Thursday, March 05, 2009

Vodafone 3G+ / Dell Mini 9 netbook review

Vodafone Dell Mini 9 netbook

For the last three weeks or so I’ve been travelling around with a Vodafone-powered Dell Inspiron Mini 9 netbook tucked into my bag, using it as and when it seemed appropriate.

It’s been a remarkably convenient tool to have to hand, and one that I’ll miss now that the review period is over and it has been boxed up and returned.

I’d held off posting for a few days while waiting for Vodafone to respond to a couple of queries ... but I’ll post again if/when the answers come through.

General reactions

Vodafone Dell Mini 9 netbook

After a long fallow period of travel, I’ve been across in Croydon and London several times in the last few weeks. It’s been delightful to be able to scribble type up a blog entry on MS Works while on the train, or catch up on a downloaded 4oD/iPlayer show on the plane. Skype installs and runs like a dream, with the in-built webcam (and associated light) supporting video conversations over 3G.

Size wise, it’s a triumph. Light enough and small enough to slip into your bag without a problem. Even squeezes into my coat pocket ... just.

The nine inch screen (8.9" to be precise) is just right for playing back downloaded video - much larger and the artefacts of compression would start to appear. 1024x600, with much larger resolutions supported on the external VGA displays. Not so sure about the gloss finish in front of the screen – useful to see who’s ogling over your shoulder or combing your hair in a cheap hotel room – but picks up a lot of fingerprints and is a bit too reflective in bright environments.

Side view of Vodafone Dell Mini 9 netbook

Three USB2.0 ports, ethernet, mic input and headphones output, media card reader, as well as the all important Kensington lock tethering point.

Side view of Vodafone Dell Mini 9 netbook


I’d no problems with the built-in wifi – happily connecting to home and airport networks – and there’s Bluetooth in there too. The really neat thing about the Dell Mini 9 is that it was a built in 3G/GPRS modem and SIM card slot, so there are no trailing 3G dongles. Major convenience boon. Where Vodafone’s 3G+ service (HSDPA) is available, it’ll connect at speeds of up to 1.8Mbps (or 7.2Mbps in a growing number of areas). Otherwise it’s 3G at 500Kbps and reverting to GPRS (at its pedestrian 56-114Kbps) elsewhere. 3G+/3G is good enough to watch streamed iPlayer content - though expect the occasional pause for rebuffering.

SIM card slips in beside the battery - Vodaphone Dell Mini 9 netbook

Talking to a member of staff in a Vodafone retail store, he explained that practically everyone buys the laptop with the 1GB package. Although you can trade up to a higher bandwidth tariff during the contract period, no one has ever come in to ask. He reckoned most customers were taking advantage of free wireless at home and in outlets like McDonalds, and rarely relied on the 3G connectivity.

I certainly found myself quickly flipping the wifi on to see if there was a connection about before running up the 3G connection software. Though there were a lot of times - trains, hotels with expensive wireless and airports that 3G was the easiest option.

The connection software helps you monitor your usage over the month. And it becomes very natural to look for a friendly wifi service before cranking up the 3G when you can't find any.

Being driven down from Lisburn to Cavan two weeks ago, a vague road diversion rendered the car’s GPS useless, and so the magic of Google Maps and 3G (while still on the main A4) and then GPRS (once away from the main roads) rescued us. And as we got close to the border – though not necessarily over it – the perennial Irish roaming problem popped up in a dialogue box with a stronger signal from Vodafone IE than Vodafone UK.

Unlike my poor experience with 3 in January, at home in Lisburn there’s a strong Vodafone 3G+ signal, with 4 or 5 bars in exactly the same location the 3 dongle failed to get over 2/3 bars and tended towards dropping out. Going through Stansted last week, I did noticed that while airside (the main eating hall and around gate 85) there was no 3G+ signal, only 3G from the terminal pico-cells, while out on the tarmac and in the metal tube of a plane, 3G+/HSDPA comes back!

Speed and oomph

With a 1.6GHz Atom chip, 1GB of memory and a 8GB of SSD hard drive capacity, it’s no flying machine. But XP copes admirably, and as long as you’re a little bit patient, don’t want to store too much data on-board and don’t do too many things at once – and who would want to with a nine inch display – it’s perfectly adequate.

Microsoft’s cheap deal on XP licences for netbooks limits manufacturers to supplying machines with a maximum of 1GB of memory ... but there’s nothing to stop you removing two screws on the back panel, popping out the 1GB and replacing it with a suitable 2GB board if you think it’ll make a difference. On the storage front, Dell are now only selling the XP Mini 9s with 16GB of SSD storage, but I guess the 8GB SSD keeps the cost down for Vodafone. You can pick up a 32GB SD card for the slot on the left hand side of the laptop if you need more media storage.

Vodafone Dell Mini 9 netbook

Battery life wasn’t quite as good as I hoped ... with the battery half drained by a bit of surfing while waiting for a flight and a 40 minutes of video on board. While video keeps the display powered up, SSD storage means that there’s no hard drive to keep spinning – but the review machine wasn’t brand new, so the 4-cell battery may not have been in tip top condition. Certainly not as good as Cheryl's Eee PC 1000H which goes on and on and on ... but it’s a smaller machine with a smaller battery.

Tariff permutations and combinations

Overall, it was with reluctance that I let this machine out of my hands on Tuesday. It was a useful, comfortable and hassle free machine to cart around and use. If Vodafone’s Liveguy had visited Belfast during their November promotion, he’d certainly have been able to give away his three laptops, and probably tempted a lot of shoppers into buying them at the local Vodafone stores.

The big question is would I buy one? It’s very, very tempting!

The consumer retail prices start at £25/month for a 24 month 1GB contract (£30/month for 24 month 3GB) with the laptop thrown in "for free" - and first three month’s rental waived if you sign up before the end of March. The business tariffs are a bit more flexible, giving the option of buying the laptop up front, leaving a much smaller monthly contract for the 3G package.

I'll comment on the tariffs in a future post once Vodafone confirm how accessible the business tariffs are to normal punters.

Other options

Cramped keyboard on Vodafone Dell Mini 9 netbook

Of course, Dell have just upped the stakes and announced the Mini 10 – a zippier processor, larger hard drive (though an actual spinning drive and not SSD), and a slightly larger screen and case which allows for a marginally larger keyboard (more like the Eee PC 1000H) lacking many of the irks of the Mini 9. No dedicated function keys, a tiny right hand shift key, and just a smidgen too small to touch type accurately on for an extended period. That would be ideal! Except there’s no official mention in the specs of it having a 3G/HSDPA modem built in, so it’ll probably only be an option for mobile providers to supply. Wonder will Vodafone be offering it? I’d buy a 3G Mini 10 tomorrow.

Closing thoughts

It would be wonderful to see Vodafone offering a Northern Irish friendly mobile broadband roaming deal that took into account the lack of Faraday cages along the land border with the Republic of Ireland ... to avoid the extortionate £9.99/day (for 15MB) roaming charges.

In summary, a great package, and if you want connectivity to the cloud while on the move without the hassle of remembering to bring your USB 3G dongle (and don't need to move between devices), then take a look at Vodafone's Mini 9 and if you can, try juggling tariffs between the different consumer and business contract lengths and monthly bandwidth options to find one that suits you.

(Thanks to Vodafone for the use of a review machine to compile this review.)

1 comment:

Timothy Belmont said...

Great to get all that information and your review. I've been pondering a Mini 9 for months.
My only contract is with BT Option 1, so I think I'd get 250 wi-fi minutes a month?
I haven't a clue about 3G! Alan, would it be worthwhile for me to consider the mini 9 for occasional connectivity to the web, surfing, email away from home bearing in mind my limit of 250 minutes per month?