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Dell Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme

Full-size, fully-rugged notebook from one of the world's most experienced laptop makers
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer; photography by Carol Cotton)

Dell introduced the Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme in 2014 as the follow-up to the Latitude E6420 XFR (see here), which for several years had been one of the best fully rugged laptops available. We wondered what Dell had done for an encore, and how the new big Dell compared to its storied predecessor. After using a 14 Rugged Extreme for several months, we have a good idea, and this article explains what the new full-size rugged Dell is all about and what it can do.

The challenge Dell's engineers faced when designing their new flagship was that its predecessor was already a very good and impressively rugged machine. However, the 6420 XFR did have some weak spots that stemmed from still using rapidly aging Intel "Sandy Bridge" second generation Core processor technology, which by the introduction of the new machine was two generations removed from state-of-the-art. Also, the XFR's standard voltage processors generated a lot of heat, which resulted in performance drop-offs in high temperature testing and rapid draining of its undersized standard battery. So this was, in RuggedPCReview's opinion, what Dell primarily had to work on.

And they did. On the processor side, the Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme is not only based on the much improved Intel "Haswell" 4th generation Core processor, but on vastly more power-efficient ultra-low voltage versions with a maximum thermal design power of 15 watts as compared to the 35 watts of the predecessor XFR's processors. At the same time, the standard battery's capacity was raised from 60 watt-hours to 65 watt-hours and there's an optional 97 watt-hour battery. This would indicate that Dell wanted their new machine to run cooler and go easier on the battery than the old XFR (which, in our testing, was actually quite economical). Equipped with similar class processors, we expected the new Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme outperforming the XFR even with lower clock speeds and much lower TDPs.

Finally there's weight, which is the enemy of any mobile system. Given the heavy-duty construction and large displays of rugged laptops there's only so much that can be done to lessen the load, but Dell's new rugged flagship tips the scale at just under eight pounds, battery included. That's about a pound less than the old 6420 XFR.

Dell's history in rugged notebooks

It's always good to know how things came about, and here's the Rugged Extreme's history and DNA. Around 2007 Dell realized there was a small but growing market for tougher versions of standard notebooks. The original Latitude ATG — All Terrain Grade — (see our 2007 review) was an exploratory effort. It was quickly replaced with the ATG D630 that introduced a superb outdoor-viewable display technology called DirectVue (we were impressed; see our full review of the ATG 630). Since Dell consumer notebook product cycles are fairly short and the ATG models are based on them, the D630 gave way to the E6400 ATG, and that one to the E6420 ATG, and then the quite formidable E6430 ATG (see our review).

Dell also made the Latitude XT2 enterprise convertible (see here) and its follow-up, the interesting Latitude XT2 (see here) that was the industry's first Tablet PC with multi-touch. That was followed in 2009 with a ruggedized version, the Latitude XT2 XFR — Xtreme Fully Rugged — (see here).

With the introduction of the "Rugged"and "Rugged Extreme" models, Dell said goodbye to the prior ATG and XFR nomenclature. The new terminology is quite descriptive, albeit perhaps not quite as catchy as the competition's "Toughbook" or "Durabook" and the like. Then again, Dell will likely always base their rugged offerings on one of their lines of enterprise notebooks, and so simply adding "rugged" or rugged extreme" does make sense.

Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme — design, look, and feel

As is, Dell has done a terrific job in visually differentiating their current rugged mobile PCs from more consumer and enterprise oriented platforms, all the while creating a crisp, impressive and quite elegant look. The new machines aren't as overtly macho as the old XFR models; this time Dell seems to emphasize refined and almost understated competence. The Rugged Extreme models, though, feel as tough and solid as ever, leaving not the shred of a doubt that these are heavy-duty computing machines that can do what no standard consumer or even business laptop could ever tackle.

But let's take a closer look at the Dell Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme. Below you can see the top and all four sides of the machine:

Ports and connectivity are all around the housing, excluding the front which is where the carry handle goes. To guard against physical damage, all ports are located behind very cleverly designed protective doors with spring-loaded levers and locking sliders, very similar to what the old XFR had. The two pictures below show the left (top) and right (bottom) side of the unit with all protective doors in the open position.

On the left side are two protected compartments, separated by the fan exhaust grille. In the left compartment are, from left to right, an audio jack, a standard size HDMI port, a SIM card slot with a locking screw, and a standard USB 3.0 port. To the right of the cooling vents for the very non-intrusive fan is where the big Dell's big battery lives.

The battery is, of course, replaceable and rechargeable, it's securely held in place by a spring-loaded retainer, and it has a plastic tab so it can easily be pulled out.

On the right side are two large compartments, each protected by a sealing cover.

The left compartment in the picture accommodates the unit's 2.5-inch solid state disk module, securely held in place with a spring-loaded retainer. It's designed so that the storage can quickly be removed. Above it is, depending on configuration, either an ExpressCard 54 slot or PC Card reader.

The larger compartment to the right of it is configurable as well. On top are a smart card reader, a USB 2.0 port, a USB 3.0 port, and a memory card reader. Below that is an optical drive.

We're seeing fewer of those now, but think they still come in handy as a lot of software and media is still on CDs and DVDs. The optical drive in our eval unit was of the slide-out caddy variety. Those are pretty flimsy and we'd prefer to see a slot-loader in a rugged unit.

Below is a look at the backside of the 14 Rugged Extreme. Here, again, are two separate compartments. The one on the left contains a standard DB9 legacy serial port and an RJ45 LAN jack.

The one on the right actually has three separate protective covers. From left to right, there is a second RJ45 LAN jack and a standard size USB 2.0 port, then a native (i.e. not emulated via USB) DB9 serial port and a 15-pin VGA port, and next to that the power jack.

Design decisions and interesting details

It's often details that elevate one product over another, and Dell has more experience than most in figuring out what works best. Did they get everything right? For the most part, yes.

For example, take the protective covers over the unit's onboard I/O. That sounds like a simple thing, but it's not. These protective covers must be easy to open and close, but not so easy that they can't do their job of sealing off and protecting ports. Decisions must be made about having one large cover over multiple ports, or having a separate cover for each. And then there's the construction of the doors itself, and how they should lock.

Dell decided on using the same door design for the entire unit, varying only in width. All covers are plastic with a metal screw-on hinge, which makes them easily replaceable. The actual seal is some kind of dense neoprene or foam rubber. The foam pads form seals by pressing against a hard plastic lip surrounding all port openings. Each cover has a spring-loaded latch that snaps into place. The latch can then be slid sideways to lock the port.

Overall, this is a good system, but like all systems, there are some drawbacks. The foam pads are relatively easily ripped, and they don't always stick where they should. We'd recommend firmer, stronger pads. Second, all doors rotate downward and so it often happens that you open a door, which then gets caught underneath the housing when you sit the laptop on a tablet. One other recommendation would be to make the labels more prominent. As is, they are very small and printed in faint gray on black. Not ideal if you quickly need to find the right port under less than perfect lighting conditions.

Another interesting detail worth mentioning is the way the LCD case locks. Consumer laptops often don't even have a retainer to secure the LCD case against the lower part of the device, but in rugged laptops that's a necessity to protect the LCD from breaking should the computer get dropped. However, field personnel may wear gloves and they want to be able to open and close the LCD lid without taking them off to manipulate a complex clasp or lock.

Dell's smart solution is a sturdy spring-loaded latch that automatically snaps closed, and opens with a firm push. Works great with gloves on.

A second thoughtful detail are metal nubs on the LCD part of the housing that have corresponding indents in the system case of the unit (see picture above). These keep the display part from twisting and potentially breaking the hinges in the case of a fall with a hard impact on a corner.

Protective corner bumpers have long been a low-tech but very effective solution to ward off, or minimize, damage from falls. Dell's version is well designed, easily replaced, and very solid. The hole in the front serves as an anchor for a strap.

Handles and straps are something tremendously useful when taking a laptop out into the field, and they're something that most consumer laptops simply don't have. The Latitude 14 Extreme comes with a tough integrated rubber handle, and Dell also offers a quick-connect shoulder strap. Many customers may also consider the available desk dock.

Keyboard and touch pad

One of the inherent advantages conventional laptops have over tablets is their full-function integrated physical keyboard. That's especially important for those who type a lot and want to do so on a "real" keyboard instead of tapping away on an on-screen facsimile. To us that means that the quality and usability of a laptop keyboard is extremely important. The more it is like a full desktop keyboard, the better.

That begins with being the same scale and size as a true desktop keyboard, so that ingrained muscle memory isn't constantly thwarted by keys that aren't exactly where the brain expects them to be. The Dell Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme's keyboard is full-scale and has 82 keys. The flat but very slightly concave keys are black with white letters, numbers and symbols. The keys provide very good tactile feedback and are easy to type on.

One observation: back in the day, all keyboards had to measure up to the original IBM PC desktop keyboard that remained a standard for many years. Today that keyboard looks quaintly clunky, and its tall keys wouldn't fit into any laptop, not even a big rugged machine like this Dell. The Dell, however, does follow another, newer standard, that of Apple's wireless aluminum keyboard. The layout is virtually identical, as is the feel. We consider that very good news.

The keys of our eval unit were backlit (an option) and go, via keyboard control, from off to full-bright in five steps. The backlight can be set to red, green or blue (or any color mix).

There is no separate keypad, but keypad functionality is available with the usual number keys assigned to the numbers 7, 8, 9, and the letters uio, jkl, and m. Secondary functions are in small white labels. The labeling looks crisp and clean, with none of the busy look that happens when manufacturers print too much onto keys.

Below the keyboard is the unit's touch pad. It is properly sized and very slightly recessed so fingers sense the perimeter without bumping into it. In front of it are two large mouse buttons. The touch pad is resistive and works with finger, stylus, or gloves. It is quick and unusually responsive to the touch for a resistive design. One issue is that the touch pad surface has more "stiction" than the super-smooth surface of a capacitive touch screen, keeping the finger (and thus the cursor) from moving smoothly and precisely, which has an impact on cursor operation.

Conventional resistive touch screen

Touch is where the 12-inch and 14-inch versions of the Rugged Extreme platform differ. The Dell Latitude 12 Rugged Extreme, being a convertible that can also be used as a tablet, has multi-touch, as virtually everyone expects on their device these days. It is not, however, capacitive multi touch. Instead, Dell chose resistive multi touch because it works with gloves on and it works in the rain.

The 14-inch version, on the other hand, is a standard laptop. Laptops generally benefit little from multi-touch, and so Dell decided to go with a conventional resistive digitizer, the kind that can be operated with a passive stylus, any pointy (non-cutting) object, or even with a finger. Resistive touch is unaffected by rain, which can also be a big plus.

The laptop comes with its own small telescoping stylus that extends to about five inches. It's tethered to the left side of the laptop case, which is great for left handers, but not so much for righties.

The digitizer can be configured in numerous ways via the familiar eGalax Touch control panel. One thing that we always liked about this system is that it allows mapping just part of the display. That can come in very handy with custom applications.

Our eval unit came with Windows 7, which will likely remain the OS of choice for many, even after the Windows 10 release. In the best of all words, Dell would offer a capacitive multi-touch option, as Windows 10 and more and more apps clearly benefit from multi-touch.

Performance: Fourth generation (Haswell) Intel Core processors

In the past, rugged mobile computers often had to make do with trailing edge and even obsolete technology due to long procurement and product life cycles. That's no longer the case today with most rugged computer manufacturers, and it's certainly not the case with Dell, which always has quick and unlimited access to the latest technology. However, Intel's very rapid succession of processor generations is trying even for a company the size of Dell, and so, for now, the Rugged Extreme models are still equipped with Intel fourth generation "Haswell" processors, and not the 5th generation "Broadwell" and bleeding edge 6th generation "Skylake" chips available in non-rugged Latitude models. Progress never stops.

Just to provide an idea what all that processor generation jockeying means, compared to the 3rd generation "Ivy Bridge" family, equivalent 4th generation "Haswell" Intel Core processors, still based on 22nm manufacturing, deliver, according to Intel, up to 13% more CPU performance and up to 32% more 3D graphics performance. Haswell's integrated graphics come at GT1, GT2 and GT3 levels with 10, 20 and 40 EUs (execution units), respectively, each level operating at various GPU speeds depending on the CPU, and GT3 being further divided into HD5000, Iris, and Iris Pro versions. Overall, "Haswell" offers significantly increased efficiency, lower power consumption, and better graphics performance.

Available CPUs Intel Core i7 Intel Core i5 Intel Core i3
Model 4650U 4300U 4010U
Cores/Threads 2/4 2/4 2/4
Base Clock Speed 1.70 GHz 1.90 GHz 1.70 GHz
Turbo Speed 3.30 GHz 2.90 GHz No turbo
Thermal Design Power (TDP) 15 watts 15 watts 15 watts
Smart Cache 4MB 3MB 3MB
Integrated graphics HD Graphics 5000 (40 EUs) HD Graphics 4400 (20 EUs) HD Graphics 4400 (20 EUs)
Graphics base speed 200 MHz 200 MHz 200 MHz
Graphics max speed 1.10 GHz 1.10 GHz 1.00 GHz
Intel vPro Yes Yes No
Dell 14 Rugged Extreme customers have a choice of three processors, one each of Intel's i3, i5 and i7 lines, which Intel designates as "good," "better," and "best."

That's a bit misleading as what represents good, better or best depends entirely on a customer's needs. The lower cost of an i3-powered model may well the "best" solution for many, whereas others truly may need the extra performance and one or more of the special Intel technologies baked into the i5 or i7 model.

All three of the available CPUs are ultra-low voltage dual-core versions with TDPs of just 15 watts. The high-end i7 processor has integrated HD Graphics 5000 with 40 execution units versus 20 for the HD Graphics in the other two chips, likely making for significantly higher graphics performance. To see full spec table for these three CPUs, see here.

But what about 5th generation "Broadwell" chips? Are Dell Rugged Extreme customers missing out compared to those who buy more civilian Latitude laptops and the new rugged tablet? A bit, but not much. Broadwell's 14nm process technology theoretically does mean even more power efficiency and even quicker graphics. But in our (as of late summer 2015 still somewhat limited) benchmark experience with Broadwell, the 5th gen advantage over 4th gen Haswell is actually less than we expected.

As is, our Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme eval unit came equipped with the Core i5-4300U, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD. To see what kind of performance the so-equipped Dell laptop can deliver, we ran our standard benchmark suite, Passmark Software's PerformanceTest 6.1. It runs about 30 tests covering CPU, 2D graphics, 3D graphics, memory, and disk and then computes scores for each category and an overall PassMark score. We also ran our second benchmark suite, CrystalMark, for confirmation and additional information. For comparison, we included the 12 Rugged Extreme, Dell's last generation fully rugged E6420 XFR and semi-rugged E6430 ATG, as well as a direct competitor in the rugged V110 convertible from Getac. The results are as follows:

Dell Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme Benchmarks and Comparisons
PERFORMANCE COMPARISON Dell Dell Dell Dell Getac
Model 14 Rugged Extreme 12 Rugged Extreme E6420 XFR E6430 ATG V110
Type Standard laptop Convertible Standard laptop Standard laptop Convertible
Year tested 2015 2015 2012 2013 2014
Display 11.6" 1366 x 768 11.6" 1366 x 768 14.0" 1366 x 768 14.0" 1366 x 768 11.6" 1366 x 768
Processor Type: Intel Core i5 Core i5 Core i5 Core i7 Core i5
Processor Model 4300U 4300U 2520M 3520M 4300U
CPU Speed 1.90GHz 1.90GHz 2.50GHz 3.00GHz 1.90GHz
Turbo Speed 2.90GHz 2.90GHz 3.20GHz 3.70GHz 2.90GHz
Thermal Design Power (TDP) 15 watts 15 watts 35 watts 35 watts 15 watts
BatteryMon minimal draw 6.5 watts 4.1 watts 7.2 watts 7.6 3.2 watts
CPU Mark 3,522.0 3,542.6 2,549.6 4,141.5 3,517.1
2D Graphics Mark 474.7 498.7 364.7 617.2 545.8
Memory Mark 1,144.1 1,183.7 790.4 1,494.5 1,000.4
Disk Mark 3,984.6 3,793.9 3,853.0 3,733.9 3,625.9
3D Graphics Mark 484.3 485.0 305.0 433.5 349.8
Overall PassMark 2,078.4 2,056.4 1,688.9 2,272.4 1,973.2
ALU 42,120 42,712 43,472 54,067 42,076
FPU 39,941 41,847 43,286 51,407 40,030
MEM 43,971 43,795 40,279 46,038 29,364
HDD 42,880 40,714 37,927 44,299 41,277
GDI 16,050 16,109 13,342 18,832 16,081
D2D 14,219 7,790 1,821 13,420 7,493
OGL 32,989 12,884 2,864 37,083 12,600
Overall CrystalMark 232,170 205,851 182,991 265,146 188,921

Even this limited table shows how the nature of the game has changed in rugged mobile computers. Not so long ago, premium rugged gear was almost invariably equipped with standard voltage processors for the best possible performance, and that necessitated a big battery and the corresponding larger size and weight. Then two things happened. First, Intel's processors became a whole lot more power-efficient and their power management much more sophisticated. Second, with consumer and business tablets and notebooks becoming ever lighter and thinner, rugged systems customers demanded lighter and thinner gear as well.

The results of those trends are reflected in the table above. Whereas Dell's XFR and ATG models used hefty standard voltage processors, the newer 14 Rugged Extreme (as well as other members of Dell's rugged lineup) use power-efficient ultra-low voltage chips that can make do with much smaller batteries, and thus less weight and a much more slender profile. Competitor Getac went the same way when it replaced its older V100 and V200 convertibles with their V110.

To use automotive analogies, the big old V8 gas guzzlers are being replaced with more fuel-efficient turbo-4s, making for less weight and roughly the same performance. We say "roughly" because the Dell 6430 ATG with its powerful standard voltage Ivy Bridge Core i7 remains unmatched. But the 14 Rugged Extreme's new-age approach clearly beats the old Dell 6420 XFR war horse with its standard voltage 2nd generation Sandy Bridge chip.

What some customers are missing in the 12 Rugged Extreme convertible is available in the 14 Rugged Extreme laptop: discrete graphics. Intel has made very substantial progress in processor-integrated graphics performance, but Haswell-level graphics are still no match for even a mid-range discrete graphics card. Mind you, Intel graphics are now good enough for most demanding tasks, but certain special applications may still need more. One look at the graphics performance difference between the 12 Rugged Extreme and the E6430 ATG that came with NVIDIA NVS 5200M discrete graphics says it all.

Well, our 14 Rugged Extreme tester did have nVidia discrete graphics, this time of the more gaming-oriented GeForce GT 720 variety, and it totally blows the smaller convertible away in the graphics department. That does come at a cost in dollars and battery draw (discussed further down), so customers should determine if their intended application benefits from discrete graphics

Note that the 14 Rugged Extreme's benchmark numbers positively shine compared to leading rugged and semi-rugged notebooks from the Core 2 Duo era, which is really only a normal vertical market product replacement cycle away (5-7 years). Compared to the leading competitors from that era, the new machine easily has a performance advantage in the 4X range.

Good performance and long battery life

The days when a couple of hours of battery life was enough for a laptop are long gone. Between the stellar battery life of consumer tablets, the steadily improving power conservation measures in the Windows operating system, and Intel's impressive efforts in making their chips more power-efficient, it's now possible to have your cake and eat it, too: modern laptops have much more performance and much longer battery life. Is the Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme one of them?

First a few words about the battery situation in this laptop. The Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme's standard battery is a 6-cell 65 watt-hour Lithium-Ion unit, but our tester had the optional 9-cell 11.1 Volt/8,550mAH battery that packs a beefy 97 watt-hours (that's different from the smaller 12 Extreme that doesn't have an optional larger battery). Also available are long-life cycle 58 watt-hour or 87 watt-hour batteries.

Even the high-capacity battery, by the way, glides into the left side of the notebook, an altogether better solution than what Dell offered with the semi-rugged 6430 ATG whose high-capacity battery option looked like another 3-cell extension had been grafted onto the standard battery, with the extra third hanging off the back of the ATG.

What that means is that Dell's big, powerful 14 Rugged Extreme has a big, powerful battery to match. How long will it last on a charge? We tested power draw with PassMark's BatMon utility.

With the Windows power settings to "Power Saver" and screen brightness as low as possible while still being able to view the display indoors, we saw as low as 6.5 watts, good for a theoretical 14.6 hours.

In the recommended "Balanced" mode, with backlight at about 40%, we saw a power draw of about 6.8 watts—still good for 14 hours.

In Windows "High Performance" mode with the backlight up to full blast, the idle discharge rate rose to just about 11.7 watts, good for 8.2 hours.

Next we put some load on the big Dell. Running full 1080p video from disk raised draw to about 14.5 watts, with the screen at full bright. At that rate, you still get 6.3 hours, meaning you could watch almost three full-length movies on a charge. For comparison, the Dell E630 ATG we had in our lab a while ago drew 18 watt under the same load. Score one for Intel's ever-improving processor power management.

Since the 14 Rugged Extreme uses the same motherboard and electronics as the smaller 12 Rugged Extreme, we we expected power draw to be the same or perhaps a bit higher due to the larger display. What we saw were 6.5, 6.8, 11.7 and 14.5 watts in our four test settings, whereas the smaller unit clocked in at just 4.1, 5.6, 8, and 10 watts, meaning the larger machine drew about 50% more. One difference between our two testers was that the 12 came only with Intel integrated graphics whereas the 14 had the optional nVidia GeForce GT 720M installed. The machine can be set, via a nVidia control panel, to always use the GeForce, never use it, or automatically switch between the two (you can also set graphics per software application). We re-tested battery draws with nVidia on and off, but saw no difference between on, off, and the initially tested "automatic." So for now we must conclude that the presence of the nVidia option increases draw whether it's on or not.

Overall, Dell's processor and design choices mean that the rather powerful 14 Rugged Extreme gets excellent battery life with the optional larger battery, and would easily still get by in many situations with the smaller one. And that's even the case with the optional nVidia discrete graphics installed. Dell's 14 hour claim definitely seems achievable.

Those who seek even more control over power management than Windows and Intel offer will welcome Dell's Command | Power Manager that provides battery information, has an advanced charge mode to optimize battery life, lets user minimize A/C adapter use during peak electric hours to save money, allows selecting from four different processor speed and cooling fan modes for various levels of performance, and allows turning various adapter and battery alerts on or off.

Security

For security, the Dell Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme has FIPS 140-2 TPM 1.2 functionality to store secured information. Smart Card reader and optional fingerprint reader provide additional access security. There's a cable lock slot, some of the available processors support vPro, a set of Intel security and remote management technologies that offer multiple lines of built-in defenses, and there are also Dell's advanced security and data protection and encryption tools.

Dell also offers Dell Data Protection and Encryption, which is available in a Personal Edition for a locally managed solution or an Enterprise Edition for a centrally managed solution that scales to tens of thousands of protected endpoints. The idea here is to provide encryption, advanced authentication and integrated threat protection to keep data safe wherever it goes.

A look inside the Dell 14 Rugged Extreme

Peeking inside a consumer notebooks often reveals little more than a motherboard and related electronics bolted onto the plastic case. Rugged designs, in stark contrast, are generally far more complex as they must hold up to handle whatever environmental and operational hazards they may encounter on the job. That usually means a tough metal frame that serves as the chassis and mounting point for the various components, sub-components and configuration modules. The case itself is often a structural part of this intricate framework, and the overall design of the rugged device is almost always quite involved. To see what that means in practice, all one has to do is take a look inside the Dell 14 Rugged Extreme. We did not disassemble the entire machine, but did remove, by opening no fewer than 28 small Philips head screws, the expertly designed (and amazingly light) magnesium bottom cover to get an idea how this fully rugged laptop is organized. And also how easy it is to service it and/or upgrade its components.

Unlike most notebooks, the 14 Rugged Extreme doesn't have any removable doors in its bottom plate to provide access to RAM memory and internal expansion slots. So if you want to replace memory or one of the PCIe modules, or if maintenance becomes necessary, you have to take the entire bottom plate off.

While on the smaller Dell 12 Rugged Extreme, this operation requires first removing the four rear corner bumpers that are attached to the unit with two Philips screws each, that's not necessary on the larger 14-inch model.

The front and rear bumpers, by the way, are of different size. All four are black rubber over a black plastic base and easily replaceable should they get damaged. On the smaller 12-inch model the bumper anchors also house metal inserts with a hole in them for anchoring carry straps and handles. The 14-inch model doesn't have those as there is an integrated carry handle.

The important seal between the bottom plate and the main housing is a metal lip on the housing that presses into a poured-on dense gray foam seal sitting in a channel on the bottom plate (see detail to the right). The seal is not easily replaceable; if it gets damaged it must be removed and a new one installed (or poured?) in its place. The bottom plate serves additional purposes. One is to act as a heat sink for the unit's dual RAM modules as well as electronics on the unit's CPU daughterboard.

In our discussions with the Dell Rugged people we learned that despite the not insignificant difference in external size, the 12 and 14 inch models use the same motherboard. That's readily apparent once the bottom plate is off, but that doesn't mean the insides of the two machines are identical. The 12-inch model is a smaller convertible design whereas the 14-inch device is a conventional laptop. That means many components are of different side or are located in different places.

Even though the internal layout is quite complex, components such as RAM memory, WiFi (ours had an Intel Intel Dual Band Wireless AC 7260, Model 7260NGW half-card), GPS, and other wireless modules, as well as the various antenna blocks, are easily accessible. The modularity, of course, is in Dell's DNA, the result of decades of offering almost an almost infinite number of permutations of options available right on Dell's website. So almost any feature for which there might be alternatives, or of which a customer might want more or less is not on the motherboard, but designed as modules.

One thing that's immediately obvious is that there is a fan. Weren't ultra-low voltage processors supposed to be able to operate without fans in notebook computer designs with their relatively large mass that could be used as a heat sink to dispose of the heat generated by electronic components?

In the past that was possible under certain circumstances. Processor performance was much lower and there was no Intel "turbo" mode that allowed the processor to briefly run at higher than the base clock frequency as long as temperatures didn't exceed certain levels. Turbo mode is a great Intel feature, but it can turn into a problem in rugged machines. When a machine gets too hot out there in the desert and there is no active cooling, performance will drop, and without proper cooling it may drop to unacceptable levels. That's why Dell chose to use a fan in their Rugged Extreme models. This way, performance will not drop, no matter what.

The image above, left side, shows Dell's elegant, efficient thermal solution. A short copper heat pipe removes the heat generated by the processor into the heat exchanger which, in turn, is cooled by the fan. Above right is the optional discrete GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) that sits on its own modular board. This means that Dell can easily configure a laptop with a discrete add-on graphics card.

People unfamiliar with sealed rugged design practices may look at the fan intake grill in the bottom plate with alarm, as it looks like liquids could go right into the inside of the machine. That's not the case, though, as the fan is physically outside of the sealed inner part of the housing. The bottom plate also has cutouts for a) the surface mount docking contact block, and b) three sealed external antenna pass-throughs.

One thing that's missing from the innards of the Rugged 14 Extreme is a conventional hard disk bay. Dell decided that for rugged machines rotating hard disks are too damage-prone and that solid state storage is the way to go. SSD is much more compact, much more immune to shock and vibration, quicker and can also handle wider operating temperature ranges.

There is, however, a bit more space available inside the larger 14-inch machine, and so Dell used a Plextor-sourced M6S SATA 2.5-inch solid state drive instead of the mSATA SSD module used in the smaller 12-inch model (we saw no noticeable performance difference between the two). The solid state disk is mounted in its own brushed aluminum caddy. And since there are enterprises and government agencies that mandate quick external removal of whatever mass storage media is used, the Dell's SSD can be removed within a few seconds.

Overall, the interior of the Dell 14 Rugged Extreme reveals careful planning and impressive execution. Note, for example, how some of the antenna wires have their own dedicated plastic guides. That sort of detail adds expense, but also means the wires will never get crimped, adding to reliability.

Very good display

The Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme has a display that measures 14.0 inches diagonally. It offers 1366 x 768 pixel resolution, which makes for a fashionably wide 16:9 aspect ratio. That's a wider version of the 1024 x 768 XGA standard still very common in vertical market custom software. In essence, compared to the old XGA format, it's like getting another third of a screen added on the side. That resolution translates into about 112 dpi (dots per inch), not terribly sharp by today's leading smartphone and tablet standards, but actually the same as Apple's still current (as of September 2015) 13-inch MacBook Pro and slightly better than the big iMac 27 this review is written on.

But, regardless of size or sharpness, providing the right display for a system that's being used outdoors is much more difficult than for one that's mostly used indoors in an office or at home. That's because we now have incredibly sharp, photorealistic-grade displays for indoor use, displays that one can't imagine getting much better. But outdoors is a totally different story.

That's because a) it's much brighter outdoors, with even the brightest display not being a match for sunlight, and b) because there are all sorts of reflections that can quickly make a display unreadable.

With regard to LCD outdoor viewability, Dell has been a pioneer. As far back as 2007, Dell gave the ATG a display that had its screen cover optically bonded to the LCD, thus eliminating the reflections from the LCD surface, eliminating the need to AR-coat the bottom of the screen cover, and eliminating the air gap. The methods Dell applied reduced overall reflectivity and resulted in a very good effective contrast ratio. At the time, we termed it "definitely readable in sunlight." That was rare back then.

Time doesn't stand still though, and good outdoor-viewable displays are now available from all of the major rugged laptop vendors. Some are offering very high screen brightness of up to 1,500 nits, and optical treatments are continually refined. Dell describes the 14 Rugged Extreme's "Direct-View" screen as "designed to reduce reflections, preserve contrast and conserve battery life."

In an article entitled "What Really Makes A Mobile Device Screen Readable Outdoors?" Dell Rugged Mobility Marketing Director Patrick Seidensticker reiterated Dell's thought process that led them to concentrate on reducing reflected light as opposed to using battery-draining super-bright backlights. That means reducing the number of layers as each surface reflects sunlight back at the user, or bonding layers together to eliminate surfaces. And it also means using anti-reflective (AR) and anti-glare (AG) coatings. These two measures combined make for impressive outdoor viewability even without a strong backlight.

How well did all this work in the 14 Rugged Extreme display whose display is probably at a luminance of about 500 nits? For illustration, the picture below shows the laptop outside in a bright late summer mid-day.

The picture on the left was taken under open sky but away from direct sunlight. Here, the image retains plenty of color, contrast and brightness. The image on the right shows the big Dell in direct sunlight, facing the sun. The image is much more muted but remains clearly visible. Also impressive is how the Dell Direct-View handles reflections that can totally ruin the outdoor viewing experience on most consumer laptops.

The picture below shows the 14 Rugged Extreme in open outdoor space, facing up at the sky in direct, bright sunlight. Here again the image remains amazingly vibrant.

What impressed us was how well the Dell display controls reflections, given that its surface is glossy rather than matte. The key here is that Dell's surface treatment mutes reflections and takes the edge off them. It's a subtle effect, but one that makes a significant difference in outdoor use where harsh reflections can make a display unreadable whereas the human brain can handle soft reflections and automatically correct for them.

The picture below illustrates the difference between hard and soft reflections. On the right is the Dell display, on the left sits an Apple iPad Air 2.

Here at RuggedPCReview we've also been preaching the utmost importance of wide viewing angles in mobile computing technology for years. Outdoors and on the move, it just makes no sense to have a display where the screen becomes unreadable or shifts colors when you look at it from an angle. That's crucial for tablets because users tend to look at them from constantly varying angles. It's somewhat less crucial with laptops because those generally sit in front of the user and the display is viewed at a steady angle.

As is, 14 Rugged Extreme display offers very wide viewing angles from all sides, with virtually none of the image degradations that can mar the display as the viewing angle deviates from head-on. There is, however, a fairly distinct yellow hue when looking at the display from the top or bottom, and to a lesser extent from extreme side angles.

The overall verdict on the 14 Rugged Extreme display is good. Dell's Direct-View display treatment technology remains impressive and makes the laptop well suitable for outdoor work. Viewing angles are good, the slight yellow tint at increasing viewing angle isn't distracting, and there's none of the "pooling" distortion that can affect resistive touch screen on contact with a stylus. But with smartphone and tablet resolutions now so much higher, we'd like to see a higher res display, at least as an option, in the next rev.

Camera

The Dell Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme can be ordered with an optional integrated FHD video front webcam with a privacy shutter, but not the 8MP rear camera with LED flash that's available on the smaller 12-inch convertible. Our eval unit had webcam option, and also came with the Dell Webcam Central app that's quite impressive and far better than most such included vidcam apps. Brightness, color, backlight and gamma can be set. There are mirror image and blur control functions, as well as panning and zooming, and even adjustable face tracking.

As is, the user-facing "privacy shutter" is a clever low-tech solution to guard against inadvertent snooping. You simply slide the camera window over so the lens is covered.

We did take a few test stills that all came out in 1280 x 720 resolution of good quality. Test video also recorded in full 1280 x 720 HD. The video was of good quality and the camera never sputtered, fell behind, or spent too much time hunting for focus. The app even offered .AVI to WMV conversion. Overall, Dell's Webcam Central is impressive and completely suitable for professional video conferencing.

Truly Rugged Extreme

The "Rugged Extreme" designation alone leaves no doubt what Dell had in mind with this machine. And with its capabilities being part of its very name, Dell's big, tough laptop better live up to it, because no one will expect anything less.

When the Rugged Extreme computers were first introduced at a Dell media event in San Francisco, attending press wondered why there were safety goggles on every chair, and what that big block of concrete on the podium was all about.

Well, upon being asked to put the goggles on, the presenter proceeded to pound the block of concrete with a sledgehammer until it broke and revealed a Dell 14 Rugged Extreme inside. That was quite a stunt, but the super-tough Dell was none the worse for wear and booted right up.

But how tough and rugged is the 14 Rugged Extreme in terms of traditional ruggedness specifications? As has been its practice in recent years, Dell supplies a full summary of independent environmental testing right on its website. That is laudable.

Testing was conducted by SGS US and SGD Taiwan, SGS being one of the world's leading inspection, verification, testing and certification companies. Additional testing was done by the Taiwan and China locations of UL, a global independent safety science company (view the summary of Dell's independent environment testing).

Among pertinent test results are an operating temperature range of -20 to 145F (-29 to 63C), plenty wide enough for virtually any deployment.

Ingress protection is at the IP65 level, where the "6" means the device is totally dust-proof, and the "5" that it can also handle low pressure water jets from all directions, albeit with "limited ingress permitted." Testing here was augmented by MIL-STD-810G, Method 506.5 Procedure I (Blowing Rain), with about 6 inches per hour of blowing rain with a 70 mph wind source for 30 minutes on each surface while the device was operating.

Drop tests were conducted in accordance with MIL-STD-810G, Method 516.6, Procedure IV procedures. Closed and not operating, the unit survived 26 drops from 72 inches. The maximum height tested while open and operating was 36 inches, with 26 drops and all testing with the same unit. That's very impressive for a big laptop, as weight is always the enemy in drop tests. For tablets we like to see the ability to survive 4-foot drops while open and operating, because that is the height at which a laptop might be held while in a standing position. For a rugged laptop 36 inches is entirely suitable as that's higher than almost any desk surface.

Overall testing is comprehensive and what we would expect. And the testing data is easily accessible, something we had suggested in earlier reviews of rugged Dell gear. Dell literature has also switched from simply using impressive-sounding Dell trademark terms to describing in plain language what the machine can handle. There's still some room for improvement in explaining everything so that it is completely clear what goes and what doesn't, but Dell has come a very long way.

There are a couple of things we'd like to see improved. One is the soft foam rubber sealer used on ports and in other parts of the device. It is prone to tearing and doesn't always stick as well as it should. The other is the primary seal on the bottom plate. We'd much rather see a replaceable one.

The Dell 14 Rugged Extreme is clearly just that, extremely rugged. That's not an easy thing to accomplish when what is protected against the elements is an incredibly complex mechanical and electronic device whose heart operates in tolerances of nanometers. It's even more difficult when that device must not only be very well protected, but still exude style, class and elegance. And be reasonably affordable. Dell did pull all of that off.

Summary: The Dell Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme notebook

The Dell Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme is for those who a) need a tough, full-size notebook that is much more resistant to damage than anything available commercially, and b) prefer one-stop shopping with a world-leading provider of commercial PCs with large scale production experience and extensive support.

What sets Dell's rugged notebook apart is the DNA it shares with the company's Latitude line of business laptops that have been produced in large volume for many years. This means the kind of experience and maturity that makes problems and bugs far less likely than on low-volume production runs.

The 14 Rugged Extreme's 14-inch 1366 x 766 pixel display is bright and offers excellent reflection control, making it easy to use outdoors and even in bright sunlight. It uses conventional resistive touch, which is immune to liquids. The excellent full-scale keyboard is cleanly designed and very ergonomic.

As is expected from a large laptop, there's plenty of onboard connectivity, including standard-size USB, VGA, HDMI, LAN and native serial ports. There's also an optical drive, and the big Dell can be configured with a variety of card readers.

Processing power is provided by a choice of ultra-low voltage Intel 4th generation Core CPUs that combine very good performance with excellent power management, making full shift operation without battery recharging possible. Note that the offered processor choices provide different strengths and qualities, and match them to intended deployment. And for those with special graphics performance requirements, a discrete GPU option is available.

As the name implies, this is a very rugged device designed to hold up to extreme conditions in the field. All ports have protective doors, there are thick bumpers, the construction makes heavy use of structural magnesium, and Dell provides comprehensive ruggedness testing data.

Overall, the Dell Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme is a well designed and thoroughly practical rugged notebook solution with contemporary performance, excellent connectivity, and full suitability for use under the most challenging field conditions. Existing Dell XFR customers will find in the Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme a machine that's not only somewhat lighter without compromising on ruggedness, but also one that offers significantly better battery life while still outperforming its predecessor.– Conrad H. Blickenstorfer, September 2015


Dell Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme Specifications
Added/changed Added 04/2014, full review 09/2015
Type Fully rugged notebook
CPU Core i3-4010U, 3MB Cache
Core i5-4300U, 3MB Cache
Core i7-4650U, 4MB Cache
OS i3-4010U, 1.7GHz
i5-4300U, 1.9GHz/2.9GHz
i7-4650U, 1.7GHz/3.3GHz
Chipset Intel Mobile Lynx Point
Graphics i3-4010U: Intel 4400
i5-4300U: Intel 4400
i7-4650U: Intel 5000
Opt. Nvidia GeForce GT 720M
Memory Up to 16GB DDR3L 1600MHz in 2 DIMM slots
Display "Direct-View" outdoor-readable, LED backlight, protective front glass
Display size and resolution 14.0-inch/1366 x 768 pixel 16:9
Digitizer/Pens Resistive 5-point multi-touch
Keyboard 100%-scale 82-key RGB backlit, opt. rubberized RGB backlit kbd.
Storage 128GB, 256GB or 512GB 2.5-inch Solid State Drive, optional 256GB 2.5-inch SED SSD
Multimedia Pocket Yes, optical drive
Slots 1 ExpressCard 54 or PC Card, memory card reader (choosing either replaces a USB 3.0 port)
Housing Impact-resistant polymers and magnesium alloy
Temperature -20° to 145°F (-29° to 63°C)
Humidity MIL-STD-810G, Method 507.5, Procedure II
Vehicle vibration ASTM D4169-04 (99), Schedule E, Truck Assurance Level II
Salt Fog MIL-STD-810G, Method 509.5, Procedure I (optional)
Enclosure Class IP65
Altitude MIL-STD-810G, Method 500.5, Procedure II (15,000 feet operating)
Shock: Transit Drop MIL-STD-810G transit drop (72/60/48"); 3-foot operating drop
Certifications See test report here (PDF).
Size (inches) 14.0 x 9.7 x 2.0 inches (356 x 247 x 52 mm)
Weight Starting at 7.8 lbs. (3.54 kg) with 6-cell battery
Power 6-cell 65Wh Li-Ion or 9-cell 11.1V/8,550mAh/97Wh ("up to 14 hrs"), optional 6-cell 58Wh or 9-cell 87Wh long-life cycle Li-Ion
Cameras Optional: FHD video front webcam with privacy shutter
Communication Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 7260 with Bluetooth 4.0; opt. Dell Wireless 5808E Gobi 5000 4G LTE/A-GPS or Dell Wireless 5570E HSPA+/A-GPS
Interface 2 x USB 3.0, 2 x USB 2.0, 2 x RS232 (native), 2 x gigabit RJ-45, VGA, HDMI, audio in/out, pogo-pin dock
Price Starting at around US$3,600
Website Dell Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme web page
Ruggedness results Dell Latitude 12 Rugged Extreme environmental testing report
Brochure Dell Latitude Rugged Extreme brochure
Spec sheet Dell Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme spec sheet
Warranty Standard 3-year next business day on-site service after remote diagnosis. Optional 3-year premium support with 24x7 global availability.