Problems with Dell Latitude E6400
I bought a Dell Latitude E6400 last September when the hard drive on my aging ThinkPad T42 started hemorrhaging sectors left and right. I could have just replaced the hard drive and kept chugging along with the ThinkPad, but my 1024×768 screen really wasn’t cutting it coding in Visual Studio or Eclipse. I wanted a notebook that not only had more portable screen real estate, but could drive a big flat panel at a pretty high resolution. Also, LED-backlit displays were just hitting the market at the end of last summer. My T42 CFL-backlit display was anemically dim. Plus, as I learned by dropping by older T40 a mere 12 inches while inside a padded bad, that CFL bulb is prone to breakage if knocked just the wrong way! (That’s why I had to buy the T42 in the first place!)
Originally, out of ThinkPad loyalty, I considered the as T400 as a replacement. However, the LED-backlit versions were not in stock at the time, and the projected wait times were impossibly long. I depend on my notebook for my business, so I needed an immediate replacement. I went with Dell because the E6400 was available and seemed to fit my needs.
My E6400 was configured as follows:
- 2.53GHz Intel Core 2 Duo Processor (P9500)
- 2 GB DDR2-800 SRAM, 1 DIMM
- NVIDIA Quadro NVS 160M with Express Card
- 250 GB Serial ATA hard drive (7200 RPM)
- 14.1" WXGA+ (1400×900) LED display
- Intel WiFi link 5300 a/g/n
- 8x DVD +/-RW
- 9-cell battery
- Windows XP Professional SP3
- Bluetooth, Modem, Fingerprint Reader, Integrated Webcam,
I even had them plant three trees to offset the carbon footprint. Nice option. I would like to know where my trees are in case I want to visit them…
Anyway, among the things I really liked about this machine were:
Stylish design – Definitely a step up from the drab ThinkPad look. Macs are pretty. A lot of PC notebook designs I’ve seen are either over-buttoned with abominable detailing, or an ill-executed attempt to look Mac-like. The E6400 design is quite elegant and refined in its own right. Though, the "brushed metal" lid is just a cheesy laminate effect and hardly actual brushed metal.
Trackpad and Stick – I don’t know anyone else who likes the pointing stick, but I use it 90% of the time. I’m used to having the stick and the trackpad from ThinkPad experience. Unless you like steering with your thumb, the nice thing about the stick over the pad is that it keeps your hands in typing position. But it’s nice to have the trackpad to fall back on, because as anyone who’s dealt with repetitive strain injuries would understand, the alternative pointing device lets you keep working while avoiding overuse.
Backlit keyboard – It’s just flat out sexy. I couldn’t go back to a ThinkLight.
LED backlit display – The screen is just beautiful, and very bright! I can use it outdoors in direct sunlight. Indoors, I rarely need to turn the brightness more than halfway up. The display saves on batteries, too, which leads me to…
Battery life – When I first got it, the 9-cell battery was yielding 7-hour run times. Battery life for me means being able to work while commuting or outside in nice weather. It’s now lasting about 5 1/2 hours, but still a luxury not to have to worry about your next A/C fix.
Little things – 4 USB ports, SD Card reader.
Fragile keys – Within the first day, the E key popped off while I was typing. I’ve had this happen with my ThinkPads. The edge of my finger occasionally gets caught on the side of a key and pops it off. Usually no big deal…just snap it back in place. Well, in this case, the little plastic tab that holds the key on broke, so I couldn’t reattach the key properly. Dell was helpful enough to send me an immediate keyboard replacement which I was able to replace the next day. Haven’t had that happen since.
Ambient light sensor misplaced – I like the idea of the ambient light sensor automatically adjusting the brightness of the display according to current conditions. However, the sensor is below the screen on the left side. What happens is that it senses the light bouncing off your pasty white fingers. It’s just really annoying for the screen to change brightness every time you move your hand to and from the keyboard. They should have put the sensor above the screen.
No Break key - I know most people don’t use this, but when developing old VB applications or Microsoft Access, pressing <Ctrl><Break> interrupts your code while debugging. I live by this key. As a workaround, I have to open the on-screen keyboard while programming. It’s a silly omission. They could have made an Fn shortcut for it. (I wonder if people think the button labeled "Break" will break their computer?) [EDIT] Thanks to Kirk Taylor and others who’ve commented, I’ve learned that <Ctrl><Fn><F12> on the E6400 sends Break. Tested in MS Access 2003 and it works! I assume it will for other IDE.
Audio - See below!
It’s really a shame my experience with the Dell hasn’t been all good. Here are some of the problems I’ve had:
1. Terrible audio – This became apparent the moment I plugged in to my sound system. I’d been listening to my audio collection from my T42, and when at home, plugged the docking station outputs to my Mackie 1202-VLZ PRO mixer, which outputs to Behringer Truth B2030A active monitors. Never had a problem with this setup.
However, with the Dell, I immediately noticed horrendous static. It’s normal to hear some RF interference when you turn the silent output of a computer way up, but this was at normal listening volume. Never mind the fact that the E6400 audio, even output through my sound system, was tinny and distorted…the RF interference made it sound like a cheap AM radio! I expect that from a cheap AM radio ($9 USD or so), but for over $2,000 USD…not acceptable. This notebook is useless for casual listening. If you’re a musician, forget it. You might as well scrape your fingernails on a chalkboard.
It’s not a driver thing. Booting to a Ubuntu live CD yields the same joy of listening to your hard drive seek in full hi-fi audio…
(Not related, but worth mentioning… The onboard speakers are better on your cellphone speaker phone. Trust me.)
2. Pixel noise on DVI output - When I use my E6400 on my docking station with my 20" Samsung display via the DVI output, I get weird pixel noise on some graphics. It looks like smatterings of hot pixels, but they are not fixed to the display. If the noise is on a web graphic, it will move with the graphic as you scroll the page up and down. This problem was minimal at first, but has gotten progressively worse.
To be fair, I don’t have alternate equipment that I can further diagnose the problem with. Therefore, I don’t know whether the problem might be in the monitor or in the docking station rather than the notebook.
VGA output to same monitor works fine. Lower resolutions via DVI work fine, also.
3. Ethernet gone bad – I didn’t have any problems with the integrated gigabit Ethernet for the first three or four months. Then it started to randomly drop connection here and there. Then progressively worse til it was "acquiring IP address" every couple minutes. Finally, it just stopped working altogether. At home. At work. This cable, that cable, etc. So I limped along on WiFi only for a while. Then WiFi started dropping more and more frequently. (I really need a fast wired connection for database work, though…)
I was able to get by the audio problems simply by not using the Dell for audio (except for mandatory YouTube excursions and occasional Skyping). I set up a desktop at home as a media server. However, the other problems started to interfere with business. So I called Dell tech support…
After accidentally calling the home support number a few times, I finally got routed properly to the business support line. I have to say that the difference was night and day. On the business side, the first person I talked to understood when I explained that the Ethernet connection didn’t even work when booting to a Ubuntu live CD. (The home folks, upon hearing this, would continue with their script asking me to go to my XP Control Panel or some nonsense like that…) So business support authorized me to send my notebook in for a replacement motherboard.
(Skipping a bit…)
Okay, so after 8 days without it, my notebook came back. I had explained in a detailed note the above problems, hoping that whatever they fixed would solve them all.
Well, audio still sounds like a trip to the dentist.
The video problem is the same. (Maybe it is the monitor…I dunno. I’ll test further when I can…)
Most importantly… The Ethernet still did not work! I know they changed the motherboard because when I reinstalled my hard drive and booted up, it didn’t not recognize some PCI devices…so apparently some newer version board than I had before…
Well, I tried the Ubuntu live CD and this time Ethernet did work. So I booted back to XP, checked for the latest drivers, and tried again. No dice. Until I set the Gigabit card to 100Mbps Full-Duplex rather than auto-sensing Gigabit. Fine. Good enough, I guess.
Not exactly the resolution I’d hoped for. But I’ve lost days and days of productivity due to my problems with this Dell. It’s probably a better idea to limp along with the E6400 until I can afford its replacement. I’m going to experiment with virtualizing XP within Ubuntu on it for now. Maybe I’ll get a MacBook next and see how the other half lives?