Rugged Dell Makes You Carry Your Desktop

NEW ORLEANS (TheStreet) -- Tablet PC mania rages on, drowning out a far more important computing revolution for smaller firms: the improvement in so-called desktop replacement notebook computers.

It's easy to see why desktop replacements are overlooked. They are boring -- as the name implies, these are computers meant to sit on your desk and be carried around every once and awhile. Usually, desktop replacements are utterly lacking in sex appeal, making them sort of the minivans of the portable computing market. Small and light they are not. Models by notebook heavies such as Apple ( AAPL), H-P ( HP) and Toshiba can hit a back-breaking 7 pounds with all the cords, cases and spare batteries included. But desktop replacements can be jammed with a dizzying array of features, including full-size keyboards, connectors and functions. Have to have a USB/eSata combo connector? No problem with one of these babies.

This Dell is heavy. Before you buy, get your hands on a unit and -- most important -- carry it around for a while.

There's real news in this market: Notebook makers have begun to take desktop surrogates seriously, particularly for the small-business market. And with good reason: Notebook PCs now outsell desktops for some makers 2-to-1. So the new full-featured notebooks are more rugged, better designed and filled with features a small business can really use.

To get a feel the upside in big notebooks, I took one of the more interesting entrants to the market -- the 15.6-inch Dell ( DELL), Latitude E6520 (starting at $759) -- on a recent business trip to New Orleans.

What you get
Pretty much everything you need to do business in or out of the office.

Dell deserves credit here for eliminating the need for a desktop computer. The Latitude's case is done in a rugged aluminum with plastic parts, and it has a nice, scratch-resistant finish. Overall screen quality was solid, with no eye strain even after several hours of work. My test PC came with a top-of-the-line Intel Core i7 processor, but I expect solid performance with lower-cost chips as well. I liked the truly idiot-proof docking station and that the fast-recharge battery delivered an hour's work time with a 15-minute charge.

But what I really fell for with this unit was the full-size, spill-resistant, backlit keyboard. This was, without question, the easiest portable to type on I have used in the past six months. And it really did hold up to spills -- I tapped out this review with a NOLA ice tea balanced next to me on my on-the-road work bed. I blotted a couple of errant drips with a rag and kept right on typing. And the backlit keyboard is bright enough for dark-room use.

The Latitude is a workhorse PC you can rely on anywhere.

What you don't get
There is no getting away from the ginormity of the notebook. And surprisingly, price is a factor.

The Latitude is beastly by portable computing standards, starting at 5.52 pounds. It barely fit in my carry-on bag, which -- keep in mind -- has schlepped probably hundreds of demo PCs. And not only is it big to carry, and too big to fit comfortably on an airline seat-back tray, it's almost too much on your lap. And even though Dell says a Latitude can be yours for $750, by the time you add all the features you want, I would say $1,000 is a more realistic spend. Sure, that's reasonable, but this is by no means the low-cost leader in laptops with similar size and features.

If you travel a lot or cost is a major concern, I am not sure the Latitude is for you.

Bottom line
Dell deserves props for coming to market with a fresh approach to desktop replacement computers. This is a portable computer that really can serve as your one-and-only business PC. But before you buy, get your hands on a unit, boot it up -- and most important -- carry it around for a while.

Depending on your needs, you might decide there's just too much desktop in this desktop replacement.

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This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

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