Sneak Peek At Dell’s Unreleased Convertible Tablet Laptop

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Tablets are pushing netbooks out of the way for lighter, simpler, portable computing – so does Dell’s Sandy Bridge-powered Latitude XT3 fit into the market that companies like HP are edging out of?

Key Features

    * 13in 1366 x 768 swivel display with matt finish
    * Capacitive touch and N-trig stylus input
    * Backlit keyboard, soft-touch internal finish
    * Intel Sandy Bridge internals
    * Metal-look finish and excellent build

Design, Build, Connectivity and Specs

At Dell’s product showcase we had some proper hands-on time with the Latitude XT3, a 13 inch convertible tablet laptop sporting Sandy Bridge internals, decent connectivity, a backlit keyboard, and both capacitive and stylus input.

Unfortunately, due to the rise of the tablet (spearheaded by the iPad 2 for IOS and the Transformer for Android), the convertible tablet laptop has lost popularity in the consumer space. Consequently, older models like the Packard Bell Butterfly Touch and HP Tm2 haven’t received updates. This leaves the X220T, 2760p and convertibles from Fujitsu as today’s major players. So how does Dell’s entrant hold up?

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Judging by looks it’s a stunner, though it maintains a somewhat industrial aesthetic. Gone is the all-black exterior of Dell’s previous XT2, replaced by a three-tone metallic design with subtle orange trim. The lid sports a faux brushed metal finish that looks just like the real thing, surrounded by a silver aluminium outer strip. Inside, the black keyboard surround sports a soft-touch finish that feels great, while the matt black keyboard is bordered by a metallic silver strip and orange trim.

Like Lenovo’s X220T, it’s quite boxy. There are no tapered edges, though its corners are rounded. As long as you like orange, it’s an attractive design that does its bit to stand out from the crowd.

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We found build quality on this pre-production model to be excellent. There’s no unwanted flex or creak, and the 180 degree hinge offers a solid, smooth action. The display swivels effortlessly either left or right (unlike on the X220T, which only swivels in one direction), and is held in place either in laptop or tablet orientations by a lock switch.

It is virtually silent in operation and quite comfortable to hold, though definitely a tad on the heavy side. Though Dell wouldn’t confirm its weight, we were given a guesstimate of 1.8kg, which felt about right. It’s heavier than most convertibles, but don’t forget that this is a 13in machine, where most rivals are around 12 or 11 inches.

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Connectivity is good. The only major casualty is USB 3.0, though it’s not unusual to find this lacking on business-oriented machines. Along the left edge there’s mini-Firewire, a USB 2.0 port, a headphone/microphone combi jack and an SDHC card reader (Dell representatives couldn’t confirm whether it also supports the newer SDXC standard). 

The back houses HDMI and VGA for video, along with a Gigabit Ethernet socket. To the right you’ll find a SecureCard slot, wireless switch, combined eSATA/USB 2.0 port and a third USB 2.0 connector.

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Internals are up to scratch, including your choice of Intel’s new Sandy Bridge processors. Our demo model sported a Core i7-2620M running at 2.7GHz. This is backed by 4GB of DDR3 RAM and a selection of hard drive sizes. Graphics are of Intel’s integrated variety, but this is no longer the caveat it once was, and should help the 44Wh battery achieve reasonable life away from a socket.

Wi-Fi n, Bluetooth and a webcam of unspecified resolution round off the picture. Running on this hardware you’ll get the 32-bit edition of Windows 7 Professional, which gives greater compatibility than its 64-bit counterpart.

 

The Dell XT3’s ergonomics are, quite simply, excellent. The keyboard offers a logical layout and well-spaced keys, with deep, positive feedback. Combined with the soft-touch wrist rest it’s a pleasure to type on, and additionally sports attractive white backlighting.

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You can choose to move your cursor using either the smooth multi-touch trackpad or tiny rubber pointing stick nestled between the keyboard’s keys. Both are responsive and the button sets for both are easy to press while offering a firm click. The trackpad buttons are soft-touch like their surround, lending the final touch to a great navigation experience.

Other controls on the laptop are found below the screen and can be utilised in tablet mode. On the left side, these include the white-backlit silver power button, an orientation control, programmable button and one that’s the equivalent of white-backlit silver power button. To the right you’ll find volume down/up/mute controls. Cleverly, the side of the laptop also houses a forward/back rocker switch and select button, which are welcome additions on a Windows 7 tablet.

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Of course, there’s also a stylus for navigating your way around. Unfortunately, Dell has stuck with the same N-Trig digitizer as can be found accompanying the HTC Flyer. Compared to Wacom’s solution, the pen requires a battery (also making it thicker and heavier) and doesn’t recognise as many pressure levels (99 vs. 512), which are already few enough compared to a proper graphics tablet. In other words, it does a great job for handwriting, but artists, designers and the like will probably want to stick with Lenovo’s convertible tablet.

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Unfortunately, things get worse when we come to the capacitive 13in, 1,366 x 768 screen. Mind you, it gives you more room to play with than other convertibles, which tend to top out at 12.5in, and we like its matt finish and bright colours combined with decent contrast. The problem is that it uses a TN panel, so viewing angles are weak at best. While this isn’t a big issue on a laptop, on a tablet it’s a whole other story, and TN’s notoriously poor vertical viewing performance doesn’t do the XT3 any favours.

On the other hand, it’s worth noting that this effect is nowhere near as bad as on the HP Tm2, and if you can live with the colour and contrast shift it’s perfectly usable. Again though, imaging and picture enthusiasts will want to opt for the X220T instead, which offers a beautiful IPS panel.

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That there’s no IPS screen option for Dell’s convertible really is a shame, belying the TX3’s premium design, build, ergonomics and internals. However, if you can live with this shortcoming, it’s a very attractive and quite flexible option. No exact pricing or release date have been announced yet, but we’re looking forward to giving you all the details and our definitive verdict in our upcoming review.

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