Shop for an extra-sturdy laptop, and you’ll encounter vague, overlapping terms like fully rugged, semi-rugged, and business-rugged. Officially, Dell refers to the Latitude 5424 Rugged (starts at $1,429; $3,301 as tested) as semi-rugged, meaning it’s not as indestructible as the flagship Latitude 7424 Rugged Extreme—instead of a six-foot drop when closed, for example, it’s rated to survive a three-foot fall. That still makes it suitable for carrying into the field and other environments where a civilian laptop might crack, though my Core i5 test unit’s performance and battery life trailed that of the more costly Core i7 Extreme. On the other hand, the Latitude 7424’s touchpad was frustratingly unresponsive. The 5424’s worked fine.
A Rough Family Resemblance
At a glance, the Latitude 5424 Rugged could be mistaken for its stronger sibling—both are 14-inch laptops with matte-black magnesium-alloy frames, protective doors covering their ports, and full-width carrying handles on their front edges. Look closer, however, and you’ll spot differences. The doors over the ports snap shut, but they don’t have sliding latches and aren’t meant to be waterproof. There’s a hole or niche on the right side for the touch-screen stylus, but the pen isn’t tethered to the chassis.
The Latitude 5424 is trimmer than the Latitude 7424 by about a third of an inch in every dimension (it measures 1.75 by 13.7 by 9.6 inches) and weighs noticeably less (6.8 pounds versus 8.5). Mind you, that doesn’t make it an ultraportable—compare the ordinary business-rugged fleet staple, the Lenovo ThinkPad T480, at 0.78 by 13.3 by 9.2 inches and 3.6 pounds.
The $1,429 base model makes do with a Core i3-7130U processor, 8GB of memory, a 500GB hard drive, and a non-touch 1080p display. For $3,301, my test unit stepped up to a 1.7GHz (3.6GHz turbo) Core i5-8350U quad-core CPU, 16GB of RAM, and a 512GB NVMe solid-state drive (SSD). Other features in my tester include an outdoor-readable touch screen, an onboard DVD+RW drive, dual hot-swappable batteries, and a face-recognition webcam for Windows Hello. (It lacked the fingerprint and SmartCard readers of the Rugged Extreme I tested recently, though they’re available as optional add-ons.)
That webcam, which captures average-sharpness, well-lit images, is behind a sliding privacy shutter centered above the screen. On the system’s left side, you’ll find a USB 3.0 Type-C port, two USB 3.0 Type-A ports, and an audio jack. As with the Latitude 7424, there is no Thunderbolt 3 port.
Ports on the right side include a placeholder for a removable SATA M.2 SSD, the stylus, a hatch for the removable PCI Express M.2 boot drive, SD and optional SIM card slots, a third USB 3.0 Type-A port, and the DVD+RW drive. Serial, Ethernet, and HDMI ports are behind a door at the rear. A look at the Latitude’s bottom reveals twin removable 51-watt-hour batteries and a plate for desktop and dashboard docks.
There’s Use, and Then There’s Abuse
Like the Latitude 7424, the Latitude 5424 has a mono speaker on its front edge that pumps out adequate, if somewhat muted, sound. You can crank up the volume without distortion, but even then you won’t hear much bass. Dell preinstalls some equalizer software called MaxxAudioPro, but it’s not terribly useful, unlike some of the other utilities on the Windows 10 Pro system. I particularly liked the Rugged Control Center strip that lets you adjust everything from brightness and volume to Bluetooth and the keyboard backlight. The Latitude carries a three-year mail-in warranty.
The keyboard offers good travel but a surprisingly flat, mushy typing feel. I managed a brisk pace, but I didn’t enjoy typing on it as much as on the 7424 Rugged Extreme’s keyboard. The layout is all right, with dedicated Page Up and Page Down keys (though Home and End are combinations with the Fn key and left and right cursor arrows). The Escape and Delete keys are small.
Happily, the two-button touchpad proved to be the antithesis of the Latitude 7424 Rugged Extreme’s balky surface, responding to precise moves and taps as well as broad sweeps. Navigating lists and selecting items was a cinch. I wasn’t tempted for even a moment to plug in an external mouse.
The 1,920-by-1,080-pixel touch screen is the Dell’s best feature—it’s exceptionally bright, with sky-high contrast and colors that pop. White backgrounds glow like ski slopes on sunny days. Viewing angles are wide and details are crisp. Both my finger and the supplied stylus worked well, though it took a fingernail to pry the latter out of its niche; I was unable to use the touch panel with gloves in a brief test, even after loading a provided utility that lets you specify finger, glove, or damp-screen interaction.
Speaking of damp screens, the Latitude 5424 lacks the Latitude 7424’s IP65 ingress protection (proof against pressurized water). Instead, it offers IP52 protection (dripping water when tilted up to 15 degrees). While both can withstand blowing dust, vibration, shock, humidity, altitude, and thermal extremes, the 5424 is not rated to survive blowing rain, blowing sand, “explosive atmosphere,” thermal shock, and freeze/thaw. (See our primer on what IP ratings mean.)
Nevertheless, the Dell proved tougher than the average laptop in my tests. When I knocked it off my lap onto a carpeted floor, it landed upside down like a 2-in-1 convertible in tent mode but showed no ill effects. Turned off, closed, and dropped from three feet, it reopened, booted, and ran as if it had been resting on a velvet pillow instead. Even the doors over the ports stayed shut.
Keeping Up With the Core i7 Lot
For our performance benchmarks, I compared the Latitude 5424 Rugged to its 7424 Rugged Extreme stablemate and two other (much less armored) 14-inch business laptops, the HP EliteBook 840 G5 and the stalwart Lenovo ThinkPad T480 mentioned earlier. Because those three systems have Core i7 processors, I threw in one 13.3-inch Core i5 notebook, the Asus ZenBook 13, to keep the Latitude 5424 company. The contenders’ basic specs appear in the table below.
Overall, the Latitude 5424 did fairly well in our benchmark suite, though its integrated graphics disqualify it from any hope of playing the latest games. (Of course, that is far from the point of a machine like this.) I was mildly disappointed that its battery life fell short of the Latitude 7424 Rugged Extreme’s, despite having the same dual 51WHr batteries.
Productivity, Storage, and Media Tests
PCMark 10 and 8 are holistic performance suites developed by the PC benchmark specialists at UL (formerly Futuremark). The PCMark 10 test we run simulates different real-world productivity and content-creation workflows. We use it to assess overall system performance for office-centric tasks such as word processing, spreadsheeting, Web browsing, and videoconferencing. The test generates a proprietary numeric score; higher numbers are better.
PCMark 8, meanwhile, has a Storage subtest that we use to assess the speed of the PC’s storage subsystem. The result is also a proprietary numeric score; again, higher numbers are better.
While all five laptops’ solid-state drives aced PCMark 8’s Storage subtest, the Latitude 7424 Rugged Extreme was the only standout in PCMark 10’s productivity rating. The 5424 finished second, just 175 points shy of the 4,000 that we consider excellent.
Next is Maxon’s CPU-crunching Cinebench R15 test, which is fully threaded to make use of all available processor cores and threads. Cinebench stresses the CPU rather than the GPU to render a complex image. The result is a proprietary score indicating a PC’s suitability for processor-intensive workloads.
Running the test several times didn’t change its unexpected result, as the Core i5 ZenBook outshone its Core i7 competitors. The Latitude 5424 Rugged finished last, indicating it’s more suited for spreadsheets than arduous 3D rendering or video editing.
We also run a custom Adobe Photoshop image-editing benchmark. Using an early 2018 release of the Creative Cloud version of Photoshop, we apply a series of 10 complex filters and effects to a standard JPEG test image. We time each operation and, at the end, add up the total execution time. (Lower times are better.) The Photoshop test stresses the CPU, storage subsystem, and RAM, but it can also take advantage of most GPUs to speed up the process of applying filters, so systems with powerful graphics chips or cards may see a boost.
The Latitude 5424 Rugged trailed the field again, though the spread from first to last place wasn’t particularly great. Image editors won’t be dazzled by its speed, but they’ll be pleased by its attractive screen.
3DMark measures relative graphics muscle by rendering sequences of highly detailed, gaming-style 3D graphics that emphasize particles and lighting. We run two different 3DMark subtests, Sky Diver and Fire Strike, which are suited to different types of systems. Both are DirectX 11 benchmarks, but Sky Diver is more suited to laptops and midrange PCs, while Fire Strike is more demanding and made for high-end PCs to strut their stuff. The results are proprietary scores.
The Dell 7424 and its (relatively modest, mind you) AMD Radeon RX 540 discrete graphics crushed the other four challengers and their Intel integrated graphics, but even the RX 540’s scores fell far short of those we see from truly game-worthy AMD and Nvidia GPUs. These laptops are strictly for casual gaming, not fast-paced 3D. (Not that you should be gaming at work or in the field.)
Next up is another synthetic graphics test, this time from Unigine Corp. Like 3DMark, the Superposition test renders and pans through a detailed 3D scene and measures how the system copes. In this case, it’s done in the company’s eponymous Unigine engine, offering a different 3D workload scenario than 3DMark, for a second opinion on the machine’s graphical prowess. We present two Superposition results, run at the 720p Low and 1080p High presets.
Smooth gameplay? Forget about it, and get ready to settle for browser-based games and streaming video. This is not a dig, just typical Intel UHD Graphics performance.
Video Playback Battery Rundown Test
After fully recharging the laptop, we set up the machine in power-save mode (as opposed to balanced or high-performance mode) where available and make a few other battery-conserving tweaks in preparation for our unplugged video rundown test. (We also turn Wi-Fi off, putting the laptop into airplane mode.) In this test, we loop a video—a locally stored 1080p file of the open-source Blender demo movie Tears of Steel—with screen brightness set at 50 percent and volume at 100 percent until the system conks out.
Ten and a half hours is a respectable runtime, letting you take the Latitude into the field with confidence that your workday won’t end prematurely for lack of an AC outlet. Still, I was hoping that the 5424 would place higher considering its twin batteries.
What’s Your Defense Budget?
The Dell Latitude 5424 Rugged is a solid semi-rugged solution, highlighted by a great display and capable productivity performance. If that sounds like faint praise, it’s only because I have fresh memories of testing the Latitude 7424 Rugged Extreme, whose extra armor lets it shrug off even more heinous abuse and higher drops.
To be sure, the Rugged Extreme is more expensive, but I suspect those taking a laptop into harm’s way will find it worth it. Perhaps, as always, the wisest thing would be to assess your needs and work environment—a factory floor for one, perhaps, versus a police-car dashboard for the other.