Typical Dell, but smaller

Vaiotastic Past

In my past I’ve had a good few laptops, and they’ve all had good and proper use out of them. The one I’ve liked the most is the Sony Vaio C1-MHP, which is the one commonly known as the Picturebook. This tiny marvel only weighted 990g and came with all the goodies, including such as Bluetooth, CD-RW, TV in/out, MPEG2 encoder/decoder, camera, etc. But at £1700 at the time it’s just not a laptop you buy and discard after a few years of use. You’d rather have a bit more value out of it.

My requirements

This time the goal posts had moved a bit since I got the C1, and I was after something a bit different.

  • I didn’t want to spend £1600 unless there was a clear advantage of doing so
  • It had to be light – just as the C1 – but I knew I wouldn’t get one that light whilst fulfilling the criteria above.
  • I didn’t really care that much about the outright power as I wasn’t going to run incredibly power-hungry applications. And if I did, I didn’t mind waiting for a while.
  • It had to have plenty of RAM as I’m intending to run VMWare and other memory hogging applications. I also know that, as a laptop is running on batteries, preventing the disk from being used as RAM alternative can be costly on the battery life.
  • I also wanted the laptop to have a reasonable amount of battery life as I think a laptop with a power-cable hanging out of it is not very portable. My train commute is 1h useable laptop time
  • Screen size wasn’t much of a bother, but screen resolution was very important. I don’t mind a small screen with high resolution, but I can’t stand a big screen with low resolution.
  • Having a built in optical drive didn’t bother me either as I don’t see myself sitting on the train watching movies, and if I need to install something or burn something, I can pick an external one out of my bag.
  • Card slots would be nice; my cameras run CF and MMC cards. My phone (currently) runs an MMC too.

With all this in mind I set out for the hunt which turned out to take a long time, but wasn’t that difficult in the end.

The hunt

Having done laptop hunts before, I wasn’t very exited about this one, and it turned out to be the correct attitude. Initially I was lured by the small Sony Vaios, but recent behaviour of Sony has frankly put me off the brand almost completely. I was also not in the mood of paying for a new Vaio. Looking at eBay there were plenty of “pre-owned” ones going for a reasonable price, especially considering the Sony quality. Looking further around there were a few other ones that interested me, but most of them fell either on the weight or on the screen resolution. This includes a Philips that was readily available in PC World for a pretty decent price. As I wanted quite a bit of RAM I also had to rule out places like PC World; I wouldn’t even dream of telling a salesperson there to add more RAM to the machine – let alone imagine the price tag of that.
One machine that kept coming back to me quite often was the Dell X1 series. The drawbacks of this machine were a bit skewed, but the pros were definitely up my front side bus. Let’s look a bit closer

Introducing the X1

The Dell Latitude X1, Click here to view larger image (NaNkb)

The Dell Latitude X1 with the external optical drive, MS Notebook Optical Mouse and a packet of matches for size comparison

This laptop is actually a Samsung copy so if you find a very similar laptop in that guise, you know what I’m talking about.
The X1 is built a bit differently from “traditional” laptops. To get the weight and size down, they’ve opted for a few tricks.

  • First the disk drive is not the standard 2.5”, but even smaller 1.8” one, which spins at only 4,200rpm. This reduces size, weight and also battery drain and heat emission. The cons are this one is more expensive.
  • Then they’ve ditched the cooling fan(s). This means that there’s no fan to draw power, but cooling the machine down has to be taken care of some other way; in this case by a set of sweaty user-legs (if you use it as a laptop that is).
  • They’ve also ditched the optical drive and made that one external using USB 2.0 and a proprietary plug that can push out more juice for CD/DVD burning sessions. Not too bad.
  • Stereo speakers were also one thing that had to go; you’ve got one tiny tinny speaker unless you plug in something else – that’s fine with me as I either use headphones or a proper stereo for my audio needs (I don’t play computer games)
  • Finally they’ve ditched the industry standard PC-card slot (Artist formerly known as PCIMCIA). On a day-to-day basis this doesn’t bother me that much; but the day I want to slot in a 3G data card, this laptop will be useless. It has been shown that for consultants and contractors, it’s often less hassle to go to a client’s site with a 3G card than try to convince a Gestapo derived System Administrator to provide network access. There’s an option, read on…

On the other hand, the laptop has got a few added bonuses.

  • Instead of the PC-card slot, they’ve put in a Compact Flash (CF) card reader. As far as my understanding goes, you can also use this slot for expansion cards, not only memory cards. This would mean that if someone will make a 3G data card in the CF format, then the limitation of the absent PC-card slot has been removed. Let’s hope for that!
  • They’ve also added an SD card slot. Sadly these two slots are not in the same place, they could have saved a bit of space with that, on the other hand, now you can have both cards in the computer at the same time. Potato vs. Potato (that sounded better in my noggin).

One thing that annoyed me a lot was the fact that this is not your usual MMC/SD card slot, but an SD only. This is the first time I’ve come across an SD slot that’s not compatible with the MMC cards. I’ve been feeding my gadgets MMC cards due to that they’re a bit cheaper, and I’ve had Nokia phones. How annoying to stick the MMC card from my Casio Exilim into the laptop to be greeted with nothing. They should put a notice up about this.
The other features of my Dell Latitude X1 is

  • Pentium M Processor at 1.1GHz
  • Plentiful 1.24Gb of ram
  • 12.1” Widescreen TFT screen
  • 1280x768 pixel resolution
  • 28.6x19.7x2.5 cm size
  • 1.2 kg weight
  • 60GB 1.8” hard disk
  • Built in modem, 10/100/1000 Ethernet, 54mbps G WiFi and Bluetooth
  • Standard 2,400mAh battery (large capacity 4,800mAh)
  • Touch pad with two buttons
  • Other ports: 2x USB, Video out, microphone/headphones, 1394 (a.k.a Firewire/i-Link) and power.

How is it to use?

The Dell X1 keyboard, Click here to view larger image (NaNkb)

The annoyingly placed keys on the Dell X1. Note how the arrow keys are not not only smaller, but also not aligned to the space bar. Not a good design.

Just fine would summarize it nicely. There’s nothing very strange with it. It’s got good battery life, it’s got the usual Dell build quality; not too good, not too bad. There is however a few things that are a bit of an annoyance.
The first one is that the keyboard is a bit strange, not the feel, but the placement of the keys. The arrow keys are smaller than the normal keys, and they’re also lower than the bottom line, including the space bar. This means that I’m sometimes pressing up-arrow rather than down arrow as I intended. The same complaint goes for the Home/End/Insert/Delete keys. They’re at the top of the keyboard in a row, along with the F1 – F12 keys. As I do quite a lot of text editing, both writing and coding, this can be quite annoying. I use these keys very frequently, especially whilst moving around in documents. The end result is annoyance and slowed down hacking.
The second thing that annoys me a bit is the touch pad. Or rather the combination of the buttons and the touch pad. The touch pad is sunk down into the front of the laptop, and this means that it’s very easy to find the actual touch pad, sadly there’s no ridge between the bottom of the touch pad and the mouse buttons. The top of the mouse buttons is at the same height as the touch pad. The only thing separating the pad from the buttons is the gap between them, and this gap is very difficult to feel. The net result from this is that I don’t really know when I’m pressing the buttons or when the touch pad is just playing silly. The touch pad is also “smart” and tried to do scrolling on the right hand side of the pad. However it doesn’t do this very well and the scrolling is jerky and just pointless in general.
I already noted my surprise that the SD slot doesn’t take MMC cards, annoying, but I guess I’m a bit of a dinosaur trying to use the “freer” MMC cards.
On the positive side, the laptop is light and the keyboard provides good enough feedback to keep me tapping away quite happily. The screen is very nice in its widescreen format. I can keep two web browsers open next to each other, or two other applications. Working in full-screen mode is rarely needed unless I’m fiddling with images (in which case no screen resolution is enough).
Having two USB ports on each side of the laptop allows me to use a laptop mouse, on both sides; one side allows me to “shorten” the lead by running it behind the laptop – quite convenient on the train where I wouldn’t want the mouse wire to stray into someone else’s desk area.
The DVD/CD burner has worked just fine allowing me to burn a few videos onto DVD and play them on my TV. I’ve also downloaded recordings from my Humax PVR to watch on the laptop during travels.
Bluetooth and WiFi also seem very stable and haven’t really caused me any problems. Battery life lasts past 2 hours which is just enough whilst sitting in the garden tinkering on, or just enough for two 1h train rides and stand-by in between, without running out of juice (close, but good enough).

Conclusion

Comparing the Sony Vaio C1-MHP to the Dell X1 - The Vaio wins!, Click here to view larger image (NaNkb)

The Dell Latitude X1 compared to the Sony Vaio C1-MHP - the X1 is bloated compared to the tiny Vaio. Note how well the Vaio is equipped with a proper keyboard, scroll key (middle mouse button), scroll wheel and so forth. It's even got stereo speakers.

The Dell Latitude X1 laptop is very nice to use, especially considering the bang-for-the-buck ratio. I got this one off eBay for £850 plus postage. That’s half the price of a similarly spec’d Sony Vaio. As laptops age horribly quickly I’ve stopped paying top dosh for them. It’s just not worth it. I’d rather use this one for 2 years and then buy a new one, than try to justify heading into the 4th year trying to get the same value for money out of a Vaio. I tried that, and it didn’t work.
I will probably install Kubuntu Linux onto it one day, but right now, it does it’s job just fine as a typewriter and a gadget-synching-station. I’ll probably also get the double capacity battery and another charger for work so I don’t have to worry about dragging my charger with me and trying to find outlets to plug it in.
Good value!