Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Dell Mini 9 Rides Again

I read today that Michael Dell does not like Netbooks. He thinks that people buy them as notebook replacements and then are not happy when they don't work well as notebook replacements.

This is at direct odds with the fact that Dell brought back (even for a limited time) the Mini 9 after killing it off because so many people still wanted one, including me.

I can't see using a full size notebook on the two foot diameter table I am sitting at right now at Elevation Burger (one of my favorite Austin eateries) either.

I suspect Netbook's days are numbered though. If Apple or MS ever ship a real tablet PC in this form factor, and even better, use a virtual keyboard like the iPhone's, then the reason for a Netbook will, at least for me, have passed. I can blog from the iPhone of course, but I'd rather use the Netbook for screen and keyboard reasons. Here is a case where the Netbook beats the next smaller form factor (smartphone) all hollow, as well as the next larger (notebook). Sure: I'm a wimp: There are people that have written entire novels using a old cell phone and t9 text entry. Airplane tray tables are another place a netbook wins over a regular notebook.

Dell was very clear that the Mini 9's reprieve was to be very short term. Looking at the web site right now I do not see it any more, though my new Mini 9 arrived yesterday. Even if the M9 is the oldest unit in the lineup, it is also the asiest to upgrade things like RAM and SSD. Dell did not aparently learn anything when they designed the Mini-9, because the 10/10v are much harder to work on. Hello?

By MS's definition the new M9 is not a netbook: it has (gasp) 2GB of RAM. Not allowed. Since the new unit has Linux on it, not Windows, what MS defines is not relevant.

My new Mini 9 came about because I gave the last one to my wife, my Acer Aspire One to my daughter, and so made room for a new Mini 9.

Since this was going to be the last chance to get a Mini 9, I splurged on a few options, adding the 1.3 Megapixel webcam and internal Bluetooth, thus driving the system cost up... to about 229 USD. My Apple Bluetooth Mighty Mouse sync's up and works like a champ. The 2GB 533 Mhz PC5300 memory stick added another 25 USD to the price.

I'll put in a 32GB SuperTalent or Runcore SSD in the near future to replace the 4GB unit it came with. Something far faster than the factory default unit.

That 4GB unit looks like it is having problems anyway: Ubuntu's Palimpsest utility keeps issuing messages that the hard drive is failing: That the hard drive is being used "outside design parameters", although it passes self test. Whatever. I bought this unit knowing that the SSD had to go.

I put as 32GB SuperTalent unit in my wife's Mini 9 and it is *much* faster, not to mention handy to have the extra space.

I never booted the pre-installed Ubuntu that Dell put on this M9. Ubuntu 8.04.1 is just too far back level for me, not to mention that when I booted it on my wifes Mini 9 a while back it was slow slow slow. I love that Dell gives me the option to buy Linux, but I wish it was a more current version, and a better, i386 version, build. The "lpia" binaries of the default install are just suboptimal.

It's an easy fix. I loaded up the current Beta of 9.10 (which GA's this month) and while it took a while because of the slow SSD, it is fast now that it is down. I watched an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer off Hulu last night without too many frame freezes. That is the point of a netbook after all: look at Net stuff. Well, that, and actually be of a size that you might have it with you at odd times when you need a computer for something but don't have one. Emergency idea documentation. Blog ideas that strike while at lunch. Etc.

The Broadcom Wifi Card required activating a non-opensource driver via Administration/Hardware Drivers. No big deal, but I did have to plug in to the wired Ethernet long enough to have the tool go get the drivers.

With 9.10, and Bilbo from KDE installed, the 4GB drive is nearly full: /dev/sda1 3423336 2891716 357720 89% /. I have a 2GB SD card in the slot to give me some elbow room, and use flash drives to store and move things around.

No fans: The little unit is disorientingly quiet. Unlike the Acer, there is no temptation to play with the power management. It just works. 46C is about as hot as it ever gets.

Like the Acer before it, I imagine I'll get the 8 cell battery at some point (The Acer was a 9 cell actually). Going all day between charges is just too nice.

One of the reasons people do not like the Netbook form factor is the small keyboard, and like any small keyboard, the Dell Mini 9 takes some getting used to. The Acer Aspire 1 keeps the key size ratios the same across all the keys, and more or less just shrinks the keyboard. The M9 went a totally different way. The Alpha keys are nearly full size. numerics are slightly smaller. Punctuation are smaller still. There are no dedicated PF keys at all. It is very weird. It is probably why Dell is pushing the 10 and 10v with its its more normal layout and 92% of full size keys, although the fact that the 10/10v cost a bit more probably helps too.

Time to watch some more Buffy....


trellis said...

I reading your ode to the Dell Mini 9 with great pleasure. I also bought a stripped-down, 4GB SSD model to serve as the basis of a Hackintosh. But I am holding off on that project. I found that, after only a few tweaks, the 4GB Mini 9 is incredibly useful.

First, I upgraded it to 2GB RAM and installed Ubuntu Netbook Remix 9.04, which I find to be fast and stable. (I'll mention that I had to install NBR a total of 4 times -- I broke my installation too many times, experimenting and trying to fix and tweak things!)

Then I applied the tweak to disable the touchpad while you're typing. This one's essential to my sanity.

Then I installed Google Chrome for Linux (dev version). I will not lie to you, Google Chrome is web browsing's greased lightning.

I also installed preload, which makes everything feel more snappy.

Now space on a 4GB SSD will always a problem, but I freed up a lot of room after I dejunked my system with BleachBit.

I also manage by storing my files in a DropBox repository on the 4GB SD card that stays in the slot.

Ubuntu Tweak, if you haven't tried it, is just wonderful for a lot of reasons. Try installing the Shiki theme in Gnome Colors.

If you watch lots of Buffy, I suggest you install Caffeine, a little utility ported from OS X that keeps your screen awake while you watch.

Other useful applications are Zim, RubyRoom, Focus Booster and TweetDeck. I also set up Ekiga Softphone with my Google Voice and Gizmo5 accounts so I can make and take free calls from my netbook.

Overall, I have gotten tremendous value out of this $200 purchase.

Steve Carl said...

I installed UNR on the Acer, and ended up taking it back off. Too old school I guess, although there were a few probalems with some apps and Maximus as well.

I have thought about that typing tweak, but so far it has not been too bad. The keyboard is still something that requires getting used to, so my speed is slow enough that touching the mousepad does not happen very often.

I have installed Chrome, but tend to use Firefox more still: I have seen the Flash player for example appear to run better under FF.

I had not heard of Ubuntu Tweak or Bleachbit: Will check into those: Thanks!

I know someone that made their M9 into a hackintosh, and I have to say it was very impressive how well OS.X runs on that hardware. Even things like sleep appeared to work. It was snappy too: I have to say it appeared faster than Linux even.

bluetooth headset said...

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