Design and Build Quality
The E6420, in contrast to the E6410 which it replaces, has rounded edges and Dell seems to have borrowed some design cues from their new XPS range. Although some might find the new design to look less professional, the build quality certainly does have the premium and sturdy feel that one expects from a business class laptop.
Dell has made liberal use of durable metal alloys to create what they call “a hard-wearing MIL-STD 810G tested Tri-Metal design”. The display lid is covered in brushed anodized aluminium, while the case frame is made from a lightweight magnesium alloy. The screen hinges are said to be steel reinforced and feel exceptionally sturdy. A single zinc alloy clasp keeps the display lid shut.
The limited amount of plastic that is used on the upper surface around the keyboard and screen has a soft rubberised feel to it. Overall the unit feels exceptionally sturdy and attempts to warp or flex any of the base materials by picking the device up from a single corner had little effect.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The keys on the spill-resistant standard keyboard are relatively concave and, coming from a keyboard with flat keys, took an hour or so to get used. Once used to the design, the keyboard was quite comfortable to type on; there is a decent amount tactile resistance and key travel is adequate. Applying more pressure than is necessary resulted in minimal keyboard flexing.
Function keys are clearly marked in orange and there is a set of dedicated volume (up, down and mute) keys to the right of the keyboard.
The touchpad was comfortable to use and multitouch gestures, such as double finger scrolling, worked well. The soft rubberised left/right mouse-click buttons, which have an ample amount of travel and quiet tactile response, were particularly comfortable to use.
In addition to the touchpad, the E6420 also sports a pointing stick which, although responsive, is both recessed and concave making it somewhat difficult to grip. The pointing stick’s rubber cap is easily removed and it would have nice if Dell supplied some additional, differently shaped, caps along with the machine.
The review unit we received was equipped with an Intel Core i3-2310M CPU, but i5 and i7 based configurations are also available. There are two DDR3 1333MHz DIMM slots available for use with up to a maximum of 8GB of memory; our unit was configured with 4GB (2x2GB in dual channel mode). As for secondary storage, our unit was fitted with a 7200RPM 320GB Western Digital hard drive and a DVD+/-RW combo drive.
Graphics processing is handled by the integrated HD Graphics 3000 which is part of the Sandy Bridge based Core iX package. The system may also be configured to include an Nvidia NVS 4200M with Nvidia Optimus to switch between the two graphics processors. Sadly our review unit was not equipped with this additional graphics card.
Performance and Battery Life
Performance wasn’t an issue and the i3 performed well under moderate load. That said, general office tasks normally don’t push modern processors anywhere near their limits and memory capacity is often a greater performance bottleneck. Thankfully, with 4GB of memory, our review unit felt snappy even with multiple browser tabs, spreadsheets and Outlook open. High definition video playback was smooth and we tested both 720p and 1080p playback while connected to a 1080p capable LCD TV.
Battery life was excellent with the 60Wh battery lasting just under five hours with moderate office use (surfing the internet via Wi-Fi, some number-crunching in Excel and the odd YouTube video). In our continuous video playback test, with the display set to 65% brightness, the battery lasted just over four and a half hours.
The supplied 90w charger is relatively compact but of the brick shaped variety and not the flat and wide variety supplied with some the other offerings from Dell. With the charger plugged in and the laptop powered on, the battery charged at a rate of about 45W per hour, resulting in a zero to full charge in under an hour and half.
Although not terrible, the standard 14-inch LED backlit display is probably the least impressive aspect of the E6420. This is mostly due to the relatively low (1366×768) native resolution. However, an optional HD+ display running at 1600×900 is also available.
On the plus side, the anti-glare matte-finish made it easy to use the screen in well-lit areas. The LED backlighting is uniform with no noticeable backlight bleeding and the maximum brightness level is adequate. Another positive is that the display lid can flip back to almost 180 degrees, something that field engineers and technicians will appreciate.
Connectivity and I/O
Along with the standard Wi-Fi (802.11 a/b/g/n) and Bluetooth 3.0 radios, the E6420 comes equipped with a built-in HSDPA modem. A Gigabit Ethernet port can be found near the top left-hand corner while an HDMI port is positioned in the near right-hand corner.
Along the right-hand side of the device there are three USB 2.0 ports, one of which doubles up as a eSATA port, a wireless on-off switch and a ExpressCard slot. On the left-hand side there is an additional USB 2.0 port, a VGA port, audio and a smart card reader for chip-based smart cards. An SD card slot can be found on the front of the device.
Additional features include an HD webcam, fingerprint reader and a contactless (RFID based) reader.
Overall the E6420 is a solid business class laptop with very few shortcomings. The extensive use of metal casing has added to the device’s weight (about 2.3kg with a 6-cell battery) making it less portable than some of its competitors. Build quality and battery life is excellent, while the display suffers a bit due to its low resolution.
With a RRP starting at just over R13,000 the E6420 is noteworthy alternative to its main competitor, the HP Elitebook 8460p.