Dell Inspiron Mini 9 Review

by JerryJ Reads (13,119)

by Jerry Jackson

Last year, the world of budget notebooks was turned on its head with the introduction of the ASUS Eee PC: A 2-pound laptop with a 7-inch screen and a starting price below $300. Prior to 2008, "budget notebooks" were bulky, overweight 15-inch laptops while "ultra-portable" notebooks commanded a premium price well above $1,000. In no time at all terms like "budget ultra-portable," "subnotebook," and "netbook" became part of the techno-geek vocabulary. Every notebook manufacturer on the planet (even some that you might not know) scrambled to create their own "netbooks" … and Dell has finally joined the party.

The Dell Inspiron Mini 9 is an 8.9" netbook with a $349 (Linux) or $399 (Windows XP) starting price and some impressive features. Dell was kind enough to supply us with a pre-production copy of the Inspiron Mini 9 so that we can conduct in-depth testing and let you know if this netbook really is "your new best friend" … or just the weird kid you try to avoid on the bus. 

Our pre-production Inspiron Mini 9 features the following specifications:

  • 1.6GHz N270 Intel Atom Processor
  • 1GB DDR2 533MHz (1 DIMM)
  • Ubuntu 8.04 Linux with Custom Dell Interface (Includes Open Office)
  • 8.9" 1024 x 600 WSVGA glossy LED backlit display
  • 8GB miniPCI SSD card
  • Intel GMA 950 Integrated Graphics
  • 802.11b/g Wi-Fi
  • 4-in-1 Media card reader
  • 1.3 Megapixel webcam, Dell Video Chat application, Dell Support Center
  • 4-Cell 32Wh Li-ion battery (14.8V)
  • Size: 9.2" x 6.8" x 1.3" (including feet)
  • Weight: 2lb 5.5oz (with 4-cell battery), 2lb 11.6oz (with battery and AC adapter)
  • Price: $434 ($474 with Windows XP)

Build and Design

The design of the Dell Inspiron Mini 9 is quite similar to other netbooks we’ve seen in recent months. The exterior is covered in glossy plastics with smooth lines, rounded edges, and a style that looks like it’s trying to strike a balance between "fun" and "functional." The look is pretty basic, almost like a miniature version of the Inspiron 1525 notebook. Glossy plastic is found on the top of the screen cover as well as around the entire LCD and palm rests. Matte black plastic is used on the base of the netbook and on the keyboard. Overall, the look is quite nice, but the glossy LCD lid is a magnet for fingerprints and makes the new netbook look a little tarnished after just a few minutes of use.


(view large image)

The build quality of the Mini 9 is amazingly solid for a subnotebook of this size and weight. The construction is mostly plastic but all of the plastics feel strong enough to handle being tossed around inside a bookbag. Even the glossy plastic surfaces seem to resist minor surface scratches. However, the most impressive build quality element in our pre-production unit was that the inside of the chassis is reinforced with magnesium alloy in at least one location (behind the keyboard and in front of the battery). This helps the Mini 9 withstand much more abuse than a typical all-plastic netbook.

 

 

In terms of upgradeability, the Mini 9 is much easier to upgrade than most netbooks currently on the market. Many of the netbooks we’ve seen to date require complex disassembly in order for you to get to the storage drive, system RAM, or wireless cards. Even worse, some other netbooks have slots for upgrades but no connections on the motherboard so it is impossible to upgrade them. This is not the case with the Mini 9.


(view large image)

Dell engineers were wise enough to place all key upgradeable components in one area directly beneath a simple access panel that you can remove with a regular Phillips screwdriver after removing two screws. The Mini 9 uses standard notebook DDR2 RAM (800MHz underclocked to 533MHz), standard wireless mini cards, and a mini PCIe SSD card.

Operating System and Software

As mentioned, Dell offers the Mini 9 with either Windows XP or a customized Ubuntu Linux operating system. Our pre-production unit came equipped with Ubuntu, and the Dell-developed custom interface is point-and-click easy and acts similar to Windows … only easier (if you don’t try to install new applications).

The Mini 9 comes preloaded with dozens of useful applications for everything from work and email to listening to music and watching movies. Unlike the many free applications that come preinstalled on Windows-based computers, almost none of the applications on the Ubuntu operating system should be considered "bloatware." In fact, almost every application on this netbook is both useful and easy to use.


(view large image)
 
(view large image)

(view large image)
 
(view large image)

(view large image)
 
(view large image)

 

Click on the "Web" icon and you can select from one of multiple bookmarks or just open the Firefox web browser. Click on the "Productivity" icon and you’ll have instant access to the Open Office application (compatible with Microsoft Office) or Adobe Reader for PDFs. Click on any standard movie file and the video plays in either the Media Player application or inside Firefox … you don’t need to spend hours searching for video plugins and codecs, the movies just play. Don’t waste time downloading iTunes. Just plug in your iPod and the Music Manager detects the music player and begins importing the songs. It’s all part of the beauty and simplicity of Linux. Things just work.

On the other hand, if you ever find that you need an application that isn’t already installed in Linux then you need to be familiar with the console and typing strange lines of code like "sudo dash" and "apt-get." In other words, it’s not as simple as just downloading a Windows program installation file from a website and clicking "install."

If you’re concerned about Linux, don’t worry. Dell is also offering the Mini 9 with Windows XP, so the Microsoft faithful can breathe a collective sigh of relief.

Keyboard and Touchpad

Most low-priced, full-size notebooks currently on the market feature poorly built keyboards that show significant flex/bounce when typing pressure is applied. Thankfully, most netbooks have remarkably firm keyboards due to the fact that the chassis is so small there isn’t much empty space inside the notebook for the keyboard to flex or bounce.


(view large image)

The keyboard on the Mini 9 is less cramped than what we’ve seen on the 7-inch and 8.9-inch ASUS Eee PCs, but the Dell keyboard is still very compact. Even though I’ve gotten used to typing on netbook keyboards, the first few hours I spent typing on the Mini 9 were quite frustrating as the small footprint and tiny keys require you to use a "hunt and peck" style of typing rather than traditional touch typing methods. This means that passwords get mangled, emails look like gibberish, and playing games that require keyboard commands becomes quite aggravating.

Of course, once I got used to typing on the tiny keyboard the keys felt just fine … but this keyboard isn’t designed to be used as a primary/main computer. For users who would buy this notebook as their "main computer" in their home or office, a full-size keyboard and external mouse are recommended.

The only "major" complaint I have about the keyboard on the Mini 9 is that the function keys are all located in the middle of the keyboard rather than the top row. Also, there is no F11 or F12 key … which is bad for people who use F11 to maximize their web browser window or use F12 as a programmed shortcut key. Please, Dell, give us F11 and F12 on the next generation of this netbook!


(view large image)

The touchpad design is surprisingly nice for a budget netbook. The surface isn’t exactly "large" but it is larger than what we see on most netbooks. The touchpad in our pre-production unit was a Synaptics touchpad with excellent sensitivity, responsiveness, and smooth tracking. The touchpad buttons are located in the correct position and have nice, deep, well-cushioned presses with no annoying "click" when pressed.

Display

The glossy LED backlit display on the Mini 9 is nice and vibrant with rich colors and good contrast. The white levels are very clear, leaning towards the slightly warm/orange side. Colors look excellent with the glossy screen, but at the cost of increasing screen reflections and glare. The screen might be bright enough to view outside, but with all the bright reflective surfaces outside, the screen is nearly impossible to view comfortably. Indoors the reflections are not a problem at all.

Horizontal viewing angles are good, so you and a friend won’t have trouble watching a movie on the 8.9-inch screen at the same time. Vertical viewing angles are acceptable, but colors do tend to wash out from above and become inverted when viewed from below.


(view large image)
 
(view large image)

(view large image)
 
(view large image)

 

Ports and Features

Port selection was better than average for a netbook, with a multi-card reader, three USB ports, Ethernet/LAN, VGA, and audio jacks. There isn’t much to complain about here, although there might have been enough space in the chassis design to support an additional USB port or Firewire. Here is a quick tour of what you get:

Front: No ports.

Rear: Battery

Left: Security lock slot, power jack, two USB ports, and a 3-in-1 card reader

Right: Headphone/Mic, USB, VGA out, and Ethernet

Performance

Our regular selection of performance benchmarks can’t be used with the pre-production Inspiron Mini 9 given the fact that it is a Linux-based notebook. We will be publishing a follow-up in the coming weeks with details of how Windows XP performs on the Mini 9, so please keep an eye open for that.

In the meantime, we can measure the time it take to perform a number of simple procedures in order to give you an idea of how the Mini 9 performs. Please keep in mind that the speeds listed below will vary depending on the number of applications you have open at any given time (multitasking always slows things down).

  • Startup: ~20 seconds
  • Opening and loading the NotebookReview.com website in Firefox: ~3 seconds
  • Starting playback on a 700MB AVI video file: ~3 seconds
  • Starting the Open Office application: ~5 seconds
  • Opening a 3.84MB PDF document: ~3 seconds
  • Opening a 2.51MB PowerPoint presentation: ~10 seconds

For those interested in the speed of the 8GB SSD, hdparm benchmarks the SSD buffered read speed at 26.91MB/sec. For comparison, the 4GB SSD in the ASUS Eee PC 4G performs at 21.78 MB/sec. Meanwhile, a Lenovo ThinkPad T60 with a fast 7200rpm Seagate hard drive has a buffered read speed of 54.62 MB/sec and a Toshiba Tecra A9 with standard 5400rpm hard drive has a buffered read speed of 44.87 MB/sec.

While the Mini 9 won’t win any awards for performance within applications, startup is quite fast and overall performance is fast enough to keep most users happy.

True 1080p HD video content might be out of the question based on the specs of the Mini 9, but the pre-production unit used in this review was able to handle up-scaled standard-definition video with stable frame rates and smooth sound.

Speakers and Audio

While we’re on the topic of sound, the speakers on the Inspiron Mini 9 are reasonably impressive for a budget netbook. While the two tiny stereo speakers located beneath the screen can’t compete with the audio quality found on larger multi-media notebooks, the speakers are perfectly capable of playing short video clips or system sounds. As long as you don’t make the mistake of trying to listen to old-school hip hop on the built-in speakers you might never notice the lack of bass.


(view large image)

The only strong negative I have against the built-in speakers is the fact that the maximum volume level doesn’t get as loud as I like without distortion creeping into the sound.

The headphone jack on the Dell Inspiron Mini 9 works well with the three different brands of earphones I used during the test. No static or other noise was noticed through the jack besides imperfections in the audio source itself.

Heat and Noise

As we continue to see in our labs, nearly all of the Intel Atom-based netbooks produce a reasonable amount of heat while running. The Dell Inspiron Mini 9 is no exception to this rule. Under normal conditions such as surfing the web, typing a document, or downloading email attachments, exterior temperatures remained at acceptable levels. The hottest spot on this netbook was the area around the wireless card, so if you’re on a flight or away from a WiFi connection it might be a good idea to turn off the wireless card to keep temperatures even lower. The external temperature readings below (listed in degrees Fahrenheit) were recorded while browsing the Web and watching an AVI movie file for approximately 30 minutes:

 

In terms of noise, our pre-production Mini 9 is quite remarkable in that it makes literally no noise. There are no cooling fans or spinning hard drives to bother you (or the people seated next to you) while you work. Of course, the fact that the Mini 9 lacks a cooling fan is likely why the temperatures on this netbook are slightly higher than what we’ve seen on some other Atom-based netbooks. Still, the Mini 9 never becomes unacceptably warm, so we accept this minor heat increase in exchange for absolute silence.

Battery

Under normal use, backlight at 100 percent and using wireless for web browsing and watching several DivX movies at 75 percent volume, the Mini 9 managed to deliver three hours and 38 minutes of battery life. This is similar to what we’ve seen from Atom-based netbooks with 3-cell batteries, but we were hoping for more given the 4-cell battery in the Mini 9. Hopefully battery life will improve when we test Windows XP on this machine. Still, even with only 3+ hours of battery life, the Mini 9 provides a reasonable travel experience for a netbook priced below $400. Lowering the screen brightness and turning off the wireless card should provide enough battery life for prolonged use.


(view large image)

Conclusion

Dell wants you to believe the Inspiron Mini 9 is "your new best friend." Well, kiddies, the Mini 9 is a fantastic mobile companion that helps you stay connected and makes your life easier without breaking the bank. However, I can’t shake the feeling that the Mini 9 is more like "the kid you’re friendly with at the lunch table, but isn’t your BFF."

Yes, the Mini 9 is a great netbook. Yes, it has a great price. Yes, it will probably sell very, very well for Dell. No, this won’t change the world as you know it. The truth is that at least a dozen other manufacturers have released or announced similar netbooks before the new Inspiron Mini 9 arrived. Dell had all the time in the world to develop something that slaughters the competition in a way that only Dell can. Unfortunately, while the Mini 9 is great, it still suffers from a few of the same problems we’ve seen in other netbooks (heat, annoying glossy plastics, bad keyboard, and a small battery that could have been bigger without sacrificing much size or weight).

Ultimately, the Dell Inspiron Mini 9 is a fabulous netbook that is sure to end up on many Christmas lists this year … but it’s only "your new best friend" if you’re willing to overlook a few flaws.

Pros

  • Small and light
  • Easy to use
  • Very well built and durable
  • Responsive Synaptics touchpad
  • Easy to upgrade RAM, SSD, and wireless cards
  • No noisy cooling fan
  • Low price for an ultraportable

Cons

  • Gets a little hot
  • Glossy plastic lid is a magnet for fingerprints
  • No F11 or F12 keys, other function keys in strange location
  • 4-cell battery is nice, 6-cell battery would be better


LEAVE A COMMENT

0 Comments

|
All content posted on TechnologyGuide is granted to TechnologyGuide with electronic publishing rights in perpetuity, as all content posted on this site becomes a part of the community.