Category Archives: hardware

Computer? But I hardly knew ‘er: A mini review of a mini Dell inspiron

“Well, the good news sir” so the Dell phone rep tells me “I see here you have 364 days remaining on your 1 year warranty”. 24hrs after delivery, my brand new micro mini subnotebook is cold and refusing to boot. This after blue screening of death on me 5 min in to an important client presentation. Ah well, these things happen. In which we learn, the importance power point in every meeting is often overstated.

My little Dell Inspiron Mini, your candle burned too bright. You gave me about 45 combined minutes of Windows XP before intermittently, then completely dying out. I blame the solid state drive (these early days of SSDs, not so solid) the tech thought it was the network card, but whatever. The unit is winging it’s way home to Dell for a new one. Apparently I am not the first to have problems. Could also explain why the backorder on inpiron 9’s is at least two weeks (One theory: Intel Atom shortages, another: a lot of the units don’t work right).

Anyway, since a lot of folks have asked, here’s my abbreviated review of an abbreviated mini…

First up, it really is small. It arrives in a box that seems impossible to have a whole computer in it. It’s beautifully portable, it fits in the most unlikely compartments of your bag. It’s really light as well, and even the charger is barely bulkier than a cell phone charger. Cool. Half the size of a macbook (and half the price too!)

The downside to it’s size is the keyboard. Typing will take some practice. My hands actually hang off the sides of the keyboard if I hold them normally.

Subnotes are designed to be cheap and cheerful. NOT a replacement for your main computer or laptop. But a handy and inobtrusive “net top” device for your webapps, gmail and document access on the go. In terms of utility, think of it as halfway (three quarters) between a blackberry and macbook.

Cheap it certainly is, throwing every upgrade at it Dell would offer, it was hard to get the pricetag above about $550. Mine has 1GB of RAM (really the bare minimum these days) in what I believe is one DIMM slot. I am somewhat optimistic I could one day upgrade to a 2GB stick, but I didn’t want to take any screws out and check before sending the machine back.

Items to keep in mind: The 1.6GHz atom is just fast enough for typical light usage, I think. It didn’t feel overly slow in the brief time I had to play with the machine. Thank god the things don’t attempt to run Vista.

The screen is crisp and bright. Pixel density is tight which I like, but those with older eyes may find it squinty. The viewing agle of the lcd is not great, but not worse than expected for inexpensive components. The narrow vertical resolution (1024×600) is less an issue than I feared. 1024 is wide enough for the web, and there are a collection of ways to crunch down the chrome and toolbars on firefox to free-up screen space if you google it.

Aesthetically, the machine is nice enough looking. I do hate the Dell logo (Attn Dell, the 90s are gone pls rebrand) but what can you do. Note the black version is a ridiculous fingerprint collector. Nonetheless, the unit is fun to carry around. Mini notes are still new and novel enough that everyone wants to take a look at it.

The mini’s biggest weakness (same goes all micronotes in Canada actually as of this writing) is that neither Dell nor any of the carriers have their brains screwed on tight enough yet to realize that every one of these should be sold with a built-in mobile broadband. At present, you’ll have to make due with wifi or a usb 3G stick.

Would I recommend the thing? Maybe? Would be nice to try one that works. If you’re buying, warranty upgrades.

link: Product Page for the Inspiron Mini 9 on Dell.ca

(Formerly) Canada’s ATI makes a huge comeback in the graphics business

The graphics company once know as ATI has launched something of a coup this week with two new products the Radeon 4850 and 4870. NVDIA has been dominating the desktop 3D graphics market for a while now but it looks it’s now ATI’s turn to leapfrog. Now it’s just too bad they got themselves bought 2 years ago out by the absolute trainwreck of a CPU company AMD. The 48xx technology is just for PCs for now but should eventually filter down to notebooks and even macs.

If you are in to this sort of thing, check out AnandTech’s review:

ATI cardFor now, the Radeon HD 4870 and 4850 are both solid values and cards we would absolutely recommend to readers looking for hardware at the $200 and $300 price points. The fact of the matter is that by NVIDIA’s standards, the 4870 should be priced at $400 and the 4850 should be around $250. You can either look at it as AMD giving you a bargain or NVIDIA charging too much, either way it’s healthy competition in the graphics industry once again (after far too long of a hiatus).

Anyway, kudos to the boys and girls in Markham Ontario for pulling this off. You may just save your parent company yet.

You can buy one here.

The G-phone stirreth

Google said to be shipping 50,000 Gphones by year’s end. A UBS analyst is rumored to have information that HTC, a Taiwanese handset manufacturer, will ship about 50,000 cell phones made for Google by the end of
the year. “These initial phones are not going to be for sale, says Benjamin Schachter, at UBS. “These are going to be available for developers only to understand how the software works.” LG (LPL) is also said to be a possible manufacturier.

more on fortune.com

I bet the Gphone would work really well on some Google Spectrum.

Hold on to your dollars

The Canadian Dollar reached parity with the U.S. Greenback yesterday. In on honour of this auspicious day, I thought I’d see how translates for far for tech consumers out there. Comparing prices at Apple.ca and Apple.com. Remember 1CAD = 1USD.

  CAD USD Premium
iPod Touch 329 299 10.0%
iPod Nano 169 149 13.4%
MacBook 1249 1099 13.6%
MacBookPro 2199 1999 10.0%
iMac 1399 1199 7%
iPhone *sigh* 399 Infinity

UPDATE: Given the recent strength in the Loonie has as much to do with a free-falling Dollar, you might imagine that Apple will be as apt to raise their US prices on future products rather than drop prices in Canada. So head south and bargain-shop while you can?

As Lars suggest, keep an eye on the greasy Big Mac to get a sense of how/if cross-border prices will converge.

6 Big Myths about buying a laptop computer

I get asked this one a lot, and here is what you need to know. My advice may surprise you. I’m going to explode a few popular myths by explaining what not to look for then give my advice for what’s really important.

What really doesn’t matter:

  1. MHz doesn’t matter – Don’t pay a lot extra for a few hundred extra MHz it won’t make a difference you can notice. Put your money into every other component first. In reality, 90% of the time your computer feels slow and gets all hourglassy is because the CPU is actually spinning idle and twiddling it’s digital thumbs while waiting on the network, the disk, or churning away at the disk because you don’t have enough RAM.
  2. Don’t worry about screen size – a 15″ screen is not better than a 14″ screen with the same number of pixels. In fact, it’s worse it just adds weight and bulk. Don’t do it unless you have bad eyes and weak prescription.
  3. Vista – It’s not that great. Until or unless MS revamps Vista substantially with the next service pack, I’d rather go back to Windows XP for now, or go for a Mac.
  4. Graphics – don’t matter! Discrete ATI/Nvidia graphics add substantial weight and cost to your laptop, while the best of them still suck compared to their sibling cards in desktop computers. Technically, integrated graphics (read: intel graphics) are even worse, but they do work perfectly fine for productivity applications. And productivity is what this computer is, um, for right? My advice, if you really want to play games on a computer, get a desktop.

    In fact there’s a lot to be said in general for getting running a cheap and chearful portable and a desktop rather than a bloated boat anchor of a “multimedia” notebook that tries to do everything. It’s also always easier to attach better sound/graphics/big-screens to a desktop. It’s quite easy for a fully-loaded laptop(>$2000) to actually cost more than a cheap-and-chearful laptop (~$800) and a mid-range desktop (including screen) combined (~$1000).

  5. Integrated CDROM/DVDROM. Who cares? Optical media are a dying breed. If you can, save the weight and bulk and make do without. Download your media. If you really need to install some software by disc (maybe once or twice a year?) just connect your machine to a LAN and use a discdrive/burner across the network (see point 5, get a desktop too)
  6. Big Box stores – under no circumstances buy a computer from a big box store. Buy online or direct instead. If you’re following this advice, there’s almost no way you’re going to find a decent machine based on these criteria at a big box store.

What actually matters (your laptop’s underloved and underappreciated components)

  • Weight – You will thank yourself later. Remember 7lb is not a portable computer. 3lb is ideal but hard to find. Do the best you can, every pound will make you happier in the long run (and vice versa)
  • Number of Pixels – As in the actual screen resolution. If your eyesight is any good, more is always better. Also watch the conversion in the next year to LED-backlit screens, these should offer longer battery life and (maybe) better contrast/color consistency
  • Memory – get *at least* 1GB but think about upgrading aftermarket at your local computer shop. Unless they’re having a special, dell etc. will often under-spec on RAM then gouge you on the upgrade. Go to a little computer shop, plunk your machine on the counter and they’ll upgrade you in less time than it takes to whip out your credit card. Remember, memory is not the same thing as hard drive (you knew that right?)
  • Hard drive: go for speed, capacity – Hard drives are the slowest component in your machine, first look for a 5400 or 7200rpm drive and second look at capacity. Bigger drives are faster because the bits are closer together resulting in faster transfer rates and because more of your data fitting in the faster, outer edge of the disk. Someday soon, maybe later this year, we’ll have (affordable) solid state flash HDs. Those will be even better.
  • This is advice more/less applies for buying a PC but in the general case also applies to Mac’s (there’s just not as much selection in Macs). It’s true, however, that most true alpha geeks these days would offer a rather simpler advice:

    1. Go to apple store online*
    2. Buy computer
    3. Enjoy

    *why online? cause the online store isn’t to fussy about who qualifies for an “educational” discount. Ever been to a school, or drove past one on the highway? can you think of any string of numbers we might call a “student number”? then yes, you too can qualify for ~$200 off that MacBook Pro. But shhh, you didn’t hear that here.

    Final note: surprisingly, eBay can also be a great place to get great deals on laptops if you know what you are looking for. And now you do.

    If ever in doubt, drop me an email. I’m glad to offer any amount of free advice for you on the latest computer hardware. I’m such a nerd.