Small on price, big on.. not much
Jan 13, 2011
Review by s-o-m-e-g-u-y
Rated a Very Helpful Review
User Rating: Excellent
Ease of Use:
Quality of Tech Support:
Pros:Small, affordable, plenty of harddrive space, enough to get the job done in most instances
Cons:1gb RAM standard, no gigabit ethernet, no optical drive, AWFUL touchpad
The Bottom Line: You get what you pay for, so if your needs are small, in this case your pricetag will be small too
The Inspiron Mini 10 is another low-price netbooks on the market utilizing the Intel Atom processor, in an effort to get people using small, ultra-portable PCs on the cheap. It isn't what I would characterize as a PC for the masses, but I think that in general it's a PC that young people wouldn't mind using, especially if being thrown in a backpack for school.
Recommend this product?
Before proceeding with the review, I should note that I've replaced the stock operating system (Windows 7 Starter 32bit) with Windows 7 Home Premium 64bit, and also installed a 2gb DDR2-667 in place of the stock 1gb DIMM. These aren’t options that are available from Dell, but Dell Windows 7 media works just fine, and it’s easy to upgrade the RAM (check out YouTube for some “how to” videos).
Physical construction: It's small. 10.5" wide x 7.75" deep x 1.25" thick, and measuring a hair over 12.5" diagonally, it's about the size of an average textbook, although a smidge lighter. For its overall size it feels thick, especially compared with other notebook offerings from Dell and the like, but I certainly don't think that there's anything "wrong" with that. The case, not surprisingly considering the cost, is all plastic, and feels rather cheap. But hey, what were you expecting from a $300 netbook? It's all glossy plastic, with the palmrest area being slightly textured to give a faux carbon-fiber look, but the screen (both front and back) being glossy black is just BEGGING to be touched... and when you do, it receives a nice finger smudge for your effort. It's also worth noting that on the palmrest there are some rubber bumpers (to prevent the screen from touching the keyboard area) that leave their own marks on the LCD bezel, so if you're a neat-freak, you'll be cleaning it all day long. A microfiber cloth will clean it quickly, and restore it back to its original shine, but wouldn’t have been easier to build it with matte plastic?
Hardware basics: Simply put, it's not very fast. The Mini 10 comes with a 1.66ghz Intel Atom N450 processor, and even though it's up to the task of day to day work, do NOT expect it to get anything done in record speed, let alone on time. It's a single-core chip, although it does feature Intel's Hyper-threading technology, so you'll see two processors in the task manager. Let me be clear: this is a SINGLE processor unit (compared to most any other notebook or desktop coming with a dual core, if not quad core processor), and trying to perform any processor intensive task will stall the system until it's complete. As noted above the unit comes stock with 1gb of DDR2 (which I upgraded to 2gb), which will get the job done, albeit not very well. Expect a lot of hard drive utilization with the 1gb stick installed, as even with the 2gb upgrade it really would be nice to have a little more. Speaking of the hard drive, the curiously large 5400rpm drive checks in at a spacious 250gb, which should be plenty of room for most anyone. It’s not hard to amass lots of MP3 music and digital photos, so I'm glad that Dell didn't skimp on the hard drive space for this little guy; I think the only thing worse than an underpowered netbook would be an underpowered netbook with limited storage. The drive is quiet (whether that's due to the drive, or the design of the netbook I'm not sure), and runs well all things considered. I like the idea of loading on a 64bit OS on to this contraption as well, because the CPU supports it. Make no mistake, Internet Explorer isn't going to run any better, and your Facebook won't suddenly get new friends, but with a CPU this slow, it only makes sense to make it as efficient as possible; there are more and more pieces of software being created nowadays that will run natively in a 64bit environment, and when there is so little processing power to go around, I don't see why you wouldn't take steps to take full advantage of everything that you've got.
Inputs/outputs: Three USB 2.0, a VGA port (for an external monitor), headphone and microphone jacks, and a 10/100 LAN port. You've also got a built in 1.3mp webcam (with internal mic) which is an awesome addition for use for things like video chatting on Skype. The video card does support dual displays, so if you're inclined for some reason to run this netbook with an external monitor at the same time, it's a very real option. As mentioned above, because the video card is hardly a world beater, you might run into some performance issues trying to run dual monitors, since it goes from being overworked to being overworked twice over. I'm a little disappointed that the Mini 10 only has a 10/100 LAN, and not gigabit, but I suppose it's not a deal breaker. It seems to me that for the most part you'll be getting programs, media, etc from the network (if not the internet), and because of that it would be nice to have a faster network interface. It comes standard with an 802.11G wireless networking card (which is what my unit came with), but there is an upgrade option to an 802.11N card. The range and performance is fine, and exactly what you'd expect for a generic 802.11G device; the Dell 1397 wireless card has been a mainstay in Dell’s wireless lineup for years, and the fact that it’s still being used here gives me confidence that it’s not going to fail.
Audio/Video: The Mini 10 comes with a 10.1" glossy 1366x768 screen that looks, in my opinion, fantastic. It's not too bright, but the colors look good and the sharpness is excellent! The installed video card is an Intel GMA (graphics media accelerator) 3150, which comes with 64mb of onboard video memory, and can allocate an additional 192mb of system memory, for a total of 256mb. This chip is not meant for playing games, it's not meant for playing back high resolution video, and it's certainly not meant for any kind of graphics intensive work. However, it's good enough to get the job done with regard to surfing the internet, composing emails, and goofing around on the Facebook/Myspaces of the world. "Hey I watch Youtube too!" you're probably saying... well, you're in luck! The Mini 10 also ships with a Broadcom CrystalHD video decoder card. This little guy will take the load off of the processor for any heavy lifting it would otherwise have to do when watching "HD" Youtube videos. Before updating drivers I tried to play a 720P Youtube clip, and even though the audio was fine, the video looked like I was watching a slideshow, and not a very well timed slideshow at that. Without this card (Google it for the latest drivers, and make sure you update Flash at Adobe.com) the playback of quality video would be nearly impossible, and it would be a shame to not be able to on a screen of this quality. The CrystalHD decoder card is also supported by MPC-HC, otherwise known as Media Player Classic Home Cinema (as well as Cyberlink PowerDVD, Arcsoft Totalmedia Theater, Kmplayer and GOMplayer). This media player will play just about any video file that you throw at it, and with the decoder card it won't skip a beat! The only caveat is that it ONLY supports the x86/32bit version of MPC-HC, so even if you install a 64bit OS like me, you've GOT to install the 32bit version, otherwise you’ll be watching a skip-tastic slideshow. Windows Media Player is also supposed to support the Broadcom CrystalHD decoder card, but for some reason it never kicked in properly for me. I should note that without the decoder card installed or enabled, the system still has enough oomph in it to play back smaller, lower quality video files, as well as DVDs with little issue. The audio... well, it's not very good. With the volume cranked up to 100%, it's about where I leave my sound level at day to day. If you want more than a few people to hear what you're doing, or you want to fill a room up with music, you're going to need a pair of external speakers. The quality of the speakers is what you’d expect from a small laptop; tinny and no depth. I don’t like the quality of laptop speakers in general, and this neither an exception, nor a surprise.
Input: The touchpad, in a word, sucks. It sucks real, REAL bad. My biggest problem is that there aren't any dedicated buttons for the left/right click, but instead you press down the corners of the touchpad, and they bend in a little bit for the click. The problem is that they're stiff, and when you go poking the touchpad your cursor is likely to move around! You may also have a tendency to keep your finger in the corner, like you would a button, but if you do that the cursor won’t move because it can only track one finger at once. Of course, like many touchpads the tap click works (where you tap the touchpad, and it's interpreted as a left click), and you'll want to start using that ASAP or you'll likely drive yourself insane. The touchpad also isn't very sensitive, and there have been a number of times where it doesn't pick up my finger until I'm done, or nearly done with my motion; I've been using laptops for years, and this is easily the lowest quality unit I've used. One plus that it DOES have going for it is gesture support, and limited multi-touch support. You have the ability to use two fingers to scroll up/down or left/right on the webpage/document you're on, as well as using three fingers in a quick left to right swiping motion to go back/forward. There's also support for photo rotation gestures, but I decided not to risk it on such a quirky touchpad. It's worth noting that this is with the OEM Synaptics drivers in Windows 7 Home Premium x64, and the gesture features may not work in the stock Windows 7 Starter; I did try the touchpad in 7 Starter though, and it was just as bad there as it was after reinstalling 7 Home Premium. The keyboard on the other hand, isn't half bad. There is decent response to the keys, and it doesn't feel like I'm typing on a $2 keyboard. Due to the size of the notebook, however, it has shrunk a little bit, and I'm estimating by about 10-15%; not enough to make a huge difference, but enough that you'll miss keystrokes here and there until you get used to typing on the smaller keyboard. Of course, because of the reduction in size, you'll see some buttons have been mushed in to other buttons using the Fn key. Page up/down have been mapped to the up/down arrow, and home/end have been mapped to the left/right arrow. You've also got other Fn buttons like the battery display button (F3), brightness adjustments (F4/F5), and a button to enable/disable wireless functions (F2).
Upgradability: This is a tough one, because generally notebooks don't have a ton of upgrade options. On most notebooks you can add/remove memory, hard drive(s), wireless cards, and most of the time even the CPU (if you can find a replacement part). This unit is a different story. There's a single slot for RAM (hidden under the keyboard, underneath a plate with a screw in it) that supports a stick up to 2gb, running at speeds up to DDR2-667. The hard drive is also under the keyboard, which you can replace easily with a few screws, but without really tearing down the laptop that's about it. I suspect that the Broadcom video decoder is installed in a mini PCIe slot, and I don't doubt that the wireless card is in a similar slot on the underside of the notebook, which you would have to almost fully disassemble to remove. I haven't looked, but I don't doubt that the Intel Atom processor has also been soldered onto the board, both as a cost saving feature as well as a means to ensure it isn't upgraded. I don't see this is a big deal, however, because 98% of users would hardly think of replacing their processor, let alone try to do it, not to mention the fact that many ultra-portable notebooks have their CPUs soldered onboard as a way to save space. I also don't think I like the fact that Dell isn't offering any upgrades to this unit either, with the exception of a mobile cellular radio. It supports 2gb of RAM, why not offer it as an upgrade? It supports a 64bit OS, why not offer it as an upgrade? I understand that this is a device that's marketed towards the value segment, but a RAM upgrade is pretty simple, and cooking up a 64bit image to deploy with these things isn't exactly hard to do. On the bright side of things, the three USB 2.0 ports offer enough expansion for the long term. Aircard? Printer? Wireless mouse? All available via USB.
Other: I'm disappointed by the optical drive, and by that I mean the lack of an optical drive. I'm of the mind that you need to have one, and even though I understand that there's no room for it on the notebook, I really would have liked it if Dell had included even a USB DVD-ROM (or a burner)drive in a bundle. Even though most anything can be downloaded nowadays (and in most cases SHOULD be downloaded) there are still a LOT of people that rely on discs for drivers for things like printers, as well as software like Microsoft Office. Also, what happens if your hard drive takes a dive? Are the included driver and OS recovery DVDs going to somehow interact with your USB ports without a piece of hardware in between? I don't think so. To be fair, Dell does offer external drives in the ordering process (in addition to a lot of other accessories that you don't need), but many people will probably skip past that screen and not see the big red letters that read "System does not come with a DVD or CD drive. The external drive below is needed to access DVD or CD media. Drive may be required for OS recovery." Also, even though I understand that they're trying to make money, Dell asking $60-80 for a device that should be included is pretty lame, considering you can get comparable devices elsewhere for $40 and up not including rebates.
Overall I would say that this little guy is a decent investment, depending on how much you pay for it. I picked it up at the Dell Outlet refurbished, and that's about the price point I would say is acceptable (sub $300). A couple bucks on a memory upgrade is well worth it in this case, as $30-40 will double the available memory to a level that I don't feel too bad about, and the screen really does make things look great. I think the part I liked most about this netbook is the inclusion of the Broadcom video decoder, because without it, I would be extremely disappointed. It doesn't seem like much, but not being able to watch HD Youtube videos, let alone other HD quality video, would leave me very bitter about the situation. I would also recommend buying a laptop sleeve to give it a little protection; with a laptop this small you’re probably not going to buy a dedicated case, but a sleeve provides some protection for when you toss it in your bag. A wireless mouse (the Logitech VX Nano is one I really like) would also be a great add-on so you aren’t stuck with that piece of plastic they claim is a touchpad.
Amount Paid (US$): 289
Operating System: Windows
Processor speed: over 1000
Screen Size: 10 inches
RAM: More than 256
Hard Drive (GB): Over 50
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