Rise of the (mini) machines - Dell Inspiron Mini, Acer Aspire One, MSI Wind

Even though shrunken notebooks have been kicking around for years, it’s only recently that they seem to have come of age thanks to enough consumer interest to generate some serious sales.

Even though shrunken notebooks have been kicking around for years, it’s only recently that they seem to have come of age thanks to enough consumer interest to generate some serious sales. ASUS can probably be thanked for igniting things with its cheap, tiny (and awkwardly named) Eee PC with its minimalist features, basic Linux operating system and, above all, low price. Intel has come to the party too with the ultra-low voltage Atom processor providing the grunt behind all three mini notebooks – Dell Inspiron Mini, Acer Aspire One and MSI Wind – we’re looking at here.

The first thing worth noting about this line up is that there’s not a Linux-powered machine to be found, or Vista-powered for that matter, and all three vendors have chosen instead to equip their mini-notes with Microsoft’s ancient Windows XP operating system. This does provide some benefits in that compatibility with the vast catalogue of Windows software is virtually guaranteed, as is user familiarity with the interface. So, given the fact all three provide an all but identical user experience, it’s going to be the physical differences between these machines that will likely decide which manufacturer gets your money.

While all are undoubtedly small, some mini-notes are larger than others. In this roundup the MSI machine is slightly larger than both the Dell and the Acer and its screen is larger too measuring 10 inches compared to 8.9 inches for the Dell and 9 inches for the Acer – all three, however, sport the same 1024 x 600 widescreen resolution. Both Acer and Dell supplied screens with a glossy finish that looks nice but can be troublesome when it comes to reflections.

Typing on these tiny notebooks provides a challenge that will take some getting used to, but even so, we found it didn’t take long to adjust and none of the keyboards were so small as to be unusable.

Perhaps the biggest sacrifice made to the gods of mobility and compactness comes via what isn’t included – an optical drive. If you’re going to make the transition to one of these little machines you’re going to need to get used to using USB sticks or network connections to load software and media onto them. This is no big deal since all feature three USB ports apiece, Ethernet ports, wireless networking and SD Card slots. Still, you do sometimes miss the ease of chucking in a CD.

Onboard storage is handled differently depending on the vendor. Whereas both Acer and MSI chuck in a roomy 120GB hard drive, the Dell Inspiron Mini features a 16GB solid state hard drive – good for taking less toll on battery life but the trade-off comes by way of space, and 16GB isn’t much once Windows XP has chewed through a few GBs for itself.

Performance was similar across the board, hardly surprising given they all use the same 1.6GHz Intel Atom CPU. Acer and Dell supplied test units with their maximum 1GB of RAM installed but the MSI came preloaded with 2GB, which made for a smoother overall experience when running more than one application at a time. We tried running our WorldBench 6 benchmarking suite on the mini-notes but were stymied by a number of factors. Firstly, Dell’s 16GB hard drive didn’t offer enough space to install the suite to even begin, and the other two simply refused point-blank to run certain parts of the test (the resource-hungry 3D Studio Max test for instance). So while we can’t provide any hard data to compare the performance of these units against other notebooks we’ve tested we can say with considerable certainty that all three would more than suffice for running basic applications such as email, web browsing, word processing and even consumer-oriented applications like Adobe Photoshop Elements.

Battery life varies depending on the size of the battery installed. MSI gave us a unit with a large 6-cell battery which lasted for over four hours in our testing. Dell installed a 4-cell battery offering nearly three hours of life. Acer’s 3-cell unit, also the lightest, lasted two and a half hours under everyday usage scenarios.

Webcams were included as standard on each unit, making them useful for video calls over Skype or other similar endeavours.

With prices ranging from $799 to $949 depending on the configuration you choose when purchasing, these mini-notes are certainly well priced. But bear in mind that you can pick up a full size notebook with large screen, generous keyboard spacing and optical drive for around the same cost. If, however, you’re after something that’s highly portable we recommend giving these mini-notebooks serious consideration. They’re all solidly constructed and packed with features.

Best of all though, you can take them just about anywhere without so much as a thought.

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Scott Bartley

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