Monday, November 24, 2008

Dell E6500 – good hardware, but lots of software problems

I recently found myself in the market for a new home computer. I have a D820 at work, which has been working fine for a while now that I'm past the Vista pre-SP1 headaches, so I decided to look at the new Dell Latitude E series. The E series is the next generation business line, and the hardware specs on the E6500 I ended up buying are excellent: Core2 Duo T9600 2.8GHz, WUXGA screen, 250G hard drive will free fall sensor, 4G RAM, and lots of goodies that are part of the base platform. Additionally, Dell has completely redesigned the packaging of their Latitude line, and it's much more solid and streamlined that past versions.

A laptop is only as good as how well it travels, so I decided to take the E6500 on a business trip to Europe last week (Eclipse Summit Europe for those following on the Planet). I only put the basics on the laptop before my trip, because I wanted to prove out the system before loading it down. Sadly, even with only the basics installed, I had a ton of problems that all point to unstable drivers and some lousy software from Dell. Here's my review:

  • Dell Control Point (DCP) is disappointing. DCP is sort of a replacement for Dell Quickset. It displays brightness, volume, battery life, and other on-screen indicators when you press the Fn+ key combinations. Beyond Quickset-like features, DCP provides a dashboard for managing power settings, network/wireless connections, display settings, and the security settings. This is where it fails to impress. I'm ok with the duplication between DCP and the Windows Control Panel, but DCP is slow and buggy. The worst aspect is the network connection manager. There are 5 network devices on the laptop: a gigabit Ethernet port, dial-up modem, Bluetooth, WiFi, and WLAN (cellular internet access). DCP is used to enable, disable, and switch between the various devices. WiFi isn't supported yet (coming soon!) and WLAN is just plain flaky, with multiple clicks required to establish a cellular connection and no progress indication along the way. Added to that is that the WLAN driver crashes regularly. DCP needs a few more software revisions before it's ready for general use.
  • The Embassy Trust Suite is even worse. The Trust Suite is used to configure the TPM (the hardware security chip) and the associated security devices: fingerprint reader, smart card readers, and hardware passwords. It's confusing, clumsy, and unreliable. The setup steps required to take ownership of the TPM, establish all of the various passwords (TPM, Admin, BIOS, hard drive), register your biometrics, and then tie this into Windows security are not for the faint of heart. The Trust Suite doesn't do much to explain all of this either. At one point during setup, I was certain I had locked myself out of the TPM for good.
  • Speaking of biometric, the FPS fingerprint reader works about half the time coming out of suspend. (Cold starts are more reliable.) Biometric identification plugs in at two levels: pre-boot (BIOS) and windows login. First, at the BIOS level, the pre-boot authentication module fails to read a fingerprint about half the time. Normally, pre-boot will default to asking for your BIOS password if you fail to supply the correct fingerprint, but in this case, it doesn't even give a failure message on fingerprint reading. It just hangs. This really sucks coming out of standby when you're forced to do a hard restart and lose your open applications. If you get past this, then there's the windows logon, where again the fingerprint reader works about half the time. Fortunately in this case, it tells you that it's not working, and you can just enter your windows password. Looks like I'll be turning the TPM off for now until Dell and Embassy can supply some decent drivers and software. I truly shudder to think of an IT group trying to deploy full TPM and biometric security with this laptop. I can just imagine the flurry of help desk calls.
  • Suspend is flaky. Stop laughing! I know conventional wisdom is to blame Windows for suspend problems, but the problem is almost always third-party application software or drivers that don't deal with suspend/resume events properly. This single issue makes the E6500 virtually unusable for travel. On my D820, I suspend and resume between home and office several days in a row without reboots (and this is with Vista!). Not so with the E6500. I've had to do so many hard restarts after failed resumes that I've given up on suspend for now. Given how little I have on this machine, it really points to the weakness of the Dell-supplied drivers.
  • Some other annoyances: The IDT audio driver installs a service named stacsv.exe that occasional goes open loop and takes up 100% of one of the CPU's. I have to kill it regularly. The integrated webcam, while extremely handy for skype, doesn't come with a basic recording app similar to the Logitech Quickcam software. It comes with a control panel from CreativeLabs for brightness, face-tracking, etc., but this app has no recorder. (UPDATE: Dell/Creative released new webcam software on 11/26 that includes recording.) Finally, there's the nvidia video driver. The video card in this laptop is great, but Nvidia seems to think their control panel settings are more important than the Windows settings. I have a monitor color calibrator, and I installed a custom color profile for the laptop screen. Unfortunately, the nvidia driver overrides the windows custom color profiles, and I haven't yet figured out how to tell the nvidia control panel to stop screwing with the settings. Fortunately, the calibrator has a utility that diligently keeps forcing the calibrated profile to load. The datacolor tech support folks said they get a lot of complaints from nvidia users about this.

It's a shame that all of this nice hardware has been paired with such lousy software. I suspect a Linux install wouldn't fare much better, since Linux is even worse at device support on laptops. (Anyone ever configured a fingerprint reader in Linux?) I can hear the fanboys now…why don't you just buy a Mac?

Tags: dell, latitude, E6500, DCP, embassy trust suite, IDT, creativelabs, nvidia, datacolor