What's hot: Form factor, performance, and huge variety of BTO options.
What's not: Limited RAM.
Review posted June 4, 2009 by Jacob Spindel
Most of our readers have probably figured out by now that I’m not usually a huge fan of Dell. Not only does the company have a rather mixed reputation with consumers, I am, of course, a steadfast Mac guy who uses a MacBook as his primary computer. However, even the 12-inch MacBook is large enough that I rarely use it as an actual portable, and even though netbooks are all the rage nowadays, Apple doesn’t make one. (Well, not yet, anyway, although the rumor mill is buzzing.) I must admit that if I write a review praising anything from Dell, my loyal readers may start to suspect that I’ve been replaced by some sort of lookalike impostor from outer space, I have indeed entertained the idea of adding a Dell Inspiron Mini 10 netbook to my lineup as a secondary computer. And believe it or not, if you’re looking for a quality netbook on a low-end budget, the Inspiron Mini is actually a pretty good choice.
Control Alt Dell
The Inspiron Mini 10 features a 10.1-inch LED display with a maximum resolution of 1366 x 768 and 32-bit color (that's a $35 upgrade from the 1024 x 576 standar resolution display option). That’s large enough that you won’t have many problems with dialog boxes or other items not fitting on the screen, and although this does have the side effect that items on screen will be a bit small, I found the screen to be quite readable and easy to look at. You also have the option of decreasing the resolution to as low as 800 x 600 pixels.
The CPU is an Intel Atom Z520 running at 1.33 GHz (you can build-to-order a Z530 at 1.6 Ghz for an additional $50) with an Intel Integrated Graphics Media Accelerator 500. This model includes a 160 GB magnetic hard disk rather than a solid state drive, and while a magnetic disk is certainly slower and uses more electricity than an SSD, the fact is that current netbooks in the same price range as the Inspiron Mini that do have an SSD usually only have a capacity of 16 GB, and if you intend to try running Windows on something with less storage space than most iPods, let’s just say you might need a helmet.
The Inspiron Mini measures 10.26 inches by 7.19 inches, and it is about 28.3 millimeters thick. At only 2.6 pounds, you can easily hold it, even in one hand (although I wouldn’t recommend using it that way). It’s pretty obvious that one of the main appeals of any netbook is a size and weight that make it extremely portable, but the Mini fulfills that expectation and is easily small enough and light enough to carry practically anywhere using a briefcase or even just a backpack.
The layout of the keyboard and trackpad resembles a traditional laptop, featuring a keyboard that isn’t quite full size but is still large enough to be comfortable for serious work (Dell says it‘s 92% of full size). Right below that is a tiny trackpad, called the Elantech Smart-Pad, in the center, surrounded by “wrist rest space.” You can click the bottom left area of the trackpad for a left click, or the bottom right area for a right click, but these are not actually discrete buttons; although you can depress those two corners (as in, they physically move), the trackpad is actually one solid rectangular unit. That’s fine as a design concept, but in practice the Inspiron Mini’s trackpad can be rather difficult to use, especially for click-and-drag operations, because it can sometimes feel inaccurate or unresponsive, especially when you have to try to cram two fingers at once into such a small space. The trackpad is good enough to use if you don’t have another option, but if possible, I would recommend bringing along an external mouse whenever you travel with the Inspiron Mini.
Since the Inspiron Mini 10 includes Windows XP SP3, it has 1 GB of RAM, which is the maximum Microsoft allows, and you can’t build-to-order more memory unless you request Ubuntu Linux instead of Windows. The prospect of trying to open up a tiny netbook and upgrade its RAM may sound daunting, but it turns out the reality is even worse than that: You simply can’t upgrade the memory, period. Ouch. (That limitation isn’t because of any Microsoft requirement.)
That said, the performance of the Inspiron Mini is actually very impressive. It handles web browsing, e-mail, and word processing without lagging (in fact, it is faster at these tasks than some Pentium 4 computers I still have lying around). In fact, not only does it play back iTunes videos successfully, but I tried connecting a USB HDTV tuner to the Mini, and even HDTV (which tends to be a resource hog) played smoothly without difficulty. (Dell plans to offer an internal HDTV tuner as a build-to-order option for an additional $50 in the near future.) Like most netbooks, the Inspiron Mini isn’t well suited for high-end 3D gaming, but basic productivity software is fast enough that you will actually enjoy using it on the Mini rather than just saying “It’s good enough” or “What did you expect - it’s a netbook.” Still, I wouldn’t recommend it for high-end work like CAD or video editing.
In addition to Windows XP, the Inspiron Mini comes with MS Works and a trial version of Norton Internet Security 2009 from Symantec; much like the hardware, the bundled software is minimalist but gets the job done. (Also like the hardware, Dell offers numerous build-to-order options for the included software, including an option to include Microsoft Office Basic 2007 for $129.)
The three-cell lithium-ion battery included with the Inspiron Mini is rated at 24 WHr and is user-replaceable. It provides about four hours of usage on a full charge, which is already fairly good, but if you need more, you can replace the three-cell battery with a six-cell version that doubles that battery life is available for an additional $30. (The six-cell version does increase the total weight slightly, though.)
Ports and Connectors
The Inspiron Mini has three USB 2.0 ports (which is more than some full-size notebooks have), although only one can provide power to an external device. It also has a standard RJ-45 Ethernet connector along with built-in 802.11g wireless (you can order 802.11n for $25 extra), so can use any standard WiFi hotspot to get online. (There is also a build-to-order option that includes a Verizon Wireless modem along with an associated service plan and contract.) It has a built-in card reader for SD, SDHC, MMS, and Memory Stick cards, as well as a standard Kensington lock connector, audio in and out jacks, the power plug, and an HDMI connector for an external monitor; since HDMI is a high-end graphics standard, it’s pleasantly surprising to see it on a netbook. A 1.3 MP webcam is also built-in directly above the screen. Like most netbooks, there is no optical drive, so you’ll have to use an external drive if you need one. Bluetooth is not included on the base model, but it is available as (you guessed it) a build-to-order option for $25.
The Inspiron Mini is virtually silent, and you never hear any fan noises - but I’m actually not sure that’s a good thing, because it also tends to get very warm to the touch. The heat is noticeable especially on the bottom side (which is the side that would probably be touching your lap while you’re using it). It’s not hot enough to melt your backpack or burst into flames, but I would still recommend getting a “lap desk” or similar product if you plan to keep the Mini in your lap while using it.
Dude! I’m Getting a Dell??
The Dell Inspiron Mini 10 is marketed primarily as a secondary laptop for people who would like to take their light to moderate workloads to places where a full-sized laptop might not dare to go, and this is indeed who it will work best for. It’s ultraportable and inexpensive with performance levels that are impressive by netbook standards (and even fairly impressive by regular standards), so people who use it for its intended purpose will find that it fulfills their needs and even goes beyond them. I wish the memory were upgradeable, and issues with the heat and trackpad can be minor annoyances, but, even though I’m still a Mac guy, I have found the Inspiron Mini to be an excellent tool for productivity.
Pro: Compact, light form factor; strong performance; even for video playback; many build-to-order options available, including a TV tuner, Verizon Wireless modem, and battery upgrades; starting price is quite inexpensive for what it offers.
Con: 1 GB of memory cannot be upgraded through any method; generates a lot of heat; trackpad isn‘t great.