The new Dell Inspiron Mini 9 with 3G is, on the face of it, much of a muchness as far as small computers go. It’s pretty hard to find any real differentiation between mini notebooks when all of them use the same processor, same screens and similar storage and memory specs. However the Dell stands out because of a) the name, b) the fact that it’s the one which will probably sell the most via the company’s corporate connections, c) because it has a built-in 3G mobile broadband card and finally d) because you can buy them on mobile phone style pricing (Vodafone UK, Vodafone AU). So I thought it would be interesting to take an in-depth look at one for those of you who may be considering going small-sized with your next computer purchase.
Friendly Note: This review is kinda wordy so if you’re only interested in the verdict, skip to the end.
Nigel has recently decreed that this isn’t a netbook. I’ll bow to his superiortyness (and the wrath of Google) and call it a mini-notebook as it has a 8.9″ screen. The 7″ and 8.9″ screen mini notebooks are pretty much the same size, the 7″ ones just have a larger bezel around their smaller screens, the keyboards are roughly the same size. The unit I reviewed came from Vodafone Australia. Vodafone have recently teamed up with Dell to offer the Mini 9 on a plan similar to mobile phones, i.e. pay a set amount each month over 2 years and you get the notebook with mobile broadband. A good idea methinks and so do a lot of other people, cos these are selling well apparently.
Closed up, the Mini 9 is pretty small, a little larger than a DVD case. The case is shiny, a little slippery, very fingerprinty with rounded corners and edges. It feels solid and weighs a little over 1 kilo. When you shake it around nothing seems to move, which is a good thing. To open it, you need two hands and have to prise the screen off the keyboard as the hinges are quite stiff and so it won’t fall open. The screen also stays open at the angle you put it but it doesn’t go back very far, maybe 120° maximum. There’s no catch securing the screen either so you definitely can’t open it one handed.
Mechanically it feels very sturdy. There are no creaking panels or loose feeling keys and according to Dell the keyboard is water resistant, and no I didn’t try. The battery feels a little loose but it’s locked in tight by two slider switches so you only notice it if you pick it up by gripping the battery. Apart from the keyboard, the only other button on it is the power button.
The first thing you notice when you turn it on, is that it’s completely silent. The only moving part in the whole thing is the screen, the solid state hard drive doesn’t spin and there’s no cooling fan for the CPU. All this leads to an odd sensation where you’re not sure what the thing is doing. After about 30 seconds of boot time it arrived at the Windows XP desktop, and then another 30 seconds or so while McAfee sorted itself out. Bit over a minute and I’m ready to go.
The 8.9″ reflective screen boasts a native resolution of 1024×600 and is almost usable in direct sunlight however moving into the shade makes it very easy to use. I used it outside in the shade for extended periods and had no problems with eye strain. It was tricky to use on buses and trains where bright reflections constantly moved across the screen but angling the screen it usually got rid of them. The vertical viewing angle is quite narrow and blacks became washed out easily but the horizontal viewing angle is much more forgiving.
With the screen opening limit it was quite hard to use if it was sitting on a desk, I’m over 6′ and tended to slouch over to see the screen properly, but propping up the front edge helped.
Using Firefox it was fairly easy to read web pages as most are optimised for a screen width of 1024 pixels. Pages like Yahoo! Mail, Gmail and Google Reader were a little trickier due to the menus and layouts across the top and side of the screen. Those menus didn’t leave much real estate left for messages or articles, but running Firefox in full screen mode (hiding the toolbar and URL bar) helped a bit. Ironically, to switch to full-screen mode in Firefox you press F11 but the Mini 9 doesn’t have an F11 or F12 button. I’m told that a firmware fix is taking care of that oversight so until then use the menu.
The keyboard is quite usable if you’re not writing War and Peace. If you’re out-and-about it’s fine for emails or text messages and is much faster than a Crackberry, iPhone or mobile phone. If your Mini 9 is going to sit on your desk get a mouse and keyboard or use Synergy if it’s a second PC.
The keyboard has most of the keys in the right place with the exception of the punctuation keys which are scattered. Some punctuation needed the Dell Fn key which slows you down. The Shift, Ctrl and Alt keys are all on the left side of the keyboard but there is also tiny Shift key on the right. The Backspace key is the same size as the Enter key and is easy to stab at. The arrow keys double as the Home, Pg Up, Pg Down, End buttons. The F1 – F10 keys are set up as function keys that need the Dell Fn key to be used and there are no keypad numbers.
With regards to typing speed I thought I’d do some very non-scientific tests. Using the typeonline.co.uk typing Speed test, I typed out 3 random passages alternating between my standard desktop keyboard and the Mini 9’s. On a full sized keyboard I scored 74(2), 76(2) and 62(1) words per minute with (x) being the number of mistakes I made. On the Mini 9 I scored 59(9), 52(5) and 51(5). On the Mini 9, the more punctuation there was in a paragraph the more mistakes I made and the more I slowed down as I hunted for the right key. I did the test after about 10 days of using the Mini 9 on and off so I sort of had my eye in.
The trackpad is often a major disappointment on mini notebooks. The trackpad on the Mini 9 was a delight in that it was completely inoffensive and just worked. It’s a 2-button Synaptics unit with a middle button emulated by pressing both buttons together. The trackpad itself is a slight depression in the surface of the palm rest area but otherwise is completely invisible. The buttons are tactile and have a light easy action without the horrible heavy click like the Eee 7″ model. Left and right buttons are equal sized and the vertical and horizontal scrolling worked flawlessly in every program I tried except Internet Explorer. In IE the scrolling was skittish then laggy and then back to skittish which made it impossible to use. Stick with Firefox (or anything else) is my suggestion. The trackpad configuration software also allows you to setup an external mouse differently to the trackpad. This means for people like me who mouse left-handed with the buttons reversed and use a trackpad right-handed with the buttons in the normal configuration, it’s mousy-config heaven.
Connectivity and Storage
The Mini 9 has the usual notebook connectivity options, WiFi b/g and 10/100 Ethernet, along with Bluetooth v2.0, 3 USB ports and a memory card. The USB ports are far enough apart that they can all be used at once with the exception of the port next to the VGA port. If a VGA cable is being used, the only things that will fit in the USB port would be a cable as the screws on the VGA cable crowd it a bit. There’s also a 3.5mm stereo headphone and a microphone input.
The onboard SSD is fine for everyday kinds of things and after installing Windows XP there’s about 10.5Gb left from the empty 14.3Gb. The Mini 9’s are easily upgradeable too. To be honest you probably won’t be storing much on the Mini 9, if nothing else simply from a security point-of-view in case you leave it in Starbucks. It also comes with a box.net account which you can use to store any stuff you need to access all the time. There’s also an SD card slot that reads MMC and Memory sticks as well as SDHC cards. Unfortunately the Dell doesn’t have the dual SD card slots that the Acer Aspire One does which allows you to extend the storage and retain the card slot.
The Bluetooth uses a WIDCOMM stack and it worked very well, I managed to pair the Mini 9 to a Bluetooth keyboard, stereo headset and an iMac all without any troubles. I used the headset with Skype and could move around the room and chat with no problems and I transferred files easily between the Mac and the Dell.
The Mini 9 Bluetooth stack supports the Audio (stereo and headset), Imaging, Printer, PIM Sync, File Transfer, Item Transfer, Dialup Networking, Network Access and Serial Port profiles. Only one profile could be used at a time though so no keyboard and headset simultaneously for example.
The Mini 9’s connectivity pièce-de-resistance is the built-in HSDPA mobile broadband card accessible by removing the battery. There’s a hidden SIM slot in there as well. The Vodafone connection software is easy to use and helps with the usual upload and download speeds, volumes of data used and signal strength. You can also send and receive SMS directly using the software. The HSDPA worked very well driving around even at speeds of 80km/h and I rarely had less than 3 bars of signal strength. I was even able to Skype with video at those speeds and before you ask, no I wasn’t driving.
Another great feature is that you don’t need any external equipment to use VoIP on the Mini 9, it has a built-in 1.3Mpixel webcam and a good quality hidden microphone. The webcam was the usual quality but handled indoor and outdoor conditions well and has the obligatory LED indicator to tell you when it’s on. The speakers were fine for VoIP but I didn’t use them much for music or video as they’re quite tinny and annoy after a while. They’re in a great spot though, directly under the screen. The Mini 9 comes with Dell video calling software pre-installed and a webcam application for making avatars and silly effects. I highly recommend the webcam/mic if it’s a choice in your locality.
Let me open by saying I don’t do benchmarking, dunno how. Firefox ran very well even with 5 tabs open however highly graphics-intensive Flash websites would load but then hang, especially if you pushed them too fast. Graphics-intensive Java-based games like Runescape also worked but were quite laggy. Flash slideshow websites ran fine but often didn’t fit on the small screen. YouTube videos ran ok in SD mode, but HD was painful. Video files (divx and xvid .avi) ran fine even over WiFi provided they were around 640×480 or slightly larger. The lightweight BitTorrent client µTorrent did well downloading the current Ubuntu 8.10 distro even over 3G, hitting around 300 kB/s speeds.
The Mini 9 also did quite well with photos. I installed Picasa 3 and it happily trawled through my 20k+ archive of 10Mpx photos of Nigel in his green mankini. Picasa doesn’t really fit on the Mini 9’s screen but slideshows were fine.
I then went a little crazy and installed the trial version of Adobe Lightroom 2.2. It was pretty laggy but I could tweak curves, do adjustments and zoom in and out painlessly and it had no problems working on RAW files as well as .jpgs. The little screen made critical detail very fiddly, but if you had to get something out to your editor while out on the road using nothing but the Mini 9, I reckon you could do it. I didn’t try Photoshop as it wouldn’t have fit on the screen, but if you’ve got an external screen then you should be ok using that too, no promises though.
Via the built-in VGA port, the Mini 9 can drive pretty much anything, it didn’t have any problems driving my 24″ monitor simultaneously with its own screen. With the built-in Intel Graphics adapter software you’ve got all the usual display choices, Clone, Extended Desktop, Rotate Display and you can switch off the built-in screen as well without any hassles. So it would make a great PowerPoint machine and a lot easier to carry to meetings. The image on the external screen was a little soft, especially text, but otherwise no complaints.
Battery life was pretty much what it said on the box for the included 4 cell battery. I got around 3.5 hours while surfing and writing using the 3G connection. Watching streaming video over Wifi I got over 3 hours.
As a whole, the Mini 9 wasn’t a big fan of Hibernating or Standby but most Windows machines aren’t either. After several Standby events, the Mini 9 would sometimes get a bit shirty and refuse to connect to Wifi or 3G and need a reboot. There were no BSODs though, and I was trying to upset it.
So Who Should Buy One?
It makes a great laptop for school age children. It’s tough, no moving parts, kid sized keyboard and it should do anything kids need. Better yet it won’t break their little backs lugging it and no one needs to know they’re carrying a computer.
Photographers or roving photojournalist and it’s not just me who says so. It fits in most camera bags, you’ve got anywhere 3G connectivity and a pretty good screen. The Aspire One has the dual card slots but all pro cameras use CompactFlash cards so that’s no great advantage.
People who need a very portable second computer. I had the Mini 9 setup next to my main computer and used it to run my Skype, Media Player and Webmail while controlling it all via Synergy from my main PC. If I had to go out, I just folded up the Mini 9 and slung it under my arm and usually didn’t take the charger. A small protective case would have been handy as the shell is quite slippery.
People who commute long distances on public transport. With one of these you can be as productive or unproductive as you want. Catch up on your RSS feeds in the bus, watch your downloaded (or free-to-air) telly on the train, update your blog or write your great novel. The 3.5 hours of battery life will get you where you’re going and back and it’s much safer not having a wireless dongle sticking out of the side.
- One person’s “slow” is another person’s “meh”. I didn’t find it anywhere near as slow as I was expecting. Heck it boots in 30 seconds, how slow can it be? If you consider the technology 3 years old, performance-wise, then you should be fine.
- Trackpad was a joy to use with everything except IE. Go figure
- Built in 3G, camera, speakers and microphone so you can go anywhere and stay connected without all the peripheral tat poking out the sides
- Everything just seemed to work which was a very nice change
- The Mini 9 is one of the more hackable upgradeable mini notebooks out there and DIY upgrades appear quite easy to do if you’re keen.
- Speakers were quite poor however they were audible and well positioned, they just had a dreadful tone
- No HDD activity light meant you occasionally didn’t know what was going on but there’s always Task Manager I suppose
- No physical function keys and some punctuation needed the Dell Fn key to access which will slow down the faster typists
- Only has a single SD card slot
- Screen doesn’t open very far and vertical viewing angles were quiet narrow
- Windows virtual memory issues but tweaking fixed most of them
- McAfee! Get something lighter if antivirus is your thing
- A backlit keyboard would have been nice
The 8.9″ mini notebooks seem to be the right mix of compactness and usability and Dell Mini 9 is no exception. Considering the price range I was pleasantly surprised when the whole thing worked smoothly and seamlessly straight out of the box. I loved it for its all-in-one VoIP capabilities, easy internet browsing and the way you could just sling it under your arm and go out or toss it in any bag. For me, the winning feature was the built-in 3G connectivity. Tie that with a good data plan and I would have no qualms about recommending this machine to anyone who travels a bit.
The only things I could fault the Mini 9 on were all pretty minor so hopefully Dell will take what they’ve learnt from the Mini 9 and improve it for the upcoming Mini 10. Then we might be on the way to a super-usable mini notebook. Nice job Dell.
Specifications As Tested
- Windows XP Home SP3
- 1024×600 screen
- 16Gb SSD
- 1Gb of RAM
- 1.3Mp webcam and microphone
- Bluetooth v2
- WWLAN, 10/100 Ethernet, WiFi b/g
- Battery life approximately 3.5 hours from 4 cells
- SD/MMC/MS/MS Pro card reader
- VGA Port
- 3 USB ports
Price as tested, $AU549 + 3G broadband costs or $AU60 per month over 2 years from Vodafone.