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Hands-on with the Dell Inspiron Mini 9

There aren't many surprises--leaks had revealed the system's design and features--but it's still exciting to see a major player back the Netbook concept in a big way.

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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 just-announced Inspiron Mini 9 (previous leaks revealed the system's design and features), it's still exciting to see a major player back the Netbook concept in a big way.

Component-wise, the Mini 9 is similar to other recent Netbooks, such as the Eee PC 901 and the Acer Aspire One, and includes Intel's Atom CPU. But in typical Dell fashion, there are more customization options than we've seen in a Netbook before.

Our test unit arrived with 1GB of RAM, a 16GB solid-state hard drive, and Windows XP. That config 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 (4 or 8GB), 512MB of RAM, an Ubuntu Linux OS, or knocking out the Webcam. 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).

In person, the Mini 9 is similar in design to Asus' 9-inch Eee PC. It's slightly thinner, at about 1.25 inches, tapering slightly toward the front. Our system had a glossy black finish, and white is also available, but most of the leaked product shots we've seen up to now show a red model.

It 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. Opening the lid, the 8.9-inch 1,024x600 screen shares space with a Webcam above and two small speaker grilles below.

The challenge for any Netbook is to squeeze as much keyboard as possible into a very tiny space, and the Mini 9 does as good a job as anyone at it. The Dell letter keys are larger than on the 9-inch Eee PC, but certain keys--Tab, Caps Lock, etc--are reduced to small slivers. In addition, the entire F-key row has been removed. F1 through F10 are now alternate keys of the A-L row. It's an interesting compromise to get the most surface area for everyday typing, and we'll have to spend some more time with the system before we decide if we like it or not.

In anecdotal testing, we found the Mini 9 to be highly usable for Web surfing, e-mailing, and even playing music files (its speakers were surprisingly loud, if predictably thin-sounding). The combo of Intel's Atom CPU, 1GB of RAM, and Windows XP found in almost every current Netbook works well for basic tasks, as long as you keep expectations modest and don't mind occasional slowdown if you try and open too many browser windows at once.

Other initial thoughts: The four-cell battery was impressive. We haven't done our formal battery drain testing yet, but we're anecdotally looking at between three and four hours. The system fully boots from a cold start in about 45 seconds, and thankfully, the desktop is not overly cluttered with advertising and promo links--just a few icons for Dell's Support Center app and an online storage service (2GB of free online storage space is included).