Dell has been on board the netbook express for a while now, but its products have had mixed success. We liked its first - the Mini 9 - with its dinky dimensions and curvy profile, but were less keen on the Mini 10 and its horror of a touchpad. The Mini 12 we found sluggish to use.
Dell has now added to the line-up with the business and education-focused Latitude E2100, which takes about as different a tack as it's possible for a netbook to take.
This isn't a product designed with the consumer in mind. It's large for a 10in netbook, measuring 43mm thick, and weighs a little more than we'd like at 1.32kg. Yet despite all this it isn't an unattractive device. The lid features an embossed rubberised finish (available in a number of bright colours) and is capped with a subtle white light, set into the front edge.
Open up the E2100, and although the matte-black plastic finish is far from luxurious it does exude a certain appropriateness. We can imagine it being used in a classroom and still looking good after a couple of terms. And that robust feel extends to the rest of the chassis.
|The Latitude E2100: the most resilient netbook we've yet seen for use in classrooms|
Try to twist and poke the screen and you'll find remarkably little give, thanks to the resilient plastic backing and a thick, 2.5mm coating of solid rubber (not simply soft-touch plastic). Together they feel well up to the job of protecting the E2100's 10.1in 1024 x 576 resolution panel.
The base is covered with rubber as well, the hinges feel like they'll last, and the E2100's solidity extends to the keyboard, which has a very firm feel to it.
For classroom use we'd like to have seen further rugged features added - such as drop protection for the hard disk and a spill-resistant keyboard - but the Latitude E2100 is more robust than most netbooks we've come across, including the education-specific Classmate PC.
The keyboard is where things begin to go wrong, though. The keys feel small, and the key action is a little too light for comfortable typing at speed. And we're none too keen on the proximity of the touchpad to the keyboard. We found ourselves constantly brushing it while typing, and frustratingly there's no way of switching it off.
There's an alternative to using the touchpad - the screen, which on our review model was touch-enabled. It's fine for manipulating large buttons and icons, and we're sure kids will take to it straight away. However, with no stylus, selecting, clicking and navigating through Windows Vista Basic's menus and options screens can be a little fiddly.
The touch overlay inevitably dulls the vibrancy of the LED backlit screen, with the result that the E2100's colours look knocked-back and wan, and whites a little greyish and grainy, compared to the best netbooks on the market.
The touchscreen is an option, fortunately, although cutting it out doesn't represent a huge saving at $6.
The webcam included here is another option for $14, or you can specify it with the touchscreen combined, for $104. And you also have to pay extra ($10) to get draft-n wireless - the default specification gives you just 802.11bg.
You'd be mad to specify anything other than Windows XP with a netbook, so it's just as well that Dell offers it as an option. Our sample was running Vista Home Basic, and as a result performance was behind what we expect from a netbook equipped with an Atom N270 and 1GB of RAM. It scored 0.32 in our benchmarks; we'd hoped for around 0.4.
Battery life was even worse. Our review model came with the rather weedy three-cell battery, and while this keeps the weight down it also capped battery life at a disappointing 2hrs 40mins in our light-use test. You can upgrade to the six-cell model, and at just $20 added to the overall price it's a steal.
All these extra costs start to mount, and if you want to get hold of a top-spec Latitude E2100 you'll need to shell out a lot of cash. The starting price is $669 and that's without the touchscreen and webcam of our review model, or the more practical six-cell battery - adding those two options takes you to $798, and with Wireless-n you're looking at $809.
But the E2100 is more usable than the consumer-focused Mini 10 ($549), and its sturdy, rubber-coated chassis means it's the most resilient netbook we've yet seen for use in classrooms.