May 2011 Update: The Dell Latitude E6420 XFR will now include an integrated serial port. This is a huge deal. If you’re needing a fully ruggedized modern laptop with a serial port, then I suggest you check out the E6420 XFR. It’s too bad that this is now the only Dell with with a serial port. For my use, I don’t need a fully rugged machine. A “business rugged” laptop with SSD will fit my needs. Hello HP 8560p!
One of the great things about my job is that I get to test new gear from time to time. Most of the time this usually consists of new computers that are just new iterations of existing models. On occasion, something interesting comes along. Dell has half-heartedly been in the specialty market of ruggedized computers for some time, but has recently gotten more serious with a new line of laptops. Although the market is small, it is primarily dominated by the Panasonic Toughbook line. Dell has expanded their Latitude line by releasing a semi-rugged model (Latitude ATG), a fully ruggedized model (XFR), and a rugged convertible multi-touch tablet (XT2 XFR).
While the tablet is the most interesting to me, I have my hands on the Latitude E6400 XFR. All these models fall within the Latitude line and have the same internal specs as the mainstream Latitudes. As was explained to me by my sales rep, these are Latitudes which have had the cases removed and new cases applied by hand. The ruggedization work is actually performed by a third party company called Augmentix. Building, tearing apart, and rebuilding seems inefficient to me, but what do I know? Building a rugged line on the existing Latitude platform is good news if your business already has an investment in the Latitude line. All of your images, peripherals, and docking stations should work without modification.
What is a Rugged Laptop?
The term “fully ruggedized” is confusing to some. The term does not imply 100% waterproof. The computer is meant to withstand dirty conditions, moisture and rain, salty fog, and some abuse but cannot be fully submerged. Update: My Dell rep told me today that the XFR can be fully submerged in the case of a drop but should be immediately retrieved. There are no exposed ports, the speakers are enclosed, even the heat vents, speakers, and webcam are covered. The XFR achieves an ingress rating against blowing dust and moisture of IP65 (if you know what that is). To further clarify what rugged means, there is a battery of military spec tests. The results are impressive.
To further increase the durability, my eval arrived with a solid state diskdrive (SSD) to reduce the chance of mechanical failure. Dell utilizes an alloy casing called Ballistic Armor Protection System featuring PR481 which they claim has twice the impact resistance of traditional magnesium alloy. (I’m assuming this Ballistic Armor is a marketing term made up by Augmentix.) I have performed some minor drop tests but can’t bring myself to really test the durability. Dell claims the XFR is first in class to achieve the military’s MIL-STD-810F specification for a four foot drop on plywood over concrete. My test was a two foot drop on carpet over padding as I prayed.
You would think with all the covered ports, that heat would be a concern. According to Dell, the XFR meets military standard MIL-STD for temperature extremes. Heat dissipation is managed by their QuadCool thermal management system (See photos below for the QuadCool vent).
The computer does not lack horsepower. This is one of the most responsive computers I have used in the business laptop class. I am running Windows 7 Ultimate 32-bit and it takes about 20 seconds from power-on to being in a usable state. Impressive. There does seem to be a refresh glitch with the Intel video driver from the Intel site. I find myself having to minimize/restore various windows to force a refresh. There is also an Nvidia video option which probably does not suffer the same issues. (Update: I used Intel’s Auto Detect utility on http://www.intel.com/support/detect.htm and installed the latest video drivers. Refresh problem solved. This proves you should always update your drivers.)
I should note that this is not a Dell image with the typical bloat/crapware. I installed Win 7 fresh from the installation DVD and added drivers from the Dell support site. To further increase responsiveness, I am using Microsoft’s Security Essentials anti malware program and not a resource hogging program like Norton or McAfee.
Other XFR Observations
As I mentioned before all the ports are covered to prevent dust and moisture from entering the system. The port covers are opened by a two step motion by pressing and sliding the release. These doors feel a bit awkward compared to the Panasonic Toughbook doors. The SD card slot is the most inaccessible. It is located behind the handle on the front of the unit. Opening the cover and inserting the SD card involves some phalange gymnastics. Even getting a good photo (see the gallery below) of the SD slot was difficult. Other than that, the design seems well thought out. This model includes a VGA, Display port, modem, Ethernet, three USB, one USB/eSATA combo, PCMCIA, SD slot, fingerprint sensor, and one 1394 Firewire port. Like all other manufacturers, there is a swift move from serial interfaces. This laptop is no exception. The serial port is following the steps of the parallel port and the diskette drive.
The battery is small and based on the body design, I don’t think an extended capacity battery will fit. (Although there is a “battery slice” option available for extended power.) With Windows 7’s power management features, and the SSD, battery life has been very impressive so far.
An important note is that Dell will not release an 6410 XFR. They are sticking with the 6400 and will most likely release an update with the 6420 product refresh. Interestingly, there is a 6410 ATG.
Dell XFR Accessories & Serial Port Adapter
There are NUMEROUS accessories available for the XFR. There is a shoulder strap that screws in brass screws near the built-in handle. There is a “battery slice” which is a flat extra large capacity battery that screws onto the bottom of the laptop. To solve the lack legacy ports, there are two legacy port extenders which attach onto the bottom of the unit with metal screws. There is an adapter with one serial (RS-232) and one parallel port, and the other comes with two serials. These serial adapters are big and rugged, but they secure to the bottom of the unit very tightly.
The Latitude E6400 XFR is UL1604 Class 1 / Div 2 certified, but the ATG is not. I believe you can get the Panasonic certified also, but only in a touchscreen unit. Keep in mind that these devices are only certified when all port enclosures are closed and locked. The Latitude ATG is not certified at all and no device that I have found is Class 1 / Div 1.
Dell XFR vs Panasonic Toughbook
This note is not a Dell vs Panasonic comparison. However, it’s hard to not make some cursory observations. Compared to the Panasonic Toughbook (CF-30 & CF-31) the XFR is a modern device. While Panasonic invented this niche, the Toughbooks have stuck to their original design and compared to today’s standards seem bulky and ugly. For example, even though the CF-31 is new, it still has a 4:3 aspect ration, while the Dell has a modern 16:9 screen. Panasonic claims they are sticking with the original form so that existing users can leverage their docks and truck mounts.
Furthermore, Panasonic’s driver update model is odd. First of all, you need to register to download updates. Then, since they don’t update model numbers often, you need to know what “mark” your Toughbook is (roughly equivalent to the date it was produced). Then, once you get logged in, you download driver updates in packages. On the other hand, Dell treats driver updates like they would any other Latitude. You simply browse to support.dell.com, select your model, and download the driver you need. Much simpler.
Dell Latitude XFR Photos
Here are some photos of the XFR. Sorry for the lack of professionalism, my wife sold her studio a few years ago so all I have now is my dining table.