Scott Hanselman

Dell Mini 9 - Practical Developer's Review

December 4, '08 Comments [28] Posted in Reviews
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imageSay what you like about Netbooks, or Tiny Notebooks, but I love my Dell Mini 9.

It's tiny. That's the whole point. It weighs like 2 lbs, almost nothing. It is definitely purse-sized (or murse-sized) with a high WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor). It's already saved me twice when I've been out and about and needed to log into servers to fix stuff.

Even if you don't get a Mini 9, as long as your expectations are set appropriately for what the machine can do, you'll love your netbook. Omar got a EeePC and loves it. Others like one of these:

From Dell, on the very low end you can get one for US$349 with a 4GB SSD (Solid State Drive), Linux and a half-gig of RAM. Good for surfing, but little else. On the high end, you can get a gig of RAM and a 16GB SSD, which is more usable.

Specs

Some netbooks have Hard Drives, but the Dell has a silent memory-based SSD. Omar points out that most netbooks have similar specs:

  • 10 inch 1024 x 600 screen
  • 80 GB SATA hard drive
  • Intel Atom 1.6 Ghz processor
  • 512MB – 1 GB of RAM
  • WebCam
  • Bluetooth (Lenovo S10 does not)
  • WiFi (Asus has 802.11n while the others are b/g)
  • Ethernet 10/100

The Mini 9 also has an SD card slot, 3 USB ports, headphone/mic and VGA out. The SSD seems to get a buffered read speed of about 25Mb/sec, while my T60p does about 50Mb/sec. That benchmark number feels about right when compared to the perception of speed.

The speakers are surprisingly loud. I watch a full episode of Heros last night while on the treadmill and had no trouble hearing it. It's also worth noting that it's completely silent when running. It's so quiet it's hard to tell its on. One last thing that's significant, the screen is exceptionally crisp and bright. I didn't expect so small a laptop to have SUCH a clear screen.

I've heard people say it gets hot, but I just haven't see that at all. Some folks complain there is no F11 or F12, key. However, BIOS A02 (the currently shipping BIOs) uses Fn-Z and Fn-X for F11 and F12, so no problem there now.

Upgrades are Cheap and Easy

However, if you check out sites like http://www.mydellmini.com/, there are aftermarket SSDs in sizes like 32GB. I'm sure 64GB is on its way. One strategy is to by the smallest, cheapest Dell Mini, the get a 2GB memory chip from Crucial for ~US$26. The upgrade is literally a 5 minute affair.

I upgraded my to 2GB and bought it with the 16GB SSD. The SSD is slower than a regular HD in my experience, but in weird ways. For example, the thing boots from off to the Windows 7 desktop in about 15 seconds. However, if you have a LOT of things going on writing to the drive it seems to slow down. That said, it's TOTALLY usable.

This guy added a GPS to his Dell Mini 9. I suspect we'll see more cool hacks like this.

Coding

I'm running Visual Web Developer and SQL Server 2008 Express and doing just fine. I'll be taking it with me to South Africa this month as my only laptop. I'll be speaking at two User Groups and running all my demos on this machine. I think it'll work just fine as a slowish laptop. After installing Windows 7, VS.NET Express (not MSDN), and SQL Express, I've got 4.58 Gigs free on the drive, so I'm not feeling cramped.

When you plug in a large keyboard, mouse and monitor, it almost disappears, especially when you're using it at a reasonable resolution.

Performance

I use it while working out to watch Hulu.com and other 480p videos and the when plugged in, the frame rate is just fine, very smooth. It drops frames if you're compiling in the background or something.

I'm getting between 3 and 4 hours of battery life, depending on the brightness level and how hard it's working. It's definitely better than the 2.5 hours I squeeze out of my Lenovo T60p.

I plugged it into my 1600x1080 monitor and amazingly it worked fine. It kept the same color depth and the windows still had transparent Aero glass with my pre-release version of Windows 7. It did seem that the video card was working pretty hard though. When I turn off transparency and themes it moves faster, so you can tune the visual effects to your taste.

I haven't tested Outlook, but as I understand it, the seek pattern of PST/OST files is NOT something that SSDs like. Since the Dell Mini 9 has a SD slot, you can easily add another "drive" by putting a SD card in there. I added a 4GB SD card and made a new folder called "C:\Program Files (SD)" then linked it to the SD card with this command line:

mklink /d "C:\Program Files (SD)" E:\Program Files (SD)"

Then I installed some programs in there. You can do the same with data files like OSTs, but don't expect stellar Outlook performance for now.

Mini 9 Performance Tweaks

There are lots of folks trying lots of tweaks. Try them one at a time and see what works for you. It's very early. I would also point out if you're running a pre-release of Windows 7 that from what I hear, the bosses are big fans of these little netbooks, and if you remove some feature, you might be working against some optimizations that they might be building in. This is conjecture on my part - a gut feeling. I'm not on that team.

That said, I REALLY like running Windows 7 on my Mini. Again, not speedy, but not slow. My Windows Experience Score is 2.3, but that's just the video that's holding it back. The other scores are all 3.0, except the memory which is 4.4.

If you need a backup machine for travel, a "surfing while on the couch" machine, a small laptop for a modest (child, teen, non-technical spouse), or a purse-machine desktop-replacement for a spouse, I totally recommend the Dell Mini 9.

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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Thursday, December 04, 2008 2:00:18 AM UTC
Scott, could you give the 10 second version of how one loads an OS on one of these guys? Do I have to buy an external DVD drive or can I load off of a USB key? Don't have access to Win7 yet but how about Win2003? (MSDN subscriber.) Should I just buy the Linux version to save and then load from there?

Thanks,
Thursday, December 04, 2008 2:07:21 AM UTC
Scott what's the heat output on this like? All the dell laptops I've ever used have been somewhere in the neighborhood of "You can make nice brown toast with them and almost fry an egg" hot. I've even used a cooling pan with dual fans for certain ones and still find them warmer than I care for.

Thx
Tim
Thursday, December 04, 2008 2:27:33 AM UTC
@Andrew
You can follow the steps outlined in Dave Glover's blog to load an OS without an optical drive on the laptop:
http://blogs.msdn.com/dglover/archive/2008/09/11/creating-a-bootable-usb-windows-vista-drive.aspx

I had to install Windows 7 like that and it worked like a charm :-)

Veeral
Thursday, December 04, 2008 3:26:58 AM UTC
No concern that it has a 9" screen vs. other models that have a 10"? Reason I ask is b/c at sizes that small, 1" makes a big difference (10% on the diagonal).

Thursday, December 04, 2008 3:56:37 AM UTC
I was thinking of getting one for work. I've got the Lenova T61p, and it sits at home. I don't carry my laptop to work at all. I use my desktop for everything, but Outlook and Windows search suck up more resources than I'd like. So I was thinking that one of this Mini's would be good for e-mail, word, etc., and 2lbs I can stand carting to work. How much slower is the Outlook PST file on the SD? Have you tried that?
Thursday, December 04, 2008 4:31:12 AM UTC
I'm not sure why Scott is such a big fan of the Mini because there are much better netbook choices out there.

The main problems with the Mini are:

1. Keyboard lacks function keys
2. Unusual keyboard layout (the apostrophe is out of place, etc)
3. Cannot use standard 2.5" laptop HDDs

#3 in particular is a killer, because the small/cheap/tiny SSDs that go with <$300 netbooks are extremely slow, often less than half the speed of any standard 2.5" laptop drive.

It also makes upgrading really tough.
Thursday, December 04, 2008 5:22:39 AM UTC
I thought that ready boost is best when you have 2xInstalled RAM configured. In your case you should get the 8 or 16GB SD card and use 4GB for ReadyBoost. Or am I wrong on that assumption?
Thursday, December 04, 2008 6:36:03 AM UTC
Helpful review Scott, it might be the last push I needed towards buying a netbook myself. I'm just a little concerned about the finite reads and writes nature of the SSD. I've had flash memories gone bad in the past, is this something to worry about on SSD's?

One last thing. According to this guy you really should defrag your SSD.
Thursday, December 04, 2008 8:36:06 AM UTC
Hi Scott,

Any links to the user groups you'll be presenting to in SA?

Thanks,

Matt
Thursday, December 04, 2008 8:38:28 AM UTC
Matt - Here's one http://sadeveloper.net/forums/thread/15712.aspx and I'll find the Cape Town one and blog tomorrow.
Thursday, December 04, 2008 2:05:47 PM UTC
I just ordered one from Dell.ca. This positive review makes me even more comfortable with my choice. Thanks

As of a few days ago, both Dell.com and Dell.ca have a 32GB SSD option.

I'm definitely doing the 2GB RAM upgrade and installing the PDC Windows 7 overtop of Ubuntu.
Eddie
Thursday, December 04, 2008 2:27:09 PM UTC
It's cool to have a tiny a I have SONY VGN-TZ398U/XC but I think it's so good for developing unless you change your IDE font sizes :D
Thursday, December 04, 2008 2:48:52 PM UTC
Scott,

Jeff Atwood raises one of the same concerns I have, namely the weird keyboard layout/apostrophe key being out of place. Can you comment on that at all? Have you found it annoying switching between that and a regular keyboard or do you get used to it?

I was really interested in the Mini 9 because it's a great looking little system and reasonably priced, until I saw the system... what do you think?

I must admit, it's tempting to get one for CodeMash 2009...

David
Thursday, December 04, 2008 3:41:49 PM UTC
Thank you for the review. I just ordered one of these for my nontechnical spouse. She's been tough on laptops in the past, so I'm hoping some variety of smaller, lighter, and fewer moving parts will be a good thing.
John Mo
Thursday, December 04, 2008 4:46:46 PM UTC
I was thinking about getting one of these as an ebook reader. Compared to a Kindle or a Sony eBook reader, this is a steal. With the added plus that I can code on it, why think twice?
Thursday, December 04, 2008 5:37:30 PM UTC
Scott,

Great to see you picked one of these up. I was the guy in the front row of your great PDC talk that was using one.

Quick question, are you using the version of Windows 7 that was released at PDC? Or do you have a newer build. If it is the same, can you explain the drivers you used? When I installed that version to the mini, it would freeze a minute after boot-up.

Regards,

John
John Deary
Thursday, December 04, 2008 6:06:05 PM UTC
Thanks for your thoughtful commentary.
Friday, December 05, 2008 7:24:52 AM UTC
@JP Hamiltion - I am thinking of the exact same thing! I want to take a lot of pdfs and e-books with me on the bus but the phone is way too small, and a full laptop just seems way too big. I like the fact that I can fit this machine in a shoulder bag. I think this will be my xmas/bday present for myself.

Scott, how you feel about the 16 GB SSD? Is that sufficient space? What is your space usage breakdown (eg: apps, os, multimedia, etc...)
Saturday, December 06, 2008 5:02:49 AM UTC
I bought an EEE PC 1000H and would highly recommend it or the 1000HA (especially over the Dell as the cost comparison is in favor of the Asus). This or the Samsung. Love it. I'm actually quite shocked, as performance-wise, it's much better than I anticipated. In fact, it's better than the laptop I used as my main development machine not that long ago. Popped in a total of 2GB RAM.... If you don't need bluetooth and Wireless-N, can pick up the 1000HA for $50USD cheaper.

Pros:
- The screen is massively bright. Really really bright.
- The mouse gestures on the 1000H are the best I've seen on a PC. Not as good as a Mac, but still good (two finger scroll, three finger right-click).
- Four hours of battery life under heavy usage! Even more under less usage.
- Can't wait to drop Windows 7 on it.
- No heat issues whatsoever.

Cons
- It's a 10" screen. Big upside with battery life, size, and price because of it, but would be nice to get 1024x768 out of a slightly larger screen it instead of just 1024x600.
- Good thing mouse gestures rock, because the mouse buttons suck: take a lot of pressure to click. Although at least they're in the right position compared to a lot of netbooks
- XP Home....'nuf said. Apparently Vista runs half decently...
- The right shift key is in the wrong spot.
- Wish there was a Fn lock for when I read the newspaper on it I could easily page down/up with just one button instead of two.
Sunday, December 07, 2008 8:44:39 PM UTC
I have a Mini 9, with XP (I had it loaded with Ubuntu but it was buggy and I decided I really didn't want to learn a new OS language, after all; however, I much preferred the Ubuntu interface), 1G of memory and an 8G SSD. The keyboard takes a bit of getting used to, yes, but writing a bit of email, doing some light blogging and working on small documents is all the typing I'll be doing on this machine, so it's okay. The more you use it, the more you get used to it.

The battery life is excellent, the graphics are good, and the speed is good enough. Video is crisp and stable, sound is fine for watching videos. I also bought the bag that has a pouch in it where you can store the small charger. Contrary to what I had hard, there is no heat at all. The computer opens easily and the hardware is stable. Though I am not much of an XP fan, I can live with it for the few things I want to do. We have a very fast and powerful notebook I like to use in different rooms of our house when I am away from the desktop, and also to take on trips. But the Mini 9 is something I can just throw on my shoulder and take to a coffee shop, my office, or to one of the other facilities where I often work.

I really like my Mini 9 and highly recommend it.
Monday, December 08, 2008 2:24:31 AM UTC
Looks promising, and the good thing is Vodafone has released a Dell 9 bundled with 3G internet access here in Portugal. Neat!
Monday, December 08, 2008 2:39:50 AM UTC
The ' key (apostrophe) is the killer for me. But I read somewhere that you can re-map the keyboard. I can't believe where they put that key. What were they thinking?
Derek
Monday, December 08, 2008 3:27:21 PM UTC
Any feedback on how the mini links up with projectors for presentations. I'm gessing an upgrade for memory would be necessary ... but am thinking about one for travel / international presentations.
Jomama
Monday, December 08, 2008 5:21:05 PM UTC
Hey Scott,
Even though I work for Dell, I bought my own Mini Inspiron and like you absolutely love it. My vertical market is primarily education (K-12) and it is the perfect computer for that. My wife is a first grade teacher and her kids love the computer. They even asked her when she was bringing it back. Now she has asked for one as well.

Dell appreciates these unsolicited reviews in the blog spaces.

Thanks!!!!!
Martin Yarborough
Tuesday, December 09, 2008 3:17:17 AM UTC
Jomama,

I just happened to see this the other day: http://tinyurl.com/6larf8
Tuesday, December 16, 2008 5:35:15 AM UTC
Samsung NC10 is the best in this category. Best keyboard feel and layout. Best battery (can easily do 6+ hours of work). Professional non-glossy look if you get the white version. RAM can be upgraded to 2GB easily. XP is surprisingly quick on this thing. Believe it or not I use it more than my Macbook Pro.
mgutz
Tuesday, January 13, 2009 3:51:03 PM UTC
Wow, people actually still listen and read this guy's blog? The mini is a good machine however.
Mark
Tuesday, January 13, 2009 7:15:57 PM UTC
Nice to see you too, Mark. ;P
Comments are closed.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.