Top 10 netbooks

Netbooks are perfect travel companions and meet basic computing needs, including e-mailing, Web surfing, and simple document creation. Best of all, these low-powered machines cost less than the standard-issue laptop

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Dell Inspiron Mini 10
Inspiron Mini 10 Review, by Jason Cross, PC World August 24, 2009

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Rating:

CPU: Atom Z530; CPU speed: 1600MHz; Display size: 10.1 inches; Hard drive size: 160GB; WorldBench 6 rating: Good

Pros:
Decent TV tuner
Good design with small, light layout

Cons:
Mediocre netbook performance
High-res screen is a little hard to read

Bottom Line: Despite a decent design, this netbook's screen and limited storage don't make it the ideal platform for a TV tuner.

REVIEW:
Netbooks are a lot cheaper than full-size notebooks, the battery lasts a lot longer, and if you spend most of your time in a Web browser anyway, the performance limitations aren't that big a deal. With the Mini 10, Dell attempts to tap into the desires of this market the same way so many companies do--by utilizing Intel's diminutive Atom processor.

What you may not realize is that the Atom has two common versions, the N-series and the Z-series. The Mini 10 netbook uses the Z-series. The primary difference between the two versions is that the Z-series features a chipset with a better graphics processor in it. It's a better match for Vista's GPU-accelerated desktop, though we wouldn't recommend trying to run Vista on this system. More important, the Z-series chipset supports the kind of video acceleration technology that makes it possible to play back video reasonably smoothly (something the Atom N-series doesn't do too well).

The Mini 10 with the Atom Z530 processor (1.6GHz) that we tested costs $534 as configured. The price puts our Mini 10 beyond the usual upper limit of a netbook (though units start at under $350). In addition to the Atom Z530 processor, our test unit had 1GB of soldered-on RAM, 802.11g Wi-Fi, an ethernet jack (10/100, not gigabit), three USB ports, headphone output, mic input, an HDMI-output, and a slightly higher-res screen than most 10-inch netbooks (1366 by 768). Frankly, the extra resolution doesn't do much at this size, and you'll find yourself squinting to read on it. You could always increase the size of icons and fonts and such, but Windows XP doesn't handle such resizing very gracefully. The reason for that video kick is in no small part due to the optional on-board HDTV tuner that came with our unit.

Yep, this nondescript input jack sits somewhere between a USB port, a combination SD/Memory Stick card reader, and a power plug on the left side. It seems a little out of place, but the internal Hauppauge WinTV MOD7700 ATSC tuner meshes pretty well with the included Dell Digital TV software. As long as you get a decent signal with the included antenna, TV video plays back fairly smoothly. But why put a TV tuner in a netbook? It makes sense in a larger notebook where you might want to record TV and then watch it on the road, but the small, slow hard drives in netbooks are no good for that. You actually have to pull the tuner and the antenna out and hunt for a signal. It'd be easier to find a real TV.

The video decoding in general (TV and otherwise) is mediocre--HDTV channels are just a little choppy, and standard-def channels need to be cleaned up a little. And the real problem is that the GMA500 integrated graphics doesn't do anything for most Web video, like Hulu or YouTube. Watching even standard-def YouTube videos at normal size in the browser window was such a choppy mess that you want to stop watching in seconds. Now if Dell incorporates this feature into a Ion-based netbook, that would probably make all the difference.

The 10.1-inch screen actually looks a little small on this system, in part because the body is large enough to accommodate an 11-inch screen. A lot of border surrounds the screen, and that doesn't combine well with the relatively high resolution and small size. It only exaggerates the impression that you're straining to read the screen. But in actual visual quality, the screen is surprisingly decent for something so small and cheap, with reasonable contrast, color reproduction, and viewing angles.

The keyboard is large enough to type on easily, but the "extra" keys like function keys, Home/End, and arrows are a bit cramped. The trackpad is the biggest bother. It's a sort of buttonless design where you need to press on the lower left or right corner to left- or right-click, but it's hard to use in practice. You'll often move the pointer when trying to click, resulting in more mis-clicks and no-clicks than you should really have to deal with.

The Mini 10's performance is about what you would expect from an Atom-based notebook. Even running just Windows XP, the system quickly becomes unresponsive. Though low performance is a fact of life on most netbooks, the Mini 10 performed a tad worse than most of its competition, scoring just 32 on WorldBench 6. The best netbooks in its price range score in the upper 30s. Battery life is good at a little under 7 hours, but not as stellar as the ASUS Eee Pc 1005HA or the Toshiba Mini NB205-N310 (the later lasts a little under 10 hours). You can't even "hackintosh" the Mini 10 (the process of buying a compatible notebook and installing OS X on it). The integrated GMA500 graphics is incompatible.

All that said, this $500-plus netbook seems a little pricey because of all the extra on-board bells and whistles that came with our review model. Drop down to a lower-res screen, forget the TV tuner, and you have a decent machine that would probably cost you somewhere in the neighborhood of $400. Dell's intentions are in the right place with the Mini 10, but a netbook with a tiny screen and limited storage is not the ideal platform for a TV tuner, and they're just not winning us over on the benchmarks or industrial design. If you're in the market for a 10-inch netbook, you can do better.

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