Dell Inspiron Mini 10v netbook
The Small, Cheap Computer is back. Hurrah!
Review In the 18 months since Asus rocked up with its Eee PC 701 and kicked off the whole netbook malarkey, we've seen the number and types of devices that are nominally included in the category expand almost exponentially. As Ms Streisand so appositely noted, it was all so simple then.
Dell's Inspiron Mini 10v: a true Small, Cheap Computer
Of course, as with small hatchbacks and RAF fighter aircraft, as the breed has developed so it has become larger, heaver, more complex and more expensive. So whither the Small, Cheap Computer? Well, thanks to Dell, it's alive and well, thank you very much.
Over the last few months, Dell has quietly taken the axe to its UK netbook range. Gone is the Inspiron Mini 9 - which is a shame - and ditto the Mini 12, though that's less of a shame because it was cursed with a small and slow HDD, and Dell never saw fit to offer it with Linux or an SSD.
All Dell's netbook eggs are now firmly in the Mini 10 basket. The machine is currently available in three flavours: the Linux- or Windows-driven 10v, and the Windows-only, suffix-less 10. The key difference between the two sub-ranges is that the 10 uses Intel's hanheld device-oriented Atom Z520 and 530 CPUs, while the 10v uses the N270. We've chosen to look at the runt of the litter, the Mini 10v with an 8GB SSD, perhaps the purest iteration of the SCC since the halcyon days of the Asus Eee PC 701 and first Acer Aspire One.
Dell's netbook styling to date has been either pleasantly conservative or downright dull, depending on your sense of the aesthetic. The 10v is no exception, though a few cosmetic changes do make it the most attractive Dell Mini to date. To start with, the silver screen bezel that featured on both the 9 and 12 has been replaced with a matte black affair which looks a lot smarter. Secondly, the 10v's keyboard takes up a far greater percentage of the deck than was the case on the 9 or 12 and the palm rest is narrower, reducing the areas of dull black plastic that Dell had to try to make look vaguely interesting.
The 10in screen has 24 fewer pixels vertically than other netbooks do
The 10v is pretty well screwed together too, with no squeaks, groans or grinds coming from the chassis or screen hinge no matter how we tried to bend it. Thankfully, the body is only besmirched by two small marketing stickers.
Dell says the 10v's screen is 10.1in but it's not. We measured it and it's 10in dead. It has a 1024 x 576 resolution. Exactly why Dell has eschewed the more normal 1024 x 600 – the 10v's perfect 16:9 ratio notwithstanding - is anyone's guess, but at the end of the day unless you knew it was different you wouldn't actually notice. After all, what's 24 pixels between friends? Odd resolution aside the glossy screen is very pleasant to look at, being bright, sharp and vibrant.
No surprises on the port array...
Take a quick tour around the 10v and you will find that its external portage consists of two USB connectors, a Kensington lock, a three-in-one memory card slot and power jack on the left, along with a VGA port, 10/100Mb/s Ethernet socket, a third USB port and 3.5mm audio jacks on the right. Above the screen sits a 1.3Mp webcam and microphone while system lights are limited to a bright white power lamp at the front of the keyboard. Rather than fit an external Wi-Fi switch Dell make do with a Fn/F2 keyboard combo.
The only panel in the underside of the machine covers the wireless card, so swapping out the memory and/or hard drive will involve removing the entire rear casing.
...on either side
Being fanless and having an SSD, the 10v is quite literally silent in operation though it did get a good a bit warmer than the similarly fanless Mini 12 during extended periods of use.
With the standard 24Wh three-cell battery fitted, the 10v is hardly a porker, weighing in a 1.14kg and measuring up at 261 x 182 x 26.8-28.3mm around the houses, which makes it very similar to Acer's Aspire One D250. Our test machine had the optional 56Wh (5040mAh) six-cell battery, which adds about 300g to the weight and props the back the machine up by around 10°. Imagine sticking three rolls of £1 coins to the rear underside of your machine and you get the general idea.
The six-cell battery adds runtime.... and a little height
The 84-key keyboard looks and feels identical to that on the Mini 12, though Linux aficionados will doubtless be more than a little peeved by the presence of a redundant Windows button to the left of the space bar. Though the keys themselves are rather shallow their action is positive and the base is solid with little if any flex, making the Mini 10v an easy machine to type on if not a device to keep the designers of the keyboard on the Samsung N120 awake at night.
600 vertical pixels vs 576: the 10v (left) has noticeably less screen space than an Acer Aspire One (right)
Dell ships the 10v with Ubuntu 8.04...
...but we'd recommend upgrading to 9.04
The one-piece trackpad is new to Dell's netbook line up and though small - it's only 78 x 38mm - it has a nicely tactile surface and is pleasant to use over long periods of time. The click action is both firm and satisfying. We have heard reports that the 10v's trackpad can be a bit skittish if you are clumsy with your click-finger positioning, and though this is a fair comment, it's also a problem very easily rectified by simply ensuring that you press down on the far bottom left corner of the pad before you start moving the cursor rather than on the painted button mark, which is placed too far inboard. There's no multi-touch functionality, just the usual bottom and right scroll zones.
Nice, big keyboard
The exterior design does have one howling fault, however. Stick an SD card into the relevant slot and exactly half the card is left sticking out with its backside dangling in the wind ready to snap off at the slightest knock. This removes the option to leaving it in situ as a permanent storage addition, something you could do with both SD slots on the Acer Aspire One, one of which was completely flush while the other left the card protruding by no more than a few millimetres.
Under the hood, the Mini 10v is netbook business as usual with a 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270 processor and 1GB of DDR 2 memory. Wireless connectivity comes courtesy of 802.11b/g Wi-Fi though for an extra £15 you can spring for an 802.11n card. If you want Bluetooth, you're going to have to buy a dongle as it doesn't come built in and isn't even an extra-cost option for the 10v. The same goes for 3G cellular connectivity. For storage, Dell fits a 2.5in 8GB multi-level cell SSD. A 16GB SSD is an option too.
The 10v comes loaded with Ubuntu 8.04, or Hardy Heron to its friends. Annoyingly, Dell has fiddled with the set up so that users can't download and install Ubuntu updates or applications from the Ubuntu repository. The answer is to install 9.04 Jaunty Jackalope which works out of the box with the Mini 10v, though you do loose the Dell desktop dock - which is frankly something you can live without - and the built-in microphone. No doubt some bright spark will come up with a work around to fix the latter soon enough.
Upgrading to 9.04 also frees up more of the SDD for data storage – our machine had 2.6GB available when running 8.04, but 4.6GB following the Jaunty install.
Stick-out SD cards no good for on-board storage expansion
In terms of performance, the 10v does pretty much exactly what you would expect. Our Gimp Gaussian Blur test was dispatched in an eminently reasonable five seconds, and while the integrated Intel GMA 950 graphics core struggled with hi-def H.264 files, it managed to play a 1080i .AVI file at full screen in VLC without any problems. If HD movies are your bag, Dell will sell you a regular Mini 10 with a 1366 x 768 screen, HDMI port and GMA 500 GPU.
By way of a battery test we ran put the 10v through its paces playing a standard-definition H.264 video at full screen with the screen brightness turned all the way up to 11 and the Wi-Fi radio switched on. This yielded a result of 5 hours 8 minutes, which puts the 10v up amongst the better performing netbooks and equates to a real-world battery life well in excess of six hours. The absolute best we managed was eight hours 32 minutes with the Wi-Fi radio off and the screen brightness turned right the way down.
Video Playback Battery Test Results
Longer bars are better
Sound is provided by a couple of 1W stereo speakers tucked away in the front of the chassis. The noise they make is no match for the Samsung N120's speaker system but it is certainly an improvement over the sound put out by the Mini 9 or 12, or the Acer Aspire One, for that matter. Videos can be watched with the volume turned up to the max with no distortion whatsoever.
Dell bundles the Mini 10 with a handy one-piece power plug which makes for easy transport but neglects to supply a slip case of any type with which to actually wrap it all up. Just a little parsimonious, that.
Choice of colours
Price-wise Dell have hit the nail firmly on the head, getting the basic 10v in below the psychologically important £200 barrier, including shipping. Cough up another fifty quid and you can have Windows XP and a 160GB HDD. If you fancy more storage but don't want to go the Windows route the optional 16GB SDD will cost you an extra £40 as will a 120 or 160GB HDD. Want the larger six-cell battery? That will be an extra £40 as well. Dell clearly likes the number 40.
The Mini 10v takes the netbook back to its Small, Cheap Computer ideal and the end product is difficult to seriously criticise - the rather dowdy styling, silly SD card slot design and crippled out-of-the-box Linux OS notwithstanding. Of course, the first is a matter of personal taste while the last can be fixed by a quick Ubuntu upgrade so that only really leaves the rather dozy SD card slot and that's really not a reason to not buy one. ®
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