Dell Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme, review: Tough, but short on battery life

Dell has two very tough and solid ‘Rugged Extreme’ notebooks in its ‘speciality’ range: the Latitude 12 Rugged Extreme Convertible Notebook has a 12-inch screen that rotates within its bezel to face outwards or operate in traditional notebook mode; the 14-inch Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme reviewed here is larger, but lacks this convertible feature. Its hefty list price of £3,055 (ex. VAT) is reduced to £2,139 on Dell’s UK website at the time of writing.

Rugged notebooks are usually associated with specialist vendors like Panasonic and Getac, but Dell has been active in this sector for a while too, and throws everything it can at the Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme to equip it for the toughest conditions.

The result is a bulky but hardy notebook designed for field service engineers, military personnel and anyone who works outdoors and travels over rough terrain, and needs their laptop to handle the punishment.

The Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme measures 35.6cm wide by 24.7cm deep by 5.2cm thick and weighs 3.54kg with the standard 6-cell battery. The chassis incorporates a carrying handle at the front that makes it look like a little briefcase and makes it easy to carry around. The front left and right edges also carry connectors that can be used to attach an optional shoulder strap.

Dell has put this notebook through its paces, and it meets MIL-STD-810G, IP-65 (which means it’s dust-tight and protected against pressurized water), and also has MIL-STD-461F electromagnetic interference certification. Among the situations the Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme can cope with, Dell lists "Transit drop, operating drop, blowing rain, blowing dust, blowing sand, vibration, functional shock, humidity, salt fog, altitude, explosive atmosphere, solar radiation, thermal extremes, thermal shock, freeze/thaw, tactical standby to operational".

The magnesium alloy shell helps keep the innards safe from shocks and drops, and the four corners have thick rubber buffers that provide extra shock absorbance for those particularly vulnerable areas. They might not look very pretty, but these are sensible additions to the chassis. The lid is exceptionally solid, with no bend or give whatsoever.

Every single port and slot is protected by a tightly hinged flap that fits securely and has a two-stage, press-latch opening system comprising a sliding lock and a pull-down hinge. Gloved hands might struggle to open the flaps, but they are certainly very secure. Moreover, there are lots of them, so you won’t unnecessarily expose ports you’re not using.

Each flap incorporates small icons showing which ports and connectors lie beneath. So, on the left edge one flap protects the removable battery, while another protects the headset/microphone combo port, an HDMI port, a single USB 3.0 port and a SIM card slot.

On the right edge one flap protects the hard drive and either an ExpressCard or a PCMCIA card slot, while another protects the optical drive tray, an SD card slot, a USB 2.0 port, a second USB 3.0 port and a SmartCard slot. The optical drive tray is at the bottom of this group, and is a little difficult to eject as it gets caught on the protective flap’s rubber seal unless you lift the notebook up and push the flap to a wider angle.

The remaining connections are on the back edge protected by four separate flaps. The power connector has a flap all to itself; next to it is a flap covering VGA and serial ports; a third protects a second USB 2.0 port and an Ethernet (RJ-45) port; and the fourth flap protects another Ethernet port and another serial port. Having duplicate Ethernet and serial ports might help reduce unnecessary flap opening.

There’s a full-HD webcam above the screen with a small sliding cover to help protect its lens. A fingerprint scanner sits on the wrist rest, recessed to protect its scanning surface.

The 14-inch Gorilla Glass-protected screen has a resolution of 1,366 by 768 pixels and is a resistive touch panel. That means it can be used with fingertips (including while you’re wearing gloves), or with a stylus that sits in a housing on the left edge of the chassis, secured by a lanyard so you can’t lose it.

Viewing angles are excellent, although the screen’s slightly reflective finish may not be ideal in all conditions. Having said that, we found it easily readable outdoors.

The keyboard uses island-style keys that are well separated from each other, which is vital for typing with gloved fingers. The Fn key row is half height and arguably could be full height for greater ease of use. The same could be said of the arrow keys, which are half height and slightly wider than the other keys. The return key, by contrast, is double height but rather narrow.

The keyboard backlight has four brightness levels and, unusually, can be set to white, red, green or blue simply by pressing Fn and C together when the backlight is on. You can add two custom colours via the BIOS if you wish and disable any of the four standard colours. As an incidental, possibly useful field-based extra, the Fn key can be locked if pressed in combination with the Esc key, so that Fn key operations are accessible with just a single key press.

The keys feel solid and secure under the fingers, while the touchpad — like the screen — is resistive so it can be used with gloved fingers. We found the touchpad less responsive than we’d like, and we experienced some difficulty with precise positioning. We resorted to tapping the screen out of frustration at times. The touchpad’s best feature is the large, easy-to-use buttons that sit beneath it.

The Dell Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme features a ‘stealth mode’ — a Fn key combination that immediately turns off all sound and lights, including the screen light. The same key combination disables stealth mode.

Dell has clearly invested heavily in the design and build of the Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme. The innards, though, are more mainstream. There are two preconfigured models available on Dell’s UK website. Our review unit was the entry-level model with a 1.9GHz Intel Core i5-4300U processor, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. The more expensive model has a 1.7GHz Core i7-4650U processor, 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD.

Connectivity is via dual-band 802.11ac wi-fi, Bluetooth 4.0 and Gigabit Ethernet. Mobile broadband and GPS modules are available as optional extras.

The operating system is Windows 7 Professional by default, with Windows 8.1 available as an option. Graphics on our review model were handled by Intel’s integrated HD Graphics 4400 chipset. The Core i7 model uses the Intel HD Graphics 5000 GPU.

Microsoft’s Windows Experience Index (WEI) marks a Windows 7-based PC’s subsystems out of 7.9, assigning the overall WEI to the lowest-scoring component. As is often the case, the integrated GPU is the weakest link, with the CPU and RAM delivering good scores and the solid-state drive getting a maximum 7.9:

To put the Latitude 14 Extreme Rugged’s performance into perspective, we compared it to that of Dell’s high-end Precision M2800 mobile workstation, on the demanding Cinebench R15 benchmark:

Although the Core i5/integrated HD Graphics Latitude is a respectable mainstream performer, it’s clearly no match for a system with a fast Core i7 processor and discrete AMD FirePro graphics such as the Precision M2800.

Battery life is somewhat disappointing for a system that’s likely to spend long periods in the field. During the test period, we found that the standard 6-cell battery in our review sample would not power a full day’s work, even when we turned the screen brightness down. Battery life estimates made by measuring the system’s power consumption under various screen brightness and workload conditions delivered the following results:

With the standard 6-cell (65Wh) battery, you can expect just under 4 hours’ life with middling (50%) screen brightness and the system mixing periods of idling and workload activity. This rises to around 4.6 hours with low (25%) screen brightness and falls to 3 hours with brightness turned right up (100%).

If that’s not enough, you may need to consider specifying the more expensive Core i7 model (£2,473 ex. VAT), which comes with a 9-cell (97Wh) battery. There doesn’t appear to be an option on Dell’s website to buy the 9-cell battery separately and fit it to the Core i5 model. If this does become available, our measurements suggest you’ll see battery life rise to around 5.75h with middling screen brightness, 7h with the screen backlight turned down and 4.5h with the screen on full.

It’s difficult to fault the Dell Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme on toughness grounds, thanks to its solid build and first-rate protection for ports and slots. However, day-long battery life is highly desirable for field-based notebooks, and you’re unlikely to get that from the entry-level review configuration with the standard 6-cell battery.