That Dell is releasing a new laptop for business customers is the opposite of surprising. But the fact that it contains notable features not seen in any other laptops certainly is.
Most everything about the new Latitude Z is expected: It's yet another very thin notebook (a metric which PC manufacturers keep using to try to one-up each other), with a different kind of exterior finish (soft-touch, in this case), and comes in a black cherry. It measures 16 inches across, and is 14 millimeters thin at its most narrow point.
But you probably wouldn't guess that the Latitude Z charges wirelessly. And as far as we can tell, it's the first laptop to do so. Surprised that this is coming from Dell? You're not alone.
The wireless charging is handled elegantly enough. An inductive pad that's built into a laptop stand can accomplish a full recharge in "about the same amount of time" as a standard-issue cabled charger, according to Dell. While smartphone maker Palm has a similar (albeit smaller) wireless charging system for the Pre, and companies like Visteon and Wild Charge have debuted wireless charging accessories for phones, no PC maker has incorporated the idea until now.
It's part of what Dell is terming its new "wireless eco-system." Besides being able to get juice without wires, the Latitude Z will also be able to dock without them. A smaller separate adapter can hook up the laptop with any accompanying monitor, whether it be one in a cubicle, or in a conference room.
Both cost extra, and are by no means cheap ($199 for each), but the intention is for companies to buy, not necessarily individual consumers.
Other cool things Dell is introducing: touch-sensitive controls on the screen's bezel, and its first take on "instant on."
The sliding touch controls--not visible to the naked eye--are located on the right side of the bezel and appear when contact is made. Any controls can be customized and placed there, such as screen brightness, volume, or easy access to specific applications. When controlling an application like Excel or a Web browser, the right side of the bezel can be used as a sort of touchpad for scrolling through a spreadsheet or Web page.
The instant-on capability works exactly the way it sounds. Instead of waiting for Windows to boot up, the computer uses a second smaller motherboard and a separate ARM processor. Through a separate, non-Windows interface, it allows e-mail, contacts, calendars, and a Firefox-based Web browser to be accessed right away. E-mail, contacts, and calendars are always running in the background and are constantly being synced.
The ARM processor doesn't have access to the main motherboard or the ports, which should alleviate security concerns, according to Todd Forsythe, vice president of Dell's commercial client product group. The secondary processor--used mostly in smartphones--also draws much less power than a more robust desktop or notebook processor and so while it's running in the background it doesn't drain the battery as fast: using just the instant-on mode will provide up to two days of battery life; when using Windows and the accompanying Intel Core 2 Duo processor, it will get four hours.
Companies like DeviceVM and Phoenix have built businesses out of instant-on capabilities--basically a quick-booting interface built right into the computer's BIOS that isn't dependent on Windows. Dell said it decided not to go with either of those because they wanted to use the separate low-power processor for the background syncing.
What Dell, and DeviceVM, and Phoenix, and plenty of others are doing is part of a trend that's gaining steam: doing a sort of end-run around Windows. HP came out with its own interface on Touchsmart PCs last year that allows for quick sorting between photos, e-mail, and Web browsing on a few models. Lenovo recently introduced a new touch-screen interface for its tablet, and Asus has its own for its popular Eee PC Netbooks and touch-screen desktop called TouchGate.
Most people aren't used to seeing Dell trying new things like this, some of it actually ahead of competitors. Last year, we wrote about how Dell was starting to be a little more risky about the types of products it was trying out. Not new to the market, just new to Dell, which has traditionally had a habit of waiting, analyzing the market's response to new products, and jumping in later with a more efficient, and less expensive way of making that product.
But that way of doing things is over for Dell now. The company has struggled to find the right mix of products and now has less opportunity to be picky. But it's a good sign that the company is trying out smaller, more innovative, and more practical ideas like wireless charging, docking, instant on, and touch interfaces. Though it's only in the Latitude Z right now, we hear these features are stirring a lot of interest in other product groups at Dell. It's easy to see how, for a cheaper price (the Z starts at $1,999), these new features could find much broader acceptance with retail customers.