Editors' note: We have revised the rating of this product to reflect the changing competitive Netbook landscape.
We've known for some time that Dell was working on a Netbook-style laptop--the same kind of small, low-power, inexpensive system made popular by Asus and the Eee PC line. And even though there are not many surprises in the new Inspiron Mini 9, it's still an excellent example of the form, without any of the deal-breakers (older CPU, not enough storage space, hard-to-use touch pad) that have kept other Netbooks from being more universally useful.
While component-wise, the Mini 9 is similar to other recent Netbooks, such as the Eee PC 901 and the Acer Aspire One (which all use Intel's Atom CPU), in typical Dell fashion, there are more customization options than we've seen other Netbooks.
Our test unit arrived with 1GB of RAM, a 16GB solid-state hard drive, and Windows XP. That configuration costs $514 and comes very close to hitting the benchmarks we set out in our "Building the Perfect Netbook" feature, which asked for similar components, but maybe a slightly bigger SSD hard drive and an impulse-purchase $499 price tag.
You can get the Inspiron Mini 9 down to as low as $349 by opting for a smaller hard drive (4GB or 8GB), 512MB of RAM, an Ubuntu Linux OS, or knocking down the Webcam to a lower-resolution option. Or, add few bucks for the option internal Bluetooth antenna, which wasn't in our build (but is useful for tethering a cell phone for mobile broadband access). As an interesting note, the Mini 9 apparently includes an inactive internal mobile broadband antenna. According to Dell, it will be announcing the carrier and coverage details in the coming weeks.
|Price as reviewed / Starting price||$514/349|
|Processor||Intel Atom 1.6GHz|
|Memory||1024MB DDR2 SDRAM 533MHz|
|Hard drive||16GB SSD|
|Graphics||Mobile Intel 945 Express Chipset (integrated)|
|Operating system||Windows XP Home Edition SP2|
|Dimensions (width by depth)||9.1x6.8 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||8.9 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||2.3/2.7 pounds|
In person, the Mini 9 is similar in design to Asus' 9-inch Eee PC. It's slightly thinner, at about 1.25 inches at the back, tapering slightly toward the front. Our system had a glossy black finish (which is very fingerprint prone), and white is also available. Interestingly, most of the leaked product shots we've seen up to now show a red model.
The challenge for any Netbook is to squeeze as much keyboard as possible into a very tiny space, and the Mini 9 does a good job with it. The Dell letter keys are larger than on the 9-inch Eee PC, but certain keys--Tab, Caps Lock, and so on--are reduced to small slivers. In addition, the entire function key row has been removed. F1 through F10 are now alternate keys of the A to L row. It's an interesting compromise to get the most surface area for everyday typing, but makes some tasks, such as jumping between Web page fields with the Tab key, somewhat awkward.
Opening the lid, the 8.9-inch 1,024x600-pixel screen shares space with a Webcam above and two small speaker grilles below. The display offers just enough space for displaying Web pages and Word documents, and we think the 9-inch size is the perfect fit for Netbooks, rather than the smaller 7-inch or larger 10-inch screens on other systems.
|Dell Inspiron Mini 9||Average for category [Netbook]|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks||headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||3 USB 2.0, SD card reader||2 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11 b/g Wi-Fi, optional Bluetooth||modem, Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
The Inspiron Mini 9 has three USB ports, headphone and mic jacks, a VGA out, SD card slot, and an Ethernet jack--a fairly standard set of connections in the Netbook world. Integrated Bluetooth is a $20 option, and Dell is expected to announce a mobile broadband plan soon. We'd love to see mobile broadband in more Netbooks, but it's typically prohibitively expensive as an option on a sub-$500 system.
With Intel's new 1.6GHz Atom N270 CPU, specifically designed for low-power Netbooks, you're not going to find the same level of performance you'd get from even an inexpensive Core 2 Duo laptop. Still, the Intel Atom processor performed about as expected, closely matching the Asus Eee PC 901 and MSI Wind in our iTunes performance test.