Quest For Netbook Nirvana: Dell Mini 9

netbook nirvana dell mini 9.jpgI'm actually quite ashamed to admit this, but the Dell Mini 9 is the first netbook I've really actually tested. Sure, I've mucked around with a few other machines at media events and the local Harvey Norman, but just like at high school when that girl on the train fell chest first into the back of my arm, that doesn't mean I made it to second base. Still, as far as losing my netbook virginity, it seems the Dell was a pretty good place to start.The Mini 9 has been around since September last year, although rumours had been infecting the webs since Blam spotted Michael Dell with one at All Things D in May. A couple of things worth noting about my review unit: it had a 4 cell battery, ran Windows XP with a 16GB SSD and 1GB RAM. Oh, and it was a glossy black, which attracted fingerprints like my fingers were magnetic.

The very first thing that struck me by the Mini 9 was the keyboard - it's fucking cramped. The sad news is that pretty much every 8.9-inch screened laptop is going to face the exact same problem. There is, after all, only so much real estate on a laptop this small. But with a little persistence, a lot of swearing and a rather bad case of RSI, I was able to overcome the immediate discomfort of the micro-sized keyboard. Except for the apostrophe button. Because of the limited real estate, Dell moved the apostrophe (and quotes) button down next to the spacebar. Considering I like quoting on paper as much as I like air-quoting, that's a pretty major design flaw (in my opinion, at least) on Dell's part, especially considering the fact that the colon button is still in the same place. Seriously Dell, move the colon button down to the ass-end of the keyboard where it belongs.

The 8.9-inch screen performs well, although like the keyboard appears a little cramped. still images look really nice, but video files tend to chug along a bit - not because of the screen, but because of the extra processing required to show a video - the little Atom tended not to like that so much. The trackpad was equally cramped, but I dealt with that the same way as the keyboard - self-inflicted RSI (or a USB mouse when I hit a desk).

Battery life on the 4-cell battery is okay without being great. I didn't go for any of that benchmarking mumbo-jumbo - but I did manage to make it all the way to the office and back on a single charge (which is about 3 hours worth of travelling). Surprisingly, a quick look at the Dell site shows that you can't actually upgrade the battery, or even purchase a second one. I hope to be proved wrong on this, but that's a big fail, Dell.

Start up time isn't bad for a Windows machine, but it's certainly no Mac, even with the SSD to speed things up. And waking up from standby really varid - sometimes it was standing to attention within a couple of seconds, other times I'd still be waiting half a minute later.

Internal speakers are crap, webcam does the job but I'd never use it and I love the fact it's got 3 USB ports as well as ethernet and a memory card reader.

Despite the fact that I've spent half this review bitching about it, I actually quite liked the Mini 9. I mean, the whole Vodafone partnership is awesome (although not for me - I already have a mobile data contract) and a great option for people on the go to get their hands on a netbook. But the sim card slot is still there for people with mobile data plans, you just how to figure out which settings to put it on. The machine's also come back down in price after jumping up to $699 to $549, so it's very affordable.

And even though I planned on it, I didn't get the chance to try out Windows 7 or hackintosh it, which could offer even more appeal to OS X fan like me. So where does that leave me? Well, mostly looking forward to trying out the slightly larger machines with larger keyboards, like the Sony Pocket P or the new HP 2140. Still as a lightweight portable device, I could certainly learn to live with the Mini 9, even if it doesn't lead me to netbook Nirvana.

Next week I'll be looking at the Toshiba NB100. If you've had a play with it yourself, or just have some questions about it, send me an email at [email protected]

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