Dell tries bringing netbooks upscale and succeeds in some ways. (March 8th, 2009)
Product Manufacturer: Dell
Price: $399 (base), $449 (with 1.6GHz Atom)
- Excellent keyboard and trackpad.
- Pleasing visual design and display.
- HDMi video output.
- Great Wi-Fi reception (at least on 802.11n).
- 160GB hard drive standard.
- 2GB RAM and HD screen options coming.
- Lid personalization a nice touch.
- Short 2.5-hour battery life; no 6-cell option yet.
- Trackpad doesn't work perfectly for multi-touch.
- Hampered by typical netbook specs; rivals have an edge.
- No accessible RAM slot or option for 2GB on initial models.
Although it's barely six months old, Dell's netbook effort has been advancing to where it's already on its third new design in the form of the Inspiron Mini 10. These early experiences have given Dell an opportunity to improve not only on what it did before but also weaknesses inherent to netbooks at large. That the Mini 10 is an improvement is certain; but, as we'll soon learn, it's possible that Dell has also been moving too quickly in some areas and not quickly enough in others.
design and expansion
From a superficial point of view, the new entry really is a close cousin of its smaller and larger counterparts in the Mini family. That's a mixed blessing in practice. The decision makes for a relatively attractive system that doesn't feel as cheap as some offerings: the Mini 10 has a single, large barrel hinge that prevents the display from wobbling in casual use or snapping apart easily. It's not quite as luxurious as we made out in the early hands-on, though: the palmrest is simply higher-grade plastic rather than metal, and there's enough plastic to make it clear Dell built the system to a price, even if it didn't cut corners. The result is still more reassuring than from some competitors.
Toting the system around is about as easy as with the Mini 9, as you'd expect given the one inch larger screen -- it's small enough to be carried in smaller bags. But it's not quite as thin and light as you'd think given the size, either. At 2.86 pounds in weight and 1.25 inches at its thickest point, the Mini 10 is heavy enough to feel more like a notebook that's had some surface area lopped off than a truly lighter class of machine.
As for the flush glass display: it's attractive, and it's half responsible for allusions in the hands-on to the system as a MacBook-like design. It adds to the upscale look and is surprisingly bright and colorful given the likely low-cost LCD panel inside. Its gloss is a partial nuisance. We didn't have many problems in practice, though its low readability with bright spot lighting in the background (a lamp or the sun, for example) may prove to be annoying given the carry-it-anywhere philosophy behind the system.
Expansion also produces the a mixed impression. While the three USB ports, card reader and audio in/out are par for the course, the HDMI video output is a definite edge over other systems. Most netbooks have just VGA out and, as a result, are limited to the fairly imprecise (and increasingly obsolete) standard. This lets users pipe sound, video or both through to computers that support it and even lets them turn HDTVs into makeshift external displays; however, without a built-in optical drive or the graphical power for HD video, it's not quite as useful as on a full-power notebook.
And Dell has unfortunately taken a page from Apple in the form of memory expansion -- or rather, the lack of it. Much like the MacBook Air, the RAM in the initial version of the Mini 10 is actually soldered on to a board inside the system rather than put into one or more RAM slots. Initial buyers are thus stuck with the system's stock 1GB for its usable lifetime. This isn't fatal given the focus of the system but really limits potential speed. Dell is promising an option for 2GB in the future, and this could be worth waiting for in at least some cases.