Share/Save/Bookmark Subscribe

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Tech Tuesday.. erm Wednesday: Dell Inspiron Mini 9 Netbook

Natz has long needed a new computer of her own, as she's been using a combination of hand-me-downs and 'loaners' for ages now. She just needed something to do office work and web browsing on, with portability being a plus for presentations and a webcam for Skype use if possible. I've kept an eye out for a system that would meet our budget and get the job done, and that paid off last week when I saw has the Dell Inspiron Mini 9 on sale for a very reasonable R3399. I did the obligatory geek research, and after reading a number of very positive reviews and trawling forums in vain for serious complaints we decided to order one.

The full specs of the machine are as follows (straight from the Kalahari product page, with a few additions ;) ):

  • 8.9" Widescreen WSVGA
  • Intel® Atom N270 (1.6GHz,533MHz,512KB)
  • 1GB 800MHz DDR2 RAM
  • 8GB SSD Hard Drive
  • 802.11 (b/g) & BLUETOOTH
  • 1.3MP Webcam
  • Intel® Integrated GMA 950
  • 4-cell 32WHr Battery
  • 3 USB ports
  • Built in SD Card reader
  • VGA port


My only initial concern was the small amount of storage space, and I imagined myself trawling the web for heavily optimised versions of Windows XP and MS Office (I've tried Natz on Ubuntu and OpenOffice and she just prefers the MS alternatives). So with that worry hanging over me, I set about preparing the new arrival for Natz' use. The initial Windows XP setup was really slow for some reason, which got me worrying about the Atom's performance, but once that was done and Windows itself started up, my concerns began to fade.

Checking the available disk space, I found a little under half of the 8Gb to be available, and disabling hibernation (which I have had endless trouble with and consider a waste of space and energy) freed up another gig.

One big advantage of the limited space is that manufacturers can't clog the system up with bloatware, the only applications I had to remove were the preinstalled MacAfee Antivirus trial (which I replaced with Avast 4 Home Edition) and Adobe Acrobat Reader (replaced with Foxit Reader portable). I also installed VLC Portable as a snappier and more flexible alternative to Windows Media Player. My preference for portable applications was largely so that I could simply relocate as much as possible to an SD card should the need for extra storage arise, but I do find they have other advantages too, such as not cluttering up the registry.

After initial attempts to use the preinstalled IE6, and having concerns pop up again about performance due to it's sluggishness and stability issues, I looked into browser options. With Firefox becoming quite a resource hog of late, and Natz not needing any of the extensions I find essential, it quickly became clear that Portable Google Chrome would be the best choice. The difference was immense, Chrome started up almost instantly, made excellent use of the limited screen real estate and was solid as a rock. There is no portable alternative to Skype as far as I'm aware (at least not one that supports video) so I installed the default version.

To allow Natz to use her phone as a 3G modem when she's not at home, I installed the SonyEricsson PC suite (just installing the drivers and trying to set up a standard system PPoE connection didn't work out too well.. oh for standard Ubuntu tools). The final big install was Microsoft Office 2003, which I was concerned would chew up a huge amount of space. As it turns out, the default installs of Word, Excel and PowerPoint came in at around 350Mb, which I consider perfectly acceptable.

The only additional performance tweak I needed to make was bumping the virtual memory up from the default of 200 Megs to a more sensible (but still tight) 512 megs.


Once everything is set up, this little machine runs like an absolute dream. I didn't go as far as actually benchmarking anything, I was more concerned with perceived performance so I wouldn’t have to deal with "why's it taking so long" issues. Keep in mind this machine is not intended to play games or do heavy multimedia work (we have an Xbox 360 after all).

Boot time into Windows XP is around 20 seconds. As mentioned before Chrome startup is all but instant, and of course it's renderer is blisteringly fast. Word, Excel and PowerPoint all start up quickly and are completely responsive as expected at all times. Browsing files on the SSD or an inserted SD card or USB is fast and problem free. The only app which seemed slow to start up was Skype, but I'd put that down to their overblown interface. Running more than the browser and an office app or two simultaneously probably wouldn't be the best idea, but that wouldn't be expected of a machine like this. Even shutdown, which is notoriously sluggish on XP is pretty quick.

Battery life on the Mini has also impressed me. Not having to run disk based storage and a larger screen, the device manages to squeeze around 4 hours of WiFi-connected use out of a full charge. This combined with the Mini 9's under 2kg mass has led to an almost cellphone-like usage pattern for Natz. She typically charges it in the evening, and then uses it the morning and evening while at home, moving it to the kitchen, lounge or wherever she happens to be. In the past, using a full size notebook, she would have typically just used the notebook in her study rather than lug it around.


One of the primary issues I looked out for in reviews and forums before buying the Mini 9 was keyboard comfort. I was concerned the squashed keyboard would make typing extremely uncomfortable. Fortunately Dell did a good job in this case, and while it's certainly not quite as comfortable and intuitive as a full size notebook keyboard, the Mini's keyboard is more than sufficient for online chatting and the odd bit of document work. The screen size is also great for web browsing and even reading documents.

For serious typing work, a USB or Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, and a monitor connected via the VGA port transform the mini into a standard desktop machine. The Mini can output to both it's own screen and an external monitor at it's default 1024x600 resolution, or just the external at more common resolutions. It performed just fine running at 1280x1024 on Natz' 19" CRT refreshing at 75hz.

One thing that struck me about this machine is it's noise level-there simply is none. I have never worked on any PC or notebook this quiet. With no disk based storage and no fans whatsoever, the Mini 9 is literally dead silent. This does come at a (negligible) cost, namely that the machine gets warm due to the lack of fans, but less so than my own P4 which I can't rest on my lap for fear of third degree burns!


I couldn't not test Ubuntu on the Mini with all the discussion currently going on around the perfect netbook OS. Of course with 8Gb of storage dual booting wasn't an option, so I loaded up a USB Live installation created in my own 9.04 install. Load time was painfully slow, even worse than it usually is with a Live CD (though it should be quick with a full installation), but the wait was more than worth it! Ubuntu ran snappily, comfortably running multiple office applications, video player and firefox simultaneously without any sign of slowing down. To put it simply, if this was my machine, I'd be replacing XP with Ubuntu in a heartbeat, especially with the focus in the upcoming 9.10 release being on getting it performing even better on netbooks.


I have had my reservations about the whole netbook market, but the Dell Mini 9 has sold me on the smaller-than-notebooks form factor. This little machine is more than powerfull enough for office tasks and browsing, and paired with a decent monitor, keyboard and mouse fills both the portable and desktop roles beautifully. Ultimately, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and Natz is absolutely loving this device.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Tech Tuesday: Social media integration for gamers

Last week at E3, Microsoft announced they will soon (US Autumn) be updating the Xbox 360 dashboard to integrate with Facebook, Twitter and Last.FM. Some of the integration they’re talking about looks pretty damned awesome, including to most of Facebook’s photo and profile information (Natz will never leave my poor Xbox alone..), posting to Twitter from your ‘360 and, probably coolest of all for those of us that listen to music on our consoles, posting your music listening info to Last.FM. This all sounds really awesome, but while we wait for some console-based social networking goodness, there’s a fantastic service called Raptr that shares info in the other direction.

Raptr allows you to create a single gamer identity that pulls together identities on some of the most popular gaming services, including Xbox Live, Playstation Network, Wii, Steam and World of Warcraft . Once you provide your credentials, each of these services is monitored and when you start playing a game or do something interesting on one of them (such as unlock an achievement) this information is posted on any of a number of social networks. Besides allowing you to do a bit of geek boasting to any of your friends that may pick up on it, this has the added advantage of letting friends who might want to join you that you’re playing. It also acts as a microblogging social network in it’s own right, with the ability to post updates on the site and message other users.

Raptr also keeps track of your activity and does a bit of slicing and dicing, presenting you with an interesting dashboard view of your gaming habits. This information is also used to narrow down players that may have similar interests and might be of interest to you, and also new games that you may enjoy.

Finally, there is the Raptr PC client. In addition to monitoring your PC gaming habits to share them on your networks of choice, the client helps keep track of patches for games and ensure that you have the latest patches for your PC titles.

Raptr is well worth checking out for any connected gamer, if only to get a realistic view of your gaming habits (damn, maybe I DO game too much :p)

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Tech Tuesday: N96 Navigation and Geocaching

One of the focal points of the N96 marketing campaign is it's built in GPS and mapping software. The GPS is a feature inherited from the N95, but unlike the older model the N96 comes packaged with a license for a year's free navigation. While some would argue a feature like turn-by-turn navigation should be a given for any product marketing itself as a GPS (among other things), at current Nokia navigation prices this 'extra' adds just over R900 in value to the N96 package.

The N95's GPS was notorious for taking an incredibly long time (sometimes over 10 minutes) to determine the user's current location, rendering it fairly useless as a means of quickly determining a way home when lost in some dodgy part of town. The addition of AGPS did help somewhat, but the lock on could still be sluggish. This has all been corrected on the N96, and the GPS usually finds the current location in well under 30 seconds, even with online access disabled.

Once a location has been obtained, using the mapping software (Nokia Maps) to navigate to a preconfigured or newly searched-for location is as simple as clicking the middle button and selecting "drive to". Nokia Maps will quickly determine a route according to your preferred settings (highway enabled or disabled, optimal or shortest route, etc). This routing is done on the device if the relevant maps are already downloaded (using the PC based Nokia Maps Downloader, or more direct 'unofficial' methods that unlike the Nokia software can bypass a network proxy). If the map data is not available on the device, and internet access is enabled, the route will be determined online instead. With the 16Gb built in storage there really is no reason to not download the (free) maps for the whole region and remove the need for online access altogether. Routes can be dynamically modified by adding or removing route waypoints. Points can be added from stored favorites, from the map by scrolling to the desired point or through the search interface.

While following an application-determined route, the voice prompts are clear and accurate, and the maps application quickly adjusts to any mistakes you might make by recalculating a new route. Should there be an obstruction ahead, or you wish to modify the route to avoid or prefer highways, the option to do so is literally a click away and the route is recalculated for you. One routing element that is missing in SA is traffic information. This is a real pity, as with the roadworks currently going on along all major routes, locals and particularly visitors would benefit from automatic route adjustment to avoid our plentiful traffic jams.

The maps themselves are accurate and up-to-date. In addition to road data there is a wealth of point-of-interest data. Everything from city, suburb and street names to tourist spots, shopping malls and emergency facilities are easily available through the search bar on the main GPS screen. The search itself could definitely do with some improvement though and strangely enough when using it, less is often more. For example entering "Fourways mall" will return no results, but enter "Fourways" and you'll get a number of results including "Fourways shopping mall". This is not a major gripe, but would be worth improving.

In addition to Nokia Maps, the N96 includes (hidden in the Tools->Connectivity menu) the GPS data applican which will display current location, movement and trip distance information and a handy compass. Landmarks can also be edited manually in the separate Landmarks application. These tools are perfect for pen-and-paper geocachers that prefer to use basic GPS tools to find caches, allowing them to plan ahead by storing cache coordinates as landmarks, and when closer find them with the compass.

Those geocachers who don't mind their tools doing the gruntwork for them will find that Trimble's Geocache Navigator works beautifully on the N96, and provides a great way to quickly locate nearby caches. The application checks the geocache database for caches within a set distance of the current location as reported by the phone's GPS. For each of the resulting caches, the cache description and details can be displayed, along with the associated hint and logs. A map view displays the cache against a map backdrop (sadly the app's street database doesn't seem to include SA), and compass and radar views help to narrow down the cache location. Caches can be marked as found or not found directly from the app, and these logs can be later claimed and modified on the website.

The N96 does an excellent job of replacing a standalone GPS, both for street navigation and for geocaching, and in the latter case is probably a superior choice. The one very serious drawback is that the N96's battery gets drained at a rapid pace while using the GPS reciever, and it's absolutely essential to have a way to charge the phone as needed (the included car charger helps here) or carrying a spare battery.


Copyright 2007 All Right Reserved. shine-on design by Nurudin Jauhari. and Published on Free Templates