Dell shooting to be Apple of business IT's eye with new Z600 - Ars Technica
Every company that makes any sort of netbook or notebook seems to have figured out sometime in late 2007 that industrial design matters—indeed, "if you bling it, they will come" seems to be the PC industry's number one takeaway from watching Apple's success in the notebook market. But with today's launch of the new Latitude Z600 notebook, Dell has demonstrated that it knows something that other netbook makers have yet to discover: if you want to compete with Apple at the level of design and user experience, then you have to do more than just offer the same Windows laptop, but in different colors and finishes; you must also apply some software and hardware engineering effort to solving problems that users didn't know they had. With the 16-inch, 4.5-pound Z600, Dell is clearly angling to position itself as the "Apple" of business portables by making products that mix form, function, and novelty.
We joined Dell for a prelaunch demo of the Z600 and its accessories, and the company impressed us with some technologies and ideas that may even have Cupertino starting its photocopiers.
The first idea, Latitude ON, announced over a year ago but fully debuting on the Z600, is basically a instant-boot OS combined with a self-contained system-on-a-daughtercard. The OS is Linux-based with a bunch of Dell customizations to both the OS and the applications (browser, mail, contacts, calendar, VPN client, and Citrix client); on the hardware side, the tiny daughtercard contains a TI OMAP SoC (Dell wouldn't reveal which exact part), a 512MB pool of flash for storing the OS, and a WiFi radio.
What Dell does with this system-in-a-system is more than just fast booting, which always sounded pointless to us since we rarely boot our laptops anyway (they remain in sleep mode while closed). ON's basic idle mode runs with the laptop closed, with the device acting sort of like a Blackberry in that it gets all of your inbound e-mails from over the network (WiFi or 3G). When you open the laptop and the screen turns on your new messages are already there waiting for you. The idea is that every time you open the laptop, there is fresh data for you to access instantly, so that you don't have to first connect to a network and/or start an application.
Dell claims that in the normal idle mode, with the laptop closed yet constantly polling for e-mails, you can get up to 12 hours of battery life; in a low-power idle mode, where the laptop polls for new e-mail every 6 minutes, you can get some two days of battery life.
For security reasons, you can't get to the hard drive at all in ON mode, so if the ARM daughtercard is compromised, your data remains safe. For the idle mode e-mail polling, ON uses the on-card WiFi radio; if there is no WiFi signal available, then it can connect via an optional built-in 3G radio. The ON feature will be standard on the Z600 and optional on other portables.
In all, ON is a solid idea that will probably find many fans in the road warrior set. The fact that it can check your e-mail all day long with the laptop closed is the killer feature that causes the whole "lightweight, instant-on OS" to make real sense.
Going completely wireless
The two other great features on the Z600 are the wireless charging dock and the wireless HD video and I/O capabilities.
Dell has designed an elevated laptop stand that uses induction to wirelessly charge the Z600 whenever it's placed on the stand. If you're going to charge by docking (as opposed to just plugging a cable into the laptop), then this is a better way to do it than lining up proprietary ports.
Also of interest is Z600's built-in support for wireless I/O (video, USB, and sound) connections. The Z600's hardware establishes a UWB-based link with a Dell wireless docking station that contains a DVI out, two USB ports, and an audio out. The end result is that you can walk into a room, set your laptop down anywhere (perhaps on the inductive charging platform), and immediately begin using the laptop via a stationary monitor, mouse, and keyboard without plugging in a single cable. The whole wire-free setup is quite impressive to see in action, especially for someone who frequently juggles their MacBook Air between a stationary workstation (external monitor, mouse, and keyboard) and a recliner throughout the day.
FaceAware, additional trackpad
FaceAware is another new feature of the Latitude Z600, and it involves the laptop using its built-in 2MP webcam to spot when a registered user has stepped away from the computer. When the Z600 sees that the user has left, it automatically locks the machine.
Also novel is a thin, invisible trackpad that runs down the right-hand bezel on the screen. Swiping a finger up and down this trackpad will scroll the active window up and down, and pressing it at the bottom will bring up a launchbar-type widget that lets you launch programs. This is a nice idea, but it's not immediately clear that this is oddly placed, additional touch surface is a real improvement over a regular multitouch trackpad.
More details, conclusions
The Z600 uses Intel's new CULV processors, which helped Dell get the notebook's thickness down to half an inch and its weight down to 4.5 pounds, despite its 16" screen size. Being a business portable, it also comes with a full complement of ports, including Ethernet, eSATA, and DisplayPort. The Z600 is available today starting at $1,999.
It's clear that Dell put quite a bit of engineering effort into designing both the software and hardware sides of the Z600 and accessories, so that the whole package presents a unified user experience. Not every aspect of the Z600 is an obvious win, but it represents a step in the right direction. If Dell can continue to generate these kinds of ideas, which represent a lot more work than just repackaging someone else's hardware and software in bright plastic, then the company can go after enterprise users who have Apple envy but who need business features like vPro that Apple doesn't provide.