Dell Latitude E5540: a well-specified corporate laptop [Review]

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In all the furor over super-slim Ultrabooks and magically transforming hybrids, it's sometimes easy to forget that some people just need a basic portable. The Dell Latitude E5540 is aimed at those people. It's not a fundamentally exciting notebook by any stretch of the imagination, but it could be just what your company needs as a standard-issue everyday workhorse.

The design of the E5540 is decidedly inconspicuous, with matte black plastic the order of the day all round. This is very much a sober corporate notebook that won't cause any commotion in the meeting room. The full width of the 15in chassis has been used to provide a separate keypad alongside the keyboard, as well as discrete volume control buttons at the top. The keys are full-sized and have a comfortably firm action, making touch typing for long durations very pleasant. However, the keyboard isn't backlit, which is an unusual omission for a work-oriented laptop.

The foremost luxury aspect of our E5540 review sample is the full HD screen, although you can specify a more pedestrian 1,366 x 768 unit and save around £100. However, we reckon this would be a false economy now that screens are pushing to 4K, so the 1,920 x 1,080 option is definitely worth the extra expense. The screen has plenty of detail and reasonably bright color, whilst the matte anti-glare finish means that there is little problem with unwanted reflections in bright lighting. However, viewing angles are merely adequate. Also, this is not a touchscreen, although our sample was supplied with Windows 7 so this was no loss whatsoever, and we remain skeptical about touchscreens on non-hybrid laptops.

Otherwise, the E5540's specification is contemporary but unexceptional. The system is based around a Haswell-generation Intel Core i5 4300U, which runs at a nominal 1.9GHz, but Turbo Boost as usual makes this specification rather unimportant. It allows a single core to lift to 2.9GHz when required, and both cores to run at 800MHz, where the processor decreases its consumption from 15W to 11.5W. The two physical cores are split into four virtual ones thanks to Hyper-Threading. So this is a capable and flexible low-power CPU.

However, Dell has chosen to partner the Core i5 with just 4GB of 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM, which is a bit meager now that even Ultrabooks are beginning to standardize on 8GB. The RAM is not user-upgradeable, either, and incredibly you can't even specify a larger quantity at the time of purchase, which is a rather surprising drawback.

Although the Core i5 processor has Intel's HD Graphics 4400 built in, this only comes into play when very light 3D acceleration is required, or none at all. When more serious acceleration is needed, Nvidia's Optimus technology brings a discrete GeForce GT 720M chipset into play. However, this is right at the bottom of Nvidia's mobile 7-series offerings, and based on the previous-generation Fermi architecture rather than the latest Kepler tech. As such, it only sports 96 CUDA cores, although it comes with its own 2GB supply of DDR3 memory. So its abilities will far exceed the Intel HD Graphics 4400, but won't provide hugely potent professional or gaming acceleration.

Dell-Latitude-E5540-side_fullwidthDell has taken a sensible price-sensitive route when it comes to storage, providing a Seagate Solid State Hybrid Drive that combines a 500GB 5,400rpm hard disk with 8GB of flash memory. This acts as a cache so that there is faster access to frequently used data, and the mechanical portion can spin down to conserve power occasionally. There's also a TSSTcorp SU-208CB DVD rewriter, so disc-based software can be installed and DVD movies viewed.

Dell makes good use of the chassis size when it comes to connectivity. The left side houses a full-sized HDMI port, USB 3.0, an SD card reader as well as a slot for a smart card. A wireless radio switch is also available on this side, next to the power connection. This will be handy when traveling by air. The right-hand side is home to the tray-loading optical drive, plus a combined headphone and microphone minijack, USB 3.0 port, and VGA. There is also a single USB 2.0 port and wired LAN port on the rear, one in each of the two hinge areas, plus a USB 3.0 port on the right-hand corner. The E5540 is well endowed for wireless connectivity, too. The Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 7260 chipset supports the latest 802.11ac as well as 802.11a/b/g/n, with a 2x2 configuration. There's also Bluetooth 4.0 LE available.

The E5540 provides a performance level that’s pretty much as we would expect from its specification. Despite the chassis size, however, the processor is more akin to an Ultrabook’s, so this laptop performs accordingly. The result of 2.54 in Maxon Cinebench R11.5's render test is on par for a Core i5 4300U, although the OpenGL score of 28.29 is about 50 per cent more than the processor's integrated graphics could manage, thanks to the GeForce GT 720M. In Maxon Cinebench R15, the rendering result of 246 and OpenGL result of 34.68 tell a similar story. The scores of 1,329 in Futuremark's 3DMark11 and 769 in the Firestrike 1.1 portion of 3DMark show abilities beyond integrated graphics as well, but not hugely so.

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The Futuremark PC Mark 8 Home result of 2,195 is exactly what we would expect of this CPU, but the Work score of 3,249 is a little above. So this system will be perfectly able to cope with everyday business activities, although it's no software powerhouse.

Battery life is a significant disappointment, however. The E5540 only managed 183 minutes of PC Mark 8's Home test, and 150 minutes of our grueling Battery Eater Pro test. So it won't last you a whole work day, which is rather a drawback for what is otherwise a capable mainstream business all-rounder. Fortunately, the battery is removable and there is a 97Whr option. Our sample came with the 65WHr alternative, so the larger battery should deliver around 50 percent more time away from the power socket, which is much more respectable.

Verdict

The Dell Latitude E5540 is a well-specified corporate laptop with a reasonable price tag. It sports a good screen, plenty of storage, and all the ports and wireless connections you are likely to need. However, the non-upgradeable 4GB of RAM will reduce this notebook's useful working life, and we would recommend the larger 97Wh battery option if you do want to take it out of the office for extended periods, although it is rather large and heavy to be a true road warrior.

Specifications

Manufacturer and Model Dell Latitude E5540
Processor 1.9GHz Intel Core i5-4300U
RAM 4GB 1600MHz DDR3 SDRAM
Graphics Intel HD Graphics 4400 and Nvidia GeForce GT 720M
Hard disk 500GB Seagate ST500LM0 5,400rpm solid state hybrid disk
Optical disc TSSTcorp SU-208CB DVD-RW
Display 15.6in Wide View LED backlit TFT with 1,920 x 1,080 pixels
Networking Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0 LE
Interfaces 3 x USB 3.0, 1 x USB 2.0, HDMI, VGA, combo headphone / microphone, LAN, SD card reader.
Width x Depth x Height 379 x 250.5 x 29.7mm
Weight 2.3kg
Warranty 3 years NBD on-site

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