After months of rumors, Dell enters the mini-notebook market with its long-anticipated Inspiron Mini 9. Dell took its time releasing its own netbook, and it is clear they spent the extra days and hours getting (nearly) everything just right. With a small footprint, sleek industrial design, 1.6-GHz Intel Atom processor, and a tailored version of Ubuntu (it’s also available with Windows XP) the Inspiron Mini 9, starting at $349, has all the specs to make it one of our favorite netbooks. Even better is the ability to configure the system, from the size of the solid state drive and RAM to the webcam resolution. However, we wish Dell had spent a bit more time on the keyboard.
The glossy black Inspiron Mini 9 (also available in white) we tested—despite its $399 price tag—looks and feels far from cheap. As with the Acer Aspire one and the ASUS Eee PC 901, the Inspiron Mini 9’s rounded lid sports a glossy finish that attracts light fingerprints and smudges. The classy look extends under the hood with a smooth-coated, silver palm rest and screen bezel.
Size definitely matters to Dell: The Inspiron Mini 9 is one of the smallest and lightest 8.9-inch mini-notebooks we've seen. Measuring 9.1 x 6.8 x 1.3 inches and weighing just 2.3 pounds, it is lighter than both the 2.4-pound Acer Aspire one and the 3.2-pound HP 2133 Mini-Note. When placed next to the Aspire one and HP Mini-Note, it was the shortest in length and width; the Aspire one, however, is 0.1 inch thinner. With a travel weight of 2.6 pounds with its AC adapter, the Inspiron Mini 9 felt almost nonexistent when we tossed it into a purse.
Glossy Screen, Loud Speaker Sound
The glossy 8.9-inch, 1024 x 600-pixel resolution screen provides enough space to fit windows to size and looked sharp from a variety of angles. When we watched an episode of The Office on Hulu.com and browsed through vacation pictures, colors were bright and not at all muted like we’ve seen on ASUS’ Eee PC 901. Horizontal viewing angles were fine for watching YouTube videos with a friend; tilting the screen back to its limit of 110 degrees didn’t cause glare.
Above the display is a 1.3-megapixel webcam (a $25 option, but the Inspiron Mini 9 is also available with a 0.3-MP cam for $15) that provided clear images when videoconferencing with a friend over Dell Video Chat, a client based on SightSpeed’s technology (which lets users have four-way video calls with Mac, PC, and Linux users). The camera provided clear images, though we saw a bit of motion blur when waving our hands to our caller.
Like the Sylvania g Netbook Meso, the Inspiron Mini 9’s speakers are below the screen on the bottom bezel. They were able to pump out Coldplay’s Life In Technicolor at a surprising volume, and lacked the typical tinniness of other small notebooks.
Awkward Dell Inspiron Mini 9 Keyboard, Solid Trackpad
The spill-resistant keyboard on the Inspiron Mini 9 is solidly built and provided good tactile feedback without too much flex. While the keys allowed for comfortable typing and didn’t severely cramp our hands, they are smaller than those found on the 89 percent–size keyboard on the Acer Aspire one. However, size is not as big an issue as is the awkward placement of a few keys on the Inspiron Mini 9. While we weren’t bothered by the missing function keys (the middle row of the keyboard now performs double duty), the right Shift key has been shrunk and moved to the right of the Up arrow button, and the apostrophe key is located on the bottom row of keys. Both changes will cause problems for touch typists until they’ve adjusted.
The touchpad, on the other hand, is the best we have seen on an 8.9-inch system. It is decently sized and offered a nice textured feel as we navigated around the desktop. We also like that the two mouse buttons are located below the touchpad, rather than straddling it like the Aspire one.
The Inspiron Mini 9 is stocked with the typical netbook ports, featuring three USB 2.0, VGA, and Ethernet, as well as a headphone and a microphone jack. It also has a 4-in-1 memory card reader. Alas, you won’t find an ExpressCard slot, but the Inspiron Mini 9’s free internal mini-PCI slot could be used for an integrated mobile broadband option. Dell plans to offer mobile broadband before the end of the year.
Snazzy, Simple Ubuntu Operating System
Similar to ASUS’ Xandros Linux and Acer’s Linpus Linux Lite, Dell’s mini-notebook sports a tailored version of Ubuntu’s Netbook Remix. (The system is also available with Windows XP for a limited-time introductory price of $399; after that’s up, starting price will be $439.)
The heart of the customized OS is Dell’s Launcher, a strip of icons that runs across the center of the desktop. A series of application categories—Entertainment, Learn, Games, Productivity, and Web—are displayed horizontally. When a category is selected, the Launcher slides up the screen and a set of preloaded applications related to that category appears below. Adding extra buttons to the launcher is simple: click the Add button, make up your own category, and drag in programs or create shortcuts to Web sites.
We were impressed with the smoothness of the transitions and animations. Not only is Dell’s interface sleeker than both the Eee PC’s Xandros and Acer’s Linpus Linux Lite, but Dell’s Ubuntu version makes switching to the advanced desktop mode to programs easier. We were able to add StumbleUpon to our Firefox browser via the Add/Remove program.
Dell Inspiron Mini 9 Performance
Our Inspiron Mini 9 sported Intel’s 1.6-GHz Atom processor and came with 1GB of RAM (though it can be ordered with 512MB). Programs loaded relatively quickly even when we had several others running in the background. We listened to streaming music over Pandora, surfed in Firefox 3, and wrote a document in OpenOffice Writer simultaneously with no hang-ups. However, Dell Video Chat did slow down the system; windows were slower to launch.
The 4GB solid state drive in the Inspiron Mini 9 (also available with a larger 8GB and 16GB SSD) combines speedy boot times and protection (due to its lack of moving parts). It booted the system in a relatively speedy 35 seconds, although that’s still 15 seconds slower than the Acer Aspire one with Linux. For those who find the 4GB drive too limiting, Dell bundles the mini-notebook with 2GB of free online storage via Boxnet.com.
We noticed that the Inspiron Mini 9 got uncomfortably hot when we used the notebook at length. At 100 degrees, the keyboard felt like it had a heating pad underneath it. The bottom of the system and the touchpad weren’t much better, registering 108 and 92 degrees, respectively. Dell notes that we reviewed a preproduction unit and that there shouldn’t be any thermal issues on production-level systems. We’ll update this review once we’ve received a final unit.
Decent Endurance, Good Wi-Fi
We were impressed with the endurance of the Inspiron Mini 9’s four-cell battery. We managed to squeeze 3 hours and 12 minutes out of the battery with Wi-Fi on. That falls between the Eee PC 901 runtime of 4 hours and 38 minutes using a six-cell battery and the Linux version of the Aspire one’s 1 hour and 58 minutes with a three-cell battery. The XP version of the Aspire one lasted 2 hours and 22 minutes on a charge. At least for now Dell is not offering a larger-capacity battery with the Inspiron Mini 9.
The Inspiron Mini 9’s 802.11a/g Wi-Fi radio connected easily to our home WPA-protected access point. It never dipped below 72 percent signal strength in a 50-foot radius, and we didn’t experience a single dropped connection. Web pages loaded quickly; NYTimes.com loaded in 5 seconds, our Moviefone search completed in 4.5 seconds, and Laptopmag.com loaded in 7 seconds. Streaming an episode of Married with Children over Hulu.com had minimal video pauses and audio skips. There was no Bluetooth connection on our unit, but it is available for an extra $20.
Dell Inspiron Mini 9 Verdict
Dell’s entrance into the mini-notebook market is bound to make the competition take notice. The Linux version of the Inspiron Mini 9 boasts the most consumer-friendly interface we have seen, its footprint is tiny but sturdy, and it gets more than three hours of battery life. The Linux version of the Acer Aspire one is $70 cheaper than our $399 configuration, has a bigger 8GB solid state drive, and a more ergonomic keyboard, but it lasts 1 hour and 14 minutes less on a charge and its Linux interface isn’t as polished.
Despite its inferior keyboard, we recommend the Dell Inspiron Mini 9 over the Aspire one for those users interested in Linux. Spending the extra cash for this system is worth it for those seeking a small yet solidly built mini-notebook, and for those who want the ability to configure their system online.