HP, Dell and Acer are the world's top three PC vendors, but only one of them is major player in the netbook market. Acer has managed to outsell every vendor out there, including Asus, and American heavyweights have been rather slow to react.
However, both Dell and HP now have competitive netbooks to offer, but they are still dwarfed by Acer's and Asustek's Aspires and Eee's. The Inspiron Mini 10 is the latest Dell netbook to appear, following the Mini 9 and Mini 12, which is significant in that it was the first netbook powered by a Z-series Atom, and the first 12-inch Atom on the market.
The Mini 10 is powered by an Atom Z520 at 1.3GHz and US15W chipset. It has 1GB of memory and a 160GB hard drive. Most vendors opt for the N270 or N280, or the Z530 at 1.6GHz. Another thing that sets the Mini 10 apart from the competition is the the addition of an HDMI out. However, there's no VGA out.
Dell used a 1024x576 glare screen on the Inspiron Mini 10, and it's pretty good in terms of display quality.
Design and Build Quality
Dell's designers got it right this time around. The Mini 10 looks pretty stylish. It's slightly slimmer than the average netbook, and some details, such as the buttonless trackpad and glossy lid look pretty nice.
The lid gently tapers toward the edges, creating the illusion of a much thinner device. As you can see, the bezel is pretty big, and overall the Mini 10 has a pretty big footprint for a 10-incher. The palmrests are also glossy, but they're not prone to smudging and don't collect fingerprints like CSI crews.
Dell put the large footprint to good use, and managed to squeeze a 92 percent sized keyboard into the Mini 10. It looks pretty good, and it's even bigger than the keyboard on Dell's 12-inch Mini. There's very little unused space on either side of it, and it's probably the biggest keyboard you're likely to see on a netbook, at least until 11.6-inch models start to appear on the market. The trackpad looks stylish, befitting the slim and elegant design theme.
Overall, the Mini 10 is a pretty good looking machine. It's thin, and it looks stylish, a bit more stylish than we've come to expect from Dell.
Build quality is a mixed bag. Some parts, like the lid and the bottom of the chassis feel very robust, while others feel a bit on the cheap side. The lid is almost impossible to twist, and the rough plastic used on the bottom of the chassis feels very durable.
The palmrests tend to flex a bit when under stress, and so does the keyboard, but to a lesser degree. It takes quite a bit of effort to bend the palmrests, so this is no big deal. However, the keyboard is rather loud, and feels bouncy.
Overall, build quality is pretty good, at least as far as netbooks go. The loud keyboard and loose Space key are the most annoying issue as far as build quality goes.
Input Devices and Ergonomics
As we said, the Mini 10 features one of the biggest keyboards used on any netbook. You get used to it in next to no time, and within minutes you can type as fast as you could on a 12-inch notebook.
The layout is excellent as well. Note the size and position of Enter, right Shift, Backspace, as well as Tab, Caps lock and left Control. Perfect. Well, almost perfect, the arrow keys could have been slightly larger, but they're still just as good as on any netbook.
The excellent size and layout are somewhat compromised by the bouncy keys, and most of all, the loud and loosely fitted Space key. It's really a shame, as we're practically looking at the best keyboard of any netbook, but once you stop looking and start using it, you're in for a disappointment.
You can probably see a couple of things are missing here. Yes, the buttons are integrated under the touch sensitive surface. It's a pretty good way of squeezing more acreage into the touchpad on a small device, but it takes some getting used to. Nevertheless, it works, and once you get the hang of it you'll appreciate the extra room this solution provides. If you're used to tapping instead of clicking, you'll get used to it even faster.
What's more, the trackpad supports multi-touch input. It works well, and thanks the space saved by the integration of the buttons is more than welcome if you're planning on using this feature. The only trouble is that the system itself can't cope with rotating and resizing massive images in real time. We tried it out with 3-4MB images, and, as expected, the 1.3GHz Atom struggled to rotate them.
Ergonomics, Everyday use
Basically you should have no trouble using the Mini 10 for prologued periods of time. As in all netbooks, the screen is a bit too small for extended use, but the spacious keyboard and touchpad help out a lot.
As for the connector layout, there's not much to complain about either.
The power connector, memory card reader, Kensington and one USB slot are situated on the left side.
On the right you'll find two more USBs, HDMI, audio connectors and LAN. It would have been a better idea to have the HDMI further to the back, but this is a minor issue, as it will rarely be used.
Oddly, Dell installed the stereo speakers on bottom of the chassis, near the thin front edge. Obviously, if you're going to use the Mini 10 in your lap, this will be an issue.
The back is devoid of any connectors, and apart from the 3-cell battery, there's nothing to see here.
Dell is one of few vendors to stick with 3-cell batteries, as most have moved on to 6-cell units even in low end netbooks. The Mini 10 is powered by an energy efficient 1.3GHz Atom and US15W chipset, but this doesn't help much. We clocked just under three hours of use with the backlight set to maximum. If you turn off Bluetooth, Wireless and go Al Gore on the backlight, you can manage over three hours, but a 6-cell battery would have made a world of difference.
At least one upside of the power efficient Z520/US15W combo is the manageable thermals, and the Mini is one of the coolest netbooks we've come across. Even after prologued use, it stays remarkably cold, you can just feel a couple of hotspots on the bottom, but even they are just lukewarm. Once the fan kicks in, you can feel it. Literally. It's pretty quiet, but it transfers a fair bit of vibrations onto the chassis, which is a bit strange. As you've probably noticed, the Mini 10 does not feature any cooling vents on the sides, thanks to its cool Z520/US15W combo. Although this makes for a better looking, and probably more quiet machine, it also means that it will get less air when you're using it on your lap or some other soft surface.
Basically the Mini 10 is easy to live with in most respects. Endurance could have been better, and a more sturdy, quieter keyboard would have meant a lot. We liked the innovative touchpad, it's big enough to use multi-touch, and once you get used to the buttons, or lack thereof, you'll probably end up liking it. We're not sure if the idea will catch on, and as it's pretty much a thing of personal preference, I would advise you to try it out for yourself if possible before you make up your mind.
Benchmarks and Conclusion
Well this is where we hit a snag. Most benchmarks that easily run on other Atoms just don't seem to like the Z520.
The ones that did work mostly reported meager performance, as the Z520 is the slowest Atom to be used in netbooks, but at least we can see how it measures up compared to the classic N270/945.
Sandra CPU scores were relatively low compared to an Atom N270.
The same goes for Cinebench.
HD Tune shows the 160GB WD hard drive is not a too fast either.
The Inspiron Mini 10 is pretty much a mixed bag, and although it shows promise and offers a few nice features and design concepts, it has a few serious shortcomings as well.
For some reason Dell chose to launch it with a 3-cell battery, which doesn't provide you with a lot of juice. Most vendors are slowly phasing out 3-cell units in favor of 6-cell or 4-cell batteries, even on entry level SKUs. Of course, you can get a 6-cell power pack for the Mini 10, but you're basically paying for something you are supposed to get straight out of the box, and that's something no consumer enjoys.
In terms of performance, the Z520 is a bit on the slow side, although it can still cope with the typical netbook workload. The upside of using the Atom Z520 and US15W chipset is that the Inspiron Mini stays pretty cool and quiet no matter what you do.
It's got one of the biggest, if not the biggest keyboard of any netbook. The layout is excellent, but the loose (and loud) Space key tends to annoy, badly. Then again, it's quite possible that someone at the assembly line was having a bad day when our sample passed by, and we're not sure all units are affected by this small, but pretty annoying issue. In spite of this, I have to admit the keyboard is very easy to use, and this is the first time I'm actually typing a review on a netbook.
The trackpad measures 78x36mm, and like the keyboard, it's one of the biggest ones we've come across on netbooks. It is large enough to use multi-touch with ease, which is not the case with many netbooks, on which multi-touch is purely a gimmick you probably won't be using much. Not everyone will enjoy the integrated keys, but I liked them, and the space they save.
HDMI is a nice touch, which most netbooks on the market lack. It's a bit strange to see Dell pioneering HDMI in this market segment, as it's been pushing DisplayPort for quite a while now.
Dell did pretty well this time around. The Mini 10 is a very good looking machine, and it's got quite a few things going for it. Basically, all it needs is a 6-cell battery and some glue for the Space key. Other than that, it's a nice piece of kit. If you're looking for a netbook with a big keyboard and some extra trackpad acreage, it's a good choice, and you'll also get good looks and HDMI.
It's biggest downside is the $399 price tag. In case you want a 6-cell battery and a Z530, it will cost you $100 extra. Fortunately, Dell has announced a stripped down Mini 10v SKU for $299, and that sounds like a pretty good deal.