A swish new design, great battery life and it plays HD video, but the touchpad is truly appalling
Review Date: 8 Apr 2010
Price when reviewed: £237 (£279 inc VAT)
In a world of drab IT clones, a dash of creativity and a lick of paint can work wonders in grabbing the attention. Dell has long offered a choice of lid designs and finishes on its laptops, and the latest update to the Inspiron Mini 10 follows suit with seven vibrant lid colours for a £35 premium. That's not the only design appeal, though, as the whole netbook looks more interesting than most.
It's the decision to position the hinge slightly forward from the back of the base that gives the Mini 10 its distinctive look. Partly to allow for a six-cell battery without an obvious protrusion at the rear, partly to leave space for future port additions, it makes the Dell progressively thicker from front to back. But it also makes it stand out, and that counts for a lot in the netbook arena.
The New Cherry Red finish on our sample contrasted nicely with the white of the base and the black of the interior, and the 10.1in screen surround is thick and glossy like the screen itself. We're delighted to see a 1,366 x 768 resolution on this top-end model, as it makes such a difference in daily use, particularly when browsing web pages. It fits the 10.1in size nicely too, and it's matched by a decent backlight and reasonably good contrast. We're not blown away by its quality, but in netbook terms it's one of the better screens you'll find.
There are some advances inside, too. Intel's Pine Trail platform, comprising an Atom N450 and the NM10 chipset, had it running through our benchmarks at the usual pace – a score of 0.32 is as expected. But this netbook has an extra addition to give it an edge in other areas. As well as the bog-standard Intel GMA 3150 graphics, which won't handle HD video, you get a Broadcom CrystalHD Media Accelerator which supposedly will.
To properly test it we downloaded the release candidate of Adobe's Flash 10.1 and updated the CrystalHD drivers. This done, YouTube and iPlayer videos ran smoothly at 480p, and upping that to the screen's optimum 720p resolution saw it very close to smooth playback. We still saw dropped frames in fast-moving scenes, but for the most part it's a surprisingly watchable experience.The best part is that all that entertainment won't kill the battery, as Dell has plumped for a six-cell unit that provides an impressive amount of juice. Our light-use test, leaving the netbook idle, saw it die just two minutes short of the ten-hour mark – remarkable even by netbook standards. That fell to 5hrs 2mins when pushed to its limits.
So it certainly has its strengths, and most of them are internal; the rest of the Mini 10 follows the usual template. There's a 1.3mp webcam above the screen, and the array of ports around the base is fairly standard stuff. A 10/100 Ethernet port, 802.11bg wireless and Bluetooth take care of communications, while three USB 2 ports and a D-SUB output are nothing out of the ordinary. A card slot supports SD, Memory Stick and MMC formats, and Dell offers a 3G mobile broadband adapter for an extra £100.
If you're thinking the Inspiron Mini 10 sounds like a reasonable purchase, there's one monumentally bad design decision we haven't got to yet, and it's one that does its best to destroy all that goodwill in one stroke. Don't be fooled by its apparent insignificance: it may only be a touchpad, but it's by some distance the worst we can remember enduring in many years of laptop testing.
The buttons are integrated into the touchpad, with little markers to show where to click. But they don't work if you click there. Instead you have to click towards the centre to get a response. That's if you've managed to manoeuvre the cursor into the right position in the first place – the comfortable position of resting a thumb on the button while you work is no longer viable, and if you move your finger even slightly away from the centre you'll veer into overzealous scroll areas and ping your cursor all over the place.
It's so unusable that we're simply astounded it's still there – we complained about it when the original Mini 10 arrived, and never imagined it would be the one part of the chassis that didn't get updated. We know it's awful. Certain Dell staff have privately acknowledged to us that it's awful. Yet a brand-new model arrives and it's inexplicably still there.
That's a shame, as the rest of this shiny little netbook is really rather alluring. Its design is eye-catching, the battery life outstanding and the media accelerator makes a decent fist of playing HD content. If Dell had opted for the most basic of boring touchpads, the Inspiron Mini 10 may well have earned our recommendation. Instead it goes down as one of the most frustrating netbooks we've had the displeasure of testing.
Author: David Bayon