Dell Latitude XT Tablet PC User Review

Steve Seto, a Microsoft Tablet PC MVP and frequent contributor, has written up a fantastic review of Dell’s Latitude XT Tablet PC. There have been several reviews published in the last couple of months, but none with this depth and analysis.

– Steve Seto


Bottom line first: The Latitude XT is a pretty good convertible tablet, with a good blend of features and a couple of outstanding options. It’s also expensive, but some of that expense can be justified by the build quality, which is sturdy, and by those options, namely the DLV screen and the 64 GB SSD (solid state disk). In addition, the N-trig DuoSense pen and touch digitizer works exactly as advertised and with a very pleasant, light touch. Is the XT right for you? Read on and make your own decision

What was bought, and why: The configuration of my XT is as follows:

  • Core 2 Duo ULV U7600 1.20 GHz, 533MHz FSB
  • DLV (400 nit) Screen
  • Vista Ultimate with Media
  • 2 GB RAM – (See text)
  • Full set of Recovery Discs and Documentation – (No charge)
  • 64 GB SSD
  • 8X DVD +/- RW Optical Drive
  • 6 Cell Primary Battery — (See text)
  • 45W Mini-Charger
  • Draft 802.11n Mini-Card
  • 360 BlueTooth Card for Vista
  • OneNote (Who can’t use another copy of OneNote ???)
  • 3 Year ProSupport Service

Total retail cost was $3987.

As a dedicated ““slate person,” I approached this purchase with some reluctance. After standing on the sidelines for well over a year, watching slates languish while the OEM’s rolled out new convertible after new convertible, I simply got fed up. Motion’s decision to cancel the LE1700WT, one of only two interesting new slate designs, was the last straw. I briefly considered the TabletKiosk i440D, but in the end I simply wanted to try the N-trig digitizer. The N-trig design approach appealed to me, especially the ““light touch” required for passive (touch) operation; other touch screen designs had disappointed me with the amount of touch pressure that they required.

Once the philosophical decision to consider a convertible had been made, it was easy to dive in with both feet in for a penny, in for a pound, as they say. I decided to upgrade to a really bright screen to help mitigate ambient light and outdoor visibility issues, an SSD to see if all the hype was real and Vista Ultimate because if I was going to spend all this money, I wasn’t about to scrimp on the OS! And since the thing was going to cost so much, it only made sense to me to buy the ProSupport Service; not that I expected any trouble, but our family has owned many Dell computers and we’ve always been pleased with the service / support plans.

A couple of other comments about the Dell ““purchase experience.” First of all, I’m going to say that my experience with Dell Sales Support, Customer Service and Tech Support (3 different services) has been nothing short of superb. I really mean that! To date, I have no reason to fault any of these operations.

But that doesn’t mean that an odd thing or two didn’t happen along the way. When I tried to initially place my order over the Internet, I discovered that Dell’s order system was malfunctioning; I could configure an order but it wouldn’t let me actually place it. So I called Sales Support, where I discovered that the order system wouldn’t accept an order if only 1 GB of RAM was requested. Since 2 extra GB of RAM (1 GB basic + 2 GB expansion RAM = 3 GB) was ~$400, I had decided to order and install 2 GB of Crucial RAM, which cost all of $55! But the order system wouldn’t budge; I had to order an extra GB of RAM (1 GB basic + 1 GB expansion RAM = 2 GB) just so the system would accept the order. Sales Support agreed to place the order with the understanding that I could return the extra GB of RAM for credit once I received my XT.

Note that I also ordered all the recovery media and documentation with my XT. Dell charged either a nominal amount for this or nothing at all. Consequently, I can restore / reload my XT at any time, if necessary. I really can’t understand why anyone would not want to include these in their order, especially when most of it is free!

Another question that you might ask is why I didn’t purchase the secondary (external) battery ““slice” ($250)? A couple of factors were at play, here. First, I already have a perfectly serviceable external battery in my APC UPB-80, an 88 W/Hr battery that cost me about $100 on sale. Second, my battery has twice the capacity of the XT slice battery (45 W/Hr) in about the same weight. Finally, at 1.2 inches, my XT was thick enough In fact, I was worried that it was already too thick! Based on Internet postings, there also appear to be other operational issues with the battery slice; you can’t dock the XT with the slice in place, an unfortunate design oversight by Dell.

What’s In The Box: Despite a delivery prediction of two weeks, my XT took only about a week to be delivered, so kudos to Dell on that. The unboxing was shown on the GottaBeMobile home page of 10 March, 2008, so if you’re interested, navigate to that webpage and take a look at the images. The box contained the XT, the charger and 3-foot AC cord, the DVD drive module and the empty D-Bay enclosure to put it in, the pen with lanyard, nib puller and two types of nibs and the recovery media and documentation.

Interestingly, the XT User’s Guide was not a hard document. You have to look for it under System and Maintenance > Welcome Center > Product Support and Documentation!

And despite Dell’s vow to cut down on ““bloatware,” the XT basic load is lousy with Google add-ins IE toolbars, system tray icons and stuff I probably haven’t found yet. Since most of it isn’t too irritating, I’ve left it in place at least for now Other than this, the software load is relatively clean. Dell includes their usual assortment of service and information-related apps, and I don’t have much objection to that.

Features: I’m not going to spend a lot of time laundry-listing the various features, ports, switches and buttons on the XT. There are plenty of excellent postings, like this one , and of course Dell’s own site, that will show and tell you everything you want to know.

However, it is worth a moment to comment a couple of specific features.

  • Overall dimensions are 11.72” wide x 8.62” deep x 1.18” high (DLV screen, remember). Across the hinge, the XT is 9.19” deep, so a hard case needs to be at least 12” x 9.2” to fit. Including the short rubber feet, the maximum height is 1.30”. Weight, according to Dell, is 4.19 pounds for this model.
  • The protrusion that houses the hinge is rubberized so that it can be used as a hand grip. Nice touch!
  • The 64 GB SSD is a Samsung PZA064 SSD ATA device. I believe it has a ZIF connector (per e-mail from SanDisk).
  • The XT has a full complement of ports, including three USB ports (one with extra power port for the D-Bay optical drive) a mini FireWire port (1394) and a 54mm (full width) ExpressCard slot. ExpressCards are the next-generation of PCMCIA; the 54mm slot will also accommodate the half-width 34mm ExpressCards.
  • The XT sports a nifty ““WiFi Finder.” Push a button on the right side edge and a window opens showing all the WiFi nodes that are broadcasting in your vicinity.
  • There is an SD card slot immediately above the ExpressCard slot. According to Dell Tech Support, the slot will only support regular SD cards (up to 2 GB). SD-HC cards are not supported.
  • When the screen is turned and folded over into slate mode, two stubby rubber cleats just outside the corners of the keyboard engage two slots on the back of the screen to hold it in alignment. The screen does not ““bounce” under your hand despite not having a latch (very nice!).
  • In slate mode, a rocker switch for scrolling and a ““Back” button are exposed on the screen edge. The TC 1100 has a similar scroll rocker, and I have come to really like that approach. Compliments to Dell for recognizing a good thing!
  • The screen rotates through all four orientations; however, I see no evidence of an accelerometer or of an auto-rotation function.
  • Finally, the 45 W ““mini-charger” is extremely compact and works very well. It charges the 6-cell battery in a very reasonable time. Order the large (and bulky!) 60W charger if you like, but the 45 W charger is a real performer!

User Impressions: So, with all the preliminaries out of the way, we can finally get down to how the XT works and feels.

The first thing that warrants discussion is the SSD. If you are inclined to go this route, regardless of what brand of computer you intend to buy, take a tip from me and don’t buy anything smaller than a 64 GB drive. Trust me, in the big picture, the expense turns out to be secondary!

My original plan was to buy the 32 GB drive; I knew it would be small, but I reasoned that I could load my primary software apps on the SSD and my (larger number of) secondary apps on 16 GB or 32 GB of flash memory in the ExpressCard slot. The secondary apps would be slower to open and close, of course, but once in RAM there should be no issue assuming that no secondary data bases, left behind in the ExpressCard, were involved

Unfortunately, I forgot to factor in the larger footprint of Vista Ultimate, which ended up taking just enough additional space that I started to worry that the remaining free space (about 9 GB) was getting marginal, especially considering future updates like SP1. It could probably all still be worked out, but it was also starting to get complicated. I finally decided that it would be better to bite the bullet and get the larger drive. Fortunately, Dell Customer Service was very understanding, and helped facilitate the exchange process so that I had an upsized SSD in only about a week. (There was more to this part of the story, but we’ll save that for another time.)

The bottom line here is that your SSD is a bit like TV screen size; decide on what you want, and then bump it up to the next size and be sure to get a minimum of 64 GB!

While we’re on the SSD, I spent some time researching whether they need to be defragmented, or not. There is a discussion thread in the GBM forums that mentions this issue, but I decided to touch base with some OEMs, just to see if there were any nuances that might need to be considered. So in response to the question: ““Do SSD’s need to be defragmented?”

SanDisk’s response was:

““ Thanks again for calling SanDisk Technical Support Since every spot on the SSD accesses at exactly the same speed defrag would not do much for you. Doing a defrag will use up read/write cycles and reduce the lifetime of the SSD. It is not recommended to defrag your SSD . SanDisk Technical Support”

BitMICRO’s response was:

““Thank you for your interest in our E-Disk products Our E-Disk drive does not need to be defragmented unlike a rotary drive and no actual benefit will be derived from it E-Disk solid state drive doesn’t have disk heads and disk platters which slows down the capability of the drive to read and write data on a heavily fragmented file system. Although most Operating System recommends periodic defragmentation, it is not applicable to E-Disk SSD In any case, since our E-Disk serves as drop-in replacement for rotary drives, running defragmentation utility on the E-Disk drive should pose no concern other than accumulating unnecessary write cycles BiTMICRO Networks, Inc.”

And Imation’s (makers of Mtron) response was:

““There is no need for you to defragment your SSD, the defragmentation process was made for large storing devices, so this doesnt apply Technical Support”

So the good news here is that everyone seems to be in accord. I turned Vista’s background defragmentation process off by unchecking the ““Run on a schedule” box in the Defragmenter window.

Regarding SSD speed, I haven’t had an opportunity to do any serious comparisons, but the XT seems to cold start (about 40 seconds from power on to the password screen, then about 4 to 6 seconds from password screen to stable desktop) and shut down about as fast or maybe just slightly faster than my TC1100 with 5400 rpm TravelStar HD. However, the XT transitions into Sleep in about 2-3 seconds and warm starts back up in about the same time. That’s very impressive! I don’t normally do Hibernation, so I can’t really comment on that; hibernation and restart take longer than sleep but less time than a complete shutdown or cold start.

When it comes to opening and closing applications, however, the XT really screams. It seems to take only 2 or 3 seconds, max, to open Outlook or IE7, and lesser-used apps are noticeably faster than the TC1100. Overall, I’m very pleased with my SSD !

Another really significant feature of the XT is the DLV screen. Colors are rich and saturated and with a maximum luminance of about 400 nit (nit: possibly from the Latin nitere, ““to shine.”), this screen really blazes! Twice as bright as Dell’s LED-illuminated screen (220 nit), and about 25% brighter than typical modern laptop screens (~300 nit), the DLV screen is very usable in indirect outdoor daylight and parts of the screen are even visible in moderate direct sunlight (of course, any part of the screen that suffers direct sun reflections is completely obscured). This is the first screen I’ve ever turned down when I’m indoors.

The higher screen luminance has some subtle implications. Interestingly, it makes the optical performance of a screen protector somewhat less important. If you’re getting a bit of glare, you can turn up the brightness slightly or make a slight change in screen angle to recapture acceptable screen contrast. And you can turn it up so high that it’s too bright for comfortable indoor viewing. I made that mistake one afternoon and ended up having to rest my eyes for a while!

But nothing comes for free. The dual lamps in the DLV are undoubtedly a significant factor in the relatively short operating life of the 6-cell battery. Some report battery operating times of only about 1.5 hours between charges. I’ve been doing a bit better (~2+ hours) but I haven’t yet run any definitive battery life tests.

A third major highlight of the XT is the N-trig DuoSense digitizer. The XT comes with an N-trig stick pen that features two buttons. The larger oblong button is for ““right click” while the slightly smaller round button is for erase. Unfortunately, I’m not a big fan of stick pens as I find them too small in diameter for comfortable writing. One of the things that I’m going to miss with this new digitizer is the rich variety of pens that work interchangeably with the Wacom digitizer.

N-trig nibs are fundamentally different from Wacom nibs, and I don’t think that it would be easy to modify a Wacom nib to fit the N-trig pen because the N-trig nibs use a thin metal pin to anchor them into the pen. It will be interesting to see if anyone tries. The XT comes with two types of nibs. The black nib is your standard, hard plastic nib that feels and writes exactly like the Wacom standard nib, giving a ““slick” feel to the writing experience. The blue nib appears to be a softer material that gives something more like a fiber-tipped pen feel to the writing. Since I tend to like Wacom’s felt nibs, it will come as no surprise that I like the blue nibs a bit better.

Being a strong believer in the value of screen protectors, I wasted no time in checking my favorite type, ARMR-200 Vikuiti. I am sorry to report that this material is not compatible with the N-trig digitizer. Something about Vikuiti, probably the base plastic layer, simply drives the N-trig digitizer crazy. Once removed, normal operation was immediately restored, but I was still very disappointed. Following a lead from GBM forum member ““spridell,” I next tried a Strong Engineering SP, which was sized and cut specifically for the XT. It is compatible, as spridell reported, but the SP uses only thin strips of adhesive around its edges and that leaves an air gap between the face of the XT’s screen and the inner surface of the Strong SP. That air gap can cause some optical degradation. An SP with a full-face adhesive layer is more desirable for this reason. Like Vikuiti, WriteSHIELDs have this adhesive approach.

Many people have reported good experiences with WriteSHIELD, so I am now in the process of testing it. I obtained a small testing sample from PocketPCTechs, who market WriteSHIELD, and it seems to work. I’m in the process of buying a full sheet of the WriteSHIELD material, so I can test it covering the whole screen. I believe it will prove to be compatible. The only problem with WriteSHIELD is that it is four times more expensive than either Vikuiti or Strong, which average about $15 a sheet to WriteSHIELD’s $60 a sheet!

I’m sure that the big question on everyone’s mind is: ““How well does the N-trig digitizer work?” My answer is that it works great! Ironically, there’s not as much to say about this as one might think, because the digitizer simply performs (mostly) as you would expect it to.

The N-trig driver offers four operating modes:

  • Pen Only — Exactly what it says.
  • Touch Only — Same comment.
  • Auto Mode — Pen has priority, touch initiated by ““switching gesture,” which is not defined but turns out to be double-tapping the screen with your finger (per XT User’s Guide in Welcome Center > Product Support & Doc.)
  • Dual Mode — Both pen and touch active together

Most of the time I’ve used Dual Mode, and it seems to work quite smoothly. Inking with the pen is effortless, fast and accurate, exactly like to performance that Wacom has delivered for all these years. Although I obviously haven’t spent a lot of time with applications, I haven’t yet noticed any significant lags in inking. I do, however, miss the feel of the felt nib; N-trig’s blue nib isn’t quite the same. And I don’t like stick pen bodies, but that’s not N-trig’s fault. Beyond that, there’s really not much to say about the pen other than it works as expected!

As for the touch experience, I can only say: ““Wow!” The light touch of the capacitive-sensing digitizer is just about perfect for me and now that I’ve had the comparative experience, I like it much better than resistive touch screens. At one point a couple of nights ago, I was working on an e-mail problem, doing a repetitive task to restore about a dozen e-mails to a server, and I just started to simply touch the various icons on the screen the actions were both fast and natural and I finished the task quickly. The nice thing about the light touch is that it minimizes unsuccessful touch attempts; with the resistive touch screens, even the 80-gram screens, I would occasionally touch something and not get a reaction because I hadn’t touched with enough pressure so I’d have to do it again. I have had many fewer of these incidents with N-trig.

About the only thing I don’t like about the touch implementation is Vista’s ““phantom mouse” UI approach. Intellectually, I understand its purpose, but this UI concept just doesn’t work for me. I’d much prefer to have an on-screen crosshair (or something) so that you are pointing and touching exactly what you’re interested in, rather than using the phantom mouse which forces to touch a different place to affect the original place (if that makes any sense).

Finally, I’ve developed a few impressions about overall usability of the XT. In laptop mode, the XT is rather nice. The relatively thin body means the keyboard is not very high off the table top so I find it works well on a normal desk. The keyboard is full-sized (per Dell) and it features reasonable key feel and ““travel” along with both a touchpad and a pointing stick. The pointing stick features a ““large” (relatively), nubby cap that’s easy to use if you like pointing sticks ! So laptop use is pretty routine and straightforward.

With the screen turned around and folded back into slate mode, I find the XT comfortable to hold but noticeably heavy compared to my TC 1100. Time will tell if I get used to this extra weight, or not. The back of the XT (that rests against your forearm) is smooth, and the rubber feet are shaped so as not to poke your arm or catch on your clothes. The portion of the (left) edge that rests against your arm is gently curved and, again, there are no sharp edges. The rubberized hinge housing makes for a natural place to hold and it’s clear that Dell has thought all this through and designed accordingly.

Initially, I was worried that the relatively ““sharp” corners of the XT (again, by comparison to the more sculpted and rounded corners of my TC 1100) would be uncomfortable, poking you in the ribs when you are up and around, but so far that has not been the case. The power switch, buttons and biometric reader on the screen bezel are reasonably placed for a right-hander like me, but I find the small diameter and flush placement of the buttons somewhat problematic because I have large fingers. The power button, in particular, is hard for me to press because it is relatively small and it needs to be pressed in relatively forcefully to work.

As I commented earlier, rotating the screen into slate mode exposes a scroll rocker switch and a companion ““Back” button, which I really like! Both switches are easily worked with the forefinger of your left (holding) hand. Incidentally, in this orientation, the pen garage is on the upper right corner, perfectly placed!

Sharp-eyed readers will note that I haven’t made any comments about the XT’s TPM (Trusted Platform Module) or biometric reader. I simply haven’t had time to investigate them, yet!

In summary, I have to say that I like the XT a lot more than I expected that I would. It’s compact, it’s well designed and it performs well. It’s also expensive, it’s heavy and its battery operating life won’t be winning any awards in the foreseeable future. Needless to say, the XT has really challenged my thoughts about what a tablet is or should be. One fallout of this is that I’ve been thinking about is what I would do if Fujitsu or TabletKiosk or Motion were to market a slate with the features of an XT my tentative conclusion is that I would keep the XT! Of course, easy to say that now perhaps it’s just buyer’s infatuation!

Is the XT right for you? I’ve tried to fold a lot of raw information into this review so that you can think about it. I certainly don’t regret buying my XT, but the price of admission is high and that’s probably the biggest hurdle that you’ll need to get over.


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