Review: Dell Adamo 13 notebook

Dell makes its first attempt at a designer ultraportable. (June 13th, 2009)

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Dell

Price: $1,999 (as tested $2,699)

The Good

  • Extremely thin, well-crafted design.
  • Much more expansion than MacBook Air.
  • Attractive LCD.
  • Solid-state drive as standard.
  • Dell Dock a useful software add-on.

The Bad

  • Just too expensive for the performance.
  • Short battery life; battery pack isn't replaceable.
  • Multi-touch implementation more maddening than helpful.
  • A full pound heavier than competitors.
  • Fan is often too loud.

Dell has had a long history of ultraportables, but when Apple released the MacBook Air in early 2008, it underscored a wide gap in terms of design: while Latitudes have always been functional, they've rarely been alluring to home (or simply design-centric) users in the way the Air was. The Adamo 13 is Dell's attempt to rectify this with an ultra-slim profile and attention to quality. But is it a case of improving on what's come before or just a Latitude in better packaging?

design and expansion

There's little doubt that Dell's primary concern for the Adamo was its body shape. At 0.65 inches thick, it's one of the few Windows-based notebooks to truly be thinner than the MacBook Air. Some might argue that the Mac is thinner overall, but in a bag, it's that maximum dimension which counts. The consistently flat shape might not be as easy to hold but is better when fitted into a tightly packed case.

Perhaps the most important advantage Dell can claim is expansion -- namely, it exists. Apple's computer has just one USB port, no eSATA or FireWire, and no Ethernet without an adapter. The Adamo has a cleverly designed area behind the display hinge that is thick enough and sufficiently open enough to include an Ethernet jack as well as three USB ports, one of which doubles as an eSATA connector. Unlike its most obvious counterpart, the Adamo can be used as a primary computer without depending too heavily on USB hubs and adapters. And while we love Apple's LED Cinema Display, the full DisplayPort input does give Dell's machine a wider choice of monitors, at least for now.





In use, the notebook is very reassuring. We didn't encounter any of the build issues encountered by early testers, and the system was extremely sturdy. As you'd expect from an almost exclusively aluminum chassis, everything has a pleasing tactile feel and comes without any signs of flexing or creaking. The trackpad is also metal and produces a solid clicking action. Prospective buyers may want to opt for the Pearl (silver/white) model instead of Onyx (black), though: both are attractive, but Onyx is liable to show fingerprints and other smudges on the smoother top half of its lid.

The keyboard produces mixed if generally favorable impressions after extended use. With a 16:9 aspect ratio display to give Dell a large amount of room, the individual keys are very large and easy to strike with a short, satisfying amount of travel. They're also dynamically backlit and very handy in a dark meeting room. However, the layout is slightly odd, making some of the right-hand non-letter keys easier to reach. It takes a mild amount of retraining to adjust. We'd also add that the keys are slightly cheaper-feeling, albeit not enough to be a serious drawback.





Where the Adamo's construction struggles the most is in its weight. Despite being thinner than the MacBook Air, the Adamo is exactly one pound heavier and feels as much. It's not an extreme strain, but it's significant; why produce an ultraportable when it's almost as heavy as conventional notebooks? Even the Studio 14z is only slightly heavier and is potentially faster. Here's hoping Dell finds new building techniques that could reduce the weight, as some may rule out the Adamo based on the strain it could put on their shoulder on a long commute.

the display

More PC builders these days are opting for 16:9 displays both because of production necessities (many of their contractors are switching en masse) but also because they're aiming for a more cinematic effect, whether or not the computer in question can play movies. It's likely a combination of both that has driven Dell to opt for a 13.4-inch, 1366x768 display instead of the slightly smaller, but taller, 13.3-inch 1280x800 display of the Air and many other 13-inch notebooks. This cuts down on the amount of vertical resolution available, but in practice we don't mind; the wide aspect is better for putting a small app like a messaging contact list or a Twitter client alongside the browser without overlap. Frequent flyers may also like that the dimensions are easier to handle in an economy seat on an airliner.

Color-wise, the LCD is fairly (though not spectacularly) vivid and, befitting the LED backlighting, bright. Only the viewing angles suffer. They're clearly a step up from truly poor panels in the same size category, but veering more dramatically from a head-on view still quickly shows inverted or washed-out colors. We wouldn't see it as a major flaw since few ultraportable owners are liable to view the screen from anything but a head-on lap or desk perspective.

The chief weakness is in Dell's choice of a glossy glass cover and its particular amount of glare. Trying to use the Adamo in bright sunlight was all but impossible until we found just the right angle. It seemed noticeably worse than for a 13-inch aluminum MacBook (now MacBook Pro), which can sometimes suffer from the same problem but seems more tolerant of this. Again, this isn't fatal to the Adamo, but it does reduce the computer's utility.



multi-touch and built-in software

Dell makes much ado of the Adamo being one of its earliest non-netbook designs to have a multi-touch trackpad. With software in place, it's possible to swipe to navigate or to pinch in and out for zoom. In theory, this is a tremendous help; in reality, it's irritating. The software that enables multi-touch is extremely sensitive and, in our experience, regularly misinterpreted single-touch movement on the trackpad as a multi-touch gesture. Whether this is a flaw in the software as we used it or something endemic to the trackpad itself, it's hard to say, but in either circumstance we had little choice but to disable multi-touch to use the system properly.

Thankfully, trackpad edge scrolling and tap-to-click work very well, although we'd note that Apple's two-finger omnidirectional scrolling is still the best we've seen.

Outside of this, the Adamo's primary software inclusion is Dell Dock. A slightly rebranded and customized version of Stardock's ObjectDock, it provides a (not coincidentally) Mac OS X-like row of icon shortcuts to either individual apps or their sub-categories, like Internet and music apps. ObjectDock has its fans in the enthusiast community and we're glad to see this pushed into the mainstream; it's much quicker and cleaner than using either the Start menu or regular desktop shortcuts. It can also be customized and so isn't locked into official Microsoft apps in the way that other utilities tend to be.



Dell Video Chat is less useful. It's intended to present a friendly face for video conversations, but it's always felt redundant when we've used it before. Most users are more likely to already use the interface Windows Live Messenger or Skype has for video chats, and anyone who uses an IM client that Video Chat doesn't recognize (such as Google Talk) simply doesn't have a choice in the matter.

performance

By far the most underwhelming aspect of the Adamo is what's inside. The company ultimately chose to use ultra-low voltage Core 2 Duo processors instead of the Core 2 Duo S chips found inside the MacBook Air. It consumes significantly less power and is part of what allows the extra-thin profile, but it's a decided step back in speed.

Most common tasks are actually very smooth and undistinguishable from when they're running on faster processors. However, the emphasis is on "common." Playing the near-HD quality videos on YouTube (a primarily CPU-intensive task) induces a subtle but occasionally noticeable stutter; 720p on Vimeo is just that less watchable. HD video playback in offline video formats like H.264 gets hardware acceleration from the Intel GMA 4500MHD chipset, but without a built-in (or bundled) Blu-ray drive, the likelihood this will be used is rather slim. Most modern 3D games are unsurprisingly off-limits, too, and leave the MacBook Air as, ironically, a better system for light 3D gaming or professional visual work.

Importantly, the PC is surprisingly noisy: even during regular web browsing, it wasn't uncommon to hear the fairly loud CPU fan spin up. The image of the system as elegant is somewhat lost when the cooling system shows that strain so quickly.

What saves the Adamo is its choice of a 128GB solid-state drive as the standard (in fact, only) storage choice. It's not startlingly quick, but load times were never an issue in a field where rotating hard drives are a weakness. Having said this, in-app tasks are often not affected by the SSD as much of what they need is cached in RAM rather than found only on the hard drive.

It should also be noted that these experiences were with the highest-end, $2,700 Adamo with a 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo and 4GB of RAM. We'd expect minor but noticeable performance drops using the base 1.2GHz, 2GB system; the SSD should at least prevent disk-to-memory transfers from making the RAM deficit especially evident on the cheaper model.



battery life and replaceability

The reason systems like either the Adamo or MacBook Air are possible is, ostensibly, that they have sealed-in batteries that can't be replaced in the field. Removing the latches and doors needed to safely expose the battery to the user increases the room for the battery itself. Both Dell and Apple claim 5 hours of battery life in ideal circumstances.

Neither system reaches that estimate in practice, but our tests suggest it's tangibly worse in practice. With only a very occasional amount of intense activity (such as YouTube or a large download), our example system netted between 2.5 and 3 hours of runtime with Bluetooth off, Wi-Fi on, and the screen free to automatically adjust brightness. For an ultraportable, this is fairly disappointing; the very point of an ultraportable is to always have it with you and working, and having battery life no better than an average netbook is not going to help persuade buyers.

Without the option of swapping batteries in the field, that's a potentially large liability. Dell will replace the battery if it fails, including under warranty, but it creates the risk of going without a computer for days at the end of the battery's useful lifecycle. Dell also doesn't have the luxury of a retail chain or dedicated resellers that can replace batteries in-store, as Apple does.

wrapping up

The Adamo 13 is a difficult system to review as there's much to like about it: it's thin, well-built, has a beautiful display and is comfortable to type on; all are qualities important to an ultraportable. Its expansion is far better than the Mac it's competing against, and it even manages to overcome some interface limitations of Vista through the Dell Dock app.

But there's no escaping that the system is hurt badly through the price-to-performance ratio created by that $2,000 entry point. While its performance is certainly better than that of an Atom netbook, it's far from the level of the MacBook Air, which cost $200 less when the Adamo first shipped and now costs $500 less. Dell's decision to make an SSD standard explains much of the cost difference, but it's telling that Apple is ironically not just the performance leader in the ultra-thin notebook field but one of the best bargains as well.

Moreover, in the intervening months Intel has released its Consumer Ultra Low Voltage (CULV) range of processors. They may still often be slower than the Adamo, but they still allow Adamo-sized systems that could cost less than half as much and are more likely to satisfy that desire for a slim yet full-size notebook with decent performance and, significantly, longer battery life.

One gets the impression that the Adamo is also a misinterpretation of Apple's goals. The MacBook Air may have been driven by Apple's current obsession with ever-thinner designs, but it has survived so far because it's fast and fairly affordable for its class. The design of the Adamo and the marketing campaign behind it strongly suggest that Dell saw the Air mostly as a fashion object and designed accordingly. The Adamo is a notebook built for the kind of customer Madison Avenue hopes exists: the always-fashionable, well-off urbanite that lives the life Calvin Klein and Christian Dior ads often portray. In our experience, most buyers are more practical.

We suspect that Dell isn't remaining static. As the "Adamo 13" name suggests, it's just the start of a larger line, and very early slips by Dell have hinted at an Adamo 9 that sounds promising. It's also probable that Intel's renewed interested in pushing the prices of ultra-low voltage CPUs downwards -- along with Apple's price cuts -- will result in a less expensive current Adamo. Until then, however, the system is mostly worth buying if absolute thinness, expansion and the need to run Windows trump price and speed.

by Jon Fingas


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