Monday, 18 May 2009

Notes on a Netbook

We’ve just bought a new lightweight notebook for the CEO – a Dell Inspiron Mini 12.

I thought that I would do a review of this as it’s a new product and a number of people have expressed interest in knowing how we got on with it.

First the background – the CEO does a lot of travelling and wants to be able to work wherever he is. He has a laptop that he is happy with, but in the past few months, some airlines are getting a bit restrictive on hand luggage, so he wanted to try and get a lighter device that could be packed in his bag.

He has tested a smart phone – the HTC Touch Pro and thinks that this is good for the email side of things, but the screen and keyboard are too small for him to use for more than very basic functions – he needs to refer to spreadsheets, documents etc so he really needs a larger device.

I checked out the details of several models of the smaller notebooks including the perennial favourites of senior management, the Sony Vaio. However, the Inspiron is much cheaper at just over £300 – he decided that at that price, he could swallow wasting the money if he didn’t like the device, or if it proved not powerful enough for what he needs to do.

We placed the order and it took a bit longer than most items that we’ve ordered through Dell; it appears that it is only currently manufactured in China, so that’s not really surprising. It actually took just under three weeks; we normally get stuff within 7 days. Mind you, as they are closing their place in Ireland, we may have to get used to waiting a few extra days.

When it arrived, everybody’s first impression was one of astonishment – it is so small and light. At 1.2 kg, it is just a bit more than a bag of sugar, but it actually feels lighter. It has a smooth shiny top lid (ours was black) and it looks very professional. The trim inside is silver with the new flatter touch pad – and the action of the pad is very smooth and positive.

Start up seemed a little bit slower than a normal laptop, but not by much. Once we had gone through the normal Welcome to Windows menu items, the unit seemed to operate pretty much as might be expected. I’ve not used a device with the Atom processor in it, and if this is anything to go by, it seems to do the job.

The notebook comes with an integrated web cam, and the aperture is tiny – less than 5 mm across (no that’s not a typo – 5 millimetres). However the clarity is really excellent and the necessary software is quite easy to use. The screen generally is easily readable even though the surface is quite shiny – we tried it with the blinds on the windows up and even with a strong outside light, it was still easy to read.

The device has built in network (100Mb not gigabit), wireless connection and Bluetooth facility. We tried all of these and the connection was smooth and quick to set-up in each case, just like a standard laptop. It doesn’t have an optical drive as the case just isn’t thick enough at less than 10 mm – but there are USB ports and also ports for microphone and audio output.

Unfortunately, it comes with Windows XP Home edition – no good for connection to a domain. I was a bit surprised at this and queried why – however, it appears that almost all of the mini notebooks are loaded with Win XP HE. The few exceptions are the Sony Vaios and some of the HP models which have Vista Business.

As Win XP HE is no good for us, and we have a spare copy of XP Pro, we decided to try and install this. The installation took about the normal length of time for a new install. At this point, some of the drivers for the integrated hardware would install, but most wouldn’t. However, we then installed the service packs – once they were on, we were able to get all of the drivers loaded OK.

At this stage, we have Office 2003, Adobe Acrobat 9, our ERP software, patching software, and anti-virus software all installed. Our tests seem to show that is noticeably slower than a normal laptop, but certainly not to an unusable degree. Generally, the windows seem open quite smoothly and programs starting up do not take an unreasonably long time.

We are currently trying to condition the battery – it seems to last about 2 hours at the moment. We’re also going to install a USB modem for mobile broadband. In the meantime the CEO now has a USB mouse and a port replicator set up on his desk to use with it and we’ve supplied a mini USB mouse for him to take with him on his travels.

I’ll get some feedback from him and post it in a couple of weeks after he has had the time to get used to it.

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