Dell Mini 910 Netbook

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Dell’s Inspiron Mini 9 netbook is garnering a lot of attention as another entry into the hot netbook market segment. My son bought one and so I had the opportunity to take a closer look.

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Key Features:

  • Intel Atom Processor, single core, 1.6 GHz @ 533 MHz FSB – passive chip cooling
  • Windows XP Home or Ubuntu Linux 8.04 ($40 cheaper)
  • 8.9″ LED backlight LCD screen, 1024 x 600
  • Non-standard keyboard layout, no separate function or F11/F12 keys
  • System RAM from 512 MB to 1 GB DDR2 (2 GB user install possible)
  • Intel integrated graphics, shared video ranging from 32 to 256 MB impact on system RAM
  • Solid State HDs ranging from 4 to 16 GB, file compression enabled by default
  • Three USB ports, Ethernet, memory card reader (SD, MS, MS Pro, MMC), WiFi, internal Bluetooth, webcam (0.3 or 1.3 MP), VGA out, audio line out and mic-in jacks, empty “WWAN” slot
  • Weighs 2.3 pounds, 4 cell battery, 2.5 hours, size 9.1″ x 1.3″ x 6.8″

 

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According to this article:

“Up to a third of netbook sales reflect customers ditching their old desktops and laptops, analysts say, because they just need a computer for surfing the Internet, checking emails and viewing photographs and no longer require all the functions of a larger computer.”

If you believe this, it means to me that performance is or will become a key factor to users over time. In any event, our readers are typical tinkerers and while overclocking does not appear (yet) an option, there are ways to increase the Mini’s performance without hardware tweaks. I’ll list some possibilities in a bit – first let’s take a look at this cute package.

The left and right side pics show the various parts available – nice to have three USB for external devices, most notably for a CD reader/writer and external storage options.

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The Keyboard

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And here is the single feature that seems to yield the most comments from purchasers. All netbooks deal with the limited keyboard footprint in various ways – the inescapable fact is that keyboard ergonomics are compromised. The Dell Mini’s keyboard is non-standard in that the function keys are not separate, and some keys are not where you expect them – for example, look at the qwertyuiop row and you’ll see some keys on the right side are moved over. The quote and apostrophe key is moved to the bottom row, and the dash and +/- keys are not where you expect them.

You can get used to it after a while, but if you use this as a second machine, it can slow you down a bit and imposes a “switching” burden when using other keyboards. If this becomes your only laptop, less of an issue. The keys are smaller but unless your hands are really large, not a deal killer.

Maybe this is an obvious statement, but if you’re writing the great American novel, this is NOT the machine for you.

Chip Cooling

The Dell Mini has NO moving parts – the HD is solid state and chip cooling is passive – there is no active fan. Chip cooling is achieved by a metal plate the rests on the northbridge, southbridge and CPU:

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This heatspreader is under the keyboard and there is a small grill on the right side for venting. Users have commented that it can get warm under stress, so a small laptop cooler might be something to consider, although this increases the bulk if you’re looking for a light weight travel machine.
Getting Inside to Play Around
One nice feature of this machine is that users can easily access some of the innards – the back view:
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The back plate pops off by removing two screws:
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There are four items that users can access – the hard drive, RAM, WiFi and WWAN, the latter a future option. The accessible items are plug-ins and easily changed out – there is one RAM slot and although DELL does not offer 2 GB RAM as an option, it is being successfully upgraded by some users (Note: This may void the warranty).
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The Screen
In use, I found the LCD to be surprisingly easy to read. The following pics are direct screenshots which shows some scan lines which are NOT visible in use:
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Reading dense text is not a problem, although the 1024 x 600 resolution will cut off some text you might otherwise see on a 1024 x 768 display. Interesting to note that running some Microsoft apps yielded a message noting that the display is not optimal for the application.
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The Video Chipset
The Dell Mini uses Intel’s 945GMS chipset, with features as shown below:
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Possible Performance Improvements

There are some things that users can do to enhance the Mini’s performance:

RAM: Increasing RAM to 2 GB (curiously not a DELL option) should yield a noticeable performance boost, most notably because video RAM is shared; this means that depending on what’s going on, 32 to 256 MB of system RAM will be dedicated to video, slowing performance under video intensive apps. I found in use that YouTube’s videos stuttered, depending on its complexity. Full screen videos are a crap shoot.  

Crapware: Dell packs the Mini with the usual bloatware – either use something like PC Decrapifier or use the included OS CD and reload the OS clean.

HD Compression: By default the HD is compressed – this takes a hit on performance. A simple right-click on the drive for properties and you can turn off drive compression, although it will take a couple of hours to decompress.

Conclusions
Like I tell my kids, “Cute only goes so far”.
My first impression was “I have to get one!” But let’s face it – most of our readers are gadget freaks and this cute little package is just that – a cute little package that I would find too limiting as I use it. If you’re used to snappy performance, anything less than that for an extended time will get annoying. While there are some things you can do to improve performance, you can only go so far.
This is NOT a powerhouse machine – some users have commented on the pokiness when using something like Microsoft Office. The Mini comes with Microsoft Works, which works OK as long as you don’t push it. The Mini is truly a second “convenience” machine. Unless you’re really content with limited computing, this will disappoint.
Overall, for travel I’m still happier with using a large pen drive with portable apps for picking up emails and even for some limited computing, but that’s me.

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