- Review Price: £1498.12
The rugged notebook market has long been ruled by Panasonic and its ToughBook range, and with good reason. Panasonic saw a gap in the market and created notebooks that could survive pretty much anything in order to fill it. But now it appears as though Panasonic won’t have the rugged market to itself anymore with Dell throwing its hat into the ring.
Dell has come up with the Latitude ATG range, where ATG stands for All Terrain Grade. The first machine out of the blocks is the ATG D620, which is based on the Latitude D620 which impressed me when I reviewed it last year. I wouldn’t necessarily call this machine All Terrain though, since it is only a semi-rugged notebook. So heavy hitters like the Panasonic CF-29 and CF-19 don’t have much to worry about – Dell isn’t going after the seriously extreme environment market.
Compared to a standard D620 this ATG version definitely looks like it has spent some time in the gym. The lid is far thicker with protective padding on all the corners, while the hinges are now constructed from solid metal to ensure maximum durability. Unfortunately those strong hinges aren’t anchored particularly well, with the right hinge freely moving while taking some of the plastic keyboard surround with it. The left hinge didn’t move quite so freely but it nevertheless didn’t feel as solidly mounted as I would have expected. Likewise, the front corner of the wrist rest was not properly secured to the rest of the chassis – whether this would compromise the resilience of the casing is debatable, but this still shouldn’t be happening. Even the latch securing the lid didn’t feel quite as strong as I would have liked on a machine with rugged aspirations.
The aforementioned build quality issues aside, the ATG D620 felt pretty solid, just like the standard D620 in fact. And when you consider that Dell puts its standard latitude notebooks through a pretty demanding test regime, I would imagine that the extra padding and cladding seen on the ATG will allow it to adequately live up to its semi-rugged moniker.
Opening up the hefty lid reveals a 14.1in screen with a native resolution of 1,280 x 800. This is a lower resolution than the standard D620 that I reviewed last year – the screen on that machine had a native resolution of 1,440 x 900. However, I can see why Dell has gone with the lower resolution screen for the ATG, after all this machine is designed to be used outdoors as well as inside, where the smaller icons and fonts of the higher res screen could be a problem. Obviously you can tailor Windows to use larger fonts and icons, but then you may as well not pay for the high res panel in the first place.
The screen in the ATG is different from the standard D620 in more ways than just resolution though, Dell has also done its best to make the screen both safe and usable when used outside. First up, the screen is shock mounted, so it should be able to survive the odd knock or drop – but this isn’t a fully rugged notebook so don’t expect to be able to drop it from a metre high like you can with a fully rugged ToughBook. The other big difference is the screen brightness, with this ATG sporting a screen brightness of 500cd/m2. It has to be said that this screen is very bright and I definitely found it usable even in bright sunlight. Of course you don’t want 500cd/m2 of brightness searing through your retina while you’re working indoors, so it’s good to see that the ambient light sensor seen in the standard D620 is still present – simply activate the sensor and the screen brightness will drop to a level that’s perfect for your current lighting conditions.
The screen has a high contrast glossy coating, which also helps viewing in bright sunlight, although this can be a hindrance when a mixture of ambient light sources are present. That said, I like this type of screen and especially the vivid and vibrant colours that they produce. However, one thing that I do like to see in a rugged notebook is a touch screen, since if you’re working out in the field and it’s cold, it’s far easier to stab at icons on the screen then try to use a touchpad or trackpoint. Unfortunately the ATG doesn’t come with a touch screen option.
The seven row keyboard is again identical standard D620 and again this is no bad thing. Although the keyboard isn’t up to the standards of say, a ThinkPad, it’s definitely not a bad example. The Tab, Shift, Caps Lock, Ctrl, Return and Backspace keys are all large and easy to strike. The cursor keys are dropped away from the main keyboard for easy access and commendably, Dell has placed the Ctrl key at the bottom left corner of the keyboard where it should be. There’s a decent amount of travel in the keys and a solid enough break, but there does appear to be slightly more flex than there was in the original D620. As a result the keyboard rattles when you’re typing at high speed.
Dell has taken a leaf out of Lenovo’s book and mounted lights above the screen which illuminate the keyboard. Two red LED’s do a very good job of lighting up the whole screen with a subtle glow, allowing you to see all the keys even in a darkened room.
Pointer manipulation is well taken care of with both a touchpad and a trackpoint in evidence. The blue trackpoint is recessed between the G, H and B keys, while two large, silver buttons are positioned directly below the Spacebar. Below the trackpoint buttons is the sliver touchpad – this offers smooth and accurate movement, along with a widescreen aspect ratio to match the screen. Below the touchpad are two selector buttons, although these are smaller than the ones for the trackpoint since a fingerprint scanner has been squeezed in between them.
The inclusion of a fingerprint scanner is a good thing though, especially on a notebook that’s going to be used in the great outdoors, where there’s more chance of you losing it and your precious data. The ATG D620 can also be further secured with a smartcard – there’s a slot on the left of the chassis and the machine can be enabled to only operate when the card is in situ.
Inside the ATG D620 is an Intel Core 2 Duo T7200 dual core CPU running at 2GHz along with 1GB of RAM. My review sample was loaded with Windows XP, but if you choose to go with Vista I’d suggest a memory upgrade to 2GB. There’s an 80GB hard disk, which is encased in a shock resistant enclosure, so you shouldn’t lose your data if you happen to drop the ATG.
Wireless connectivity is as good as it gets with this semi-rugged machine. the Centrino Duo badge gives away the fact that there’s an Intel PRO/Wireless 3945abg Wi-Fi adapter, supporting 802.11a, b and g standards. There’s also integrated Bluetooth for transferring files to and from your mobile phone or even using a Bluetooth headset for VoIP. But the jewel in the wireless crown is an integrated HSDPA module. I slapped a Vodafone SIM into the slot hiding behind the battery, fired up Dell’s own Mobile Broadband Card utility, and within seconds I was surfing the web at 1.8Mbit/sec.
The HSDPA or Mobile Broadband as Vodafone likes to call it, is a serious boon in a notebook like this. Because the ATG is designed to be used out in the field, being constantly connected, regardless of location is an invaluable tool. Of course you’re only going to get full HSDPA in cities and surrounding areas, but I had no problem getting the full complement of 1.8Mbit/sec at the TrustedReviews offices out in Ascot.
For wired connectivity the ATG sports an integrated 56K modem and a Gigabit Ethernet controller. The latter is particularly useful for corporate users who will no doubt have a high speed backbone in the office – with a Gigabit connection the transfer of large files will be a fast and painless procedure.
At the rear of the ATG D620 is a single, heavy duty rubber flap which protects some of the ports. Behind the flap is a serial port, a D-SUB port, two USB 2.0 ports, a modem socket and an Ethernet port. Curiously the power socket isn’t covered by the flap – I’m not sure if Dell thinks that it will somehow be exempt from dust ingress, but I’m fairly certain that it won’t be.
On the right are two more USB 2.0 ports, which are also covered by a rubber flap. Bizarrely, the rubber cover for these two ports is not attached to the chassis and comes off completely. Why Dell has taken this approach is beyond me, since this small square of rubber is bound to be misplaced, especially if you’re using the ATG outdoors.
Also on the right is a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive. This is a removable unit and can be replaced with a DVD writer if needs be, or even with a second battery for maximum “on the go” time. Unfortunately, the drive supplied is a standard Dell model, with no additional protection, making it another point for dust and dirt to get into the machine.
On the left there are headphone and microphone sockets, which are curiously not protected in any way. Here you’ll also find the PC Card and SmartCard slots, both of which are occupied by removable spacers.
Now, I appreciate that Dell is marketing the ATG D620 as a semi-rugged notebook, so there is an argument for ports not being covered, as well as the standard optical drive. However, when the company has gone to such lengths to cover (most) of the ports at the rear, it seems strange that other ports and connectors are left unprotected.
Dell provides two batteries with the ATG, one standard six cell and an extended nine cell. As with the standard D620, the extended battery sticks out at the front of the notebook creating an extension to the wrist wrest. Although I wasn’t sure about this design when I first saw it last year, after extended use I warmed to it and now feel that it’s a better solution to having the extended battery sticking out at the rear.
Battery life using the nine cell unit was pretty impressive at just a smidgen under six hours, while DVD playback was equally impressive at over four and a half hours. Likewise application performance was solid with a SYSmark 2002 score of 319 and a PC Mark score of 2896, which isn’t too surprising considering that there’s a high-end Core 2 Duo driving things along.
However, with a machine like this the Performance score also needs to take into account the rugged nature, and how much confidence it instills the end user with, and in this respect it doesn’t do quite so well. Likewise, although the ATG D620 is stuffed to the gills with technical features like the HSDPA unit, basic rugged features like proper port covers, a good strong metal latch for the lid and a passive cooling solution are all missing.
With a price of just under £1,500 including VAT, the ATG D620 is definitely a lot cheaper than, say, a business-rugged ToughBook CF-74, but to be honest the ToughBook is in a completely different league. The big difference between the ATG and the ToughBooks is that Panasonic designs and builds its notebooks to be rugged from the outset, whereas Dell has taken an existing notebook and tried to make it rugged. The result is a machine that has, to some degree, been beefed up to survive the trials of life out in the field, but not enough to really instill confidence.
I expect a rugged notebook, even a semi-rugged model, to feel rock solid, but this ATG doesn’t. In reality the ATG just feels like a bigger and heavier D620, although I understand that that’s a slightly simplistic view, because the very bright screen and shock resistant hard disk enclosure are tangible plus points. Ultimately though, I think that if Dell wants to make real in roads into the rugged market, it needs to design a machine from scratch that covers all the bases rather than try to adapt a current model to cover some of them.
Dell knows how to build great notebooks, and the Latitude D620 that this ATG model is based on is a great machine. However, even with the super-bright screen, shock resistant hard disk and solid steel hinges, this doesn’t really feel like a rugged machine in the way the ToughBook CF-74 does, and that’s not even a fully rugged ToughBook!
If you’re just looking for a version of the D620 that you can use out in bright sunlight, then the ATG will fit the bill, but don’t go thinking that it will survive life out in the desert or continual drops on the floor. If Dell puts enough resource behind this market sector, I have no doubt that it could come up with a compelling alternative to the ToughBook, but this first generation ATG isn’t it.
Score in detail
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