Sunday, October 11, 2009

Dell Adamo Review

Dell initially teased the existence of its upscale 13-inch Adamo laptop at CES 2009, and formally announced details and ordering availability two months later. We previously had a chance to get our hands on a preproduction version of the system, and have now been able to test the finished product.

Adamo is a departure for Dell, a company built on selling mass quantities of mainstream laptops (Dell's Inspiron 15-inch is still one of the most affordable and configurable systems available, and an initial stop for many first-time computer buyers). Instead, it's a high-end, ultrathin 13-inch model that starts at $1,999 (there's also a $2,699 version) and partly shares a general design sensibility with the MacBook Air and the HP Voodoo Envy 133.

Dell is pitching the Adamo as a "luxury brand notebook design for the luxury conscious consumer," which may not seem like the most timely of ideas, considering the current economic climate and the resultant growth in low-cost Netbooks. But it's important to note that the ultralow voltage Intel Core 2 Duo processor used in the Adamo runs rings around other recent slim laptops, such as the HP Pavilion dv2 (with AMD's new Athlon Neo CPU).

And while you may be able to get faster components for less, the Adamo's real selling point is its design. There are no visible stickers or screws (even the usual Microsoft and Intel badges have been replaced--the logos are etched into a panel on the underside of the system), and it includes high-end features such as a solid-state hard drive, an etched anodized aluminum chassis, and a backlit keyboard.

The end result is an enviable package that will definitely attract plenty of stares at the coffee shop or airport lounge, not just because of its sharp looks but also because, with a $2,000 starting price, you're unlikely to see many of them in the wild.

Price as reviewed$1,999
Processor1.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo U9300
Memory2GB, 533MHz DDR2
Hard drive64GB SSD
ChipsetMobile Intel GM45 Express Chipset
GraphicsIntel GMA 4500MHD (integrated)
Operating systemWindows Vista Premium (64-bit)
Dimensions (WD)13.0 x 9.5 inches
Height0.65 inches
Screen size (diagonal)13.4 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter4.0/3.4 pounds

Built into an aluminum case with unibody construction, similar to the current MacBooks, the 0.65-inch-thick Adamo is, according to Dell, the thinnest laptop in the world. It certainly is thin, but going toe-to-toe with the MacBook Air, the true "thinnest" title is open to interpretation. The tapered Air is thinner at its narrowest point, but slightly thicker at its widest point. In either case these are both very slim systems (see a direct comparison here). Picking up the Adamo, it feels a little heavier than the system looks like it should. At a hair less than 4 pounds, it's certainly lightweight, but based on the size and thinness, we were expecting something closer to the 3-pound MacBook Air.

The Adamo is available in both white (Dell calls it "pearl") and black "onyx" versions. The back of the lid is split between etched metal and a glossy finish--actually a 0.5mm glass inlay--which is better for wireless reception than other materials. The pearl finish has a wavy pattern etched into it, while the black model has a more traditional brushed-metal look.

Opting for a subtle look on and around the keyboard tray, the Adamo has only a handful of small LED lights, for the power button, the touch-sensitive media controls, and the Caps Lock button. The backlit keyboard itself is a big change from the typical Dell laptop keyboard, which has always had tall, tapered keys. This borrows more from the Dell Mini 9, with flat, closely spaced keys, similar in style to what you might find on a MacBook or Sony Vaio, but slightly scalloped instead of flat.

Typing felt very comfortable, but the individual keys were a bit clacky and the space bar required a solid hit to register, which didn't fit our light typing style. The metal touch pad worked well; sometimes using nontraditional surfaces on a touch pad can add uncomfortable friction and finger drag, but that was not the case here.

The 13.4-inch 16:9 LED display offers a 1,366x768 native resolution and is behind a sheet of edge-to-edge glass. It's a sleek look, but very susceptible to glare and reflections. The screen hinge is set back about an inch from the rear of the system, leaving what looks a little like a small handle when the display is open.

Dell AdamoAverage for category [thin-and-light]
VideoDisplayPortVGA, mini-HDMI or Mini-DVI
AudioStereo speakers, headphone jackStereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data3 USB 2.0 (1 USB/eSATA), SD card reader3 USB 2.0, mini-FireWire, SD card reader
ExpansionSIM card slotExpressCard/54
NetworkingEthernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, BluetoothEthernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional WWAN
Optical driveNoneDVD burner

The slim selection of ports and connections is one area where the Adamo falls short. Other than a headphone jack and a user-accessible SIM card slot on the right side, all the other ports and connections are on the rear edge. There are two USB ports, a USB/eSATA port, and an Ethernet jack, plus a DisplayPort video output (a DisplayPort-to-DVI dongle is included in the box).

The lack of an SD card slot is particularly annoying (it's one of the things we regularly knock MacBooks for not having), and there's no internal optical drive. Dell offers specially matched external models: a DVD burner is $120, and a Blu-ray read-only drive is $350.

While our review unit included a 1.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo U9300, 2GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD hard drive, a more expensive configuration with a 1.4GHz SU9400 and 4GB of RAM is also available (and we generally suggest 4GB of RAM for use with Windows Vista).

The dual-core Intel ultralow voltage processor makes a huge difference compared with the Atom/Neo/Nano CPUs we've spend most of our time with lately, and the Adamo handles multitasking chores much more like a mainstream system. The tiny, low-power ULV chips that allow the Adamo to hit that 0.65-inch thickness are expensive, however, which is why you don't find them in Netbooks, and why a basic sub-$1,000 Core 2 Duo 13-inch laptop such as the HP Pavilion dv3510nr, can outperform the Adamo.

While it's not intended to be a speed demon, in anecdotal usage the Adamo worked well, with no slowdown or stuttering during regular usage: Web surfing, working on office documents, and media playback.

One area we'd expect a high-end system like the Adamo to excel at is battery life. It ran for 2 hours and 36 minutes on our video playback battery drain test, using the included battery. Our battery drain test is especially grueling, so you can expect longer life from casual Web surfing and office use, but we had hoped for a more robust battery, especially with the efficient CPU, LED display and SSD hard drive.

Dell wisely includes an enhanced one-year warranty with the system. Called Adamo Premium Service, it includes a special 800 number to call, an average wait time of about 2 minutes, and you can request the same technician every time you call. Upgrading to a three-year plan will cost an extra $349. Dell also has a robust set of online support features, including an online knowledge base and driver downloads.

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Adobe Photoshop CS3 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

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