May 28, 2009 10:53 pm

Dell takes on laptop elite

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Apple’s MacBook Air, Sony’s Vaio P Series and now Dell’s Adamo belong to an elite category of portable personal computers whose appeal owes as much to design aesthetics as it does to technology.

Sony and Apple have a reputation for such products. But Dell – outside of its Alienware unit, which builds high-performance PCs for games players – is best known for producing solid mainstream desktops and businesslike laptops targeting corporate buyers and penny-pinched students.

Adamo breaks that mould and represents a radical departure for Dell in terms of both styling and market positioning. It is clearly designed to compete head-on with those ultra-thin executive laptops.

Dell trumpets the Adamo as “the world’s thinnest laptop”: at 16.5mm thick at its thickest point, the Adamo is nearly 3mm slimmer than Apple’s MacBook Air, just over 3mm slimmer than Toshiba’s Portégé R600 and 2mm thinner than Lenovo’s ThinkPad X301.

In the great scheme of things, a 10th of an inch or so is hardly significant – all four machines are roughly the same size as an A4 envelope. But its slenderness gives Dell bragging rights and that, as much as anything, is what the Adamo is about.

Perhaps more importantly, the Adamo is the heavyweight of the ultra-thin laptop world, weighing in at about 1.8kg compared with 1.36kg for the MacBook Air and a featherweight 1kg for the Toshiba machine in some configurations.

The Adamo’s relative heft, however, underscores its build quality. Like Apple’s MacBook family, the Adamo’s chassis is created from a single piece of aluminium but, unlike the MacBook Air, the Adamo’s 13.4-inch (34cm) screen is protected by edge-to-edge glass that helps give the machine its sleek, minimalist looks. Unfortunately, it also makes the screen difficult to view in bright light, particularly sunlight.

The Adamo laptop, designed to be the first of a range of machines bearing the Adamo brand, is available in “pearl” white and black “onyx” finishes.

The back of the lid is split between a cool etched metal design and a glossy finish that, as I discovered using my black onyx review unit, is a magnet for fingerprints.

The glossy finish also hides a narrow glass inlay, which provides a “window” for the Adamo’s built-in WiFi (802.11n) and cellular wireless antenna. This feature appears to work very well: the WiFi reception I got using the Adamo on my home WiFi network was among the strongest I have experienced.

The minimalist design continues around the backlit keyboard with its large, closely spaced keys, similar to those on a MacBook or Sony Vaio but slightly scalloped instead of flat. Above the keyboard, the Adamo has only a handful of small light-emitting diode indicators and an almost invisible power button.

Generally, I found the metallic touchpad navigation control and the keyboard itself comfortable to use but not as typist-friendly as the keyboard on the ThinkPad x300.

Inside the Adamo case, the laptop comes in two configurations, both featuring a 128Gb solid state drive for storage and Intel’s GMX4500 integrated graphics. The base configuration costs $2,000 (£1,650) and includes an Intel Core 2 Duo SU9300 processor running at 1.2GHz and 2Gb of Ram, compared with the $1,800 for a similarly configured MacBook Air.

The machine I have been reviewing is the more powerful model, with a faster 1.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SU9400 processor and 4Gb of Ram, which costs $2,700 compared with $2,500 for a similarly configured MacBook Air.

The low-voltage processors found in the Dell machine are significantly faster (and more expensive) than the Intel Atom processor found in the latest crop of netbooks and handle complex multitasking chores much more like a mainstream system.

My review unit performed all tasks, including watching a downloaded film, perfectly adequately, although hard-core gamers and spreadsheet maestros might be disappointed.

Both versions of the Adamo are supplied with Microsoft’s Vista Home Premium operating system, while the MacBook Air runs Apple’s excellent OS X operating system.

Dell’s laptop also features a full set of external ports, including two USB ports, one USB/eSATA combo port, an ethernet jack (missing from the MacBook Air) and a display port connector for an external monitor. Helpfully, Dell also supplies a display port to DVI (digital visual interface) adaptor.

Personally, I would also like to have seen a built-in SD (secure digital) card reader included in a machine of this type. I was also disappointed by the Adamo’s battery performance. Dell claims the battery pack delivers up to 300 minutes of use but, in my ad hoc tests, I never got more than 3.5 hours use between charges (about the same as a MacBook Air). That would not be such a big issue if users could carry a spare battery pack but, like the Air, the Adamo’s six-cell rechargeable battery is not removable.

In spite of these niggles, the Dell Adamo laptop is an impressive and beautifully designed machine that will undoubtedly garner admiring glances from colleagues and friends.

Whether it is worth the $200 premium over a similarly configured MacBook Air is debatable. But if you want an ultrathin Windows-based machine, the Adamo overcomes many of the limitations of its rivals and proves that Dell can build exciting machines as well as mainstream PCs.

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