Zen Bastard (jimbojones) wrote,
Zen Bastard

Dell Mini 10v - first impressions

I recently realized that I no longer needed a "full-scale" notebook, and that since netbooks were so inexpensive, I could actually make money selling my Inspiron 6400 and buying a Dell Mini 10v to replace it. So I did that. Much like the Inspiron it replaced, I did pimp out the 10v a bit over baseline - upgraded to Dell's 16GB solid state drive, upgraded the wireless, and upgraded the battery (from 3-cell to 6-cell).

I was never a big fan of the netbook (or, formerly, "subnotebook") form factor - I thought that it sacrificed too much usability for the sake of "being tiny and cute" - but given that I no longer really needed a desktop replacement to go on long trips with me, and given the much lower cost, the netbook was suddenly attractive. For occasional, relatively brief use doing network testing, it's hard to beat.

Hard Drive

One thing I was concerned with is that I never could find out WHICH solid state drive Dell was offering as the upgrade - turns out, it's a Samsung UM410. This is more important than you might think, if you haven't been keeping up with SSDs - the market is flooded with truly abominable SSDs right now which have big "stuttering" performance problems. Luckily, the Samsung is a solid performer - its maximum throughput is an unimpressive 35MB/sec or so, but this is offset by a 0.2ms or so seek time. What this boils down to is, a machine with this SSD in it is unlikely ever to make you go "wow, that's fast!"... but equally unlikely to make you go "wow, that's slow," as we all know a machine with even the fastest conventional hard drive is likely to do. (You know that godawful "crunching" or "grinding" noise your computer makes when it's being painfully, painfully slow? That's your conventional hard drive, stuck with thousands upon thousands of small read/write operations, constantly seeking the heads.)

Again, if you're thinking of going SSD to get away from the awful "my computer is crunching" slowdowns... beware; the Samsung is a solid performer and the Intel will make your jaw hit the floor, but A WHOLE LOT of the current crop of SSDs have MAJOR performance problems and will actually perform significantly WORSE than conventional HDDs.

And as long as we're talking hard drives, here's one of my very biggest bitches about my new Mini... no hard drive activity light. To be fair, one seems less needed with a good SSD installed... but also to be fair, the SSD is an option in the 10v, not the standard, and it's an option that probably relatively few people will take. And even with the SSD, if you start encountering performance problems, you want to look for the hard drive activity light to see "is it doing something, or is it locked up, or did I just miss a click?" With the 10v... you can't. And that really, REALLY sucks. I am pointing my finger at you, Dell, and I am shaking it like the evil Monkey in Chris' closet.

Operating System

The default OS for the Mini 10v is Windows XP, but I ordered mine with Linux on it. I sampled the Dell-installed and Dell-monkeyed-with version of Ubuntu 8.04 LTS ("Hardy Heron") for about ten minutes before screwing my face up in distaste and wiping it, to reinstall first with "plain vanilla" Ubuntu 9.04 ("Jaunty Jackalope"), and later with Ubuntu 9.04 Netbook Remix. The Dell-flavored version had a kind of dubious "launcher" I wasn't too fond of, and had a Yahoo! toolbar forcibly installed into Firefox - with the Uninstall button for it greyed out, no less. Uh, thanks but no thanks, g'bye.

There are some rough spots getting plain vanilla Ubuntu going on the Mini 10v - most everything just works right out of the box, but the touchpad is pretty jumpy and needs some settling down; this required the installation of a package that's not in the main repositories yet, and some minor parameter tweaking. The "mouse buttons" on the 10v are pretty odd - they are the bottom left and bottom right corners of the touchpad itself, and somewhat surprisingly, they actually depress when you push them. However, if you don't tweak the touchpad settings, they're also still motion sensitive when you brush your fingers across them, which makes for some rather odd and unpleasant results when you try to click things with them, or - worse - click-and-drag. The driver package adds a sort of "keybounce" fix to the touchpad, throwing away impulses which were generated too rapidly for a human to have intentionally committed them; the tweaks disable motion sensing on the "button" parts of the touchpad, and enable "edge scrolling". (Details at http://ubuntuwiki.net/index.php/Dell_Mini_10v if you want them.)

Ubuntu Netbook Remix itself is a pretty interesting reworking of the interface to suit the netbook's much smaller screen. It's very usable, although it tends to confuse less technically savvy people on first sight. To be fair, this is not because "it's hard," it's because "it doesn't look like a normal computer" - and that's more of a Netbook Remix thing than an Ubuntu-vs-Windows thing. A few moments playing with it makes everything become pretty immediately apparent, though. Worth noting: the interface does make multitasking a bit more cumbersome, particularly until you actually understand its conventions. Simply finding and launching one of a few applications, though - ie, what a netbook is supposed to be for - is VERY simple and easy.

Of course, UNR is still a VERY new product, and the occasional rough edge is definitely there to be found. But no showstoppers so far. (In case you're wondering, "Restart" really does restart, btw.)

External Display

This, unfortunately, was NOT an area in which the Mini 10v shone. When I attached an external monitor by VGA cable, nothing happened initially. So I went to the Display applet for Ubuntu Netbook Remix, where I saw my 22" Acer already discovered (good!) but the "Mirror screens" box unchecked. OK, no problem... I checked the box. Nothing happened. Hmm... well, I didn't really want a mirror anyway, I wanted to try dual display. So, I checked the "On" radio button for the Acer, at which point I was told that some settings needed to be added to xorg.conf, which I okayed, and that I should log out and back in, which I did.

It worked, but everything slowed to an absolute crawl. To the point that the normally instant-and-spiffy little animations when I hovered over an icon would take six seconds or more to happen. Moving from one application tab to another would produce all the icons for BOTH tabs overlaid on top of one another, and it would take 15 to 30 seconds to clear the garbage (if it ever cleared). As mentioned earlier, I had no hard drive activity light - which left me really confused and apprehensive about just why my Mini was suddenly a raging pile of slow. So, sighing theatrically, I disconnected the Acer display.

Problem not solved - everything was still glacial. So I rebooted - problem still not solved. After a lot of frustration, I finally dropped to the Terminal, manually edited xorg.conf, and discovered a subsection in it declaring a virtual display, with total width of both the laptop display and my Acer. I deleted that, then restarted, THEN everything was fixed. Whew! Then, much more cautiously, I tried hooking up the Acer and just using the little "change display" key (the F1 key, but without holding down Fn) - THAT worked pretty much as expected, bouncing from "laptop display only" to "mirror" to "external display only" and back to "laptop display only" again as I cycled through. It was quite slow to change state, though - on the order of 5-10 seconds per change - and I discovered that, although my Acer's native resolution is 1680x1050, the Mini would only drive it up to 1024x768 - hardly ideal.

I haven't ever tried running Windows on the Mini, so I'm not sure how much of the blame for this massive fail to lay at the feet of the Intel 945GMA video chipset, and how much of it to lay at the feet of Ubuntu Netbook Remix. But I'd advise caution if you're thinking of getting a Mini 10v for heavy use with an external display... Here There Be Dragons.


I really had no idea what to expect from the Mini when it came to battery life. I've seen lots and lots of people complaining about what they found to be underwhelming battery life out of netbooks/subnotebooks, and grumbling that SSDs didn't really seem to do much in the real world for battery life, etc etc whine whine whine. Which is part of why I ordered mine with the upgraded 6-cell battery instead of the default 3-cell. I also wasn't sure what to expect, because traditionally, Linux has tended to lag somewhat behind Windows when it comes to extending battery life on mobile PCs.

Well, the first day I had my Mini I left it on the charger for 12 hours like Dell recommended... then the second day, I took it off the charger and kept it off, while I used it until it dropped. I installed a gigabyte or so of software and OS updates, I played around with configurations, I browsed the web, I showed my new toy off to friends, colleagues, and coworkers, I watched some YouTube clips, I drove around town with it open and running in the passenger seat... and I got nine point five hours out of it before it finally gave up the ghost. Color me satisfied.

One thing I will warn you of, though, is that the upgraded battery protrudes SIGNIFICANTLY from the chassis of the netbook. This is a bit of a blessing and a curse - on the one hand, Dell very smartly configured the oversized battery so that it serves as a kind of keyboard angle clip. This is good for typing on it, and it's good for getting extra ventilation, and it's even good for keeping the laptop elevated some from anything nasty you might spill on the desk it's on. It's not so good for fitting it into its custom neoprene sleeve (optional), and it also makes for something of an odd balance to it (and significantly increased weight, though it's still ridiculously light compared to a "real" notebook).


The Good:
  • 9.5 hours battery life!
  • GREAT keyboard, for a netbook
  • Small, lightweight, and attractive
  • Inexpensive ($440 out the door with 16GB SSD, 802.11n networking, upgraded battery, and neoprene sleeve)
  • Solid, if not impressive, performance from the Samsung SSD
  • Equally solid (if equally unimpressive) performance from the 1.6GHz Intel Atom CPU
  • No fans - so COMPLETELY silent, if you get the SSD

The Bad:
  • upgraded battery throws off the balance of the netbook
  • Underwhelming-at-best utilization of external display
Tags: alpha geek

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