Problems with Dell Latitude E6400

Posted by on Apr 10, 2009 | 58 Comments

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…

PROS

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.

CONS

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!

PROBLEMS

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…)

SUPPORT

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.

NEXT

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?

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58 Comments

  1. Kevin Danenberg
    August 25, 2011

    @Patrick: Is your backlight CFL or LED? CFLs break easily, usually from dropping the laptop. At any rate, sounds like the LCD screen is fine, but your backlight isn’t turning on. Could be bad bulb, bad backlight inverter bulb, bad wire/connection… Those parts are pretty cheap on eBay.

  2. Albert L
    October 25, 2011

    Problems with the laptop Dell e6400 and possible workarounds

    - Problem 1
    o Not possible to switch internet options (specifically Connections) in Internet Explorer’s settings (the menu hangs). Usually, this happens when I boot the laptop on battery. Characteristically, the Dell ControlPoint Connection Manager tab shows during the boot up and it is impossible to make it disappear (i.e. not possible to close it). Also, it is then impossible to shut the notebook down properly. I have to kill the non-responding programs (Windows shows which ones do not close during the shutdown and offers to kill them), as they do not close regardless how much time I give (once I tried some 6 hours).
    o Also, sometimes the mobile broadband or even WiFi does not work after booting up.
    o The workaround is to shut e6400 down, switch the radios off using the hardware switch on the right hand side, and then boot the computer fully, log in, wait for all applications to load, and then switch the radios back on, using the hardware switch. Normally, this solves the problems.
    - Problem 2
    o Sometimes (I believe this is also attributed to working on batteries), the mobile broadband (GPRS/EDGE/HSPA) adapter becomes disabled due to the need to “activate” it and impossible to use. The workaround is to reboot the laptop again – annoying.
    - Problem 3
    o Sometimes, when I switch the brightness of the display whilst the notebook is logging in/booting up (I believe, this happens after logging into Windows), the system starts to misbehave (e.g. display problem 2).
    - Problem 4
    o When I connect the computer to the docking station, the Ethernet stops working. The workaround is to disable and enable the Ethernet adapter in Windows Device Manager. Well… yesterday it did not help and I had to reboot computer and then enable the device. The Ethernet was then recognized and started working. Unfortunately, the CPU was then loaded 100% (by System Idle process), probably overheating (fun was working loudly), and killing the programs sporadically showing upto 53% CPU load, did not resolve the issue. I think this must be a driver issue (which driver I do not know). Just now, I again did not have the Ethernet and, miraculously, the Ethernet got connected (after some 2 hours of working).
    - Problem 5
    o The fun is often working excessively, despite seemingly low CPU load (~5-10%; no computations or graphics, e.g. just using MS Word), making annoying noise.
    - Problem 6
    o I have tried to install Dell Mobile Broadband manager, but it is unable to work, saying that ‘The mobile broadband device is not communicating’.
    - Problem 7
    o Sometimes Dell ControlPoint Connection Manager drops the connection established with Intel ProSET/Wireles WiFi Connection Utility. This may happen after I worked for several hours using the WiFi connection established by Intel’s utility.
    - Problem 8
    o Frequently, having Bluetooth enabled drops the WiFi connection (at 2.4 GHz). Interestingly enough, some long time ago (in 2009?), they were able to work simultaneously with no such problems.
    - Commonality
    o Many of these problems seem to be attributed to switching from the mains to the batteries and back. The main workaround is to boot up on mains, THEN switch to batteries, and, probably more importantly, connect to mains BEFORE shutting down.
    o The reinstallation of Dell software solves the many of the problems (I have not tried if it solves all of the problems) … until the first disconnection from the mains and going to battery.

  3. ToHellWithDell
    December 8, 2011

    Its brightness sucks. It was working alright for some time. I managed with constant flickering too. But lately its maximum brightness is so low its hard while working. There are these things at the bottom of the screen which seem to give light to the whole screen. Its just plain annoying.
    I hate Dell laptops.

  4. Boogie
    March 8, 2012

    Had my E6400 since 2010 and following problem:
    - Bluetooth breaks wireless connection (need to disable bluetooth on icon to have stable wireless)
    - Backlight has gotten very dim after a buisness trip, without any accidents to pc (before it was brighter than my external monitor but it is now A LOT dimmer)
    - Today backlight allmost disapeared TOTALY and flickered when i undocked and ran on batteries, so on batteries = useless, powered = heavy eyestrain and almost useless
    - problem with my logitech nano vx wireless mouse on this pc. It worked a while then suddenly stopped. Tried it on a colleagues pc and there it works fins so not a mouse issue (probably logitech driver issue though)
    - light sensor placed in a stupid place as previously mentioned

  5. AL
    July 6, 2013

    Hey… Cool blog, J.R. here… After my house was broken into, my Viao was replaced by a 6400. the 6400 was free, no ac adpter, it came with a generic adapter. It was working fine and you are correct, if your into music, U might as well sing to yourself. but it was doing its job… My question is after loading Norton power eraser I was blue screened fro my efforts. I was on my way to get a hammer for the 6400, when I came across your blog on my desktop… any advise as to what to do? I can not get into safemode or boot up… if you were going to buy a new laptop what would you recomend, are you still with Dell, I have always used Sony, never tryed a Mac… Thanks in advance

  6. amias
    August 6, 2013

    the audio problem is generic problem for laptops when you connect them to studio grade equipment. its a grounding loop which is caused by your mixer and laptop having separate power supplies and thus getting confused about where earth is.

    Here are some workarounds sorted in order of expense to apply.
    a) only run on the battery when using audio , no grounding loop.

    b) turn the gain on the mixer right down and the volume on the laptop right up , this boost the signal more than the noise. Only use the mixer to control the volume.

    c) use bluetooth audio (a2dp) and a bluetooth reciever , avantree have good cheap ones. this is quite tricky to setup but cool when it works. expect a few seconds of glitching per day and wire quality sound.
    You can also use phones , tablets and other pc’s with this.

    d) get an external soundcard like an edirol ua-25 , judging by the rest of the kit you have you are a musician so this will be handy anyway. protip: avoid soundcards that don’t work in linux as they will be relying on too much software to work well.

  7. Kevin Danenberg
    August 6, 2013

    Hi Al,

    I’m using a MacBook Pro now. I got the last of the pre-Retina models because it still has the digital audio in/out. No complaints about the hardware whatsoever. Just a lot little peeves with the user interface in OS X. Regarding your question, I think I’d just reformat the hard drive and reinstall the OS. If there’s data on the drive you need, you could try popping it into an external housing and accessing it from another computer.

  8. Kevin Danenberg
    August 6, 2013

    Hi Amias,

    Thanks for your suggestions. At this point, my Dell is mostly collecting dust as I’ve moved on to a MBP. Running on battery never worked for me. Not sure about your mixer suggestion. Bluetooth sounds like an interesting workaround. I’ve got a couple external sound interfaces, but I only use them for specific recording tasks, not general listening. I use a desktop these days, and the audio works fine even in Linux. Good to hear from you!

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