Saturday, January 10, 2009

Final thoughts and upgrades on the Dell Mini 9

The Mini seems to be an overall win for my wife. She's really been enjoying it.

Her ups are that she can take it any where she goes, she can actually use it while holding the baby, she gets "oohs" and "ahhs" everywhere she goes - people find it hard to believe that she just pulled a full blown computer out of her purse, it's comfortable to her - she is not bothered by heat or weight when setting it in her lap, after the upgrades I made (more below) she says that the speed and multitask-ability is out of the park!

Her downs are sometimes when she gets into a typing grove she mistypes due to the slightly smaller keys and the screen resolution has taken her a little time to get used to (she is accustomed to 1024 x 768 and not the current max 1024 x 600).

Here's the story:
After it arrived on Dec. 23 I knew it would be pretty cool to transfer all of her docs, and settings from her old laptop (D600) to the Mini, wrap it up and stick it under the tree. So that night I whipped out her old box, the Mini, and a usb DVD drive and got to work.

Initially when the Mini booted I was somewhat impressed. After going through setting up the user, computer name, network, etc... the thing would boot up in around ~10seconds, and would finish loading apps, anti virus, etc.. in upwards of 30seconds - not too bad.

I installed Office 07, configured the local network shares (transferred docs and pst files from network shares), setup her email, and then started the windows updates. Prior to the updates I noticed that the transfer of many files (her entire my docs directory) over wireless to our NAS was significantly faster than even the m90 I use for work. I cracked it open and looked at the wireless card - nothing special just an 802.11g card. I never did any benchmarks, by my impression is that the file writes and reads over the network are fast (possibly the new Atom processor, or SSD and it was simply writing faster to the media - I don't know, and I really don't care).

I was disappointed with the number of windows updates I had to do. The installed configuration was Windows XP sp3 and Office 07 retail. I ended up having to download somewhere in the ball park of 70+ updates coming in at 600~700mb total! This wasn't a major problem for me since we have FIOS and the updates we're downloaded almost instantly but the reboots for the updates and shear number was disconcerting - I can't imagine the frustration of a Cable or DSL user. Dell and Microsoft need to work on this one, whether its an additional CD packaged with the product when the updates reach a certain number, or the image Dell uses is updated more frequently - not sure, I am just guessing there must be a better solution.

After all of the housekeeping was done I cleaned up the loose / temp files installed firefox, configured the box to hibernate on lid close, and wrapped it up.

She was excited when she opened it, her first words about it, "this thing looks sweet." After some usage she was feeling the pinch of her usage patterns pushing the limits of the netbook. It began to crumble over her 1gb archive of email and Windows was constantly having to adjust the pagefile size because of virtual memory usage.

I began questioning if I had made the right decision, maybe I should have gotten her a Dell Studio or a something else. I did a brief bit of research and discovered one of the major bottle necks of many of the netbooks is the write speed of the SSD and multitaskers should have as much memory as possible (side note, the tech specs on Dell's site says Up to 1gb - the current configuration I have is running and using 2gb).

Thanks to mydigitaldiscount and the jkkmobile blog all of my problems when away for $140. I bought the new RunCore PCI-e 32gb SSD and a 2gb stick of Transcend memory. With the help of the awesome configuration of the RunCore drive and the Acronis trial I had her drive cloned in 10 minutes.

I first bench marked the current drive that came with the mini - 16gb SSD by STEC. I was disappointed in both the reads and the writes with this drive. It's seems that Dell might have skimped on this, I am not sure why though - I personally feel that this is one of the more important areas of the unit. At least give me an option on the site to upgrade to a high performance SSD when I am buying the Mini (this btw is my only gripe about the Mini 9 - everything else has far exceeded my expectations).

Dell really out did themselves with the hardware accessibility of this unit. You can flip the unit over and pop off the back panel (roughly 3in x 4in opening). There you have access to WLAN, Wireless, Memory, and SSD - perfect!

I dropped in the new SSD and memory closed it up - all in about 5 minutes. I booted up the Mini and voila - an exact copy of the drive minutes before, running perfectly - all done in under 20 minutes.

The benchmarks on the new RunCore SSD we're impressive and crushed the SSD from STEC that came with the Mini.

(Standard 16gb SSD that ships with the Mini)

(RunCore 32gb SSD purchased for $119.00)

Final thoughts:
Initially I was concerned about getting a netbook but, during my research when considering what to get her based on her needs the Mini 9 kept coming up. The configuration seemed solid and the size is a perfect fit for her. She delights in simplistic things - "don't give me something I don't need, I want to get stuff done, plain and simple. If it gets in my way of getting things done, I get rid of it..."

If you are an "on-the-go" user, a digital nomad of sorts and you live in email, the web, and in spreadsheets than this is the box for you. She has zero problems with photo and movie editing as well (especially after the upgrades). It is rare that a tool shows up in the tech smelting pot that actually makes the user who moves through insane situations and crazy environments more effective - I believe this is one of those tools. It's an elegant, fast, no frills solution to the person with the high demand life where every second counts.

Well done Dell, though your flagship laptop line is the Precision series - I really do think this one will change / impact more lives. My wife so far has been relishing in the benefits of using this computer in all areas of our lives. Get the SDD right, or at least provide an option and you'll own the netbook market.

Go to my Flickr photostream to see all of the photos from the upgrade.


  1. Nice one, man! I'm sure this review will help out those of us (me included) looking at a netbook. Us carny folk with small hands have an advantage ;-)


  2. i just got a dell mini 9 but it says no virtual memory and wont do anything. what do you suggest? i am computer illiterate.

  3. Did it come that way or did this happen after tweaking per suggestions above? If it came that way I would call Dell / go to online support ( They have the diagnostic tools to help you through your troubles.

    I think there are also some diagnostic / restore disks that came with it that you could try as well (you'll need an external cd/dvd drive). The wizards on those things are usually pretty good about talking you through the process of debugging the issue.