Around 6 years ago I owned a Sony Picturebook C1VN. It was based on the horrendously slow Transmeta Crusoe TM5600 CPU, running at 600MHz - at the time it was about as fast as a desktop Celeron 400MHz.


Ah, my beloved Picturebook...how slow you were
(true story, some Intel folks made fun of me for pulling it out at IDF one year before Centrino hit)

The Picturebook was the first ridiculously impractical, but awesomely small notebook I ever owned. It was a pain to type on, slow and the screen was too cramped to get any serious work done. The size was its biggest selling point and for that you paid a premium, over $2,000 if I remember correctly, for the slowest, most impractical notebook you could buy at the time.

In my review of the ASUS Eee Box I talked about this idea of "fast enough" computers. That our desktop (and mobile) hardware has gotten so fast that it's paved the way for an entirely new category of computer, a machine that's not the fastest, but fast enough for things like web browsing and cloud computing. These days it's real easy to have all of your frequently used data stored in the cloud; emails in Gmail, documents online with Google Docs and all of your photos are already online if you like sharing them. You don't need an 8-core Nehalem to get access to your content stored in the cloud, you just need something fast enough.

Intel built its first "fast enough" processor, it's called Atom. Eventually we'll see Atom in smartphones but today it's in computers and mobile internet devices (MIDs). Combine this idea of fast enough hardware with the form factors that were popular during the Picturebook days and you get the netbook.

ASUS really kicked off this latest infatuation with netbooks with its Eee PC, but it’s sort of like what happened when Apple released the MacBook Air. Super thin, ultra portable notebooks had been released for years but since a company as high profile as Apple was now in the game it’s now exposed to a whole new crowd of people.

ASUS made tremendous headway with the Eee PC, bringing a notebook to users who had previously never heard of ASUS much less have any clue how to pronounce the name (AH-soose). But if it was ASUS who helped to create this recent phenomenon, it’s Dell that will make it popular.

Making the Case for Ultra Portables

It's called the Inspiron Mini 9 and it's Dell's entry into the netbook market. Make no mistake, ASUS was the driving force behind the Inspiron Mini 9. Even the naming is ASUS-inspired (the Inspiron Mini 910 vs. the Eee PC 901?). Despite ASUS' head start, Dell had the luxury of watching from a distance and improving where ASUS had failed to make enough changes.

I hate quoting the same review twice on one page but again, in the Eee Box article, I mentioned that it was the type of machine that if you had to ask yourself why you needed one, you probably didn't need to buy one. The Mini is quite similar. It's not practical enough to be a serious workhorse computer, it's what I would view as a 2nd, 3rd or 4th machine. It's something you add to the stable, not the only toy in the arsenal. Dell is even offering a promotion where they'll sell you a Mini for $99 if you buy it alongside some of its notebooks.


It's cute.

I've got a friend, her name is Anne, she works at Dell. I've worked with Anne for years, dating back to when I was still in highschool actually and while going over the Inspiron Mini 9 she recounted a story about her daughter. If you work for Dell and have children, I'd expect you'd get asked for free notebooks all the time. Anne does. She got her daughter a new Dell Studio notebook, but all her daughter does on it is browse the web and update her Facebook profile. Anne views the Inspiron Mini as the perfect notebook for her daughter, and I think I do too.

It's the kind of computer you'd take with you around town to browse the web on, but not for serious work. Writing quick blogs, posting on Facebook walls, IMing, catching up on Digg, are all things you could just as easily do on a smartphone - but it's easier to do on a netbook.

The netbook market exists because the perfect notebook/smartphone device hasn't been made yet. Notebooks aren't thin enough and smartphones aren't big/fast enough. The ultimate, ultra-thin Star Trek tablet just hasn't been invented yet and I suspect it's because we not only lack the UI but the hardware for it.

The Mini and netbooks like it are designed to fill a niche in your computing life, not to dominate it. With that established, let's look at the $349, 2.28 lbs, Dell Inspiron Mini.

Build Quality, Oh Sweet Build Quality
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  • jrinco11 - Thursday, September 25, 2008 - link

    for those interested in how it is w/XP, I wrote a bit about it here http://www.jrin.net/2008_09_25/dell-inspiron-mini-...">http://www.jrin.net/2008_09_25/dell-inspiron-mini-...

    in my opinion, it matches the acer aspire one except for it's better battery life and webcam (in low light), but the keyboard layout kinda sucks
    Reply
  • goobersnotch - Tuesday, September 23, 2008 - link

    I got my inspiron mini yesterday. 16 gig ssd version. it had 1 gig of ram but i swapped in a 1 gig ram stick (should've ordered 512 megs and saved $25). with webcam and bluetooth it came to $430 after an employee discount coupon.

    my thoughts? i love the system. it is a lot faster than the acer aspire one that i played around with at circuit city (but granted that was the low end 4 gig ssd linux version). it takes 20 seconds to boot up and comes out of sleep mode in 3-4 seconds. the acer takes 30 seconds to come out of sleep mode (and on linux no less).

    The keyboard? well due to the strange way i type, typing letters on my left hand is flawless, words that primarily rest on the left side i type fast and without typoes. right hand side on the other hand is a disaster. i have trouble getting used to anything that requires the right pinky other than the enter key. and i have trouble hitting the o and p keys. i hate where the ' key as well, as i have to pause and consciously find it in order to use it.

    however i feel like i can get used to it. after all, i'm not using this thing for anything other than web browsing, including working on docs in google docs. the hard drive space is a nonfactor, i still have 11 gigs out of 16 free and i don't see myself using much more since any local docs/images/music/etc that i download i am putting on a 16 gig sd card and most of my important docs are online on my box.net storage acct and in google docs. and my email is done in gmail because its way more convenient than using a local email client.

    no 3g? well I didn't want to pay $50 a month for slow internet anywhere, anyway. there's tons of wireless hotspots in austin.

    I would also recommend that anyone who gets a mini to put 2 gigs of ram in there, as it seems to considerably help in the # of apps you can run, or browser windows you can open.

    Overall, i love this system and dont regret paying extra for it when i could have gotten a cheaper, but inferior, acer aspire or asus eeepc.
    Reply
  • goobersnotch - Tuesday, September 23, 2008 - link

    whoops, in the first sentence, meant to say that i swapped a 2 gig ram stick in. it was only $46 from crucial.com

    Reply
  • DeadpanScience - Saturday, September 13, 2008 - link

    I't looks really nice. 8.9 inch screen, LED backlighting, convertible tablet mode, all for $699. Plus none of the reviews from laptop mag/umpcportal have really gone in-depth with their reviews. Give me some numbers please! Reply
  • J Beck - Sunday, September 07, 2008 - link

    Nice review, well done!! As others suggested, you ought to look at the Acer Aspire One. I have the Atom processor, XP, 120GB HDD, 1GB "150" model, for the same $349. It is killer. The only limitation is battery life as I have the 3 cell version and get only about 2 1/2 to 3 hours. But, I rarely use it "unplugged" anyway and a 6 cell battery is available. It lacks built-in Bluetooth, but a tiny Kensington Bluetooth usb dongle took care of that and with 3 usb ports, no worries.

    I can touch type very easily with no adjustment or learning curve and I am 6' with fairly large hands. The keys are all in the right places (it has regular punctuation and "F" keys and with great key sizes (especially the right hand "enter" and "shift" keys being larger as with full size keyboards). The touchpad has this amazing function. In addition to scrolling (along the right edge of the touchpad), you can zoom using touch strokes like the iPhone and Mac Air.

    The 120GB drive makes this really usable for the long run. I can't imagine 4GB, 8GB or even 16GB. My iTunes library alone would almost use any of those that. The screen is a backlit LED screen and it is super at the same resolution as the Dell. The build is as good as my newly acquired Dell XPS M1330.

    I thought this was going to be a toy or for really occasional use as this review sort of suggests the netbook category "must be". But, when I started using it, I found I can put everything I do on it and virtually carry my office anywhere around my house, my office or, for that matter around the world. The 120GB (with 2 memory card slots to boot!!) allows me to do that and not worry about a connection to the web or the security issues of "Cloud computing".

    Reply
  • kenbx84 - Friday, September 12, 2008 - link

    Sorry but this review is all wrong on prices. EEE PC 901 is now $499 with more bells and whistles and the EEE PC 1000H is $449 now with a lot better specs. Reply
  • ed21x - Sunday, September 07, 2008 - link

    With the Dell, you don't have a 1.3 mp camera, bluetooth, upgradeable SSD, or 6 cell battery that comes standard on the Asus. Once you upgrade all those options on the Dell, the prices come out to about the same. Add in $50, and you can step up to a 10'' screen and larger keyboard (Asus 1000H) which is a much better deal, and makes more sense, as that extra inch really makes the keyboard feel like a fullsize. I think comparing the prices of a low-spec'ed Dell to a full-spec'ed Asus is definitely biasing against the Asus. Reply
  • Igor37 - Wednesday, September 10, 2008 - link

    ed21x wrote: "With the Dell, you don't have a 1.3 mp camera, bluetooth, upgradeable SSD, or 6 cell battery that comes standard on the Asus. Once you upgrade all those options on the Dell, the prices come out to about the same."

    Personally, I like having the option, since I don't need Bluetooth or the camera, and could care less about upgrading the RAM or having a larger battery.
    Reply
  • Pixy - Friday, September 05, 2008 - link

    Despite the recent improvement I still like the design of the HP Mini-Note.

    I am still waiting for the Netbook market to mature before I casting aside my Sony SZ. Hopefully the internal hardware will improve enough for a fanless version which produces little heat to come out soon. Two things I hate most about laptops: heat and noise!

    I wonder whether Nvidia could have an advantage here because of their CUDA concept. Basically, it would create a Netbook with superb graphics capabilities and is able to run simple program, which is what the average consumer needs anyway.

    Intel and VIA, hurry up with the new chips. AMD... keep trying... and hopefully you can surprise me.
    Reply
  • weihlmus - Friday, September 05, 2008 - link

    dell already tried the fanless approach on the latitude X1 and for all the whole system was only using 10W or so (no battery) according to my power meter it still got feindishly hot after a few hours use - theres nothing worse than trying to type on a small format laptop with sweaty fingers!

    also when reviewing netbooks can you compare the power adapters? its one think having a 1 kilo netbook but then having the best part of a kilo of power adapter and leads to carry around is another... sureley the atom laptops can run from a wall wart not a standard 60W laptop power pack?!
    Reply

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