Dell's Sleek, Innovative New Lattitude Z Laptop Heralds "Consumerization" Of Business Technology

The Lattitude Z packs unique features -- wireless docking and charging, hardware-enhanced instant access to e-mail and other key programs -- into a thin and light case clearly designed to impress the person in the next Business-Class seat.
The Dell Lattitude Z introduced today may seem like an oxymoron: a high-priced business laptop obsessed with both style and innovation. But that unusual combination is actually the point of this new machine, according to Steve Belt, Dell's vice president of business client engineering. These days, Belt explained, "the end user has ideas of what they want to carry. They care about the image the system they carry portrays."

For high-profile "entrepreneurs, attorneys, creative professionals, salespeople and leading higher education faculty" just having a capable laptop spec'd by the corporate IT department is no longer enough, Dell says, and I have to agree. Walk into a meeting today -- especially in the tech world -- and people immediately judge you by the gadgets you carry, not just your suit and your shoes. And with the possible exception of your mobile phone gadget is more noticable than your notebook computer. (And this particular laptop is out to replace your mobile phone for many applications. More on that in a minute.)

From iPhones to Macbook Pros, Apple has been staking out this tech-meets-design turf for a while now. And HP has recently jumped into the fray with its luxury Envy lineup of laptops. Even Dell's own Adamo line appeals to the same the aesthetic.

According to Belt, though, the Lattitude Z is different in a couple of ways. One, because it's aimed at business users, not consumers. Two, because it backs up its image with unique features. And most importantly, because it's not really a laptop at all -- it's a giant smart phone, with a screen and keyboard big enough to do actual work.

The Z incorporates Dell's new Latitude ON, which uses a separate ARM processor on a separate mini-motherboard to run a separate Linux-based operating system -- all designed to offer truly instant access to key productivity apps. Just like a Blackberry. Even more Blackberry like, the system connects directly to your company's Exchange server to receive real-time updates of e-mail and synched calendar information. And by avoiding the Intel processor and Windows, the Z can get up 12 hours of battery life (2 days if you can live with polling for updates instead of real-time.)

Belt predicted that many Z users will use this ON mode the vast majority of the time, delving into Windows only when absolutely necessary. (Windows battery life is rated at 4 hours with the standard 4-cell battery.)

After sitting down with the new machine for a few minutes yesterday, here's what made an impression on me -- apa:

  • Lattitude ON seemed to work fine, though I wasn't able to test its responsiveness or battery life. I'm not sure I really want to do all my work in Linux, though.
  • Wireless docking. This feature uses ultra-wide band (UWB) Wi-Fi to automatically connect the Z to an optional wireless docking station that can even drive a large outboard monitor.
  • Inductive charging. Just place the Z on the optional inductive charger and it starts charging automatically, with no connectors.
  • EdgeTouch, an LCD sensor that lets you launch commonly used apps and media controls by touching the bezel on the right edge of the screen.
  • Dell Capture, which uses the Z's 2 megapixel Web cam to automatically scan business cards and other documents, runs the scan through optical character recognition (OCR), and saves the info into your Outlook contacts. (It worked pretty well in a quick test.)
  • Dell FaceAware Lock-Out recognizes your face and locks out other users when you away from the front of the screen. (I wasn't able to test this feature.)
  • Zinc hinges with built-in RJ-45 and power ports!

zcharge Look Ma, no wires!

The whole thing comes in a "black cherry" magnesium case that weighs less than 4.5 pounds -- even with a 16-inch 1600 x 900 display, extra-large touchpad with multifinger gesture control, and backlit keyboard.

It's an appealing package, but for a laptop-size smartphone, the Z seemed a little too big to me. For a machine dedicated to instant-on and constant access, and being taken everywhere, a 13.3-inch screen might have been a better choice. And while the backlit keys are attractive, and useful in darkened situations, I would have preferred chiclet-style keys and some measure of spill-resistance. After all, what's the point of an "always on" device if it isn't always around?

Belt described the Lattitude Z as a "technology vehicle" to introduce new technologies and form factors. If the initial model does well, he said, we could see Zs in other sizes. As long as the Z's target market is still feeling flush enough to drop two Gs on a laptop, I fully expect to that to happen. Who could resist those cool hinges?

z Check out those awesome hinges!

New Dell Desktops, Too
On a significantly less sexy note, Dell is also introducing a pair of new desktop computers:

The Precision T1500 is a sub-$1000, single-socket, entry-level workstation optimized for AutoCAD.

The OptiPlex 780 is Dell's new mainstream business destkop. Starting at $550, it's designed to make VPro manageability affordable.

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