Sunday, June 07, 2009

Review: Dell Mini 12 with Ubuntu

A few months ago, my old Thinkpad T42 died after 4 years of faithful service. I realized that I usually buy a $2000 laptop every 3 to 4 years; and as an experiment I decided to instead buy one between 1/3 to 1/4 of that cost, and see if it would last me over a year. I also wanted to switch from a 5-pound laptop to something lighter. So, I got a Dell Mini 12 with Ubuntu for about $550 (1.6 Ghz Atom processor, 80GB hard drive); including the second battery I spent $700.

After a few months of regular use, I feel ready to render a verdict.

  • The keyboard is OK, but not great. Most of the keys are fine, but the comma, period, and slash keys are half width, which is pretty annoying for a Linux-using touch-typing programmer. I've retrained my fingers to adequate speed under this arrangement (I now hit all three of these keys with my ring finger), but it took some time to get used to, and I'll never be as fast as with a full-sized keyboard.
  • You will hit the touchpad accidentally while you're typing. This is impossible to avoid. The touchpad is astonishingly sensitive. I could swear that it picks up tracks when my palm's not even touching the pad.
  • The screen is 1280x800, glossy, and about average quality for a notebook screen (which is to say, inferior to a Thinkpad or Macbook Pro screen, but fine for most uses).
  • Performance is not impressive. This is an ultralight with compromises. You can't watch Hulu videos full-screen with this computer, and there's noticeable lag when switching among multiple Firefox instances. Lately, however, I spend most of my mobile time either checking email/RSS feeds, or hacking LaTeX and OCaml in emacs while running Pandora in the background. For these purposes, it's perfectly adequate. (I suspect that if I were running Eclipse or some heavyweight development environment I'd be much less happy.)
  • Having a super-light computer is a definite pleasure. One of the most underrated human-computer interfaces is the one between your bag and your shoulder. The Mini 12 and its power adapter together weigh about 3 pounds. It feels qualitatively different from, say, a Macbook Pro or Thinkpad T-series.
  • This computer runs cool enough to both (a) stay in your lap indefinitely and (b) not require a cooling fan. The hard drive is extremely quiet as well. As a result, the computer's almost perfectly silent. YMMV but I find this extremely pleasurable. I don't think I've ever used a computer this quiet.
  • I got the model with preinstalled Ubuntu 8.04 (Hardy Heron). It's a huge bonus for me that I didn't have to reformat or repartition my hard drive and install Linux myself — something I've had to do with almost every computer I've bought in the past decade. Wireless networking, sound, Flash, sleep-and-resume, etc. all just work. The Mini 12 comes with the dell-lpia architecture Ubuntu distribution, rather than x86, but it mostly behaves like any other Ubuntu. (Exceptions: (1) when I first got my Mini, it would occasionally crash under heavy load, but recent kernel updates seem to have fixed the problem; (2) a few packages, such as smlnj, aren't yet compiled for dell-lpia, but this hasn't been a deal-breaker.)

So, the bottom line is that when I don't need to be on my employer's VPN, I throw this thing into my bag more often than my Macbook Pro from work. Take this with a grain of salt, of course, keeping in mind that I'm a fairly atypical computer user. But I, at least, am fairly happy with the purchase.

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