Monday, December 28, 2009

Dell Inspiron Mini 10v

Christmas brought me a new netbook, so now the total count of computers in my house is up to eleven. Although I had no incessant need for an ultra-portable laptop, as the resident geek of the family, I felt it necessary to "do the research" so I could give the family good advice if (when) they come asking about whether they should get a netbook. And anyway, I never turn down the opportunity to play with a new computer!

The netbook in question is the svelte Dell Inspiron Mini 10v. It's a tiny little thing, weighing in at a little more than two pounds. Like all netbooks, it's powered by the Intel Atom processor, the N270, with a top speed of 1600 MHz (it steps down to 600 MHz to save power when running on battery). Although it only has one physical core, it utilizes Intel's Hyperthreading technology so it appears as if there are two cores. I still get a kick seeing two processor graphs in the task manager.  It has only 1GB of RAM, a standard limitation of netbooks that I would otherwise gripe about except that in this case it doesn't seem to be causing a problem. Typical netbook usage does not require a lot of RAM-hungry applications so 1GB is more than enough to scrape by. The Intel GMA950 onboard-video is less capable; for common desktop applications it is sufficient but even rendering low-quality video from YouTube obviously stressed its capabilities. And forget about games entirely; beyond the simplest of titles, this computer isn't up to the task (although it didn't fare too badly with the nine-year old Uplink, which I inevitably install on every portable just so I can play it in public and freak people out).

The 160GB hard-disk may not sound all that impressive compared to the terrabyte-plus behemoths available in more capable machines, but it is more-than-sufficient to hold all my music and data; it may not be able to hold a lot of video but I'm not going to watch that on this machine anyway. The battery pack is an ungainly mass that protrudes from the bottom of the machine; it doubles as a foot to elevate the screen and offers almost five hours of operation on a single charge (nearly ten if you're careful), but it ruins the slim esthetics of the chassis. The system also boasts additional features such as a webcam (with disappointingly poor resolution), three USB ports, an ethernet jack, a 3-in-1 SD card-reader, Bluetooth and built in 802.11g/n Wi-Fi.

The keyboard is surprisingly comfortable. This was my biggest concern about using a netbook -my hands cramp easily on all but the largest keyboards- but I actually find it easier to type on the Inspiron Mini than on my 15" laptop. It is fairly responsive and has good travel. The touchpad is less useful; it is exceedingly twitchy and difficult to perform simple tasks with it. When I can't plug in a wireless mouse, I rely almost entirely on keyboard shortcuts rather than fight with the touchpad. The screen is suitably bright, but the 1024x600 resolution is very tight; for simple text-editing it is acceptable but work with any application with more than one toolbar -including the web browser- results in a lot of scrolling up and down the pages.

Still, none of these issues are surprising given the form factor of the computer; some sacrifices have to be made to fit everything into a 10"x7" package. I spent more time focusing on the the operating system than concerning myself with the hardware. The Inspiron Mini 10v comes with Windows 7 Starter Edition, which is Microsoft's stripped down version of Windows 7, intended for netbooks and "developing markets". The core of the OS is Windows 7, and shares all its strengths (and, depending on your opinion of these things, all its weaknesses). Originally limited to running only three simultaneous applications, this limitation of Windows 7 Starter Edition was fortunately removed prior to release. Nonetheless, it is missing many of the bells and whistles that makes Windows 7 stand out, including the Aero effects, DVD playback, remote media streaming and -oddly enough- the ability to change the background wallpaper.

The last is such an odd thing to remove from a modern OS that I spent much of my time trying to reclaim the ability (the moreso since the default wallpaper is so bland and unappealing). But Microsoft went all out ensuring that end users would not be able to reclaim this capability that has been standard to operating system for twenty years and I was unable to do so short of installing a third-party tool. Despite all the advantages Windows 7 otherwise brings (stability, security) this lack of so basic a feature makes the OS appear backwards compared to its competitors and Starter is thus a poor advertisment for an otherwise impressive OS.  Ultimately, I expect I will either downgrade to Windows XP or switch over to Ubuntu Linux; certainly I have no intention of paying Microsoft for an upgrade for features that should be standard to the operating system from the get-go.

Despite this, I am relatively satisified with my gift. For an ultra-portable laptop, the Dell Inspiron is very capable little machine. Much to my surprise, I found myself carrying it around everywhere almost immediately; its light weight and small size ensured it was never in the way when I didn't need it and was up to almost any task I'd throw at it (within reason) when I did. It will never replace my full-sized desktop -I'm too spoiled by all that raw horsepower to ever be satisfied with such a paltry CPU- but I already find the netbook  to be a more convenient supplement to the "big machine" than a proper laptop.

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