Review: Dell Mini 10 Netbook

Dell pushes the upper echelons of netbookitude with the Mini 10. It’s a little laptop whose Atom processor marks it as a populist ultraportable, but whose 10-inch, wide-format display and HDMI port reveal more aristocratic ambitions.

Want to catch the last episode of Battlestar Galactica while hanging out in the local java joint? Going to download a season of The Simpsons for viewing on the plane? Giving an impromptu screening of your vacation photos at a friend’s house? The Mini 10 is your machine.

It’s not all for show, either. Although powered by a relatively anemic 1.6-GHz Atom Z530 processor (a 1.3-GHz Atom Z520 is also available, for $50 less), the Mini 10 actually does a pretty good job at video playback — on its own screen. While the screen’s 1,024 x 576 pixels are too few for even 720p HD playback, the 16:9 aspect ratio and vivid colors are enough to make you think you’re watching high-def video, and the difference is barely perceptible on a 10-inch screen, anyway. Playing videos from Huluwas perfectly acceptable at Hulu’s “standard quality,” but became jerky at the “high quality” (480 lines) setting.

Playing video over the HDMI out port is another matter, though. While the Mini 10 can drive large screens, it just can’t keep up when delivering video to them, so playback becomes choppy. For plugging into a second monitor or for showing off slideshows of your favorite photos (using the integrated SD card slot), that might be ok — but forget about making this puny portable the centerpiece of your home entertainment system.

The 160-GB hard drive gives you plenty of room to store your supersecret cache of BitTorrent porn — ahem, legitimately purchased network TV shows from iTunes — and the keyboard is ample and gives lots of tactile feedback, so when you’re ready to turn off the shows and get down to work, the Mini 10 is ready, too.

But there are infuriating shortcomings to the Mini 10. The trackpad is one of the worst we’ve seen. Dell’s decision to integrate the buttons underneath the pad itself makes using it both unpredictable and challenging. When you click on a button, the cursor may hit the target, wiggle off an centimeter or two, or teleport off into a remote corner of your screen. While it got easier to use after a week of practice, our advice is to invest in a cheap travel mouse.

Also, our unit exhibited frequent problems connecting with secure Wi-Fi networks, although it had no problems with unsecured hotspots. (Those still exist?) And the screen, while bright, sports a highly reflective, glossy surface that makes using it in high-contrast environments a real drag.

Worse, the 3-cell battery only lasted an average of 2 hours and 16 minutes in our battery rundown tests. That’s far less than the longest-lasting 10-inch netbooks, the Asus Eee PC 1000HE and the Samsung NC10 (both 5 hours).

Unless you absolutely adore Dell’s customer service, wait for the company to iron the kinks out of this promising but not-fully-cooked media-friendly netbook. There are other tiny portables that are more deserving of your money.

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