With a slightly revamped design and a new Intel Atom CPU, Dell's popular Inspiron Mini 10 Netbook continues to be a strong player in this crowded field, thanks in part to Dell's name-brand ubiquity, as well as to the company's capability to offer a reasonable level of configuration options.
This particular config of the Inspiron Mini 10, at $369, is a step up from the line's $249 base price (but those lowest-cost models have the painfully slow Z-series Intel Atom, and should be avoided), and adds Windows 7, a larger hard drive, Bluetooth, and a six-cell battery. But the 10-inch screen is stuck at the lower 1,024x600-pixel resolution, and Dell's rivals offer HD displays and HD-decoding hardware for only a little more.
In fact, Dell will soon offer Mini 10 models with built-in HD video accelerator hardware, which should work similarly to Nvidia's Ion graphics, providing a decent boost to video playback (but without even the modest gaming capabilities of the Ion).
To be honest, we've been spoiled lately by forward-thinking Netbooks such as the Asus 1201 and the Acer Ferrari One (although they arguably skirt the edges of the category), with dual-core low-power CPUs and HD displays. The Mini 10's cramped keyboard and SD display, and the Intel Atom N450's generally sluggish performance, make it hard to get excited about this system--but in the entry-level Netbook category, a careful trip through Dell's online configurator will get you a decent amount of bang for your buck.
|Price as reviewed / Starting price||$369 / $249|
|Processor||1.6GHz Intel Atom N450|
|Memory||1GB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz|
|Hard drive||250GB 5,400rpm|
|Graphics||Intel GMA 3150 (integrated)|
|Operating System||Windows 7 Starter|
|Dimensions (WD)||10.6 x 7.7 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||10.1 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||3.0/3.4 pounds|
The new design for the Dell Mini 10 is a decent upgrade that helps the system look and feel less toylike. The display hinge is set in from the rear of the system slightly, and the entire chassis gently slopes forward, making it quite thin in the front.
The keyboard tray and wrist rest have a subtle raised texture that looks better than flat, glossy plastic, and the system's gently rounded corners keep it from seeming too industrial. Dell offers a number of different color options for the outer shell (a bit of a rip-off at $40 and up), but the white lid and body on our system created an aesthetically pleasing piped edge along the bottom half of the laptop when open, and contrasted nicely with the all-black interior.
There was a time when nearly all Netbook keyboards were equally bad, and all but the smallest hands had trouble with basic typing. Since then, we've seen a wide variety of Netbook keyboard variations, from wide, edge-to-edge keys to island-style keys. The emphasis in many of these is on maximum surface area for each key, sometimes at the expense of a logical layout. In the new Dell Mini 10, we have no complaints about the general layout, and the Shift, Tab, and other important keys get the full-size (relative to the rest of the keyboard) treatment they deserve. Overall, however, the individual keys are on the small side, and it's not close to being our favorite Netbook-typing experience.
The touch pad is equally undersized, resembling the elongated pad found on many HP Netbooks (and which that company has all but abandoned). The bottom left and right corners of the touch pad act as mouse buttons, which isn't as tactile as having actual buttons. The shortened height also made scrolling with the touch pad a tricky proposition.
We've never been overly fond of the Mac-like software dock found on recent Dell laptops. It puts frequently used programs and settings in one place, but also ate up desktop real estate, and simply replicated resources easily found elsewhere. When used in this specific Netbook scenario, however, we started to really appreciate its easy access to networking, security, and other control panels. But it was also annoying that when we installed FireFox, it didn't get automatically added to the Web browser tab of the dock--we had to drag in manually from the desktop.
The 10.1-inch display has the same typical 1,024x600-pixel native resolution as you'd find on most low-cost Netbooks. We're starting to see more 11-inch and even some 10-inch systems with the better 1,366x768-pixel resolution, including some that cost only $30 more than this Mini 10 configuration.
|Dell Inspiron Mini 10 (Intel Atom N450)||Average for category [Netbook]|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||3 USB 2.0, SD card reader||2 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband||Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
Dell offers a typical selection of connections on its Mini 10. Perhaps if we had a model with the not-yet-available optional Broadcom HD media accelerator, we might want an HDMI output to go with it. Bluetooth was also included in our configuration; separately it's a $20 option. Adding a mobile broadband antenna for AT&T, Sprint, or Verizon will cost an extra $125 (5 bucks less than the iPad!), plus a monthly data plan from your carrier.
With the majority of Netbooks now using Intel's new 1.6GHz Atom N450 CPU, we've again settled into a pretty uniform set of performance results from the new crop of Netbooks that all use that CPU. Though the new N450 and Intel's revamped Netbook platform provide big gains in battery life over older N270 Netbooks, the actual application, somewhat disappointingly, is largely the same.
That means the usual Netbook admonitions apply. They're fine for e-mail, Web surfing, and other basic tasks, but any kind of multitasking will grind them to a halt. In anecdotal use, the Dell Mini 10 behaved as we'd expect a Netbook to: with some frustrating slowdown, but still usable. We've seen some interesting Netbooks recently that offer faster performance by using the rarely seen dual-core version of the Intel Atom chip, but those are typically restricted to larger 12-inch Netbooks because of heat issues.