Dell Mini 10 Review and Windows 7 Preview

Overall Score

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We’ve come a long way, haven’t we?

This is a bit of a special review because it’s a set of first for XCPUs.  Not only is this our first netbook review, but this is the first with a view to an operating system.  Our old friend (or nemesis, depending on what side of the fence that you stand on) XP and the so new it isn’t even technically out yet, Windows 7 are competing on a very interesting playing field.  First though, let’s take a good look at the hardware that we’ll be working with.

The hardware in question this time, is the Dell Mini 10.  Mini is the operative word folks.  Having working with what to us are small laptops like the OLPC as well as numerous 12in laptops, this is definitely the smallest that we’ve ever dealt with.  I’m in no way a small guy, so my opinion as a reviewer is slightly skewed from a tall man’s perspective, but this device is tiny.  As in, you could lose it in your couch small.  It gave us pause especially when one considers that Dell makes a Mini 9.  How could it possibly be any smaller?

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Unlike our usual penchant for supersized hardware (X58, GTX295’s. and ATCS oh my!) in this case, small is good.  Small is great, small is more than wonderful.  Small, frankly, is the chocolate chip in this cookie.  Heck, it’s a netbook.  Small is the point! Its small size makes it perfect for on the go net use, or for taking notes without having to use something as archaic as pencil and paper.  Or for even watching movies on the go.  Or for typing out a review while waiting for hours at the barbershop.  But before we continue on, we’d like to take a brief moment to clear the air on netbooks.

We’ve seen a lot of the debate about the usefulness of netbooks, especially with regard to what many see as an underpowered device with severely crippled hardware.  Let’s be honest with ourselves for a bit.  If you talk about a netbook not being powerful enough for gaming, you need a laptop.  Not a netbook.  If you talk about your inability to have iTunes convert songs quickly on your netbook, you’ve bought the wrong device.  If you’re complaining about the lack of space on your netbook, again, you need a laptop.  These are two separate classes of devices, as distinct and unique to each other as desktops and laptops.  Quite frankly, never should the twain meet.  Netbooks, to the review staff at XCPUS are supposed to be super lightweight.  They don’t need all that power.  When talking about netbooks, battery life should always take precedent over, “moar power”.  But enough of that, let’s talk more about the sexy hardware we all love.

We were surprised by the solidness of the device.  For something so diminutive and lightweight, it has a feeling of strength to it, more so than other Dell devices (the Studio 15 came to mind).  Built from your typical plastics and metal (more plastic than metal) found in just about every netbook/laptop, the device is one of the most compact 10-inch netbooks on the market. Measuring 10.3 x 7.2 x 1.3in, it’s both thinner and shorter than the Samsung NC10 and the ASUS Eee PC 1000HE.  To put this in perspective, the Mini 10 is about as high as a standard 3.5in hard drive and also as heavy (or light, if you’re a glass half full kind of person).

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While certainly not as thin or light as the 1in, 2.4lbs HP Mini 1000, at only 2.6lbs it’s more than able to fit into a handbag or a small backpack.  Its single cord, 0.4-pound AC adapter is also more compact than most of its class and quite a welcome relief from dragging about power bricks that weigh about a pound and get quite hot themselves.

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The Dell mini 10 has a 10 inch display and is capable of displaying HD images at a resolution of 720p.  One of the quirks that we found interesting on the Mini 10 is Dell’s choice of resolution, 1024×600.  While perfect for the Mini’s display, when using an HD display via the provided HDMI port, the Mini 10 apparently won’t run the obligatory 1024×600 resolution, but instead use a properly formatted 16:9 aspect ratio screen with a 720p resolution (1280×720).

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Surprisingly, the Mini 10 has a larger keyboard than the Mini 12.  While both are 10in wide, the Mini 10’s keyboard, at 4in, is about 0.3 inches deeper than the Mini 12 which is a result of larger bottom keys.  While the touch and feel of the black matte keys are the same as on previous Mini’s, Dell expanded the keyboard panel all the way to the outer edges of the deck.  Issues found on other Mini’s like the 9 are gone.  Dell provides a full size Shift key and it’s found in what is considered a customary location directly below the Enter key.

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Multi-Touchpad
To save space, Dell integrated the right and left mouse buttons into the touchpad itself.  Unfortunately, the buttons are quite small and not as usable as a traditional setup, so those with larger hands may find themselves cramping their fingers in an effort to reach the buttons.

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Since the touchpad features Elantech’s multitouch gestures (including rotating, two-finger scrolling and pinching to zoom), it has a bit of a learning curve. When we tried to left-click on the pad while inadvertently dragging another finger on it, we unintentionally zoomed in on a window. Disabling the pinch-and-zoom gesture in the settings helped solve the problem and we found it easier to scroll using two fingers. Users of the iPhone though should be able to master the Mini 10’s touch pad in a reasonably short amount of time since the gestures are practically the same. This is no failing on the part of the Mini 10, but a lack of experience on the fairly new technology.
 

Ports and Slots
The left side of the Mini 10 has (from back to front) a Kensington lock slot, one USB port, and a 3-in-1 memory card reader. The right side houses an Ethernet jack, two more USB ports, an HDMI port, and microphone and headphone jacks.

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The inclusion of the HDMI port was done not only as a method of providing a video output for the Mini 10, but also as a way to save valuable space (a D-Sub or DVI port is at least twice the height of HDMI).  Most users, however will need an adapter for the HDMI port since very few projectors and monitors utilize HDMI.  This though isn’t a large issue since adapters are quite cheap on sites such as Newegg.

Performance and Graphics
While most netbooks to date have used the 1.6-GHz Intel Atom N270 processor, Dell opted for the same 1.6-GHz Intel Atom Z530 Silverthorne-class CPU it put in its Mini 12, which was designed for devices with smaller form factors.  That, coupled with 1GB of RAM and Windows XP or Windows 7, provides the typical netbook experience.
 

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Taking apart the Mini we find some interesting things about the way Dell set up the device.  For one, the RAM, chipset, and CPU all reside on a single daughterboard.  This poses a problem for anyone looking to upgrade the RAM in their system, and almost insures that if a component like the RAM or the CPU goes bad, the system must go to Dell to be repaired.  

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The heatsink on the Mini is equivilent to a small sheet of heavy duty aluminum foil.  As a matter of fact, it really is more of a heatspreader, like one would find on most sets of RAM now.  This small size is for a reason.  The Atom CPU puts out almost no heat by itself.

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The weak link in this chain however, has to be the Poulsbo US15W chipset. It’s the large chip in the pictures that you’ll see.  By our measurements the US15W chipset on the Mini puts out approximately 80% of the heat dissipated by the small aluminum heatsink.  This is a dissapointment, since Intel had mature 65nm chipsets well before the arrival of Atom.  We can’t say if this is cutting corners, but having such an antiquated chipset really holds back the potential of all netbooks equiped with this setup.  Not only is US15W relatively power hungry compared to other netbook chipsets from Via or Nvidia, it’s also what gives the Mini its laughablely weak video performance.  Surely, once Intel moves to 65nm and 45nm chipsets, we’ll not only see battery life soar, but we’ll also get decent graphics performance out of these devices.  Intel, however, may miss the boat on this market entirely, as netbooks based on NVidia’s far more capable 9400M chipset are due out in early summer. [Note: Atom Z chips are incompatible with Nvidia’s 9400M chipsets]

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We couldn’t run the usual PCMark05 CPU intensive test on the system, but on Geekbench (which measures CPU and RAM performance) the Mini 10 scored 815 and 813, respecitvely, in Windows XP and Windows 7.

From our experience, the Mini 10 with both XP and Windows 7 responded well and quite quickly.  Firefox and Windows Media Player opened quickly, and we saw no performance hit while typing this review in the provided Microsoft Works word processor, watching videos on Youtube, and listening to MP3s.  However, the Mini could not open 3DMark06, and locked up when trying to open GPU-Z as well, so it’s quite obvious the little netbook that could is no graphical power house nor should the user expect it to do more than just standard 2D video.  3D performance is firmly out of the question, although the US15W does have more than enough power to run emulation software, as well as support for 720p H.246 DxVA.

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During our in-depth testing of Windows 7 on the Mini 10 we ran into an issue when booting or waking the device from sleep or hibernation.  When you enter Windows from one of those modes, the screen all around the taskbar or icons shows up black.  This is resolved by refreshing the screen or allowing the device time to finish it’s processing.  We believe this is no fault of Windows or the Mini itself and more an issue of the immaturity of Win 7 based drivers.  Expect such issues to be resolved before Windows 7 leaves Beta.

HDD Performance
The Mini 10’s spacious Seagate Momentus 160GB, 5,400-rpm hard drive booted Windows XP in 51.5 seconds, which is 5 seconds quicker than the netbook average.  When booting Windows 7 build 7068 however, boot time dropped an astounding 10 seconds.  While this could be due to Dell loading the Mini with startup items, even with those various programs disabled through MSConfig the start time for the Mini on XP only dropped to 48.5 seconds.  This is a welcome development, as the performance of Windows 7 on less than bleeding-edge hardware has been a major selling point of the up-coming OS.

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We were happy to see that Dell opted to go with proper 2.5in drives instead of the 1.8in drives found in some other netbooks.  This makes it easy for those inclined to upgrade the drive to a larger drive or to skip HDDs altogether and go SSD.

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It’s our opinion, that while it would send the price of the Mini 10 far higher, the Mini would benefit greatly from a solid state drive, even a JMicron controller based SSD.  Besides the obvious increases in speed, SSD’s use far less power than hard disk drives, which also improves battery life.

Ambient Heat
The Mini 10 remained quite cool during testing.  The keyboard and touchpad were not noticeably warm, measuring about 85F while at normal activity.  Similarly, the underside stayed at about 90F.

Battery Life
The Mini 10 we tested came with a 3 cell battery.  On the XCPUs Medium Stress laptop battery test (continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi), the battery lasted 2 hours and 43 minutes.  The Lenovo IdeaPad S10 has been tested to 2:38, but HP’s Mini 1000 still beat the Mini 10 by a good 13 minutes.  Considering that other sites have placed the average for a three cell netbook at 2:52, there is obviously a bit of room for improvement on this front.  Interesting to note, that although Windows 7 does use more services than the netbook version of XP Dell ships with its Mini’s, battery performance between the two OS’s was negligible, well within the margin of error at 1-2min difference.  

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If battery life is important, consider upgrading to the 6 cell battery, which should provide around 5 hours of nominal usage.

Wireless Performance
The 802.11b/g Wi-Fi card provides a solid connection and excellent transfers.  The Mini 10 sustained 25Mbps, 20Mbps and 17Mbps from 10, 25 and 50ft, respectively from our wireless access point.  Streaming video clips on YouTube and music over Pandora was smooth and we didn’t encounter any stuttering.  Our review model did not include one, Dell will be offering the Mini 10 with mobile broadband as well as GPS capability.

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Conclusions
While not the best at any one thing, Dell’s Mini 10 hits all the right notes and at a reasonable price. Its compact form, nearly full-size keyboard, and glossy screen all create a stylish package that makes it easy to use as well as attractive.  We found many people would ask us what the Mini was when out and about. It’s certainly a head turner.  While the small issues with the multitouch pad do knock some vital points off its score, what really held back the Mini is the lack of a proper 6 cell battery.  While battery life is significantly more than notebooks, it falls far short of netbooks like the Asus Eee PC 1000HE, with a 6 cell battery that lasts more than 7 hours on a charge or the albeit bulkier the Samsung NC10, which offers a longer 6 hours of runtime.  Still none of these issues are enough for us to pull our recommendation.  With built-in mobile broadband, integrated GPS, and TV tuner capability, it will become even more compelling, but our verdict stands. It did everything we expected it to do and quite well.  Looking at a disassembled Mini 10, we can clearly see the potential for expanded capability, since there are solder points for a second PCIE 1x slot.

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If buying a netbook TODAY, we would recommend the Mini 10, hands down.  However if you can wait till the summer, we are very excited about the next batch of netbooks that will utilize the NVidia 9400M chipset coupled with Intel Atom processors.  This combination has the potential to bring netbooks with great battery life as well as video performance that is currently out of reach of the US15W chipset.

As for our hands on feel of Windows 7 on the netbook?  While the 7068 Build we used was the considerably more resource intensive Ultimate version, it actually performed almost identically as the specialized ULCPC version of XP Home.  Microsoft plans to release a SKU of Windows 7 specifically designed with netbooks in mind.  While the Mini 10’s low 3D power precluded it from running any of the fancy Aero visualizations, it does handle standard 2D video tasks quite well.  Add to that 7’s better handling of SSD’s (something of huge importance given their lower power usage and lower weight and size), networking and drivers than XP, we can say without a doubt that Windows 7 will be an excellent operating system for netbooks.

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