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 Kalahari.net 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.