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Dell's Latitude range is a regular feature of any commute. Get on any morning commuter train and your bound to see Latitudes of all shapes, sizes and ages dealing with spreadsheets, email, documents and the like and probably the most common would be the 14.1in Latitude D630, or its predecessor the D620, both of which received a Recommended Award when we reviewed them. Whereas in the consumer space this form factor is largely being edged out, in the business sector it remains a particularly appealing compromise between performance, portability and usability. No surprise, then, to see Dell using its new 14.1in Latitude E6400 as the poster child of the new Latitude range.
In the past we've always praised ThinkPad's, like the wonderful X300, for their timeless design and Dell has clearly tried to achieve a similar effect with the new Latitudes. It doesn't quite manage this but unlike the D630, which was more of a refresh than anything else, the E6400 is part of a complete redesign of the Latitude range and though naturally it retains the professional appearance of previous Latitude's, it brings with it a level of sleekness and style that's previously been missing.
This is achieved through a combination of some strong angular lines and a classy magnesium alloy construction that's most evident in the brushed metal lid. It's not complicated but it does work and it helps that the E6400 is fairly light and slim for its size. At its thickest it measures 31mm and with the standard six-cell battery it weighs 2.3kg, making for a fairly portable weight that's 100g or so lighter than the D630 it's replacing. Plus, for the adventurous, Dell is even selling coloured lids for Latitude's too, though we can't see many companies being interested in this!
So far, so good, but the magnesium alloy construction isn't just about making the E6400 look good, it's primarily about strength and here Dell scores another win. Almost every element of the E6400 looks and feels very sturdy and particular praise must be directed toward the hinge. It's very strong and stiff, so bumpy journeys shouldn't be a problem, while the machine is evenly balanced so the front doesn't lift up when opening the lid and/or adjusting the screen angle - something that's a regular annoyance on consumer laptops. There's also a reassuringly secure lid clasp on the front, so you needn't worry about your laptop popping open when inside a bag.
This sense of quality is continued in the keyboard. As ever with Dell, the basic layout of the keyboard is excellent. There's a large and very usable Shift key on the right, below which sits offset cursor keys, while the Insert, Delete, Home, End, Page Up and Page Down keys are all grouped in a grid in the top right. Everything is more or less exactly where you'd expect and want it to be, the only exception being the omission of the 'Menu' key normally found on the bottom row. It's hardly a deal breaker, though, especially if it allows everything else to be just right.
This layout prowess is coupled with, without doubt, the best feeling Dell keyboard we've ever come across. Keys are tactile, well proportioned, firm and responsive and you have to press extremely hard to garner even a tiny amount of flex. It still lacks the supreme quality found in ThinkPad keyboards, but other than that it's hard to find any fault whatsoever.