the CCCP Codec Pack for decoding and Media Player Classic Homecinema (version 1.1.796.0) for playing all of the video files.
Heat and Noise
External temperatures on the new Latitude 2100 are mostly what we consider to be "lap friendly" over most of the netbook's surface. The one exception to this general rule is the area near the hard drive on the bottom of the 2100. Temperature readings taken from the outside of the rubberized plastic chassis remained mostly in the 80s and 90s but the area around the hard drive exceeded 100 degrees.
Below are images indicating the temperature readings (listed in degrees Fahrenheit) taken inside our office where the ambient temperature was 74 degrees Fahrenheit.
The cooling fan inside the Dell Latitude 2100 was surprisingly loud. It's not the kind of noise that would be disruptive to a class, but it is louder than most current generation netbooks. I suspect the cooling fan has to work harder because the protective rubberized exterior acts like something of a thermal blanket keeping heat inside the netbook chassis.
Battery life with the 6-cell lithium-ion extended life battery is reasonably impressive for a netbook, but not as impressive as some of the Asus Eee PC netbooks. In our test with the screen brightness set to 70%, wireless active, and XP set to the laptop/portable power profile the system stayed on for 6 hours and 23 minutes of constant use. Considering that most schools aren't likely to use these netbooks for more than a few hours without charging I think it's safe to say the battery life will meet or exceed school needs.
Speaking of charging the batteries, in addition to the included 65W power adapter, the Latitude 2100 is available with a "Mobile Computing Station" -- a cart to securely store, recharge, manage and network up to 24 Latitude 2100 netbooks with one Ethernet and power cord. However, while the Mobile Computing Station is cool it is prohibitively expensive at a cost of $3,899 each.
It's also worth pointing out that the 3-cell and 6-cell batteries have a personalized window on the back of the battery pack where the school logo or name can be displayed, allowing schools to personalize or easily identify the owner of the netbook.
The new Dell Latitude 2100 probably deserves a place on the shopping lists for most schools and maybe even some parents should consider purchasing this netbook for their youngsters. For between $400 and $600 you get a very rugged laptop that is easy to use and portable enough for kids to toss in a backpack. Extra features like the dual security lock slots, network activity light, personalized window over the battery, and optional mobile computing station will certainly prove very attractive to educators and parents.
The hardware specs might not seem too impressive compared to the kind of desktop or 15-inch notebook you can buy for $400, but if you're in the market for a low-cost portable laptop for young students then the Latitude 2100 makes perfect sense.
Although Dell clearly had schools in mind when they designed the Latitude 2100, this netbook might honestly offer a little something for everybody. Individual consumers or businesses looking for a durable business-class netbook will likely be attracted to the Latitude 2100 for everything from outdoor activities to on-location training and customer service.
Bottom line, despite the bulk and weight this is indeed one impressive netbook.