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Dell Inspiron Mini 10 netbook

March 8th, 2009
Dell tries bringing netbooks upscale and succeeds in some ways.

Although it's barely six months old, Dell's netbook effort has been advancing to where it's already on its third new design in the form of the Inspiron Mini 10. These early experiences have given Dell an opportunity to improve not only on what it did before but also weaknesses inherent to netbooks at large. That the Mini 10 is an improvement is certain; but, as we'll soon learn, it's possible that Dell has also been moving too quickly in some areas and not quickly enough in others.

design and expansion

From a superficial point of view, the new entry really is a close cousin of its smaller and larger counterparts in the Mini family. That's a mixed blessing in practice. The decision makes for a relatively attractive system that doesn't feel as cheap as some offerings: the Mini 10 has a single, large barrel hinge that prevents the display from wobbling in casual use or snapping apart easily. It's not quite as luxurious as we made out in the early hands-on, though: the palmrest is simply higher-grade plastic rather than metal, and there's enough plastic to make it clear Dell built the system to a price, even if it didn't cut corners. The result is still more reassuring than from some competitors.

Toting the system around is about as easy as with the Mini 9, as you'd expect given the one inch larger screen -- it's small enough to be carried in smaller bags. But it's not quite as thin and light as you'd think given the size, either. At 2.86 pounds in weight and 1.25 inches at its thickest point, the Mini 10 is heavy enough to feel more like a notebook that's had some surface area lopped off than a truly lighter class of machine.

As for the flush glass display: it's attractive, and it's half responsible for allusions in the hands-on to the system as a MacBook-like design. It adds to the upscale look and is surprisingly bright and colorful given the likely low-cost LCD panel inside. Its gloss is a partial nuisance. We didn't have many problems in practice, though its low readability with bright spot lighting in the background (a lamp or the sun, for example) may prove to be annoying given the carry-it-anywhere philosophy behind the system.

Expansion also produces the a mixed impression. While the three USB ports, card reader and audio in/out are par for the course, the HDMI video output is a definite edge over other systems. Most netbooks have just VGA out and, as a result, are limited to the fairly imprecise (and increasingly obsolete) standard. This lets users pipe sound, video or both through to computers that support it and even lets them turn HDTVs into makeshift external displays; however, without a built-in optical drive or the graphical power for HD video, it's not quite as useful as on a full-power notebook.

And Dell has unfortunately taken a page from Apple in the form of memory expansion -- or rather, the lack of it. Much like the MacBook Air, the RAM in the initial version of the Mini 10 is actually soldered on to a board inside the system rather than put into one or more RAM slots. Initial buyers are thus stuck with the system's stock 1GB for its usable lifetime. This isn't fatal given the focus of the system but really limits potential speed. Dell is promising an option for 2GB in the future, and this could be worth waiting for in at least some cases.

the keyboard and multi-touch trackpad

An increasing focus of the netbook industry, and arguably its biggest concern, is the comfort of the keyboard. Many of the mini notebooks, even those with 10-inch screens, often have cramped keyboards that can be genuinely painful to use beyond the few minutes at a time that are expected for the role.

Thankfully, the Mini 10's keyboard not only skirts around that problem but is arguably the highlight of the system. Dell claims the keyboard is 92 percent that of a full-size model, and it feels that way. There's no unnatural hand positions, and all the important keys (including the sometimes-neglected Shift keys) are large enough to strike without conscious thought. Key travel is also shorter and actually more pleasant than on much larger systems like the Studio 15, which often require more deliberate presses. Dell even claims the near-gapless design is spill-resistant, though that's not something we're prepared to test here.

In fact, using the system up to the end of its battery life was surprisingly enjoyable, even with large amounts of text involved; this is one of the few systems we'd recommend (with caveats) for someone who considers note taking or report writing an important factor.

The trackpad also does promise a minor revolution for netbooks, or at least those made by Dell. Virtually every netbook is hindered by limited area for the trackpad; the move often pushes the buttons to the lip of the system or else the sides. Here, the buttons are hidden underneath the corners of a flat surface. That gives a full trackpad area without making clicks unfamiliar, even if the area is still somewhat constrained.

More important, though, is that Dell has for the first time put multi-touch in one of its netbooks. Like Apple's MacBooks or more recent ASUS Eee PC models, users can use two fingers to scroll; there's an unusual but easily accepted change which lets users middle-click by tapping two fingers and right-clicking with three. It's also possible to pinch to zoom in, to rotate images, to swipe back and forwards through web pages, and to bring up shortcuts like favorite apps and the desktop.

There are times when clicking and dragging objects are awkward, but they aren't enough to prove a problem. If anything, the real issues are with the more advanced gestures. At least with the test sample, gesturing couldn't reliably be done with more than pinching; rotation and the shortcut gestures didn't often work. Dell also faces the same problem that Apple does in that some, if not most, apps won't recognize all the special commands; Internet Explorer doesn't seem to recognize swipe gestures for page navigation, as an example. Still, we'd rather have a half implementation with some components that work very well than none at all.


Normally, we would run a small set of objective tests to give a rough gauge of relative performance. For the Mini 10, though, there's not much point. Courtesy of Microsoft's artificial limits on memory, processors and storage for systems still running Windows XP, the system has almost exactly the same specifications as most netbooks: 1GB of RAM, an Intel Atom processor, and a 160GB hard drive. While the base Mini 10 is actually slightly underpowered (a 1.33GHz Atom instead of the more common 1.6GHz part), the difference isn't enough to change behavior in practical circumstances. Our test unit came with a 1.6GHz processor.

These effectively dictate that performance will be about as good as any other netbook, and that means mostly the basics. Speed here is fast enough for browsing, instant messaging and music playback. It will play video, but only standard definition and without full hardware acceleration to remove blockiness or other artifacts. HD video at 720p or higher simply isn't an option, which again diminishes the value of the HDMI output, and gaming is of course ruled out without adequate 3D acceleration.

It's important to stress that these aren't necessarily roadblocks. If your intent is to open the system for to check e-mail or to update your social networks, it's perfect. But this isn't a media hub, and without the option for 2GB of memory, running multiple or memory-intensive apps is still difficult.

Not all the performance characteristics are bleak, however. The hard drive's 5,400RPM spin speed means that software loads in a reasonable timeframe, and the wireless reception is uncannily strong. Surprisingly, we've managed early access to 802.11n Wi-Fi, too: although it's not slated to arrive as an option until the end of March, according to Dell, our Mini 10 could reach our 802.11n router at 270Mbps a dozen feet away -- near the practical peak of the much faster wireless standard. Normal models will come with 802.11g, which is certainly more pedestrian but reasonable for this class of computer.

battery life

Dell regrettably doesn't escape the common netbook pitfall of short battery life. In current trim, the Mini 10 is only available with a small 3-cell battery, and that's reflected in the practical runtime. Regardless of the power settings, our Mini 10 netted about 2.5 hours of battery life while performing typical web browsing and with the LCD brightness at about one third (which is still quite visible in most moderate-light environments). It's not uncommon for netbooks to have this kind of lifetime, but there are netbooks like the ASUS Eee PC 1000HE and MSI Wind that manage more without significant changes in hardware.

Moreover, Dell doesn't yet have an extended-capacity battery. Echoing the RAM limit, there's no 6-cell battery choice on launch. The only choice for a long workday or a plane trip is to buy a second 3-cell pack and swap batteries at the right time.

wrapping up

Coming to a conclusion the Inspiron Mini 10 has been unusually difficult. In day-to-day use, the computer is actually very enjoyable, which can't always be said for netbooks; it's an excellent system to always have within reach, and importantly is built to last both in terms of durability as well as in how comfortable it is to type and mouse through the interfaces of most programs. It also has to be confessed that the personalization for the lid color is appreciated as it helps make such a personal system one's own.

The price is also right: at $399, it's just inexpensive enough to fulfill the duty of a second or even third computer. Having a 160GB hard drive and Bluetooth at this price means you're unlikely to ever run out of hard drive space or worry about wireless peripherals before the system's useful lifespan is up. We'd have little problems recommending the system under many circumstances.

Still, it's hard to pass Dell with perfect flying colors, and for one main reason: the Eee PC 1000HE. While it doesn't have a trackpad or industrial design as nice as what Dell provides, it also runs for an exceptional 7 hours of real-world use without a recharge. Furthermore, it uses Intel's slightly faster 1.66GHz Atom N280 and should be just that much more usable in the process. All this comes with the same $399 price tag as its Dell rival. We'd advise Dell to move to GN40 or, even better, NVIDIA's Ion platform as soon as possible.

That's not to say that prospective buyers should avoid the Mini 10, but as was likely made evident in the review, the PC will only truly gain distinct advantages once Dell starts adding the expandability it promised for later. Once 2GB of RAM is an option, performance in some areas should improve significantly. We additionally hear that the much sharper 1366x768 screen is due by the end of April, and this too will give it an advantage by producing screen resolution more like that of a full-size notebook.

Until then, the Mini 10 is best mainly if you like the design and aren't worried about requiring more battery life or speed than what's included in the box.

- Excellent keyboard and trackpad.

- Pleasing visual design and display.

- HDMi video output.

- Great Wi-Fi reception (at least on 802.11n).

- 160GB hard drive standard.

- 2GB RAM and HD screen options coming.

- Lid personalization a nice touch.

- Short 2.5-hour battery life; no 6-cell option yet.

- Trackpad doesn't work perfectly for multi-touch.

- Hampered by typical netbook specs; rivals have an edge.

- No accessible RAM slot or option for 2GB on initial models.