Dell, characteristically, has bided its time before entering the Tablet PC arena. Tablet PCs have been around for several years, but have struggled to become mainstream despite support from top-tier manufacturers such as HP and Fujitsu Siemens.
Dell has been circumspect about the format, but saw the building of Tablet PC functionality into Windows Vista and Intel's low-power Santa Rosa platform as key features in prompting entry to the market. The result is the Latitude XT, available for around £1,129.
The Latitude XT is impressive to look at: its slate-grey outer casing is mirrored inside the clamshell on the wrist rest; blue and silver highlights are used for buttons and key markings, and the visual design is generally very appealing. There is a blue power light on the lid section to remind you if the Latitude XT is turned on, along with a battery charge icon.
We like the Latitude XT's slimmed-down power supply, which is no taller or heavier than your average mobile phone (although it's a little wider and fatter). It's much easier to carry around than the usual laptop power bricks and we're happy with the slightly slower charge times that its 45W capacity offers as a trade-off. Hopefully, Dell will start a trend here.
This is a convertible Tablet PC that's likely to be carried around for significant periods of time in 'screen outermost' mode, ready for pen input. The problem facing manufactures is to incorporate a screen large enough to work with while keeping the weight down to a manageable level.
Dell uses a 12.1-inch screen on the Latitude XT, with a native resolution of 1,280x800 pixels. You can have an outdoor-viewable screen with a brightness of 400 nits or a more standard 220-nit LED backlit display.
Tablet PCs need to cater for handwriting recognition, form filling and other pen-based activities. However, it's not always necessary to use a stylus: less precise activities like opening applications or choosing and running a presentation can be handled simply by tapping at the screen with a finger.
Previous dual-mode (stylus/finger) touchscreens have used resistive technology, which requires considerable downward pressure to register with the digitiser, leading to accuracy and durability problems. The Latitude XT is currently unique in using N-trig's capacitive DuoSense technology, which supports 'zero-pressure' finger touch, employs advanced 'palm-rejection' algorithms to distinguish between intended and unintended contact, and uses a pressure-sensitive stylus for realistic inking.
Capacitive touchscreens on product such as the Apple iPhone 3G are relatively expensive to build, but are more accurate and easier to use than resistive units; there are also fewer layers over the LCD, resulting in a clearer, sharper display.
The Latitude XT weighs 1.61kg with the 4-cell battery in place, which isn't uncomfortably heavy for moderate periods of tablet-style usage, with the laptop held in the crook of an arm.
The system measures 297 by 25 by 218mm, and Dell claims that this makes it one of the thinnest 12.1-inch Tablet PCs on the market. However, if you want an optical drive you'll need to purchase the optional media slice, adding to both bulk and weight.
The keyboard is very impressive: it has plenty of key travel, which may not suit all tastes, but it's also rigid and delivers a responsive 'click', which makes touch-typing easier. Dell provides a touch pad and a pointing stick -- the latter nestles between the G, H and B keys and has its own left and right mouse buttons just beneath the space bar.
The screen section is framed by an array of buttons that help you use the Latitude XT effectively in tablet mode. The main power button is here, along with a bank of four that access Outlook, initiate system log off and shut down, rotate the screen and fire up a Dell applet for adjusting system features like the display, audio, power management and pen input.
All of these buttons need to be depressed quite a long way to have an effect, and the power button in particular needs to be pressed in and then held for a noticeable period before the system switches on or off. This takes a little getting used to, but does prevent accidental activation.