Dell Latitude E6230: Working Too Well To Be Dismembered, NUCC to the Rescue

The previous few blog posts about my refurbished Dell Latitude E6230 was written several months ago and had sat waiting for a long-term verdict. After several months of use I’m now comfortable proclaiming it to be a very nice little laptop. Small, lightweight, good battery life, and decently high performance when I need it. (At the cost of battery life when doing so, naturally.)

The heart of this machine is a third generation Intel Core i5, which covers the majority of computing needs I’ve had while away from my desk. From the basics like 64-bit software capability to its ability to speed itself up to tackle bigger workloads. When working away from a wall plug and running on battery, the E6230 slows only minimally. Unlike my much newer Inspiron 7577 which slows drastically while on battery to the extent that it occasionally felt slower than the E6230. I can run my 7577 for perhaps two to four hours on battery, never far from a reminder of its limited on-battery performance. Whereas I can run the E6230 for around four to six hours on battery, without feeling constrained by reduced performance.

The E6230 has several other features I felt would be good for a robot brain. Top of the list is an Ethernet port for reliable communication in crowded RF environments. Several “SuperSpeed” USB 3 ports are useful for interfacing with hardware. And when I want more screen real estate than the built-in screen can offer, I have my choice of VGA or HDMI video output.

That built-in screen, with its minimal 1366×768 resolution, is about the only thing standing between this machine and greatness. Originally I did not care, because I had planned to tear the case apart and embed just the motherboard in a robot. But this laptop is working too darned well to be subjected to that fate! For the near future I plan to continue using the E6230 as a small laptop for computing on-the-go, and kept my eyes open for other old laptops as robot brain candidates.

An opportunity arose at Sparklecon 2020, when I mentioned this project idea to NUCC. They had a cabinet of laptops retired for one reason or another. I was asked: “What do you need?” and I said the ideal candidate would be a laptop with a broken screen and/or damaged keyboard, and have at least a Core i3 processor.

We didn’t find my ideal candidate, but I did get to bring home three machines for investigation. Each representing a single criteria: one with a busted screen, one with a busted keyboard, and one with a Core i3 processor.

Close enough! And now it’s time for me to get to work on a research project: determine what condition these machines are in, and how they can be best put to use.

Dell Latitude E6230: Blank ExpressCard Placeholder Is Also A Ruler

I found a fun little design while looking over the refurbished laptop I had bought. It was a Dell Latitude E6230, which had an ExpressCard slot. I’ve never used a laptop in a way that required add-on hardware. No PCMCIA, no ExpressCard, etc. Few of my laptops even had provisions for an expansion slot. But I remembered one of them — an old Dell XPS M1330 — included a little bit of creativity. Rather than the typical blank piece of plastic placeholder, the expansion slot held an infrared remote control with simple media buttons like “Play”, “Pause”, etc. This lets people use the little laptop as a media player where they can sit back away from the keyboard and still be able to control playback.

This laptop is from Dell’s business-oriented Latitude line, so it would not be keeping with product position to have such entertainment-oriented accessories. But I was curious if it had more than just a blank piece of plastic placeholder. So even though I had no ExpressCard to install, I popped out the blank to take a look. I was happy to see that someone put some thought into the design: the blank plate is a small ruler with both inch and millimeter measurements.

This feature cost them very little to implement, and it would never be the make-or-break deciding factor when choosing the laptop, but it was a fun touch.

Dell Latitude E6230: Soft Touch Plastic Did Not Age Well

When I looked over the exterior of my refurbished Dell Latitude E6230 laptop, I noticed  some common touch parts of the wrist rest and touch pad had been covered with stickers. They were very well done on my example. It took me a while to realized they were even there. In use, they were not bothersome.

Initially I thought they were there to cover up signs of wear and tear on this refurbished machine, but I’ve realized there’s an additional and possibly more important reason for the sticker: The plastic material for the wrist rest has degraded.

Usually when plastic degrades it hardens or discolors, but for certain types of plastic, the breakdown results in a sticky surface that is unpleasant to touch. I usually see this in the flexible plastic shroud for old cables and not in rigid installations like a keyboard wrist rest. I assume these machines were originally built with some type of soft touch plastic which degraded in this very unpleasant manner.

I wonder what the production story behind this laptop is. I can think of a few possibilities right away and I’m sure there are more:

  1. Dell did not perform long term testing on this material and didn’t know it would degrade this way.
  2. Dell performed testing, but the methodology for accelerated aging didn’t trigger this behavior, so it didn’t show up in the tests.
  3. Dell was aware of this behavior, believed it would not occur until well after warranty period, and thus not their problem.

The expensive way to solve this problem would be to re-cast the plastic wrist rest in a different material and replace the part. Covering just the important surfaces with stickers is an ingeniously inexpensive workaround. Once the stickers were installed, I wouldn’t have to touch the unpleasant surfaces in normal use. However, there are still some sections exposed around the keyboard, and the sticky material is now a dust magnet.

It is a flaw in this little capable machine, but one I can tolerate thanks to the stickers. It made the laptop cheap to buy refurbished, and I’ll be less reluctant to take the computer apart and embed it in a robot, which is one of the long term plans for this machine.

Dell Latitude E6230: Hardware Internals

I picked up a Core i5-powered Dell Latitude E6230. It was a refurbished item at Fry’s Electronics, on sale for $149, and that was too tempting of a bargain to pass up. There were two major downsides to the machine: a low resolution 1366×768 display that I couldn’t do anything about, and a spinning magnetic platter hard drive that I intend to upgrade.

As is typical of Dell, a service manual is available online and I consulted it before purchasing to verify this chassis use standard laptop form factor SATA drive for storage. (Unlike the last compact Dell I bought.) Once I got it home, it was easy to work on this machine designed to be easily serviceable as is most Latitudes. A single screw releases the back cover, and the HDD was held down by two more screws. With only three screws and two plastic modules to deal with, this SSD upgrade needed less than five minutes to complete.

But since I had it open anyway, I spent some more time looking around inside to see signs of this laptop’s prior life.

Dell Latitude E6230 interior debris

There were a few curious pieces of debris inside. A piece of tape that presumably held down a segment of wire has come loose, and the adhesive is not sticky. This is consistent with aged tape. There was also a loose piece of clear plastic next to the tape. I removed both.

The CPU fan had an fine layer of insignificant dust clinging to its surface. I would have expected an old laptop to have picked up more dirt than this. Either the buildup has been cleaned up (and the cleaner ignored the tape and clear plastic) or more likely this laptop spent most of its time in an office HVAC environment with well maintained dust filtration.

The HDD that I removed was advertised to have a copy of Windows 10. But where is the license? Computers of this vintage may have their Windows license embedded in hardware. Though this is less likely for business line machines, as some businesses have their own site license for Windows. I installed Windows 10 on the SSD and checked its licensing state: not activated. The Windows 10 license is on that HDD and not in hardware. That’s fine, I intended to run Ubuntu on this one anyway, so I installed Ubuntu 18.04 over the non-activated Windows 10.

Once Ubuntu 18.04 was up and running, this machine proved quite capable. All features appear to be usable under Ubuntu and it is easily faster than my Inspiron 11 3180 across the board. It is a bit heavier, but much of that is the extended battery and might be worth the tradeoff.

Overall, a very good deal for $149 and my new ROS robot brain candidate.

Dell Latitude E6230: First Impressions

Dell’s business oriented Latitude line command a price premium over their consumer grade Inspiron offerings, some of that money actually does go towards features for long term durability of those machines. A Latitude X1 I bought over a decade ago is still running. None of the Inspiron I’ve purchased has lasted nearly as long.

But despite their longevity, many businesses retire their computers on a regular schedule independent of actual condition. Once retired they go into a secondary market, a great opportunity for bargain hunters. Recently a batch of refurbished Dell Latitude E6230 were on sale for $149 at Fry’s Electronics and that was too good of a deal to pass up. For comparison, a new eighth-generation Core i5 processor is roughly $200 at retail, and that’s just the processor. This refurbished machine has an old but still capable third-generation Core i5 processor at its heart, and an entire computer around it including storage, memory, display, and battery. The price/performance ratio here trounces every other candidate for a ROS robot brain. Even the low cost leader, the Raspberry Pi, would have a hard time matching this price point after adding storage, display, battery, etc. In terms of computing power, an old Core i5 will have no problem leaving a Raspberry Pi in the dust.

I’ve had good luck with refurbished Dell computers so far. (Including that teenager Latitude X1.) So I thought I would pick up one of these units to see what I had to trade off for this screaming bargain. The answer is: not a whole lot.

The machine is very definitely used. There are visible wear and tear on exterior, but all purely cosmetic: discoloration of emblems, rubbed off paint, things along those lines.

Dell Latitude E6230 palm rest sticker

A typical sign of wear on an old laptop is the palm rest. I saw no wear at all in the palm rest area and was impressed until I realized what they had done: They’ve added a sticker over the palm rest to give it a new surface. The curled-up visible edge of this sheet gave the trick away. The surface of the touchpad, another frequent sign of age, also received the sticker treatment.

According to the documentation in its box, this laptop’s refurbishment was performed by a company called Advanced Skyline Technology, Ltd. Side effect of a non-Dell refurbished computer are a few tradeoffs for cost. The AC power adapter is not a genuine Dell item, neither is the battery. However, the battery has the larger size of an extended runtime battery. If it actually offers longer runtime that would be a pleasant surprise.

This machine came with a spinning platter hard disk, which I was not interested in using so the first project with this machine is to open it up, look around its insides, and upgrade it to a solid state drive.