The Incredible Shrinking Laptop

 in
A review of the Dell Mini 9.
The Software

Dell calls the OS installed on the Mini the “Mini OS powered by Ubuntu 8.04”. The main difference between it and regular Ubuntu 8.04 is the desktop replacement software, which gives you handy shortcuts to your most-used applications instead of the normal Ubuntu desktop. It also dispenses with the bottom GNOME panel and opts instead to put everything up at the top to save space.

One of the primary things that attracted me to the Mini is its inclusion of Ubuntu pre-installed. My D610 runs Ubuntu fine, and almost everything “just works” on it. By “almost” I mean everything except the wireless driver, which tends to break every time I upgrade to a new version of Ubuntu or apply an especially big update. I can fix the wireless easily, but it's a pain to have to do so as often as I do. Because the Mini comes with Ubuntu pre-installed, my hope was that everything would “just work” out of the box with no effort on my part, and Dell did not disappoint.

Boot times are in the minute range, which is not super speedy, but also not slow enough to be annoying.

When booting the Mini the first time, Dell displays a few notices about where and how to request service, should it be required, and then leads you through the process of creating an initial user and making various setting choices, including language and login preferences.

One thing the setup does not do is prompt you for your networking settings. Instead, you are expected to configure this after you log in the first time. That wasn't a big deal to me, but I think it could lead to a “what do I do now?” moment for novice users.

As mentioned before, after logging in to the Mini 9 you are, by default, shown a custom launcher interface instead of a regular Ubuntu desktop. The launcher comes configured with a generic set of categories: Productivity, Web, Entertainment, Games and Learn. Under each one is a set of applications. The oddest choice in my mind is that the Nautilus file manager is stuck in the Entertainment category. The categorization of other applications makes more sense: OpenOffice.org Writer is under Productivity, Rhythmbox is under Entertainment, Firefox and Pidgin are in the Web group and so on. All in all, the selection of apps is nice and surprisingly broad, and new users will find plenty to keep them occupied for a good long while.

Figure 3. The Mini has an attractive desktop with several custom wallpapers.

Figure 4. The Productivity category has links to the various OpenOffice.org products and to Acrobat Reader.

The categories and apps in the groups can be modified easily. When you hover your mouse over a group or application tile, a little teardrop icon appears in the upper-right corner. Clicking on that spins the tile around and presents you with a small configuration dialog. You can change the icon that appears on the tile, the name of the tile and, in the case of launcher tiles, you can configure the application, folder or Web site the tile opens.

Apart from the launcher, the rest of the system is regular Ubuntu. The APT package management works wonderfully, and the Mini comes configured to use a special Mini-9-only repository hosted by Canonical. It contains everything I've tried to install, but it doesn't track in lockstep with the main Ubuntu repositories—for example, at the time of this writing, Ubuntu 8.10 is not available through it, but it does provide timely security updates.

With only four gigabytes to work with, disk space is an issue, but not as much as I thought it would be. As it comes from the factory, the Mini uses about 3GB of disk space for the OS and applications, leaving a single gigabyte free on the base model. Instead of loading this remaining space with media files, I put them on an SD card, and that arrangement has worked very well. With a couple 8GB or 16GB SDHC cards, I don't think I will ever lack for “space” on the Mini.

The Mini comes preconfigured with several useful add-ons, including Java, Adobe Flash and Adobe Acrobat. There also are several add-ons that are not so useful (to me anyway), such as the Yahoo Toolbar and the Dell Video Chat program. Of course, if I were a Yahoo user or had purchased the integrated Webcam, those add-ons probably would be on my useful list, so I can't knock them too much.

Dislikes

Not everything is rosy in Mini-land. There are a few things that I just do not like or cannot seem to adapt to.

The biggest complaint I have with the Mini is that the keyboard is cramped. In fairness, I expected the keyboard to be cramped, and in some ways, the keyboard is better than I expected. The alphanumeric keys are nearly full size, with the punctuation and modifier keys on the left and right sides half as wide. The keyboard has a good feel, and I would be perfectly happy with it if not for a few big problems I have with the keyboard layout. The first issue I have with the layout is the single (') and double (") quotes key has been moved from the home row to the bottom of the keyboard next to the arrow keys. This is a stupid place for a key that I use all the time. There's a reason this key is on the home row. My little finger ends up hitting the Return key all the time whenever I want to quote anything.

Figure 5. The Mini's keyboard is full of compromises—some good, some bad.

Another issue I have with the keyboard layout is some keys have been pushed off the regular keyboard entirely and can be accessed only while pressing the Fn key. These include the function keys (F1–F10), the braces keys ({, }, [ and ]), pipe (|), backslash (\), accent (`) and tilde (~) keys. I'm sure most people won't miss many of those keys, but for me, the difficulty in getting to them is an annoyance that prevents me from doing much of any shell scripting or even long-winded blog posts on it.

The last issue I have with the keyboard, and which my fingers are as yet unable to get used to, is the dash (-) and equals (=) keys have been pushed down one row to make room for the Delete and Backspace keys. Instead of being to the right of the number keys, they are to the right of the P key (where the braces keys should be). In typing terms, this means I keep pressing Delete every time I try to enter a dash or underscore.

I can't be too hard on the keyboard though, because the fact is, there's just not enough space to put every key where my fingers think it should go. What we get is a compromise, and like all compromises, there are things I like and things I don't.

Another issue I have with the Mini is time-related. When resuming from sleep, the Network Manager takes an additional 10–20 seconds or so after the computer wakes up before it gets the network up and running. This extra waiting is annoying, but there's probably not much that can be done about it.

I have also experienced an occasional Network Manager glitch where it refuses to stay connected to my wireless router and refuses to auto-connect when I log in. Usually a reboot fixes it. It may be that Network Manager and I just don't get along.

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