We've known for some time that Dell was working on a netbook-style laptop -- the same kind of small, low-power, inexpensive system made popular by Asus and the Eee PC line. And even though there are not many surprises in the £299 Inspiron Mini 9 (previous leaks revealed the system's design and features), it's still exciting to see a major player back the mini laptop concept in a big way.Design
In person, the Mini 9 is similar in design to Asus' 9-inch Eee PC. It's slightly thinner, at 27mm, tapering slightly towards the front. Our system had a glossy black finish, the only colour available in the UK at the moment. The US gets a white version, and most of the leaked product shots we've seen up to now show a red model.
The challenge for any mini laptop is to squeeze as much keyboard as possible into a very tiny space, and the Mini 9 does as good a job as anyone at it. The Dell letter keys are larger than on the 9-inch Eee PC, but certain keys -- including Tab and Caps Lock -- are reduced to small slivers.
In addition, the entire F-key row has been removed. F1 to F10 are now alternate keys of the A-L row. It's an interesting compromise to get the most surface area for everyday typing, and we'll have to spend some more time with the system before we decide if we like it or not.
Component-wise, the Mini 9 is similar to other recent netbooks, such as the Eee PC 901 and the Acer Aspire One, and includes Intel's Atom CPU, 1GB of RAM, a 16GB solid-state hard drive and Windows XP. Our American cousins can knock the price down by opting for a smaller hard drive, less RAM, no webcam or using Ubuntu Linux OS. We don't get any customisation options in the UK, which is unusual for Dell.
The Mini has three USB ports, headphone and mic jacks, a VGA out, SD card slot and an Ethernet jack -- a fairly standard set of connections in the netbook world. Opening the lid, the 8.9-inch, 1,024x600-pixel screen shares space with a webcam above and two small speaker grilles below.
We found the Mini 9 to be highly usable for Web surfing, emailing and even playing music files -- its speakers were surprisingly loud, if predictably thin-sounding. The combo of Intel's Atom CPU, 1GB of RAM and Windows XP found in almost every current netbook works well for basic tasks, as long as you keep expectations modest and don't mind occasional slowdown if you try to open too many browser windows at once.
The Mini 9 ran for 3 hours and 21 minutes on our video playback battery drain test, using the included four-cell battery. That's second only to the six-cell battery in the Asus Eee PC 901, and easily beats the Asus Aspire One and MSI Wind.
The system fully boots from a cold start in about 45 seconds, and thankfully, the desktop is not overly cluttered with advertising and promo links -- just a few icons for Dell's Support Center app and an online storage service (2GB of free online storage space is included).
Dell's entry into the netbook market means it's time to take these low-cost, low-power PCs seriously. The Inspiron Mini 9 is an excellent example of the form, if not radically different from the competition.
Update: A previous version of this review gave the Dell Inspiron Mini 9 a score of 7.3. This was due to an editing error and we apologise for the mistake.
Edited by Marian Smith