Dell E-Series: Taking a Swipe at ThinkPad and Toughbook

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Last week Dell launched its new E-Series line of laptops. The first clue that this line was vastly different was the logo change on the cover, signifying the E series as Dell's premier business line. It goes in an aggressive direction, embracing custom colors and cutting-edge technology to create a result that is uniquely differentiated in the segment.


It is a broad line ranging from an ultra-light 12.1-inch offering to a heavyweight semi-rugged redesigned ATG (All-Terrain Grade) product that could probably be used for self-defense.


The New Dell -- A Little Apple


Dell got the design bug a number of months ago and the result has largely been hitting its consumer lines until now. This new E series line of products is its first aggressive look at doing the same thing to business products, and this by most measures is impressive.


The fact that you can get these in different colors (the brushed metal finish is largely believed to be the most attractive) and with some of the most advanced security features appears to address both the individuality needs of the small business buyer and the security needs of most businesses, regardless of size.


What I found particularly interesting is the reported 10- to 19-hour battery life in some of these products using new battery technology. If this holds up under testing, it would be very impressive -- hey, I'll be happy to get more than eight hours.


This broad focus on design is largely driven by the success Apple is increasingly having and showcases how Dell is changing from the boring box vendor of the last decade.


Target 1: ThinkPad


There are clearly two rival vendors targeted by parts of this line. The Lenovo Thinkpad (which just refreshed the stunning X300 to an X301) and the Dell offering show similar sharp lines, but Dell has raised the bar in terms of color and finish selections. Dell has evidently improved the durability of the product by going to magnesium frames similar to the Thinkpad roll cage offerings. Rather than doing a keyboard light, a feature ThinkPads have had for years, Dell went with an improved backlit keyboard that automatically adjusts for ambient light to conserve power.


To match Lenovo's ThinkVantage offerings, Dell brought out ControlVault, which addresses a series of security features bundled with the laptop and represents one of the most aggressive attempts to make use of the TPM (Trusted Platform Module) to protect passwords and identity. Speaking of security, one Dell product -- the 15-inch 6500 -- has both a fingerprint and a smart card reader. The combination is relatively rare but required to meet Federal Information Processing Standards.


Finally, these are some of the first business notebooks using Dell Latitude ON. This technology uses a second dedicated processor and unique OS to allow rapid access to e-mail, calendar, attachments and contacts while potentially providing battery life that could last for days.


Vendors have been talking about doing this for some time, but mostly have used this dual-booting feature in consumer products.


Target 2: Panasonic Toughbook


The ATG version of the 14" E6400 is a ground-up redesign replacing an earlier product that was basically a computer with some special rubber cladding. Panasonic is the dominant company in the hardened space, with General Dynamics as a primary competitor. Panasonic is one of the only companies that builds its computers nearly entirely in-house and designs its own custom optical drives and motherboards, which are mostly assembled on site.


Dell's ATG, while more hardened than its previous offerings, still doesn't go as far as Panasonic goes. But then its current target isn't full military spec notebooks, but a new class called semi-hardened, which shoots a little lower to provide a balance of price and robustness. At an estimated price of under $2,400 (fully rugged notebooks typically run between $5,000 and $10,000), this is Dell's most aggressive product in this regard yet. It will be interesting to see the first head-to-head benchmarks between it and the Panasonic and General Dynamics semi-rugged products.


Wrapping Up


Dell's impressive new products aren't alone. Other vendors in this segment are also raising their game. I wonder, though, if companies like Toshiba are really willing to push as hard as they once did. Given the current market conditions and the strong margins notebooks traditionally enjoy, I expect this to be hard-fought.


This should translate into products bid aggressively, with the beneficiary being the employees who get these new offerings. Assuming folks have budget, these are a nice showcase for where Dell is and where it is going.