Dell Adamo Full Review: Macho Outside, Sissy Inside

The Dell Adamo is the MacBook Air designed by Batman. I'm not just saying that because I'm holding the dark onyx version of the machine—the first of the production units, ready for serious testing.

The Adamo is both a compliment and an insult to Dell engineering. It's possibly the most beautiful computer Dell has ever manufactured, but I'm not sure that Dell has caught up to competitors in either aesthetics or power. There have been lots of qualitative Adamo reviews out there, but we got the first of the units that will actually ship to customers, so it's time for real benchmarks. As it happens, performance is really what's at stake here.


On one hand, the Adamo is a laptop built from as many parts aluminium as testosterone. It's decorated with three different finishes of black metal, including a classy matte grain that makes up a majority of the case, but then Dell tops all that blackness off with two more touches of black plastic (keyboard and mouse buttons) and tempered glass (in front and behind the screen) to add a bit of gloss to the mix.
The resulting cacophony of darkness tugs at my heart strings, activating long dormant man-DNA. Add a Batman logo, and I could see the Dark Knight shaping parts of this machine by hand, cave condensation dripping on the keyboard.

But batarangs lack polish. The Adamo has a utilitarian geometry—it's a block with four rounded edges, which is fine, but that block features a bottom panel with a disconcerting gap in metal...leading to nightmares of the lithium polymer battery leaking all over my lap. (Note: Dell uses two of these gaps for service/repair tool access.)
And the 13.4-inch, 720p (1366x768) screen is so difficult to fold open that it feels like you're bending a car door the wrong way. Its picture is quite pretty though—you'll notice sharpness is better on this screen than on the MacBook Air's.
The trackpad feels smaller than it should on a device with this footprint, and its multitouch gesture shortcuts, like pinch zooming, were often activating when I didn't want them to. (If you find the gestures useless, as I did, you can just disable them.)
The backlit keyboard is alright—the concave keys are a bit soft for my taste but perfectly passable. And the touch controls above the keyboard, while pleasant on the eyes, aren't really integral enough or pretty enough to justify their existence. Wouldn't it be neat if Dell used this space for a superfluously beautiful battery gauge or something? Why not? I really don't need more buttons to skip through my music.
And while the Adamo is athletically trim (a crazy 1.7cm), at 1.8kg, it's 200 grams heavier than the Voodoo Envy, and a 450 grams heavier than the Lenovo X301 and the MacBook Air, not to mention most netbooks. (Apparently it's no coincidence that the Adamo drew inspiration from luxury products like Bentleys.)
So is the Adamo thin? Yes. Light? No.

It's not quiet either. Even with our 128GB SSD configuration, the Adamo is rarely a silent machine. The fan, incidentally hidden behind some of the most stylish vents I've ever seen, runs almost nonstop during basic operation.
Still, there are a few points of clever design. Sticking all of the ports in the back of the system is a bit old school, but it also allows for a slimmer side profile. The two USB ports, ethernet jack and DisplayPort aren't much to speak of, but the inclusion of an eSATA/USB port means that your expansion drives can be just as fast as internals—good news, since there's no DVD drive. All this junk in the trunk is literally topped off by speakers. (Yup, they're behind the monitor.)
The only part we were unable to test was the optional integrated HSDPA 3G. You can see, however, that it's super easy to pop a SIM into the side of the computer—a solution that's far more elegant than using a USB stick, and makes use of a larger integrated antenna.


Our test system was a beefed-up, $US2600 Adamo, featuring a 1.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor (3MB L2 cache), 4GB RAM (800MHz), 128GB SSD and integrated 3G. $US2000 only buys you a 1.2GHz processor and 2GB of RAM, but you still get the 128GB SSD.

On paper, the MacBook Air is faster (faster processor, faster front side bus, and double the L2 cache). We ran GeekBench to test the theory. (It proved true.)

But these differences are really somewhat minor performance nitpicks. The biggest mistake Dell made with this system, by far, was the inclusion of Intel's GMA X4500HD GPU. Nvidia's GeForce 9400M (which you see in MacBooks etc) would have made a better fit. Nvidia claims their integrated GPUs dominate Intel's. Here's a comparison of the two GPUs that pretty much proves that Nvidia is right:

And here we see those principles applied in 3DMark testing. (Note, the 301 and Adamo have the Intel GPU, the MacBook Air has the Nvidia GPU):
I don't know that the X4500HD GPU is a complete dealbreaker for the Adamo...actually scratch that, it is a dealbreaker. Because if you're looking to work on graphics intensive programs or do light gaming, this simply cannot be the system for you. Also, keep in mind that Nvidia's upcoming Ion platform is pretty much an just Intel Atom processor with a 9400M. In other words, $US400 netbooks will soon be outperforming this $US2,000+ machine in 3D tasks if Dell doesn't tweak their platform.

However, if you're only looking to email, use programs like Excel and surf the web, the Adamo's support for up to 4GB of RAM may be a bigger benefit than the 9400M. (Since the MacBook Air supports a max of 2GB of RAM, it's a point to keep in mind if you're comparison shopping.)

Battery Life

Dell will tell you that the Adamo has a "5+ hour battery life," achieved through a non-removable lithium polymer battery. I tested the system with power saving (lower performance), medium screen brightness, wi-fi on and Bluetooth off. And I was able to play back a high-def WMV for just over half Dell's claim.

Total Run Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes

I find that, in real world use, it's very common for laptops to achieve only half their battery rating. The Adamo is clearly no exception. At least the laptop can make it through a full-length movie.

The Dark Knight Returns

The Adamo is a bit of a strange beast. It's not as feathery as the Lenovo X301 or the MacBook Air, and even with that extra pound of heft, it's (overall) not as powerful as the MacBook Air—a computer that's incidentally cheaper than the Adamo in its base configuration.

The Adamo has a few fantastic features: Integrated 3G, eSATA, and a butt that just won't quit. And its aluminium body, especially in black, simply looks sharp.

Just don't dare buy this computer until Dell comes to their senses and realises that $US2000+ is absurd for a 1.8kg laptop with no graphics muscle. Show some restraint and wait for the sequel. If it's anything like the Batman franchise, there will be many. [Adamo]

Unique, stylish design

Very thin

Nice selection of ports and extras

It's the heaviest system in its class by a pound

Mediocre battery life

Weak GPU

[Additional benchmarking sources here, here, here, here, here, and here]

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