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.
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.
The Mini 9 ran for 3 hours and 21 minutes on our video playback battery drain test, using the included 4-cell battery. That's second only to the 6-cell battery in the Asus Eee PC 901, and easily beats the Asus Aspire One and MSI Wind.
Dell includes an industry-standard one-year parts-and-labor warranty with the system, with mail-in service. Upgrading to a two-year plan will cost an extra $128. Support is accessible through a 24-7 toll-free phone line, an online knowledge base and driver downloads.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Find out more about how we test laptops.
Dell Inspiron Mini 9
Windows XP Home Edition SP3; 1.6GHz Intel Atom; 1,024MB DDR2 SDRAM 533MHz; 64MB Mobile Intel 945 Express; STEC 16GB SSD.
Acer Aspire One
Linpus Linux Lite v1.0.2.E; 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270; 512MB DDR2 SDRAM 533MHz; Mobile Intel 945GME Express; 8GB solid-state drive.
Asus Eee PC 901
Windows XP Home Edition SP2; 1.6GHz Intel Atom; 1,024MB DDR2 SDRAM 400MHz; 128MB Mobile Intel 945 Express; 12GB Phison solid-state drive.
MSI Wind U100-002LA
Windows XP Home Edition SP3; 1.6GHz Intel Atom; 1024MB DDR2 SDRAM 400MHz; 128MB Mobile Intel 945 Express; 80GB Western Digital 5,400rpm.
Sylvania G Netbook
Linux; 1.2GHz VIA C7-M; 1024MB DDR2 SDRAM 533MHz; VIA UniChrome Pro IGP; 30GB hard disk drive.