Dell Inspiron Mini 9
Discriminates against apostrophes.
- Silent operation, very small and light, solid-state drive
- Apostrophe key is in the wrong place, uncomfortable to type on, tends to get warm, screen has poor vertical viewing angle
While we love the size and weight of this netbook, its keyboard is very hard to type on due to the non-standard key layout.
Price$ 599.00 (AUD)
Weighing only slightly more than 1kg, and measuring only 23.2cm wide and 17cm deep, the 8.9in Inspiron Mini 9 ultraportable "netbook" sure is small. Its dimensions and weight are perfect for travellers and commuters who don't want to lug around anything larger than an exercise book. However, while its dimensions are perfect, its user-friendliness definitely isn't.
It's a solidly built unit and it looks quite good, but its keyboard is the most awkward we've seen on a netbook device — not only because it's cramped to type on, but also because the layout of the keys isn't standard.
Faced with the prospect of implementing a full-sized keyboard in 22cm, Dell has had to move the apostrophe key down to the last row of keys, as there was no space for it next to the Enter key. As you can see, we've used the apostrophe key six times in the last two paragraphs alone, and there would be no way in hell that we would have been able to do that on the Mini 9 without hurling it out onto the road and waiting for a big rig to bear down on it. There's also no room for dedicated function keys on the Mini 9, so they are the secondary function on the middle row of keys. What's befuddling is that F11 and F12 have been hung out to dry.
Now that we've got the bad stuff out of the way early, we can focus on the good stuff. What we love about the Mini 9 is that it's completely silent. It uses a solid-state drive (SSD) rather than a conventional spinning hard drive, and if it has a cooling fan located anywhere near its Atom CPU we certainly couldn't hear it. The SSD is only 16GB in size, which is the same as Acer's Aspire One ZG5 (Linux) and 4GB larger than ASUS's Eee PC 901. It runs Windows XP, so you can easily install applications on it (as long as you download them or plug in an external optical drive, for example), but you'll quickly run out of space if you do so.
If you want to install more applications, only install the most essential ones. The Mini 9 isn't designed to store a lot of stuff; it's mainly for browsing the Web, communicating online, typing up documents, listening to music and watching a movie now and then. You won't want to use it for any multimedia creation or other taxing tasks. Its 1.6GHz Atom CPU is HyperThreaded, so it can run two applications at the same time (such a Web browser and an MP3 player) without bringing the whole system to halt, but it doesn't have enough power to be effective at anything more than that. For example, it took 8min 59sec to encode 53min worth of WAV files to 192Kbps MP3s. This is about 11sec slower than the ASUS Eee PC 901, and 24sec slower than the MSI Wind U100. Its SSD transfer rate was also on the slow side; it recorded an average transfer rate of 3.23 megabytes per second.
Along with the Atom CPU, the Mini 9 has 1GB of RAM, which sits in the system's sole RAM slot. The RAM slot is accessible by removing the bottom access panel, and this also exposes the SSD and the wireless adapter. There is a space next to the wireless adapter, which is possibly where a 3G module will fit in the future.
Dell ships the Mini 9 with a 4-cell battery that sits flush along the spine of the laptop. It lasted 2hr 23min in our tests; this is slightly better than the Acer Aspire One ZG5 (Linux), which has similar specs but runs on Linux. This is enough juice to let you watch a couple of TV shows while you commute, and will still let you do some work afterwards.
One thing that was noticeable during prolonged testing of the unit was that it got quite warm. When left on for a few hours and used sporadically to browse the Web and type documents the base got uncomfortably warm, and heat also travelled up through the keyboard. It wasn't as much heat as the HP 2133 Mini-Note PC (FH441PA) (which has a spinning hard drive and 2GB of RAM), but it was still enough to put us off.
For connectivity, the Mini 9 ships with three USB 2.0 ports, a 10/100 Ethernet port, 802.11g wireless networking, a D-Sub port and an SD memory card slot, so it's well-equipped for basic tasks. You also get a built-in webcam and headphone and microphone ports.
Its 8.9in screen is easy to view in most circumstances, but its vertical viewing angle is very limited. The optimal viewing angle is from directly in front of the unit with the screen tilted back as far as it will go. When the screen is up its hinge places it directly behind the battery, so a larger 6-cell battery will have to protrude downward instead of rearward.
We like the touchpad, which is a good size (around 3.5x6.5cm), but you'll want to disable the 'draglock' feature in the control panel, which can make it very difficult to navigate and can cause unnecessary dragging of windows and selection of text. The touchpad's buttons are very soft and they don't make a clicking noise, so they are perfect for use in quiet environments.
All up, the best things about the Mini 9 are its size and practically silent operation. Its specifications are similar to offerings from Acer and ASUS. If its keyboard didn't have a misplaced apostrophe key, which makes typing a chore, then we'd give it a higher score.
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