It must be said that the Dell Inspiron Mini 9 (or the Inspiron 910, apparently, if you're looking for drivers) has the highest build quality out of all the 8.9-inch notebooks we've borne witness to — from the moment you pick it up it exudes a solidness just not present in its competitors, with the exception of the much heavier, much slower HP Mini Note.
Thanks to its fanless design it's also quieter, and this in concert with a 16GB solid state drive means there's a complete absence of moving parts — making it more rugged than the norm.
The keyboard is also pleasant enough to type on, considering the form factor, although the quotation key is miniaturised and put in an odd place that hampers typing at a reasonable speed — adjacent to the useless "context menu key", which is to the right of the space bar. We'd much prefer this useless key was removed, the - and = keys moved there, the quotation key moved to where the - and = keys used to be and the tab key expanded as a result.
The F1-F10 keys are available on the second row of letters through the Fn key — although the F11 and F12 keys are missing, as is becoming a disturbing trend. If you rely on these keys, you may need to remap them to something else using third-party software.
A low level webcam sits at the top of the screen as always, while two speakers are situated at the bottom of the screen, flanking the Dell logo. These should, also as always, be considered token. A vent meant for expelling hot air is situated on the right-hand side, usually a no-no — however, the laptop barely produces any heat (as is evidenced by the fanless solution) and any right hander using an external mouse will likely never notice any extra heat washing over their digits.
While the Americans get a choice of black or white, Ubuntu or XP Home, different SSD capacities and the option to take Bluetooth out — Australia only gets the top of the line model in black. At AU$599 though, this isn't too much of a problem — it does rob Dell of an all too important selling point though in a market where the hardware set-up is pretty much identical between competitors.
It features the same Atom 1.6GHz processor and 1GB RAM as everyone else. A 16GB SSD means most basic storage needs are covered, while the SD slot is there should you need to add any more storage. If even that's not enough, Dell bundles the Inspiron Mini 9 with a Box.net account, offering 2GB of online storage for free.
The 1,024x600 screen is quite bright and despite being glossy performs well in outdoor environments. Connectivity wise there are three USB ports, a 100Mb Ethernet port, microphone and headphone jacks and a VGA port should cover most needs, with wireless G and Bluetooth performing the radio functions.
A SIM slot can be found under the battery, but there's no WWAN module installed as of yet — we can only hope this comes later.
On the crapware front our review sample came prepacked with McAfee SecurityCenter, where its annoying alerts dominated the limited screen space. The Inspiron Mini 9 was also heavily Google infected, with Google Desktop stealing away the already precious screen real estate from the task bar, and Google Toolbar doing the same in Internet Explorer. Dell Video Chat also showed a tendency to open after the lid of the laptop had been closed and reopened, and finally, when first booting the screen it would start in low res, then snap to the native resolution. All except the latter can of course be either uninstalled or fixed (and even the screen issue, which is probably just a driver issue), but it does a lot to dampen the initial experience.
Atom based machines were never intended to be high performing beasts, and 3DMark06 and PCMark05 actively refused to run despite our best efforts. Needless to say it's fine for modest tasks such as Web browsing and office applications. Turning all power-saving features off and setting screen brightness and volume to maximum, we played back an Xvid movie where the battery lasted three hours five minutes and 20 seconds, a fantastic result thanks to its four-cell battery.
The Dell Inspiron Mini 9 is a prime example of the netbook form factor &mdash although we don't know what more can be done in this space, considering the unchanging hardware spec. We look forward to seeing what happens when vendors really stretch their legs. Until then — this is the best 8.9-inch netbook out there.