Hands on: Dell’s super-slim 16 inch Latitude Z

The slimmest of notebooks have small displays and compact footprints while large-screen laptops tend towards a beefier thicker and heavier build.

Dell turns that convention on its head with the Latitude Z a supremely skinny notebook packing a 16 inch HD (1600 x 900) display.

Launched today and on sale tomorrow with a starting price of $2799 the Latitude Z is aimed at the mobile professionals seeking a ‘desktop replacement’ with a difference – one where the emphasis is on a cross-over of portability and usability rather than raw performance.

That’s not the biggest of segments but the Latitude Z should nail this niche market and at the same time further boost Dell’s standing in the design and desirability stakes.

In some ways the Latitude Z is an Adamo with a different set of sensibilities. It swaps austerity and aspirational values with a warmer more inviting and more attainable feel. Oh plus the biggest screen you’ll see on any notebook with the Z’s waist and weight measurements.

With a waif-like 1.25cm profile and barely nudging the scales at 2kg (and most of that weight is in the rear where the four cell 2.8Ah battery sits) the Latitude Z also sees Dell tick the box on some interesting tech choices.

The powerplant is Intel’s ultra-low voltage 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo SU9400 with an option to step up to to the peppier 1.6GHz SU9600. These belong to the ‘pint-sized Penryn’ family which has found its way into the likes of Dell’s Adamo as well as similar thin-and-light notebooks from Lenovo HP and Sony thanks to its low thermals and tiny 22mm2 chip size.

And don’t go looking for fat hard drives. The Latitude Z packs only solid state drives in 64GB 128GB and 256GB capacities and even these have been shucked out of their packaging and mounted directly onto the motherboard to save space. This also allows room for the dries to be doubled up so that the most cautious (or accident-prone) can have two equal-sized drives with RAID mirroring.

The processor and base memory are also soldered directly onto the motherboard and when you flip the Latitude Z belly-up it’s clear this is not a system designed for the screwdriver set. There’s almost no end-user upgradability which helps keep the profile trim and is in keeping with the target audience.

The batteries however are replaceable – the standard four cell module delivers four hours on the go Dell claims while an optional eight cell slab doubles this (and adds significant ‘battery booty’ to the Z’s rear).

The standard four cell four-hour battery pack can be swapped for a larger eight cell eight-hour module.

But if you want battery life which could be measured in days rather than hours the Latitude Z is most notable for its introduction of the new Latitude ON system. Unlike other pre-boot operating systems Latitude ON is a complete second PC with its own tiny ARM processor plus 802.11bg wireless module and a customised Linux OS which loads from a flash memory chip.

This lets you use email (with support for POP3 and Exchange 2003 at launch) work with attachments (using OpenOffice) browse the Web run Citrix for remote access and of course use online apps such as Google Docs – all while drawing just a trickle of power.

As a security precaution Latitude ON can’t access the Z’s SSD drive although it can load drivers for the laptop’s optional mobile broadband card which will initially using Vodafone’s twin 2100MHz and 900MHz HSDPA networks but later this year adding Tesltra’s 850MHz Next G service.

What you can’t squeeze into so slim a shape of course is an optical drive. An external DVD burner is included in the price and is an eSATA model which into the Z’s combo eSATA/USB port. You’ll probably also want to spring for a third-party USB hub because there’s only one other USB port available.

That’s because Z was built to use UWB the short-range high-speed ‘wireless USB’ standard which while approved in the US has yet to get the thumbs up from the Aussie authorities.

Not many ports in a storm: the right side of the Latitude Z has the obligatory 3.5mm audio jack a single USB 2.0 port a combo eSATA/USB 2.0 port plus DisplayPort for video output. Ethernet and AC jacks are on the angled corners.

One unique form of wireless which is available is the Latitude Z’s inductive charging. This is a $395 option over the standard 240V power brick (which in keeping with the Z’s overall design is more like a tiny fit-sized brickette) and gives you a purpose-built stand on which the Latitude Z rests and recharges without any physical connection.

Another unique feature is a touch-sensitive strip down the right side of the 16 inch panel. This is embedded into the bezel rather than the screen itself which is why Dell has tagged this as EdgeTouch.

Tapping a button at the bottom of the bezel activates the strip which can then be used to call up quick-launch icons as well as slider controls for volume and to scroll up and down through Web pages and documents.

Locating the Ethernet and AC jacks on angled rear corners of the chassis ensures these cords lead
 directly away from the Latitude Z rather than trailing around the desk.

Once you clap eyes and hands on the Latitude Z you can see why it’s pre-production codename of ‘Envy’ (not to be confused of course with HP’s notebooks sold under that same brand) was well chosen.

The corners of the chassis are angled so that the AC and Ethernet cables trail away from the notebook at at angle The upper deck is finished in a soft brushed aluminium which is a few shades closer to gunmetal while the exterior is a dusky aubergine or eggplant which Dell terms ‘Black Cherry’.

The base spec for the Latitude Z’s $2799 starting price include the 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo SU9400 with 2GB of RAM and a 64GB SSD and three years of ‘next business day’ onsite service.