Netbooks and smartphones may get all of the attention, but PC vendors are working hard to get small and midsize companies to consider a new breed of thin and light laptops to meet their portability needs.
Measuring about an inch thick and weighing from 3 - 4 pounds, these machines typically sport a 13.-inch screen, full-size keyboard, and -- unlike netbooks -- enough computing power to get by as a primary computer for mobile small business users with everyday computing needs. They generally don't include optical drives, although external version are often available as options.
Small business people on the go like them because they're significantly lighter than standard laptops -- though still heavier than a netbook. Vendors -- including Microsoft and Intel -- like them because they sell for about the same price as standard laptops, or about double what a netbook costs. And profit margins are correspondingly higher.
As with any small form factor, however, vendors must still make tradeoffs between performance, looks, form factor, materials, price, and features. The Vostro V13 seems to concentrate on good looks and durability.
Alison Gardner, Dell Vostro product manager, said the unit is aimed at being the primary computer for small business travelers. "The form factor should appeal pretty wideley, she added, "especially among those who value style." And my first impression of the V13 was indeed positive. The unit is attractive, especially on the outside. Dell packs the V13 in a anodized aluminum case with zinc hinges, and powers it with an ultra-low-voltage Intel chip. These chips are intended to save power -- usually at the expense of performance -- and cost significantly less than full-power processors.
The V13 supports up to 4 GB of RAM -- in a single slot, which could make upgrades pricey.
Connectivity is key for these highly portable devices, and the V13 includes both wired and wireless LAN connections and Bluetooth standard, with optional 802.11n and mobile broadband. The Wi-Fi antenna is built into the plastic lip of the screen. In addition to the aluminum case, the unit has a spill-resistant keyboard (but not the increasingly popular chiclet style) and a free-fall motion sensor to protect the hard drive if the unit gets dropped. The base hard drive is a 250 GB 5400 rpm model, but options are available up to 500 GB at 7200 rpm.
And in a page out of the Apple Macbook, the V13 uses a sealed battery that can be changed only by Dell technicians. Gardner said the 6-cell lithium ion battery has yet to be benchmarked, but similar units have delivered about 5 hours of battery life. She added that the battery was rated at 300 cycles -- or about a year of daily use -- before significant degradation would occur.
Other features include a gesture-enabled trackpad, integrated 1.3 megapixel Web cam, and microphone. Dell even found room for a 5-in-1 card reader adn VGA output. There are only two USB ports, but one of them does double duty as an eSATA port!
But this is no multimedia powerhouse. There's only a single speaker that didn't exactly bellow in my extremely limited testing. The unit does offer stereo output via the headphone jack. It uses integrated graphics.
Pricing begins at just $449, but that's for a version with Linux and a Celeron processor. Versions designed to appeal to mainstream small business users -- with a faster dual-core chip and Windows 7 -- start at a much more typical $699. All in all, though, the V13 is a much improved product compared to Dell's previous Vostro "ultralight," the Vostro 1220.
Like all Vostro computers, the V13 is intended for small businesses that don't have an IT department. It shares the Vostro line's lack of "trialware" enhanced warranty and support.
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