We've previously looked at a less-expensive version of Dell's redesigned Inspiron Mini 10 Netbook, and the line 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 ability to offer a reasonable level of configuration options.
One new configuration option is the Broadcom Crystal HD video accelerator, which replaces Nvidia's Ion GPU in Netbooks that have Intel's new Atom N450 CPU (which, for the moment, you can't pair with the Nvidia Ion). For $409, you get a system similar to the $369 model we saw last month, but with the addition of both the HD video accelerator and a higher-resolution 1,366x768-pixel 10-inch display, which makes this a very smart upgrade if you're willing to spend just a little more.
To be honest, the Crystal HD chip is a halfway solution at best, as it only does video playback, not the Ion's basic 3D graphics. Until this week, it would only assist in playing HD video files on your machine, and not for streaming video from sites such as Hulu (which use Adobe's Flash).
Fortunately, Adobe has finally made Flash 10.1 beta 3 available for download, which provides better HD Web video-streaming performance. Despite the definite improvements we saw, there's still a major problem with relying on a beta version of third-party software to achieve the minimal level of functionality consumers would expect from a Netbook with something called an "HD video accelerator."
We like the inclusion of a 1,366x768-pixel resolution display at this price, but if you're looking to buy a Netbook for all-around HD video playback, we might hold off for future (and hopefully non-beta) software updates from Adobe, Broadcom, or both; or hang on until the next generation of Nvidia Ion Netbooks appear (and we can test them to make sure they work reasonably well). Netbooks are great for a lot of things, but streaming HD Web video still isn't one of them.
|Price as reviewed / Starting price||$409 / $249|
|Processor||1.6GHz Intel Atom N450|
|Memory||1GB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz|
|Hard drive||250GB 5,400rpm|
|Graphics||Intel GMA 3150 (integrated) / Broadcom Crystal HD video accelerator|
|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|
Physically, this system is nearly identical to the Dell Mini 10 we reviewed a few weeks ago, although this version has a black lid instead of a white one. We still like the new design for the Dell Mini 10; it's 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.
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.
The touch pad is a bit undersized, resembling the elongated pad once 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 an option as having actual buttons. The shortened height also made scrolling with the touch pad a tricky proposition.
Dell has used a Mac-like software dock on recent laptops, which 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. Note that when we installed FireFox, it didn't get automatically added to the Web browser tab of the dock; we had to drag it in manually from the desktop.
The 10.1-inch display has a 1,366x768-pixel native resolution, which is a nice upgrade from the 1,024x600 pixels found on most 10-inch Netbooks. The higher resolution makes text and icons appear smaller, but we appreciate the trade-off in more screen real estate and better display of Web pages and office docs.
|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 includes a typical selection of connections on its Mini 10 as is, as well as several configurable and preconfigured models that offer different combinations of components and accessories. With this version, we could add an internal TV tuner for a total of $489, or a GPS module for a total of $509.
With the majority of Netbooks now using Intel's new 1.6GHz Atom N450, we've settled into a pretty uniform set of performance results from systems that use that CPU. Compared with our recent non-Broadcom Dell Mini 10, this version was a few seconds slower in our benchmark tests, but not enough to make a real-world difference.
In general, though the new N450 and Intel's revamped Netbook platform provide big gains in battery life over older N270 Netbooks, the actual application performance is largely the same. Our usual Netbook admonitions apply: they're fine for e-mail, Web surfing, and other basic tasks, but almost any kind of multitasking will grind them to a halt.
Playback of full-screen 720p and 1080p WMV and MOV video was great, as we'd fully expect from the Broadcom Crystal HD chip. However, playing HD streaming Flash video via YouTube and Hulu was, at first, a slideshow-like disaster.
After we uninstalled the existing Flash software, downloaded and then installed the new Flash 10.1 beta 3 player (make sure you have the latest Broadcom drivers, as well), the situation improved. Both 480p Hulu and 720p YouTube videos had smoother playback and were more watchable, but there was still some stutter and frame-skipping, especially on Hulu.