The Incredible Shrinking Laptop

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A review of the Dell Mini 9.

I think of the range of different laptops in the world as falling into three basic models: mini, standard and huge. The huge laptops are those with 17" (or larger) screens. The standard laptops are those with 14"–15" screens. Mini laptops are a new breed. Popularly known as Netbooks, they come with small 9"–10" screens, small keyboards, 802.11b/g/n wireless adapters and usually no optical drive. For me, the huge laptops are much too large to bother with. I consider standard-size laptops the perfect trade-off between portability and functionality—they're big enough to have full-size keyboards, and the screens are decent in size, but they still are small enough to be fairly portable. There are, of course, many laptops that fall between or outside these three categories, but they provide a good starting point for me.

Standard and huge laptops have been around for a while, and most of the recent excitement in the laptop world has centered around the mini or Netbook segment. I was curious whether one of these ultraportable Netbooks would make a compelling replacement for the old Dell Latitude D610 I've been carrying around for several years, so I picked up the recently released Mini 9. The Mini is Dell's entrant into the Netbook market.

Figure 1. The size difference between the Mini and the D610 is striking.

Figure 2. The D610 looks like it could swallow the Mini and have room for dessert.

The Hardware

True to form, there are several options from which to choose when purchasing a Mini 9 from Dell. These include all the standards like a larger hard drive, more memory, integrated Bluetooth and a built-in Webcam. You even can choose to “upgrade” the Ubuntu 8.04.1 OS that the base model comes with to Windows XP. Why anyone would want to do that is beyond me, but the option is there if you want it.

I chose to keep things simple and get the base model. I did this for a few reasons, the first of which was the nice $349 ($373 after taxes) price tag. The second reason is so many reviews cover fully loaded machines with every option possible, which I think leads to a false sense of capability. For this review, I wanted to explore exactly how good the base model is.

The base Mini 9 (at the time of this writing) comes with an Intel Atom processor N270 running at 1.6GHz and a 533MHz 512K L2 Cache. It also comes with 512MB of RAM, a 4GB SSD (solid-state drive), 8.9" screen, 802.11g wireless networking and a 32-Watt-hour four-cell battery. Unfortunately, no Webcam is included in the base model.

The build quality of the Mini is very good. The screen hinge is precise and reliable, and the case has little to no flex. It just feels solid. The ports are pretty standard: three USB ports (two on the left side, one on the right), an SD/MMC/memory stick card reader, a VGA port, headphone and microphone jacks, and an Ethernet port. With everything else on the Mini, including the keyboard, display and trackpad, being shrunk, it is nice that the ports are the standard full-size variants instead of proprietary miniature versions that require special cables you can't find anywhere.

It comes as no surprise that the D610 has the Mini beat in the ports department. It has all the ports the Mini has (except the card reader) as well as an additional USB port, a DVD drive, S-Video out, Modem, parallel port and serial port. It makes up for the lack of a built-in card reader with a PCMCIA slot, which coincidently enough, I have filled with a four-in-one card reader.

The resolution of the Dell Mini 9's 8.9" screen is 1024x600. The width of the screen is good for most Web sites. The 600-pixel height normally would not be enough in my mind, but the Mini gets around this by turning the Windows key into a dedicated “full-screen” button that works in most applications. I'm glad Dell did something with that key, as otherwise it would be a wasted space on a keyboard that's cramped enough already. I've actually caught myself pressing the windows key on my other systems when I wanted to take an application full screen. The D610 has a 14" screen, but the resolution is practically the same: 1024x768. The extra height of the D610 screen is nice, but it's not enough to give it a clear advantage over the Mini.

One additional note about the screen on the Mini is that it's very bright, easily beating the D610. The screen also is viewable in almost all lighting conditions. The D610 screen is easily overpowered in sunlight, so the Mini has a definite advantage there.

The speakers on the Mini are nothing special. They sit on either side of the Dell logo beneath the screen, and they get the job done. They're not as loud as the speakers on the D610, but the sound quality is similarly average. For everyday listening on either laptop, a good pair of headphones is the best choice.

The trackpad on the Mini is molded in as part of the case plastic instead of being a separate piece like on the D610. Dell wisely chose to keep the left and right mouse buttons below the trackpad instead of moving them off to the side like other Netbook manufacturers. The sensitivity and accuracy beats the trackpad on the D610 easily, but the finger nub on the D610 is better than either trackpad. My preference is to use a mouse whenever possible, but I can live with the Mini's trackpad when a mouse is not available.

The four-cell battery the Mini comes with has been good for 3.5–4.5 hours of battery life, depending on the load to which I have subjected it. I can't remember what the battery life was on the D610 when it was new, but the Mini beats it by at least an hour now.

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