First is the full-frontal shot. The first thing you may notice is the on-screen keyboard, which seems to be Vista's default setting whenever the "tablet features" are enabled. With the XT, you can just type in your password since the keyboard is right there, but in addition to the physical keyboard and the on-screen keyboard, sliding your finger on the fingerprint scanner (once configured) will also log you in.
Under the keyboard you will find the touch pad. Dell, as with many other manufacturers included both a touch-pad and a track-point. Unfortunately, with the thin chassis design and the fact that the hard drive is located directly under the touchpad (more on that later), the touchpad's surface becomes nearly flush with the palm-rest. This sometimes will cause me to miss the touchpad because clicking outside the touchpad doesn't feel any different. I suppose with experience I will eventually get use to it. I also felt that the touchpad isn't as accurate as the one on my Fujitsu, but then again it might just be another "get use to it" thing.
The next picture is the notebook in tablet mode. Dell's claim of being the "thinnest tablet" is not without its merits. Originally I thought being thin wasn't everything, but once it's in tablet mode it does. Holding the unit in tablet mode is quite comfortable as my finger can easily wrap around the "hinge" area. I can imagine if the unit is considerably thicker, it would become difficult to hold.
The right side of the XT consists of the wireless on/off switch, "Wi-Fi Catcher" switch, one USB 2.0 port, SD card slot, ExpressCard/54 slot, headphone jack, microphone jack and the security lock. One of the nice things about the wireless switch is that you can configure it to control any combination of the wireless devices - Bluetooth, WLAN and WWAN. You can configure it directly in the BIOS or through Dell's "Quick Set" utility which in essence updates the BIOS setting for you. I have it set to only control Bluetooth and WLAN, as I found that most of the time if I am within Wi-Fi range I won't be using the cellular modem, but if I am using the Cellular modem I won't need either BT or WLAN. Furthermore, the SD slot is SDHC compatible. I have a 2GB SD card that my old Fujitsu P5000 failed to read (some 2GB cards are partitioned like a SDHC card) and I haven't had any problems with it on the XT.
On the back of the XT you will find the hole for the power adapter, 15-pin D-Sub monitor output, Ethernet port and the second USB 2.0 port. Note that the "upper deck" of this USB port is Dell's proprietary power port that is used to supply additional current to Dell-specific peripherals (such as the D/Bay unit). Many laptop manufactures now have their own design for this similar purpose, but the sad thing is that (as far as I know of ) none of those peripherals are interchangeable because there is not a common standard for these type of additional power supply connectors (USB specification only allows 500mW via the port's power supply).
Over the top of the ports (on the lid) you will find the navigation control rocker and the "back" button. These two controls aren't accessible in notebook mode, but once you switch to tablet mode (assume you are not a southpaw) they will be right where your index finger is. The navigation rocker can be used to scroll and its click-able (act as the enter key). The other button would act as the "Back" button in supported applications, such as Internet Explorer or within Windows folders, or you can close application by holding it down. The function of the rocker's click, as well as the "back" button, is configurable in software.
Finally, in case you are curious, there are no ports to the opposite side of the hinge, because the pen silo is directly behind that area.
To the left you will find the pen, WWAN antenna (not included unless you order the WWAN option), FireWire port, the third (and final) USB 2.0 port, vent for the CPU fan and the sad mono speaker. The pen rests completely flush with the side of the case, and you actually have to push quite deeply to "click off" the pen, but the WWAN antenna sticks out a little bit. To "click off" the WWAN antenna, you just have to push it until it's nearly flush with the case.
After viewing the ports, you will find more buttons and lights once you open the lid. The first one (with a circular light around it) is the power button. Vista, just like XP, will let you configure what you want to do with that button. I had mine set to hibernate. Next to the power button is the "Lock" button, then "Screen Rotation", "Setup" and "Application" button.
To the right side of the screen you will find the hard drive activity, battery, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth indicators. All of them are blue except when the battery runs low; it will start to blink in red which is a nice reminder. The battery indicator will also stay lit when your laptop is plugged in.
Finally, before we end the photo tour, here is a view of the bottom side with the battery and "card/slots compartment cover" removed. One of the things I noticed is that Dell's battery design for the XT is strange; the battery is practically a "two piece" design where a very thin piece of plastic connects the cells together. I would be worried about putting the battery by itself in my computer case because it felt like if you sit on it wrong the battery will break in two (hopefully I'd never have to find out). The design is needed because, out of all places, Dell put the hard-drive in the dead-center of the battery compartment, directly under the touch pad. I guess in order to make it so thin they are running out of space.
Inside the battery compartment you will also find the SIM slot for GSM / HSDPA modem. It's in the upper-left side of the battery bay, left to the battery contacts. If you look closely at the larger picture you will see a SIM card icon there. Unfortunately, for whatever odd reason Dell currently doesn't offer the integrated HSDPA options for the XT (where it is available in other countries as well as some other Latitude laptops).
Next, the two mini PCI-E slots. In my unit I have ordered the Sprint EV-DO Rev. A WWAN Module (left) and the Draft-N WLAN module (right). There isn't much to explain here; the WWAN module let me access Sprint's network (a Verizon modem is also offered) which also comes with "Connection Manager" software (with Dell branding all over it). The Draft-N module is for Wi-Fi access, which relies on Vista's Wi-Fi manager to manage connections. I don't have a Draft-N router yet, but it works great with all the older B/G routers and access points we have thrown at it so far.
A Closer Look
In this section we will take a closer look at several components. One of the most important things on notebooks is usability, particularly how comfortable it is to use. Since I've already talked about the keyboard, lets look at the screen next.
Part of the XT's hype has to do with its LED backlit screen. If I remember correctly this is the first LED-backlit convertible tablet, and LEDs are supposed to offer better battery life, brighter display, better color accuracy and wider color gamut.Well, I can't attest to power consumption, but I will at least debunk one thing: LED screens are NOT necessary always more accurate in color. Take a look at the picture below.
The first thing you will notice is that this image looks different then all the other pictures. This is because the exposure was metered strictly on the screens, with the ambient light (done via fill-flash) dialed down to reduce glare (so everything else looks slightly under-exposed). Also, this image was shot RAW, and then opened in Photoshop with the white balance manually adjusted to 5500K. No other color, contrast, and sharpness adjustments were done. In this setting, white should appear as white, and guess what, white wasn't white on the XT.
As a matter of fact, as soon as I powered both of them up (even before the calibrated picture is taken) I can instantly recognize the blue tint on the XT's screen. Originally I thought maybe its just that the Fujitsu is a bit warm, but the calibrated image shows the truth. My 5-year-old Fujitsu P5000 has far better color accuracy then the XT.
Finally, another not-so-positive note is that, although the XT's screen does look considerably brighter in person, I am not sure if that's just because of the age difference between them. It is a well known fact that CCFL backlit screens lose their output power over time, and the Fujitsu has been used on a daily basis for the past five years. My Fujitsu's screen was considerably brighter when it was new, and quite frankly I was expecting a bigger difference in brightness between the two.
In all fairness, the XT's screen by itself is nowhere near "poor" by any standard. The image appears sharp with decent color, but perhaps a bit weak on the contrast department. Again, for day-to-day office work, it will serve its purpose just fine. It is only when compared to other laptops that the XT's screen becomes the disappointing sight.
Lets talk about another important feature, connectivity. It is no surprise that many road-warriors these days consider just Bluetooth and Wi-Fi insufficient and I don't blame them. As a frequent flyer myself, I have served my fair share of airport delays and boring, sleepless nights in hotel rooms with horrible Wi-Fi access points. In the past I have always relied on my phone's Bluetooth "Personal Network" and used that to connect my laptop Online, but I decided its about time to get a "real" solution. Therefore, I opted for the integrated Sprint Wireless Broadband module.
That being said, my experience with WWAN is mixed. On the plus side, speed is very acceptable with good throughput and acceptable lag. Unlike some other unlucky early adopters, I was able to get EV-DO Rev. A speed regularly in my home city. SpeedTest.net rated me at 1,200 kbps down and 300 kbps up, very respectable for a cellular connection. Latency is in the 150-200ms range, a far cry from the 800ms+ typical on the 1xRTT days. All in all, I am very pleased with the performance.
However, what I am not pleased with is the stability. Very frequently, the modem will stop receiving packets and the only remedy is to terminate the connection, and re-connect. I then subsequently found that Dell's mobile broadband card was made by Novatel. I've used almost every model of Sprint's mobile broadband cards in the past, starting from the AC550 all the way to the most recent units. In every generation, Sierra Wireless cards had always beat Novatel cards hands-down, in range, consistency and performance. Now, just to be fair I might have a defective card and I have yet to call Dell for an RMA or it may have to do with the software package (the current "connection manager" was originally written for XP; even its help file is not Vista-compatible and I can't pull up any of the documentations).
Finally, the one last quark is that for some odd reason the Dell software will keep asking me to "activate" the modem - even though the card has already been activated. I have to manually disable the "activation reminder" in the option menu. I would've thought that once I went through the activation process, the software would be smart enough to uncheck that for me automatically. So, besides WWAN, the XT also has the standard assortments of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and I won't waste your time on those.
One of Dell's claim to fame is being the first tablet to utilize N-Trig's DuoSense technology, and it is only natural that I dedicate a section for it. As you already know, the XT allows stylus (pen) and finger input simultaneously, and it is rumored to even support multi-touch. Now, first and foremost I need to make sure you understand the difference between "DuoSense" and "multi-touch". To my understanding, DuoSense simply means the touchscreen is responsive to both stylus and finger input. Therefore, DuoSense by itself does not imply the ability to simultaneously recognize multiple contact points on the screen (ala the iPhone). That's called Multi-Touch.
Currently, on the XT, Multi-Touch is not enabled and there is no application that can utilize Multi-Touch at the moment. However based on some early technical demos, N-Trig's screen is capable of multi-touch and it has shown to simultaneously track five different fingers drawing on the screen. There has been talks that future firmware update and application support may allow the XT to support multi-touch, but that is not confirmed. So for now, the XT can only sense one point of contact at any given moment - perhaps a operating system limitation, but that's the fact.
What makes the XT unique is that not only does it use capacitive touch technology, which is arguably more accurate (and effortless) then resistive touch, they also incorporated "pen tablet" technology into the same screen. Traditionally, pen-based tablets do not responded to finger inputs as the screen is only built to sense the electromagnetic energy emitted by the pen. By combining both capacitive touch and pen-based tablet into the same screen, N-Trig achieved both pen and finger input while overcoming most (if not all) the disadvantages of resistive touch technology (lack of sensitivity, significant light loss, etc.). Since I had a bit of experience in touch screen technology (there is a MDT in my vehicle), I can truly appreciate what they have accomplished and this is one reason why I took the plunge.
The question is... does it work?
However, things didn't look as good for the XT when compared to other capacitive touch screens. I have access to many Mobile Data Terminals (fancy name for rugged, law-enforcement centric trunk-mounted car-PCs), and the most common touch screen on those are capacitive touch. Since I have have an older MDT installed in my vehicle and I use it frequently, I can draw a comparison quite easily. The XT does NOT feel as responsive to my MDT's capacitive screen. The response from the MDT seems more instantaneous, and the XT seems to require a bit more "touch" to register. I suppose it might be due to the fact that N-Trig needs to minimize power consumption and thus only pass a minuscule amount of currents through the XT's screen. But in the grand schema of things, since the majority of finger-compatible touchscreens use resistive touch, the XT would still be ahead of the game.
So, finger aside, how well does the pen work? That I really don't know. Unlike finger-based touchscreens, I do not have any experience with pen-based tablets such as other pen-only Tablet PCs, or more traditional graphic tablets like Wacom tablets.Therefore I can't really give you a good comparison; I will leave that to the other readers in the comments. However, without considering any prior experience, the pen does work pretty good.
Finally, there is another thing I wanted to touch on, the DuoSense technology. Since it is responsible for both touch and pen input, the computer needs to know what you are currently using and there are a few ways to set it up. First of all you can disable either pen, touch or both in the software. So if you would never use your finger, just disable touch and go with pen exclusively or vice versa. However, I would imagine that not many users would choose those options... what's the point on spending that much money just to disable half of the input choices? So, the other two options that I believe would be most common is "Dual Mode" and "Auto Mode". In Dual Mode, the tablet will responded to both touch and pen simultaneously, and it is the default that the tablet ships with. Under Dual Mode, you have the ability to instantly switch from pen to touch to pen and back to touch. N-Trig also advertises "very good palm rejection" when you do use the pen to write (in that case your palm would most likely be touching the screen).
I haven't had a chance to run any benchmarks yet, and quite frankly I don't intend to since ultra-portables with ULV (Ultra-Low Voltage) processors were never speed demons to begin with. From my years of I.T. experience, no modern processor will be "inadequate" on running office applications. My outgoing Fujitsu P5000 has a single-core 900MHz Pentium-M, and the little guy can even run Vista fine. Unless you will be opening dozens of multi-thousand-line spreadsheets with complex calculations, or PowerPoints overloaded with unnecessary-high-bit-rate video clips, I doubt anyone will have problem with the 1.2GHz Core 2 Duo in the XT.
The XT has no problem running any of the office applications I throw at it (Office 2007 is installed). The response is very fast, and I have yet to notice any significant hiccups. Now, most of this is the result of upgrading the memory from 1GB to 3GB - before the new memory is installed, I would frequently see the laptop bog-down in Vista. After all, every Microsoft operating system is considered a major resource hog compared to its predecessor, and it is no surprise that a laptop that runs XP well may not run Vista well. For anyone planning on getting Vista, I would strongly recommend 3GB of RAM (2GB minimum). Vista is very efficient in caching data into memory and the more RAM you throw at it, the more smoothly it will run.
I also have other applications such as PhotoShop and CorelDraw installed "just in case". Occasionally I need to create make-shift presentations on the go. I am also happy to report that these applications run just fine.
Now, if I have to ding it on performance, the only complaint I have is the hard drive. I don't think the PATA interface vs. SATA is as big of a deal as some people have made it, after all even PATA's transfer speed is still way ahead of the hard drive's platter transfer speed. But at 4200rpm, and what seems like slow seek speed (I do not have the actual spec with me), the XT's hard drive performance will not be the most optimal and that is something I can actually notice without even running benchmarks. Again, this further emphasizes the importance for large amount of RAM. The more RAM you have you can prevent the system from accessing the hard drive, and the faster your XT will feel. Remember, a slower system with tons of RAM will always feel more responsive then a faster system with not enough RAM, when your primary tasks are office applications and Web / email clients. Just don't ever dream of using the XT for extensive video processing.
Alright, this section will make a change in pace. Are you guys ready for some venting? The XT is not perfect!
Now, before we move on, let me say that some (or maybe all) of these issues could be Vista related. I have been running Vista for a good six months now on several machines. Some machines (including my 5-year-old Fujitsu P5000) run it without a single hitch, while some other (like my newly built workstation) had all sorts of problems. I don't know if the same issue I saw on the XT would happen if I had XP installed, but I think it is only fair that I also write up anything that could be an issue or stuff that I don't like about the XT.
First, it blue-screened on me in the first week! I didn't have time to read all the debugging messages nor wanted to dig up the memory dump, but I did see it say "NDIS" which seems to be the network driver. It has only happened once, but I thought BSOD (Blue Screen of Death) was substantially brought under control after XP Service-Pack 2. To see it happen on a brand new laptop on a brand-new OS-install, is to say the least, distressing.
Second, the XT (and most likely other Dell laptops) would physically disable the onboard NIC when no network cable is plugged in, to conserve battery power. Now, whenever the onboard NIC enable / disables itself, a message will pop-up on the screen telling you "hey I just shut myself off." Unfortunately, 8 out of 10 times that message would crash. Vista will tell me something in the line of "network power notification has stop responding" etc. I eventually just shut the notification off.
As you may have read from the forum, there seems to be a bug with Vista's Tablet feature and FireFox (and only FireFox... it doesn't happen on Internet Explorer). On certain hyperlinks, the first click (either by using the Stylus, touchpad buttons or an external USB mice) would only "select" the link. Only the second click takes you to the target page. The problem is that I can't really tell which link(s) will exhibit this problem... since about half the links you can just single click. So sometimes I would click on something, wait like 30 seconds just to realize it wasn't clicked or I click on something twice by habit and end up submitting a forum post twice.
Some of the documentation is incomplete. For example, one of the touchscreen modes is "auto" where pen input is prioritized. It says on the application "switching to touch is done via a gesture" but I looked and looked and just couldn't find what that "gesture" is. Turns out it is tapping your finger on the screen rapidly 10 consecutive times (I found that by accident). Normally Dell have very good documentation, but since the N-Trig touchscreen is so new, there are a few things missing.
The Latitude XT is an extremely well designed tablet that is worthly of consideration if you are in the market for a new tablet or laptop with added functionality.