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Dell to target digital nomads

The PC maker launches its first new family of Latitude laptops in four years

Dell’s (Nasdaq: Dell) new line of Latitude and Precision business laptops, the first announced in four years, is targeted squarely at a demographic the company is calling “digital nomads” – those who want to work anywhere, anytime, always connected, company officials said at the product launch Tuesday.

The new laptops are designed for low weight and connectivity, and are built to be both solid and expressive, according to the company’s vice-president of communications, Andy Lark.

“Digital nomads have a very different set of needs,” Lark said during a Webcast Tuesday from San Francisco. “They’re tired of compromising durability and design.”

The former direct vendor just passed 1,000 channel partners in Dell Canada’s reseller network.

Dell’s design process wouldn’t have been possible five years ago, said Dell’s Canadian country manager, Paul Cooper, in Toronto. The company took advantage of the connections it had made with customers in online social networking forums to solicit design suggestions from users. From it’s Ideastorm portal users, Dell gleaned almost 100 specific design ideas that were incorporated in the new machines, according to Cooper.

Jeff Clarke, Dell vice-president, said after two years of usability testing by customers at Dell’s lab, the company redesigned 40 attributes of the laptops’ keyboard.

One repeated request from customers was for a laptop that could run all day on a charge, Clarke said. According to announced specifications, the company has come close. The nine-cell battery configuration on the 14.1-inch Latitude E6400 provides 10 hours of battery life, according to Clarke. And by using Dell’s PowerSlice technology, that can be extended to 19 hours, Clarke said.

In terms of design, Dell has opened up the business lines of laptops to five colour options, much like the company’s consumer offerings.

“A lot of customers said they want colours,” Cooper said.

The colour offering is “probably the biggest indicator” of the encroachment of consumer electronics on enterprise IT of the announcement, said market analyst Michelle Warren of MW Research of Toronto. IT managers ordering 300 to 500 computers will typically order in black, but colour options give business users their own identity. There’s a generation entering the workforce that has had computers at their fingertips their entire lives. “As they grow up, they’re going to want that option,” Warren said.

There are other features on the new Dell’s that piqued Warren’s interest, particularly the backlit keyboard (it’s truly lit behind the key caps, not by ambient light from the LCD, and it sets its brightness according to the ambient light, said Clarke) and a security management feature that will locate a missing laptop by global positioning and, if necessary, remotely wipe the hard drive to protect sensitive data.

The laptops have four wireless network connections: wireless broadband, Bluetooth 2.1, ultra wideband and draft 802.11n Wi-Fi connectivity. By the time the models ship in the fall, Dell may have incorporate always-on technology to allow users to check e-mail , view contacts and connect to the Internet without using the host CPU or operating system, using an independent low-power chipset like that of a smart phone, said Cooper.

The new lines include:

The ultraportable, one-kilogram Latitude E4200, with 12.-inch screen, and it’s 13.1-inch, 1.5-kilo sibling, the E4300. “I’ll be this will fit inside an envelope pretty easily,” he teased Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who famously unveiled the Macbook Air laptop from a manila envelope. Dell did not announce prices, but the ultraportables will feature flash hard drives, which will drive up the price.

The mainstream E6400 and E6500, those of the 19-hour battery-life claim, are 14.1- and 15.4-inch laptops respectively, priced at $1,159 and $1,189.

The low-price E5400 and E5500, again 14.1- and 15.4-inch, at $859 and $879.

There is also a ruggedized version of the E6400, and three updated Precision laptops.