Once just a consumer's gadget, netbooks have found a market in the business world as well as among educators. Today we look at Dell's offering, the Latitude 2120 featuring a 10-inch display and eight hours of battery life.
These are rank-and-file specifications for a modern netbook. The dual-core Atom processor is notable as the base 2120 comes with a single-core Atom N455; the N550 is significantly more powerful. The MSRP of $608 is well on the high side; typically netbooks go for $400-500. We'll see if the Latitude 2120 is worth extra.
Build and Design
The 2120 at first glance looks like something out of a toy catalog – it's thick, block-like, and blue. My first impression was, "There's no way Dell is serious with this design." But they are, and the kid-friendly design fits with the education market, so let's take a closer look.
The blue exterior is actually a rubber coating; it has an inlaid square pattern and feels soft yet durable. It extends to the underside of the machine as well, save for the battery. As a computer intended for business use, this might not have been the best color choice though. The 2120 is constructed out of high-strength ABS plastic. The matte black plastic has a slightly granular texture and is quite solid. Keeping in tradition with business notebooks, there is no glossy plastic used on the exterior.
The overall build quality is excellent. None of the plastics flex under pressure. The display resists twisting well yet could use more protection from the back; I was able to produce some ripples by pressing on the back. The display hinges are strong and do not allow the display to wobble back and forth.
There is a meager array of design features. The most noticeable physical feature is actually the extended battery, which protrudes out the bottom and effectively doubles the thickness. A 3-cell battery is available that sits flush with the chassis. The volume control buttons, keyboard status lights and power button are all characterized by overly-bright blue LEDs. Power, hard drive, battery, and wireless indicator lights are located at the bottom left corner of the chassis. There is a light bar at the top of the back of the display, which does not appear to serve any functional purpose.
Upgrading the 2120's internal components is tedious and time consuming; replacing the memory module or hard drive requires removing the keyboard and access panel. Overall the 2120 has impressive build quality for a netbook, Although the toy-like external appearance makes a perfect fit for K-12 education, it seem out of place in the business world.
Ports and Features
The 2120 has the bare essentials as far as ports go, which is expected on a netbook. It does not have USB 3.0, ExpressCard, eSATA, or an internal optical drive. It is interesting to note the 2120 has two Kensington Lock slots.
All picture descriptions are left to right.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The 2120's 90% full-size keyboard is supremely comfortable to type on and has an excellent feel. Keys are solid and there is no flex. This keyboard is relatively quiet and can be used without annoying others. I am especially surprised to see dedicated home, end, page up, and page down keys; netbook makers typically sacrifice these keys when making keyboards smaller. The 2120 has one of the most usable netbook keyboards I have tested.
The touchpad is a different story. It's cramped, measuring only two inches wide and just over an inch tall. Unless the sensitivity is set high, you will be dragging your finger across it several times to move the mouse to the other side of the screen. The touchpad buttons are also an issue; they are tough to find by feel and also require more pressure than they should.
Screen and Speakers
The 2120 has a 10.1-inch widescreen display with a 1024x600 resolution. The anti-glare coating is appreciated since it cuts down on glare and makes cleaning easy. Color reproduction is satisfactory as is brightness and contrast. Viewing angles are poor; colors distort easily when viewed more than 20 degrees off-center either up or down.
The downfall of this display is the resolution. I can deal with 1024 horizontal pixels, but just 600 pixels on the vertical? To put this in perspective, this means less than a third of a page in a Microsoft Word document can be viewed at once without scrolling. This lack of space applies to any application like surfing the Internet. Dell offers the 2120 with a much better 1366x768 screen resolution, which I highly recommend; it will make the netbook much more usable.
The 2120 has two stereo speakers located on either side of the display. They are tinny and have no bass; on the upside, at least they are aiming at the user.
Performance and Benchmarks
Netbook performance has improved considerably since they arrived on the scene four years ago. The 2120 has a newer Intel dual-core processor, which improves multitasking capabilities. 2GB of RAM is more than enough for general usage; typically, netbooks have only included 1GB. Lastly, the 250GB 5400RPM drive is light on power consumption yet provides enough on the performance front to not hold the machine back. Dell offers the 2120 with even faster 7200RPM drives.
As someone coming from a modern mainstream notebook with a full-power processor, the 2120 feels slightly sluggish in everyday operation. Web pages take perhaps 0.5 – 1 second longer to load. YouTube videos sometimes drop frames, depending on the video. Otherwise, the performance is adequate for office applications. Keep in mind that netbooks are intended to be secondary machines; some performance compromises are acceptable in order to keep price and power consumption down.
Heat and Noise
Under normal usage conditions such surfing the Internet or typing documents, the 2120's chassis is only lukewarm. There is one small fan that pushes warm air out the left side of the chassis, however it seldom turns on; when it does, it is audible but easily forgotten against any background noise. The 2120 is otherwise is silent. All external temperatures shown below are listed in degrees Fahrenheit.
Our 2120 review unit is equipped with the optional 6-cell extended battery (56Wh). During our standard battery rundown test (Windows 7 Balanced power profile active, 70% screen brightness, wireless active, and refreshing a web page every 60 seconds), the 2120 lasted eight hours before hitting the 10% warning. This is a great time for a netbook; the price paid of course is the big extended battery sticking out the bottom. The standard 3-cell battery sits flush with the chassis.
The Latitude 2120 is one of the few netbooks on the market designed for business usage. It has a great keyboard, solid build quality, and an anti-glare display, all of which are expected in business machines. Another upside is the excellent eight-hour runtime courtesy of the oversized 6-cell battery.
The 2120 is not without its downsides. Its rubber blue exterior makes it look and feel like a toy as opposed to a business machine. The 2120 is also quite thick and bulky, compounding the awkward appearance. Furthermore, the touchpad is cramped and has hard-to-press buttons. Lastly, our test unit's 1024x600 screen resolution requires too much scrolling; we recommend the optional 1366x768 screen.
In the end, recommending the Latitude 2120 comes down to price. At over $600 with a one-year warranty, our test unit is far too expensive for a netbook, even a business-oriented version. It is important to point out, however, that Dell sells this netbook to many school districts under special pricing plans, so it's possible that the per-unit price is more attractive for some clients. Assuming the price is right, the Latitude 2120 otherwise is a reasonable pick.