The Dell Mini 9: A Historian's Review

The subnotebook - or “netbook” - has become a hot gadget in the last year.  With the introduction of the Asus Eee PC just over a year ago, the market for budget notebooks has exploded.  The first Asus Eee boasted a two-pound, 7 inch screen starting at under $300, an attractive price compared to the “ultra-portable” laptops that often ran above $1,000.  Dell joined the netbook frenzy in October 2008, releasing the Dell Mini 9 for $349 (Linux) or $399 (Windows XP).

The system comes standard with 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270, 512MB of RAM, and a 4GB solid state drive, making it a very basic computing machine.  I made some upgrades to the memory (going with 1GB) and the hard drive (going with 8GB).  Being a fan of open source and a user of Linux on my previous laptop, I opted for Linux Ubuntu 8.04.  Ubuntu comes with all the gear I would need for my basic day to day tasks: OpenOffice Suite for word processing (alternatively I often use Google Docs for taking notes when I have access to wireless Internet), Firefox web browser (which I customized with Firebug, Web Developer, AdBlock, and Zotero), and media software for playing audio or viewing videos.  My only other addition has been JungleDisk so I have access to my Amazon S3 server.

Battery life thus far has been fantastic.  Installed with a four-cell battery, Linux estimates I can get nearly four and a half hours of life out of it (I suspect the number is actually closer to three and a half, but thats a far cry better than the one and a half hours I might get from my prior machine).

As the title suggests, this thing is tiny.  The computer is just over an inch thick (1.07”) and weighs just over two pounds.  It’s roughly the size of a book, and riding in my bag I would never know I had a computer with me.  The compact size makes trips to class, the library, the office, and archives a snap.  The display (1024 by 600 resolution) is sharp and clear.

In terms of hardware, the netbook comes standard with three USB 2.0 ports, VGA, Ethernet, and headphone and microphone jacks.  It also comes with a 4-in-1 memory card reader.

Now perhaps the most important part for historians:  the keyboard.  The keyboard might be less cramped than an Asus Eee’s keyboard, but it is still very compact.  Most of the alphanumeric keys are easy enough to use and drafting a document is fairly painless.  However, the Tab, Shift, and Caps key have been shrunk down or placed in unfamiliar spots.  The most frustrating relocated key has been the apostrophe/double quote key.  I find myself often hitting Enter instead (the normal position of the apostrophe key on a QWERTY keyboard is next to Enter), which can be quite irritating.  I’ve been able to retain touch typing rather than hunt-and-peck for the most part, but its been an exercise in retraining my brain to recall some of the new placements.  This computer isn’t designed to replace a main computer.  If you have thoughts about using this as your main computer, I recommend picking up a full-size keyboard, wireless mouse, and external monitor.  The keyboard construction, however, is well built.  There’s little flex in the keyboard as you type and the keys are responsive.

The touchpad is decently sized, has a good textured feel to it, has great sensitivity and response, and can easily naviage the desktop.  Two mouse buttons are located below the touchpad.

If the machine is reserved to word processing, surfing the web, or checking email, the Dell Mini 9 is a great machine.  As a portable tool for research, taking notes, or PowerPoint, coupled with its nice pricetag and ease of use, it would be hard to go wrong.

November 08, 2008 @jaheppler

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