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Monday, 22 June 2009 11:44

Dell's dazzling Adamo put to the test - Design and Bulid Quality

Written by Nermin Hajdarbegovic

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Review: As thin as it gets


Dell isn't the first name that comes to mind when you think luxury laptops, but as one wise man would put it, the times they are a changing.


Launched a couple of months back, the Adamo is not merely another Dell lappie, it's an entirely new brand created for fashion minded and well off folks who don't mind being noticed. Last time Dell thought it needed a new brand, it simply went out and bought one - Alienware. However, this time around it chose to go it alone, and take on the likes of Apple, Lenovo and to some extent, Sony, with a beautifully styled, art-decoish lump of hardware.

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You're probably thinking this isn't a very good time to launch a $2000 laptop, and you're right, to some extent at least. Analysts claim luxury goods makers aren't doing so bad even in this tough economic climate, and if I were to make a wild guess, I'd say people who had a lot of money to burn a year ago, are still doing pretty well. You don't see luxury car brands going under, or even complaining too much, do you?

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However, whereas under the bonnet of most sports cars you'll find two rows of supercharged cylinders eager to catapult you down the road, in the Adamo you'll find two cores running at 1.2GHz and two gigs of RAM. Obviously the power plant used in the Adamo isn't in a hurry to get anywhere. This is the main concern here, not the economy or the price tag. A year ago we'd just say it's an ultraportable, a stylish device that compromises on speed to cater to a niche market and that would be it. However, as more and more vendors announce skinny and cheap CULV-based 13-inchers, the Adamo starts to show some shortcomings in the value for money department.

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Dell chose to couple a pricey platform with some pricey storage, courtesy of Samsung. A 128GB SSD doesn't come cheap, and adds a few hundred bucks to the price tag. Unlike a MacBook Air or Lenovo X301, Dell doesn't offer a cheaper HDD option. The choice of CPUs is also limited to the SU9300 at 1.2GHz or the SU9400 at 1.4GHz, and you also have to pay extra to get 4GB of memory. There is no matte screen option, so you're stuck with the glare screen.

True, a premium model can't have as many customization options as an Inspiron, but a bit more flexibility would have made a world of difference. After all, the best thing about getting a Dell is the ability to build a system best suited to meet your individual needs from the ground up. With the Adamo, this simply isn't the case.

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In terms of connectivity, the Adamo does pretty well for this product class. Two USBs, Ethernet, DisplayPort and eSATA, all located at the back. Although some may moan about not having a USB on the side, it's a price you have to pay for the looks, and we believe it's worth it. Another price to pay is the integrated battery, which really isn't a great idea and is the main shortcoming of the both the Adamo and Air.




Design and Bulid Quality

 

This what the Adamo is all about. You wouldn't marry a supermodel for her cooking skills, now would you? Well at least I wouldn't, I'm a great cook.

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Looking at Dell's product lineup, the Adamo sticks out like Seven of Nine on a geek infested Star Trek convention. Basically, its design is second to none. It is easily the most beautiful PC notebook on the market, but if you compare it to Cupertino's Air, I think it's fair to say they're evenly matched, and it's purely a matter of taste. Unlike some people on our team, I never say hardware is sexy, no inanimate object can ever be, and even most people aren't, either. However, the Adamo comes close, damn close. Kudos to Dell, this time it really managed to match Steve's crack team of latte-drinking designers.

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Measuring 330 x 420 x 16.5 mm (13.0 x 9.5 x 0.65-inches), the Adamo is simply the thinnest thing around, and it even makes the Air (19mm/0.76in) and X301 (23mm/0.9in) look like they need some gym time. Unfortunately, the Adamo is not the lightest of the lot. At 1.8kg, or 4 pounds, it's heavier than the Lenovo or MacBook, and it could do with a low-carb diet.

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What sets the Adamo apart from most similar designs is the choice of several materials and finishes, all bungled together to create the look and feel of a very exclusive piece of kit. There is some sense in the chaos. The anodized aluminium in a bunch of patterns and textures, coupled with mineral glass on the screen and lid, gives the white Pearl version a very distinctive, yet very elegant appearance. Had they had notebooks in the roaring twenties, this is probably what they would have looked like.

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Another thing that sets the Adamo apart from most PCs is the fact that Dell managed to get rid of all those nasty stickers, logos and screws. They're all either hidden or etched into the bottom.

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This gives you an idea of how meticulous the designers were in every aspect of the design.

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As you can see, there's no ugly ventilation slots either. Everything is styled to perfection. Speaking of ventilation, the Adamo is mostly silent, but once you push it, the fan hidden in the left back corner kicks in, and it's surprisingly loud. Fortunately, you won't hear it that often, as you probably won't run demanding apps on an ultraportable.

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The keyboard, media controls and power button are all backlit in white. The lighting level is controlled automatically, via a tiny sensor hidden in the screen bezel. If you want to show off, you can override the automatic control and light it up like a christmas tree, sacrificing a bit of battery life in the process. The font used on the keyboard is a bit awkward, futuristic. We like it, but some more conservative punters might not.

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As you would expect from such a pricey high-end product, build quality is excellent. In spite of using several finishes and materials on the chassis and lid, the Adamo feels like a freshly molded slab of aluminium. The general feel of solidity could also be attributed to its weight, as it's a bit heavier than the Air or X301.

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There's really not much to complain about here, and we can move on.




Input Devices

Now for our gratuitous keyboard closeup.

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The keyboard feels good. There's not much travel, and it feels solid. It's spacious, but the keys are packed closely together, so if you're a fast and sloppy typer you'll make a few typos before you get the hang of it. We have no major complaints about the layout either, although the Enter key could have been bigger. We also feel the automatic backlight control should kick in a bit sooner, as it tends to keep the keyboard dark even in pretty dim lighting.

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A significant drawback of the ultra-thin design is the hump at the back which houses the battery and cooling system. It reduces the surface area available for the touchpad and palmrests. It doesn't make the keyboard less comfy to use, but it does mean that the touchpad ends up pretty small, especially compared to the Air.

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It works well, and the brushed metal finish feels great, and the keys are nice, too. However, multi-touch input is limited to zoom, or pinch, and Dell really should have added more functions to it. Considering you get more multi-touch features on a €249 Inspiron Mini 10v, this is a disappointment. Speaking of the Mini 10, its touchpad features integrated keys to increase the size of touch sensitive area, and this solution might have worked well on the Adamo as well. Hopefully Dell will add more multi-touch features through software updates.




Ergonomics, Everyday use

 
As we said, the layout is heavily affected by the thin design, and there are no connectors on the sides.

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Almost everything is cramped at the back, Ethernet, two plain USBs, one USB/eSata combo, DisplayPort and the power jack. Although Dell didn't hide the connectors under a flap like Apple, we can't say they ruing the Adamo's looks, and the flap on the Air is not a very practical solution to begin with.

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The front and left are connector free.

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On the right side you'll find a SIM slot and audio out.

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The battery is not user replaceable, meaning you're limited to what you can squeeze out of it, and you can't swap it on the go. Mind you, this would not be a problem if you got much out of it, but you simply don't. Although Dell promises battery life of up to five hours, in real life you're looking at under three. We were getting about 2:45 on a regular basis, but if you're more careful you could squeeze out more than three, but not much more. The battery fully recharges in two hours flat.

This means you'll have to carry the AC adapter around quite a bit. Dell obviously had this in mind, as it even designed the adapter in two colour options for the black Onyx and the white Pearl versions. Although it's compact and cute, the adapter isn't perfect. Both ends of the cable are molded to the unit, which makes it a bit more unwieldy than a regular adapter. Also, unlike the Air, it features a classic power jack.

There's a good reason why Apple uses MagSafe connectors. In case someone trips over the cable, they snap out and there's no damage done. In case your clumsy feet decide to snag Dell's power cord, there's a good chance you'll catapult it hurdling through the air like a Navy fighter. However, at some point the Adamo will realize it is heavier than the air, and that its aluminium chassis is not exactly something NACA would classify as an air-worthy airfoil. It will then will proceed to crash to the floor, denting your budget by $2000+ in the process.

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The 13.4-inch 1,366x768 LED backlit screen is excellent, and it's one of the best we've ever come across, at least as long as you don't take it out of your house. As you've probably noticed by now, we're not fans of glare screens, and we feel they have no place in ultraportables. Although the screen hidden under a mineral glass cover looks stunning, once you go out you'll be begging for an ugly matte screen. Like most glare screens, it's too reflective, and nearly useless on a bright day. On the other hand, if you're a researcher at an Antarctic science station, go for it, it's great at night.

We know people like shiny stuff, and we know computers like the Adamo and Air put looks before anything else. However, the lack of a matte screen option on either of these beauties simply disqualifies them as an option for many serious consumers who expect more than good looks, and this is an issue all vendors should address. Lenovo offers a matte screen option on its X301, but the X301 is nowhere near the Adamo or Air in terms of design and it's simply not an option if you're looking for a fashionable piece of kit.

Although some people like Lenovo's conservative design, I personally believe that at some point they hired the bloke who designed the ZX Spectrum back in '82, and told him: "Don't change anything. Ever. Just get rid of that rainbow bit in the corner. It's too cheerful, we want everything charcoal black. You can use a bit of grey on the lettering, but not too much." I honestly think that's what all computers would have looked like had Stalin decided not to stop in Germany.

In case you're in any way offended by my dislike of Lenovo's black brick design, don't bother sending me hate mail. I get plenty as it is, mainly thanks to Nick F.




Performance

 

Although performance is not the most important thing in this market segment, let's look at some numbers.

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Starting with the Vista Experience Index, in which Adamo scores 3.2. Not much, but the score is dragged down mainly thanks to Intel's X4500 graphics. The rest of the numbers don't look as bad, but as expected, they're far from impressive.

Here's a couple of poorly cropped CPU-Z screens.

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Self-explanatory really, note the clocks and memory latencies.

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In Futuremark's 3Dmark 06, the Adamo scores 569, with a CPU score of 947.

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Sandra scores are also in line with what you'd expect from the platform.

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Memory bandwidth looks fine, but latency could have been lower.

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In HD Tune the Samsung SSD shows relatively good performance, with an average read speed of 70MB/s, and max speed of 114MB/s. However, at 56 percent, CPU utilization was surprisingly high.

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Basically the Adamo can cope with most applications you're likely to run on an ultraportable, and performance is not disappointing. It's biggest shortcoming stems from the fact you'll soon be able to buy CULV-based notebooks with similar performance for the fraction of the price.

In everyday use, the Adamo doesn't feel slow at all, it's pretty responsive, mainly thanks to the SSD, but at this price point many consumers would expect much more.




Conclusion

 

It's really hard not to like the Adamo, at least on some level. It's truly a magnificently designed piece of kit, and one of the best looking computers we've ever come across.

As much as I like the looks and quality finish, I have to point out that the Adamo faces several major issues. Battery life is mediocre, and to make things worse the battery is integrated. You can't use a spare, and you can't use a bigger unit, and less than three hours of battery life simply won't be enough for many users. The fan is too loud, there is no non-glare screen option, and you're stuck with an expensive SSD, you can't get a less costly HDD version.

Speaking of costs, the price tag is truly staggering. Prices start at $1999/€1899 for the tested Admire configuration. If you go for the Desire version with a 1.4GHz CPU and 4GB of memory and mobile broadband service, the price jumps to $2,699. In the end it even the base version ends up about 10 percent more expensive than the X301 or Air. Also, you don't get a bag or pouch with it, and Dell's selling pouches starting at $99.

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In spite of the price, many people will buy it just for its looks, and who could blame them. The Adamo is one of the best looking notebooks on the market and there's no denying it. However, we doubt it will find many takers among tech savvy consumers, as it obviously doesn't offer good value for money, and even if it did, its battery life leaves much to be desired. Even if Dell cuts the price, and it will probably be forced to do so, the weak battery, loud fan and very reflective screen will still force many consumers too look elsewhere.

Now for some words of praise. With the Adamo, Dell didn't just make another notebook, it created an entirely new brand, and as a brand, the Adamo works just fine. We just hope the economic crisis and poor demand don't make Dell change its mind and drop the concept, as the Adamo really shows promise. It's the first product in an entirely new series, so we didn't expect it to be perfect. We're hoping Dell will expand the brand with some more affordable models, more screen sizes, including non-glare options, and some cheaper chips inside.

For Dell, the Adamo thirteen is a brave first step into the thin-and-light premium market which is set to see a boom over the next year or so. Hopefully, we will see more Adamo series products soon, at more sensible prices for sensible consumers like ourselves.

(Page 2 of 6)
Last modified on Monday, 22 June 2009 13:26
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