I've had my Dell mini for 2-3 weeks now and it's consumed much of my time and energy. I'd just like to offer my review to those who are thinking about buying one, and maybe some of you who already have one will find this interesting too.
I'd just like to stress that this is just my opinion, feel free to disagree with anything I say.
OK on with the show.
Hardware: for those of you who have one you'll appreciate just how tiny these things are. They definitely deserve the mini tag. I've owned laptops before but I've never carried them around with me like I carry my mini
- it fits into the car's glove box, or slips into a camera bag, and you can almost forget you have it.
This to me is quite an important point. With my other laptops I tended to carry them around the house from room to room, and occasionally leave the house with them, but the Mini 9 is so tiny I've taken it with me to places where I wouldn't normally take a computer.
I tend to leave mine connected to the mains adaptor when it's at home so it charges up, and when I'm mobile I unplug the AC and just take the mini. I get (I estimate) around 3 to 3.5 hours of battery life, and that includes web browsing, playing videos and even running virtual machines. I reckon I could extend that further if I wasn't doing anything too strenuous and enabled more conservative power settings.
I ordered a black one, which looks very sleek and nice. A downside to this is it's a fingerprint magnet and I'm forever cleaning the outside to remove fingerprints and dust. I guess they wouldn't show up as much if I'd ordered a different colour or if the cases had a more matt finish, but it doesn't bother me too much.
I'm not going to go into the technical specifications in too much detail, but I will mention the keyboard. I'm really not a fan, to be honest. I have the UK version and the keys are very small. They've had to cut some keys in half to fit them all onto the keyboard, and the most useful keys (backspace, questionmark, right-shift) are too small causing me to hit adjacent keys, and there's no right-control key at all (which makes using certain one-handed keyboard shortcuts more difficult).
Compare this to the lovely Samsung NC-10. The Samsung's keyboard is comfortable, normal sized and has all the keys...including the function keys. Dell, for some reason, decided they couldn't squeeze in 12 function keys on the top row so they made the middle keys double up as function keys so long as you hit the Fn button. Except they only give you up to F10... which is annoying as many internet apps go into fullscreen mode when you hit F11, and on the mini enabling fullscreen mode can be a godsend.
Software: In the short space of time that I've owned it I've tried several operating systems. Here they are, in no particular order:
Ubutnu 8.04 Dell version. This is the version that includes the Dell customisations, most notably the extra Windows-format compatible video codecs. To be honest this wasn't a huge draw for me as I tend to use VLC player for most things, and occasionally m-player with a suitable front end.
Ubuntu starts up with a large easy to read launch menu with links to many applications. The menu launcher can be customised - one of the first things I did was take off some of the links to Ebay and the usual Dell websites, but you can add your own links to your favourite sites if you want to. I'm guessing this is aimed at people relatively new to computers who might not know how to use bookmarks in Firefox to navigate their way around the web. I imagine this would be ideal for young children or even your grandparents if the Mini was to be used primarily by them.
Some gripes - first of all, Dell decided to rename Firefox as "Web browser"... supposedly to make it easy to use for inexperienced users. For people familiar with computers (ie me) this is annoying but not the end of the world. Also, I found Web browser (I'm going to refer to it as Firefox from now on) as slightly more sluggish than I'm used to. We're talking fractions of a second, but when you switch between tabs a lot those fractions begin to add up, and I soon began looking for an alternative.
Another gripe was the fonts - they're quite ugly. I believe this is something to do with licensing issues, but whatever the reasons I soon missed the prettier fonts I was used to in certain other operating systems (more on those shortly). I think what I missed most, something that's hard to define, is a sort of slickness. The operating system doesn't feel as slick somehow, it feels cobbled together, bits patched together so they work rather than an overall view of making everything consistent and polished.
I decided to install Opera and immediately things were different - the fonts looked smoother, the scrolling seemed smoother, web pages seemed to open faster, there was no lag when switching between tabs. Also Opera supports nifty features such as being able to zoom in or out of the page (things which Firefox supports with plugins).
Also, Linux seemed to work okay but as soon as some tinkering was needed things suddenly got very complicated very quickly. I thought that maybe Firefox could be speeded up by putting the temporary files in a RAMdisk. I had plenty of free RAM available on the Mini, whereas I had comparatively slow write speed using the SSD
so it would make sense to put the temporary internet files into RAM. So I googled and found some instructions on how to do this...I could have never worked it out myself. It seems the RAM disk in Linux is very clever as it's dynamic - it will grow and shrink according to how much is placed in it. Excellent. Unfortunately I didn't really notice a speedup when using Firefox. Maybe I did something wrong, I don't know.
Other things frustrated me... Firefox came preinstalled with a Yahoo toolbar. This is extremely annoying at the best of times but on such a small screen it's unforgivable. I ended up uninstalling it by going into the Synaptic Package Manager and unticking it in there.
I tried to get my mobile phone working as a modem under Ubuntu, but after asking around it seems the only way to do this is to either use a Bluetooth module (which I don't have) or upgrade to a newer version of Ubuntu, which I wasn't willing to do.
There was another problem I found, and this one tipped me over the edge about not wanting Ubuntu on my system any more. The two main applications I use are probably Firefox and VLC player. Unfortunately there seems to be a bug which causes sound to stop working. I did some googling and one suggestion was to type killall pulseaudio from a commandline, which appeared to fix it in the short term but would then break other apps until I rebooted.
Sorry, but the system should just work
I did manage to solve most of the problems I came across however, and I really tried to like the operating system, but ultimately I found that certain things irritated me, even though they did the job I asked them to. To use a car analogy (always a bad idea but anyway) it's a bit like being a taxi driver but having to drive a car that's been cobbled together by different companies, each one having their own ideas on how something should be accomplished. The car still drives, is reliable and gets the job done, but lacks the polish and pizazz of certain luxury cars.
I know there will be Linux lovers out there who disagree with me, and I have absolutely no problem with that, but my personal opinion is that Linux isn't right for me. Not yet. Or rather - the alternatives are better, if you have the cash.
I want to talk about Windows XP next. Windows is what I'm familiar with. I've used Windows since the 3.1 days, and used every version up to Vista. I really hate Vista...maybe hate's not the right word. I really despise
Vista. Even if my Mini could run Vista really fast and efficiently I wouldn't use it. So XP seemed like a decent choice - it's an 8 year old operating system running on inexpensive and not terribly powerful modern architecture.
Windows ran pretty quickly from the get go. I installed a copy which didn't come pre-loaded with all the usual crapware that Dell likes to put on their systems, and I'd say it booted in around a minute and only consumed around 140mb of RAM before any applications were loaded.
I was pleased to see that it recognised the 1024x600 screen resolution, the sound and the webcam etc without needing any Dell drivers. The Dell touchpad drivers were awful so I replaced them with the fully featured ones from Synaptec. Bliss. The first thing I installed was Firefox and adblockplus. Immediately the system seemed snappier and more responsive than when running Ubuntu, and the fonts looked better. However, there was still a little choppiness here and there and I wanted to see if I could maximise performance.
The first thing I did was to disable the Virtual Memory. My system has 2gb of RAM which ought to be plenty for the types of stuff I need the Mini for. I won't be running Photoshop, I'll mainly be running a web browser and occasionally Irfanview and an instant messenger. I disabled the virtual memory and rebooted. Windows loaded up normally and everything seemed to work. I opened up Firefox and a few apps and the system felt fast and responsive. I'm not sure if it was noticeably faster most of the time, but it was certainly no slower and my memory usage never approached even a gig.
I had had good results with Opera when I ran it on Ubuntu so I decided to give the Windows version a whirl. I noticed Opera have a beta version available so I downloaded and installed it. Opera is kind to you if you run a netbook as it doesn't take up too much room with menubars and icons, so you have more screen area available for viewing web pages. It's also good at resizing web pages so they fit on your screen, plus you can zoom pages in and out to accommodate your eyes. Enabling fullscreen mode was handy too, although it's a shame the Mini doesn't have an F11 key handy...
The new Turbo feature of Opera didn't seem to have any effect on the Mini, but I'm guessing it only kicks in when you're on a low bandwidth connection. I am going to give it a try once I've got my phone working on slow GPRS dialup. Opera Mini runs great from my phone so if it runs as well on the Mini I'll be in heaven.
In the end, I did find a web browser which did everything I wanted, and which I was very happy with overall: namely Google Chrome Beta 2.
The only thing Chrome didn't do properly was fullscreen mode,which was disappointing, but I'm sure it won't be long before that's fixed.
I have a friend who has a Quad-core Q6600 with 4 gigs of RAM running Vista and I watched her run Firefox on her computer. My Mini running Chrome seemed much faster to use. Admittedly I wasn't running all the background tasks she was, nor do I have the large monitor but I like to keep my computer lean and mean... watching the egg timer drives me nuts. And anyway, this is just a netbook, right?
I decided that the time had come now to have a dabble with Mac OS X. It's one of the main reasons I bought the mini in the first place. I've never used a Mac before... ever... and I've always wondered what all the fuss is about.
Thanks to the wonderful folks on this forum I managed to install OS X on the mini using a couple of USB sticks, some patience and several hours of "OMG what have I done to my computer?" type moments of panic when it didn't boot up properly.
I'd read a little on how to use OS X beforehand (particularly articles aimed at people who've come from the Windows world and have never used OS X before) so I wasn't completely green, but I must say I've found OS X to be a generally pleasant and wonderful experience. Save for a couple of minor points, which I'll address later.
I've taken to Mac OS X very quickly. It's responsive, the Open-GL based graphics run great considering the limitations of the onboard graphics, I love Expose (I dabbled with Spaces but I think it's overkill for me). I like the Apple approach to the Operating System... everything feels integrated and everything just works.
I've found that I've been able to work out how to do something without having to search online every 5 minutes. Just this morning, before I came to work, I plugged my old mobile phone in and was disappointed it didn't recognise it... but, I tried again, this time in a different USB port and... it worked! It mounted the phone and I was able to browse the contents of the memory card, without having to install drivers, without popup windows stealing my focus, basically with no hassle. I looked in Network and the OS had detected the phone's modem, and I'm going to try to see if I can connect to the net at GPRS speeds later. Better than nothing in an emergency I suppose.
So, how's the web browser performance compared to the other 2 OSes? The first thing I tried was Safari (3). Performance seems ok, very similar to how Firefox performs. It seems to load in slightly faster, although it's nowhere near as fast as the XP/Chrome2 combo.
I couldn't seem to find a fullscreen option in either Firefox or Safari, which was a little disappointing. I guess Apple don't expect you to be using OS X on such a tiny little screen.
I downloaded and installed the latest Beta of Safari 4 and it looks to be very promising. It seems a lot faster than Safari 3, better eyecandy and more intelligent usability features.
Opera too works like a charm. In fact, I'd say Opera is the most consistent browser, as it runs exceptionally well on all 3 operating systems.
I ought to point out that font rendering looks exceptional on OS X compared to Linux, although I'm sure many users couldn't care less.
I know this sounds rather obvious to you long-time Mac users but I only discovered last night that the OS has Apache built in! Very understated.
I managed to install Windows in a VirtualBox virtual machine which was pretty damn amazing on such limited hardware. Performance isn't exactly stellar but it's cool all the same. I'd really like to dual boot between XP and OS X but I think my brain's just about scrambled at the moment, lol
Connecting to wireless networks was probably easier to do on the Mac than Windows, although it's pretty easy on both. I never managed to connect to my Be router using Ubuntu no matter what I tried.
OK, so it's a glowing report for OS X so far. What are the gripes?
Well, firstly I was amazed to discover there's no decent image viewer built in. You double-click a photo and up pops a larger version of it... so you click the right arrow and nothing happens. WTF? Why can't I browse to the next photo? If I select multiple photos and then click open I have the option, but why isn't it there by default? Sure, the Windows one is basic but at least you can do that with it.
Also, there's no equivalent of Irfanview for the Mac that I've found yet. I've tried Xee and a couple of other apps but they don't seem as good or as feature-rich as Irfanview. I was amazed, considering the Mac's reputation for graphic design.
Is there an MP3 player similar to Winamp? I don't like iTunes.
The best instant messaging app I have found is Adium, and I really like it... but... I don't like the tabbed chat and I don't like how it's not as easy to switch between a browser window and a chat window as it is in Windows. The taskbar does have its uses...
Oh, and the trackpad doesn't scroll, but I understand there are possible fixes for that available already.
One other thing I haven't yet figured out is I can connect quite happily to Samba shares (even though that bit wasn't entirely intuitive) but I can't figure out how to get them to automount next time I boot.
Small gripes though.
So, that's my summation of my experiences so far. Oh, and I've tried booting into Ubuntu 9.04 from a USB stick. Looks nice and stylish, but I think I'll stick with OS X for now. Or XP.
I keep hearing lots of good things about Windows 7. I've avoided the beta so far, I may just wait for the full release.
Anyhow, I've had more fun with my Dell Mini than I've had with any piece of hardware in a long time. I've learnt more too.
Thanks for reading.