Dells Latitude 6430u ultrabook

Knock it down, ultrabook gets right back up

Since GCN looks at products designed for government use, we tend to run into a lot of rugged gear. That protection is absolutely necessary for any equipment that runs mission applications, or for electronics that have to survive environmentally hostile places.

For laptops, that generally means encasing the CPU in what amounts to a chunk of armor to protect it from shock and other damaging factors like water ingress, which tends to add both weight and girth to a unit, not to mention quite a few extra dollars to the price. It’s not uncommon for a fully-rugged notebook to weigh between eight and 10 pounds, and cost upwards of $5,000.

So when we heard that Dell was adding rugged features to an ultrabook, we were a bit skeptical to say the least. We expected to find either an ultrabook core sitting inside a heavy suit of armor or a unit that would basically fall apart during our MIL-SPEC-810g testing run.

When the Latitude 6430u showed up, we started to think that the result would probably be the latter. The 6430u looks like a normal-size notebook with a 14-inch screen. Its exact dimensions are 13.31 inches by 9.04 inches. It’s 0.82-inches wide at its highest point and weighs 3.7 pounds. So it’s a fairly small notebook with a big screen, which is always nice. The 3.7 pounds does put it into the generally accepted ultrabook category, though at the heavy end. And in truth, the 6430u looked fragile at first glance.

But remember that this is an ultrabook, so the larger size accounts for some of the protective measures Dell put in place to protect the system. In essence, Dell started wtih a smaller unit, added the armor and still end up with a reduced overall package. That’s more or less the secret here. Plus, Dell strategically armored parts of the frame, not the entire unit. The corners specifically are wrapped in a hard magnesium alloy that takes the brunt of any shock to the unit. We gave it one heck of a test, and the armored spots held.

We ran the 6430u through MIL-SPEC-810g shock testing, where it is dropped onto each of its surfaces starting at one foot off the ground all the way up to four feet. That’s a total of 56 drops altogether, with 14 of them from the highest distance from the ground, which is two inches of plywood sitting on concrete.

After each drop, the ultrabook was tested to make sure there was no damage to any of the internal components or the screen, and that it could boot. Once the drops were over, other than a few scruff marks, the 6430u didn’t show any obvious damage. We’ve seen much larger, more heavily armored units suffer far worse. But then again, the lighter weight of the 6430u likely worked in its favor, generating less force when it hit the ground. The hard drive is additionally protected because it’s a 128G solid state model with no moving parts.

The notebook was also placed in the GCN Rainforest environment for three hours, where it experienced high temperatures and humidity. That didn’t seem to bother it in the least.

Finally, the 6430u also proved to be spill resistant. Even though that is outside the MIL-SPEC, it’s quite possible that someone would dump liquid on it at some point, so we did too. It rolled right off the keyboard, and after we shook it out and let it air dry, there was no permanent damage.

As a notebook, the 6430u we tested was powerful and fast. It had an Intel Core i5-3427U processor rated at 1.8 GHz. That offered more than enough power to drive the 64-bit Windows 8 operating system. Graphics were handled by Intel HD Graphics 4000, an integrated package, which was fine for all business applications and most graphical programs short of really-high end gaming.

Our unit had a six-cell battery, which lasted more than four hours of constant use in our worst-case scenario testing, where we kept accessing the hard drive the entire time. The fact that the hard drive is a solid state model certainly helped with the runtime.

The one thing we found disappointing with the 6430u in terms of government service was that the unit didn’t have a fingerprint scanner or a smart-card reader. Users have several ways these days to add both features easily, but having them included would have taken the 6430u from merely earning a positive review to our highest recommendation for federal use.(UPDATE: Although the ultrabook we tested, an early production model, did not have a fingerprint or smart-card reader, Dell says those features are now available.) 

Priced as configured for our testing at $1,278, the 6430u is a really good deal for anyone who wants to take an ultraportable notebook into the field and not worry if some rain, a lot of heat or the occasional tumble is going to destroy the hardware and data. Just about anything short of an actual war zone is going to be a safe working environment for the 6430u.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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