Friday, October 16, 2009

Dell Inspiron Mini 10 Review

The Dell Inspiron Mini 10 with an Atom N450 processor is just the latest Dell laptop to bear the Mini 10 name. It follows the Dell Mini 10 and Mini 10v, which had Atom Z520 and N270 processors, respectively.

Performance-wise, the new Dell Inspiron Mini 10 is a lot like the recently retired Mini 10v. But thanks to the new energy-sipping CPU, it gets significantly better battery life. And Dell has given the 10 inch mini-laptop a major design overhaul as well.

That includes a battery that no longer sticks out of the bottom of the laptop, and a new keyboard layout. Unfortunately one thing that hasn’t received a major update is the touchpad, which features difficult-to-use integrated click areas instead of dedicated left and right buttons.

The unit featured in this review has a 10.1 inch, 1024 x 600 pixel display, a 1.6GHz Intel Atom N450 processor, 802.11b/g WiFi, Bluetooth, an HSPA modem, 1GB of RAM, and a 250GB hard drive. It runs Windows 7 Starter Edition.


Dell pretty much broke the mold with the new Inspiron Mini 10. The company’s previous netbooks looked great with a low capacity 3 cell battery. But when you added a high capacity 6 cell battery, your netbook looked like it had a cancerous growth near its rear. The new Mini 10 does away with that. Both the 3 and 6 cell batteries sit flush with the base of the computer.

But the way Dell accomplished this is by redesigning the shape of the laptop to give it a bit more junk in the trunk. Basically, the base of the laptop is now bigger than the lid. This means that when the lid is closed, you can see a bit of the base. And when you open the lid to use the laptop, the screen no longer rests behind the notebook. Instead the hinge rests on top of the netbook base.

I’ve heard a lot of people complain that this design is just as unattractive as the enormous battery found on earlier netbook models, but it sort of grew on me. While the laptop might not look quite as slim as some netbooks on the market, I appreciate the effort that Dell put into making the new Mini 10 look better.

And there’s an unexpected benefit to the extra space behind the lid: I found it provided a perfect place to put my thumb when picking up the laptop with one hand. That makes it much easier to move the Mini 10 from room to room without closing the lid and putting the computer to sleep first.

The demo unit Dell sent me has a shiny white plastic case and a black interior finish with a textured pattern printed on the palm rest and other areas surrounding the keyboard. The cover is surprisingly adept at not showing fingerprints. I’m not sure if this is due to the color or the finish. The laptop is also available with red, blue, pink, green, purple, or black lids.

Around the sides of the laptop you’ll find 3 USB ports, a VGA port, Ethernet, and mic and headphone jacks. There’s also card reader for SD and MS flash media.

The display is glossy, but easily readable under most indoor lighting conditions. The shiny black bezel around the lid, on the other hand, is quite reflective.

Hidden in the battery compartment is a SIM card slot, at least on the demo unit I received. The 3G HSPA modem is an optional component that won’t ship with all models.

On the bottom of the laptop you’ll find some vents, but no access panel. That means you’re going to have to perform some minor surgery on this laptop if you want to upgrade the RAM or other components.

One nice touch that Dell adds is single-piece power adapter. While most laptops come with a power brick and a separate cable, the Dell Mini 10 comes with just a single cord (with a rather bulky plug), making travel a little bit easier. The picture above shows the Dell Mini 10 power adapter on the left, and the adapter for a Lenovo IdeaPad S12 on the right. As you can see, they’re both about the same size. But it’s a lot easier to carry around a one piece solution.

Keyboard and Touchpad

The new Dell Mini 10 has a new keyboard that’s not that different from the keyboard used in earlier netbooks from Dell. The new design features keys with raised areas. The result is that the keys almost touch each other, but there’s space between the typing surface of each key. It’s sort of like a cross between one of those island-style keyboards that are all the rage these days and the original Dell Mini 10 keyboard which featured flat keys with little distance between them.

I like the keyboard, and in an online typing test I was able to eke out a score of 102 words per minute using this netbook. Your results may vary, but the keyboard certainly didn’t seem to slow me down any.

Dell takes an unusual approach to the top row of keys on its netbooks. While most companies provide you with a series of Fn keys that let you trigger alternate actions such as adjusting the volume or display brightness by hitting Fn+a Fn key, by default Dell’s top row of keys control those other functions. In other words, you hit F4 or F5 to adjust the screen brightness. If you’re using a program that actually requires you to use the F5 key, you’ll need to hit Fn+F5 to trigger that action. This makes sense, since most people probably use the brightness, volume, wireless , and other buttons more often than the Fn keys.

While I really like the keyboard, I really dislike the touchpad. In order to increase the surface area of the touchpad, Dell integrated the left and right buttons directly into the touchpad itself. Instead of pushing a separate button to click, you press down on the bottom right or bottom left corner of the touchpad.

This generally works well enough if you’re only using a single hand on the touchpad. You move the cursor around, lift your hand and move your finger to the bottom to click. But if you’re using two fingers to perform an action like dragging and dropping, you might run into some problems. I frequently had trouble clicking down on the touchpad with one finger while trying to drag a program or icon using the other finger. And if you have a tendency to hover your trigger finger over the mouse button while scrolling, you’d best be careful not to set your finger down lest the cursor should jump away just before you can click.

This short video should give you a sense of what I’m talking about, even though I don’t experience too many problems in the video itself. It turns out it’s kind of hard to reproduce these touchpad problems on demand. They only really occur when you’re trying to do something else.

Dell has also chosen to drop support for multitouch gestures. You can scroll up and down and left to right by moving your finger over the right or bottom edges of the touchpad. But there’s no support for two-finger scrolling or pinching to zoom.


The Dell Inspiron Mini 10 performs pretty much as you’d expect from a netbook with Intel Atom N450 processor and GMA 3150 graphics. It can handle 720p HD video playback, but 1080p HD video is a non-starter, as if HD Flash video.

Dell will soon offer users the option of ordering the Mini 10 with a Broadcom Crystal HD video accelerator which will add support for HD video playback. Right now that means local videos only, but Adobe and Broadcom are working to add support for HD Flash video in the upcoming Adobe Flash Player 10.1 beta 3.

The Mini 10 got got a score of 2.3 on the Windows 7 Experience Index, with the low CPU score counting as the weakest link.

I ran a handful of tests on the netbook to test its performance at transcoding audio and video files, launching resource-intensive applications, and copying and zipping files. Overall, the Mini 10’s scores were pretty close to those of the Asus Eee PC 1005PE, another netbook with an Atom N450 CPU and GMA 3150 graphics. Which is to say, the performance is pretty much on par with what you’d expect from any netbook released in the past two years with an Intel Atom Nxx series processor.

The tests involve transcoding a 4 minute, 34 second video file using VirtualDub and a 13:24 audio clip using WinLAME. The folder copy and zip tests involve copying a folder with 2186 files totaling 478MB to a new folder and then creating a zip file containing all those files using 7-zip.

Of course, you’re probably not going to spend a lot of time transcoding audio and video files on a netbook. But as with most Atom powered netbooks, I had no difficulty surfing the web using Firefox or Google Chrome with multiple tabs open. Skype video call quality was passable, if not great. And resource-intensive applications such as image editor GIMP and opened reasonably quickly, as you can see in the chart below.


While the new Dell Mini 10 performs about the same as the earlier Mini 10v with an Atom N270 processor, there’s one major difference: The new model gets significantly better battery life. When I tested the Mini 10v, I was able to get between 6 and 7 hours of run time on a charge by surfing the web over WiFi with the screen brightness hovering somewhere near the middle setting. Under the same conditions, I’ve been getting about 9 hours of run time out of the new Mini 10.

Both netbooks ship with optional 6 cell, 56Whr batteries, so the improved run time isn’t coming from the battery. It’s hard to say if the new Pine Trail processor is the only reason for the improved battery life. It could also be software-related. The new Mini 10 ships with Windows 7 Starter Edition while the Mini 10v came with Windows XP. Whatever the reason, the new Mini 10 gets significantly better battery life, and that’s a good thing.

The Dell Inspiron Mini 10 is also available with a 3 cell, 28Whr battery which should be good for around 4 to 4.5 hours of run time.


The demo unit Dell sent me to review came preloaded with Windows 7 Starter Edition and a handful of programs from Dell and third parties. That includes the McAfee Security suite, which seemed to bog down the system. The first time I ran my benchmarks, for example, the video transcoding test took 475 seconds. After removing McAfee, the score dropped to 427 seconds. I’d recommend using a lighter weight anti-virus application such as Microsoft Security Essentials, which also happens to be available as a free download.

Dell also loads up the Mini 10 with the Dell Dock application. I’m personally not a huge fan of docks, and I find this one to be particularly annoying since I accidentally wind up pulling it up every time I move the cursor to the top of the screen with the intention of clicking on a program window. So I disabled the dock at the first opportunity. But if you prefer an OS X-style dock to the Windows 7 Start Menu, you might find the Dell Dock to be useful.


The new Dell Mini 10 is a bit thicker and heavier than many contemporary laptops. It measures about 10.5″ x 9.2″ x 1.4″ and weighs just over 3 pounds with a 6 cell battery. But I appreciate the way Dell has designed the laptop so that it looks no different with a 6 cell battery than with a lower capacity 3 cell battery. The shiny, but fingerprint-free lid is also a nice touch.

Performance-wise, there’s no real reason to choose the Mini 10 over any other Atom Pine Trail netbook. But with over 9 hours of battery life, the new Mini 10 is one of the best laptops around when it comes to endurance. And Dell is expected to offer a number of customization options soon including a model with a higher resolution 1366 x 768 pixel display and Broadcom Crystal HD video accelerator, the 3G modem option found in the unit reviewed here, and a number of color choices for the lid (although I have no idea why you’d want to spend $40 to change the lid color on a $299 netbook).

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