Netbooks, while as popular as ever, have settled into a fairly routine existence, with thin plastic shells, Intel Atom CPUs, Windows XP and 10-inch displays. When a company attempts to take these basic parts and dress them up with unique features, our ears perk up. Recently we've seen stabs at higher-resolution displays and bigger, 11-inch screens, for example.
Dell's Latitude 2100 offers a unique set of features, intended primarily for education markets, but possibly also of interest to consumers with specific needs. Our system included a thick, rugged shell, with a rubber coating on the top of the lid and the bottom surface, along with an optional touchscreen. Also unique to the 2100 is a small light on the back of the lid, which can help teachers keep track of the status of everyone in the classroom. The 2100 is available from around £260.
A beast compared with most other 10-inch netbooks, the 2100 feels as if it could stand up to the rigours of a full day in the classroom, or a rough cross-country trip in a bag. The rubber skin on the back of the lid is available in several colours, including black, gold, red, blue and green.
The keyboard is a throwback to the kind of smaller, tapered-key design you don't see very often now. Wide, flat-topped keys are currently the netbook standard. This system's place in the business-focused Latitude line may be the reason for the more traditional keyboard. At the very least, the small fingers of school children should find it easy to type on. The small touchpad is usable, but the tiny left and right mouse buttons beneath it feel cheap and insubstantial.
The 10.1-inch widescreen display offers a 1,024x576-pixel native resolution, which is a little less than most netbooks but similar to what we've seen on some HP models. You probably won't notice the missing pixels, but, on a small, low-resolution display, every little helps.
Far more interesting is the optional touchscreen, which our review unit included. It's only a £20 add-on (or £28 if you also want the included webcam), but, unlike the touchscreen of the recent Asus Eee PC T91, it's not a rotating, convertible display -- it's just a standard screen with touch capability.
After calibrating the touchscreen with a built-in app, the response was reasonably accurate, but its practicality out of the box is dubious, especially considering Windows XP's limp touch support (Vista and Linux are also available). With the right education-specific software, however, we can see the touchscreen being useful. No stylus is included, and we could feel the two layers of the screen flex slightly under our fingers, especially in the top left-hand corner.