The typical knock on netbooks is that, while cheap and small, they're too underpowered for anything really productive or fun—presumably the primary reasons consumers buy computers.
Dell's (DELL) Inspiron Mini 10v netbook won't win any prizes for speed. But for a $300 computer geared toward Web surfing, it performed admirably for such demanding jobs as watching YouTube (GOOG) and Hulu videos. For $300, it would make a good first laptop for a young child or teenager. It scores high in the "fun" category. But a persnickety touch pad and a lack of preloaded programs make it less useful for working or pursuing software-intensive tasks such as manipulating digital images.
In an effort to get consumers out of the habit of buying rock-bottom-priced netbooks as ersatz laptops, computer makers are pushing a new breed of "ultrathin" notebooks that offer what they say is more value for the money. The ultrathins, like Hewlett-Packard's dv2 cost around $750, run Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows 7, and offer much better keyboards, screens, and performance than netbooks do.
Still, for simple tasks, it's hard to argue with something that costs less than half the price. If you're not doing much typing besides sending e-mails and don't care about a limited palette of programs, Dell's Mini 10v stands up as a sturdy and reliable netbook.
I found the machine attractive and lightweight. Its plastic casing comes in seven colors (black, white, pink, green, red, blue, and purple) and features attractive, curved edges. I also found the 10v easy to tote around in a shoulder or gym bag—even one not designed for a computer—since it weighs just 2.5 lb. and measures a compact 10.75 in. long and 7.5 in. wide when closed. Dell boasts that the 10v's keyboard is 92% the size of a full keyboard.
Typing is tolerable but still cramped; the keys are closer together than you'd expect, and they don't have beveled edges to help you find them.
Problems with the Small Screen Under the hood, the 10v includes an Intel (INTC) Atom processor, 1 GB of memory, and a 120 GB hard drive, which is sizable considering most users won't be using the device to create and save lots of files. Setting up the machine was straightforward. Booting up took less than a minute and the 10v's battery got me through a couple of hours of computing.
Dell left the 10v's desktop relatively uncluttered—a good idea, considering the small, 10.1-in. screen. Unfortunately, the tiny space is less amenable to some Web browsers, such as those that include multiple rows of menus. Microsoft, maker of the most widely used Web browsers, should work with PC makers to correct this problem.
Watching Web videos on the 10v was a decent experience. YouTube was a bit choppy at first, but worked. Still, loading its graphically intense pages, even without video playing, took a while. Hulu also worked fine, once I downloaded the latest version of Adobe Systems' (ADBE) Flash software. I watched five minutes of, I'm embarrassed to say, Alf (hey, Hulu was promoting the '80s show about a furry alien on its home page, so it was convenient to click on). Then I jumped to a 1971 PBS video of Julia Child making a spinach tart, before switching back to Hulu to watch Dan Aykroyd's classic Saturday Night Live parody of Child. They all played without a hitch.
Other sites didn't fare so well. With a resolution of 1024 by 600 pixels, the 10v screen couldn't handle Yahoo (YHOO) Mail, which gave me a warning that it wasn't intended for screens of less than 1024 x 768 resolution. And Facebook performed slowly. As with all netbooks, the small screen size can also be a hindrance. I opened an e-mail containing several vacation photos, but the e-mail message real estate was so small that I couldn't see an entire photo at once.
Awkward Touch Pad Adding to my list of gripes is the 10v's small, hard-to-maneuver touch pad. To left- or right-click, you depress the lower corners of the pad. The pad doesn't handle more than one finger-sliding or clicking gesture at once, though, and I found my timing had to be just right to execute the intended commands.
Then there's the Windows nag-ware that made using this netbook less enjoyable. Within a couple of minutes of starting up, a pop-up alert window from security software vendor McAfee (MFE) informed me that "your computer is not fully protected," and urged me to check my "protection status [to] fix the problems." Heeding that message led to an array of cryptic messages about the age of my "detection signatures." Maybe one day, the Windows world will collaborate to tackle these kinds of annoyances earlier in the game.
Also endemic to this class of computers is the dearth of preinstalled software. Besides a Web browser and Windows Media Player, there isn't much. Dell includes Microsoft Works on a disc in the box, but you'd need to hook up your own external CD-ROM drive to install it. There was some puzzling audio software preinstalled, though. Clicking on Windows XP's volume control opened a jam-packed control panel from a Taiwanese company called Realtek Semiconductor that included a sound equalizer and settings that could make the computer's sounds replicate a "stone corridor," "arena," "bathroom," or "sewer pipe." Sewer pipe?
If you're shopping for a budget-priced and stylish netbook that will stand up to daily Web surfing, and aren't hoping for much more, the 10v is a solid choice.