You’ve seen one you’ve seen them all! This used to be my perception of computers – be they servers, desktops, laptops and netbooks. Eight years ago I had the opportunity to visit Nomura Research Institute‘s (NRI) data center in Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo. What amazed me with this visit was the fact that NRI’s data center showcased servers from every major hardware vendor – IBM, HP, Dell and Hitachi servers were spread out in neat rows. What was even more amazing to me was that unless you looked close enough you will find it difficult to distinguish one brand from the other.

Apple’s success following the return to power of Steve Jobs can be attributable to his choice of designer – Jonathan Paul Ive, an English designer and the Senior Vice President of Industrial Design at Apple Inc. You won’t appreciate Ive’s contribution until you equate his name to the iMac, PowerBook G4, MacBook, unibody MacBook Pro, iPod, iPhone and iPad. But this review is not about Ive or Apple. It is about Dell’s recent efforts to get over the perception that the company knows only how to make non-descript computers that resemble other brands’ products. The kind that says “me too”.

Earlier I reviewed the Dell Adamo XPS, which in my view does showcase Dell’s ability to produce coolness at the level of Apple (maybe even better in some cases). In this review, I share my experience with the Dell Adamo Pearl. The Pearl was first introduced at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show.

And like the XPS, we’ve not seen this series in Asia. I visit the Dell showroom in Wanchai whenever I pass by the Wanchai Computer Mall and all the computers there on display are of the conventional black and black design. It’s no wonder Apple products turn people’s heads.

This should change with the Adamo Pearl. Made of brushed aluminum, the 16.4mm thickness coupled with the rather unique design of the bezel makes for an attractive talking piece. There is no latch to lock the screen but the hinge does hold the screen to the rest of the laptop very securely. Opening the computer reveals a 13.4″ WLED HD widescreen display (1366 x 768 resolution) with edge-to-edge glass (reminiscent of the MacBook Pro). Whereas MacBook Pros are molded from a single aluminum block, the Adamo is housed in an etched anodized aluminum chassis.

The surface around the keyboard is clean of any Microsoft or Intel stickers. But if you turn the Pearl on its bottom, you will find the Microsoft and Intel logos etched into a panel. The backlit keyboard reminds me of the now fasionable chicklet keys you will find on the MacBook and Sony Vaio laptops with one exception – each key is slightly scalloped rather than flat. The metal finish offers a luxury feel. Backlighting means you can type in dim light or total darkness.

The model I tested came pre-installed with Microsoft Vista Home Premium – meaning I couldn’t test the multi-touch trackpad capability (really a shame). But I managed to test drive it in other ways, including watching videos, and, of course, doing some work.

The Pearl uses a 1.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo U9400 ultra low voltage (ULV) processor with 3MB Level 2 Cache on board. I was a little disappointed to discover this baby still uses DDR2 memory chips. My experience with ULV equipped laptops hasn’t been very promising but this baby came installed with a fast 128GB Samsung SSD thin uSATA drive. Combined this explains why bootup was still reasonably fast despite the machine using the dreaded Windows VISTA operating system. At least it was the 64-bit version so the OS can take advantage of the 4GB of RAM on board (32-bit OS versions can only handle up to 3GB RAM).

Most laptops have ports on either side of the chassis. With the exception of a single headphone jack, the sides of the Pearl are clean of any such ports. Two USB 2 ports, a eSATA/USB port, a DisplayPort, a power socket, and an Ethernet port can be found at the back of the Pearl.

 

WHAT I LIKE
The Pearl allowed me to experience what it would be like using a MacBook Pro. There is very little not to like about this machine. The fan is quiet most times – you actually have to put your ear near the back of the laptop to hear it hum.

A chief complaint I have with my Lenovo Thinkpad X200 is its inability to dissipate heat very well. The Pearl does not have that problem. I have been using this machine for over nine hours in a non-air conditioned room. I don’t even have a fan near me. To be fair, a small section at the top of the keyboard is a little warm. But its not anywhere near the heat I feel when I am using my X200.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE
This laptop is heavier than it looks. The slim design of the Pearl can easily deceive you into thinking this is a light laptop. Don’t be fooled. This machine feels heavy. That said at 1.82 Kg, it is still lighter than even my smaller X200.

The matching power adaptor that came with the laptop does get hot. Unlike all Apple laptops, the built-in battery means you can’t keep a spare one handy in case you run out of juice in the middle of nowhere. And juice goes out very quickly with this baby if you are watching a movie and/or surfing the web wireless. In my case, the machine last just under 3 hours. Not great but certainly not something to moan about.

I also found the mouse buttons on the trackpad a tad bit difficult to use. I literally had to push hard to get the mouse to click. The alternative is to double tap on the trackpad to achieve the mouse click.

The speakers are located at the back of the laptop. So if you are watching a video, you will easily notice that the sound emanating from the near is rather weak. I had to use an external speaker to appreciate what I was watching.

I’m ok with the idea that you need to use an external DVD reader/writer but Dell chose to not include a built-in media card reader on the series. If you consider that most laptop user are likely to have a digital camera or an SD-equipped smart phone, it just doesn’t make sense to skip this piece of technology on such a cool laptop.

MY FINAL THOUGHTS
You won’t find the Dell Adamo Pearl (or its sibling – the Onyx) on the Dell Hong Kong website. But if you browse to the Dell US website, you will find four models Admire Onyx, Admire Pearl, Desire Pearl and Desire Onyx with prices starting at US$999. Its not the cheapest laptop if you go by the processor. But I don’t think Dell built the Adamo for the average user. The Dell Adamo series shouts luxury and for people who value style above all else, the Adamo Pearl (and its siblings) offer reasonably good performance while still giving the owner a chance to make a statement.

The Adamo Pearl may not be as cool as its limited edition cousin – the XPS, but it can still stand toe-to-toe against the best that Apple or Sony or HP can throw at it.

Apple designer, Jonathan Ive, and his team can no longer claim bragging rights for the coolest laptops in the industry. Dell has come of age.

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