Dells E4300: A solid business-class laptop... with some quirks

Dell's E4300: A solid business-class laptop... with some quirks

Any good geek knows that technology products that seem wonderful at launch can lose their luster over time, and that products that don’t seem all that spectacular can become an essential part of one’s kit.

Dell’s E4300 laptop is designed to be a business user’s main workstation, and also a very capable small and light travel laptop.  I’ve been using one as my main machine for nine months now, and my overall opinion is that, while it has its share of quirks and problems, it’s a fairly strong solution for its niche.

The machine I’m using sports a 1280×800 LED-baclkit display, 4GB of RAM, a 160GB, 7200RPM hard drive, an Intel Core2 Duo P9400 processor, the optional fingerprint reader and integrated webcam, and the Intel GM45 mobile video chipset.   I opted for Vista Business 32 bit.

My relationship with the E4300 got off to a bit of a rocky start — it shipped a few weeks later than Dell’s configuration website suggested it would, and despite their promise to ship it to me while I was traveling, it instead shipped to my home address, so I was left using a “rugged” Panasonic CF-25 that I had pretty decently destroyed while driving in the Baja 1000.  But that’s another story.

When I returned home and eagerly unboxed the E4300 that had been patiently waiting for me, I was in for a bit of a letdown: it wouldn’t turn on.  Not on batteries, not with an AC adapter. Not even with the extra AC adapter I had ordered.  It just made a slight humming noise when I pushed the power button.   A call to Dell’s tech support created a dilemma: I could have the motherboard replaced the next day, or I could have a replacement unit sent in 7-10 days.  I opted for the replacement unit to make sure no collateral damage would be done during motherboard replacement

Once I finally got a working E4300, I was pretty happy with its light weight, elegant design, and good battery life.  But a funny thing started happening — the machine would just lock up at random.  Sometimes it’d go days without a problem, sometimes it would lock up three or four times in a single day.   Initially, calling Dell support yielded the usual “reinstall operating system, run diagnostics, check for BIOS updates” routine.  This went on for a month or two; I’d use the machine, it would lock up, I’d call Dell, they’d walk me through the routine.

Then a funny thing happened: on one of my tech support calls where I expressed frustration at this repeated problem, the technician suggested I turn off dual core operation in the BIOS.  I did, and wow – the machine was rock solid for weeks.  Of course, it was also running one core rather than two, which was irksome.

Some searching on the Internet turned up a number of people having the same problem, and the consensus was that it was a harwdware issue that could only be fixed with a replacement motherboard.  Armed with posts in Dell’s forums where people with replacement motherboards saw their lockups go away, I finally got Dell’s tech support to replace my motherboard as well.

So, about three months after receiving the E4300, I finally had a reliable, solid machine.  Mostly.  It charges quickly and its battery life is still very impressive — I usually get 4-5 hours of pretty heavy use, including WiFi and pretty beefy applications running.

The E4300 has proven itself to be solidly built; it’s been through lots of travel and the hinges and display show no signs of wear.   The DVD drive is happy to work at odd angles, and the keyboard backlighting is a great feature on overnight flights.

The gigabit connection is great when it’s docked, as I can quickly load media from my home server before travel.  And now that I’ve worked through the most serious technical issues, the machine is reliable and stable, going through many sleep/wake cycles between reboots.

However, there are still some quirks: the ambient light sensor and/or its associated Vista service just really don’t work; with the service started, the laptop’s display is always full bright and cannot be adjusted.  With the service stopped, I can manually adjust the brightness… sometimes.  Other times I have to try different permutations of stopping and starting the service and adjusting brightness to get it to work.  But that’s a relatively minor annoyance.

Similarly, the E4300′s fingerprint reader has been a source of frustration, particularly its Vista integration.  Booting with a fingerprint works great… but the Wave Systems Vista stuff is kind of weak.  For instance, if I want to log in by typing my password, I get two or three characters in before my right palm triggers the fingerprint reader, which promptly steals focus, wipes out what I typed, and asks my to rescan my finger… just about when I complete the rest of my password and hit enter, leading to an invalid login attempt.  I just feels kludgey, and though I’m willing to blame Vista rather than Dell and Wave Systems, the result is still annoying.

Other annoyances include the touchpad, which sometimes goes off daydreaming for a few seconds and leaves my cursor moving in whatever direction it was going when the touchpad stopped paying attention, and the location of the page up and page down keys next to the up arrow, which leads to some unexpected scrolling.

With all that I know, would I buy the E4300 now?  I’m honestly not sure, but probably not.  For my purposes, the combination of a small and light laptop with a good docking station, full size keyboard, and multiple large monitors is ideal, and the E4300 offers the right combination of processing power and portability to make that setup work.   But the initial problems and the ongoing quirks would make me look at alternatives to this fairly pricey laptop.  Frankly, if Apple would get their act together and offer a docking solution for their MacBook line, I’d strongly consider switching.   But for now the E4300 has settled down and is solid enough that I expect to continue using it for a while.

Editor’s Note:

One of the challenges in writing about products, especially from a hands-on rather than press release angle, is that it’s hard to really gauge what it’s like to live with this stuff and still be timely with reviews.  Digital Rig periodically runs “X months later” reviews that focus on long term experience with products rather than first-blush impressions.

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