Dell Mini & Ubuntu Love

Near the end of December I bought a Dell Mini 9. If there is such thing as a Mini closet, I’m coming out right now and professing my love to this computer. It is my favourite among all that I’ve owned. That has nothing to do with processor power or that sort of stuff. For the last several months we’ve gotten along very smoothly and the only times I questioned our relationship were not the Mini’s fault (more its sometimes unreasonable parents–Dell–or the not entirely on-the-ball tech support setup). The Dell Mini is there when I want it without feeling like an obtrusive appliance in my home. Perhaps the chemicals just haven’t worn off yet but here are my impressions.

I wanted one of these mini notebook computers for several reasons. First, I was tired of banishing myself to my office when I wanted to work on my novel. It’s winter, I’d rather be sitting in front of a fire, listening to some music, and comfortable on the sofa. Not hidden away from my wife in another room.

Second, when I travel I like to travel light. Normal sized laptops have never seemed convenient to me for carrying onto an airplane. Most laptops are smaller than a regular computer but still big, heavy nuisances. Now that I’m used to my mini, standard sized laptops look like giant relics, the way mobile phones from the early 90s do.

I did a lot of research before buying. I compared the review sites. The main contenders seem to come from Asus, Acer, HP, MSI, and Dell though I’ve also seen a fair amount written on the Lenovo Ideapad and a host of others. Most netbooks come with pretty similar standard specs, like an 8.9″ display (now heading up to 10″), either solid state or regular hard drives, 512MB or 1GB memory, an Intel Atom processor, and a Linux variant (usually Ubuntu, Linpus, or SUSE) or Windows XP. I’m not sure what HP is thinking but their prices are way out of line with the other companies so they were easy to eliminate.

I decided on a system with 1 GB RAM and a 1.6 megapixel webcam for those occasional evenings where I want to have a pint or dinner with some long distance friends via Skype. (Also more pleasant in the living room than the office).

I also chose the Dell Mini with a 16GB solid state drive (SSD) over a regular hard drive. It seems to me that the price of extremely large capacity external hard drives is so low, that one might as well just buy an external drive to plug into the mini for all the major document storage. Then just use the Mini’s internal drive for the documents, photos, whatever that you want to bring while travelling or doing some immediate work on. Besides if you need extra memory while travelling, a USB memory stick or SD card are relatively inexpensive, very small and portable. A massive regular hard drive in the Mini doesnt’t seem very valuable to me. This choice eliminated the likes of MSI and Lenovo.

I’ve read that SSDs are faster, generate less heat, less prone to failure, and I love the idea of eliminating moving parts in my computer, especially since the fewer moving parts there are, the less noise the thing is likely to make. In fact, noise was one of my primary considerations. Something that sets the Dell Mini apart from every other mini notebook (netbook) I’ve researched is that it has no fan. I hate fan noise from computers, especially when I’m trying to hear some music and immerse myself into a creative state for writing. The Dell Mini, in its lack of fans and moving parts, is completely silent.

Based on reviews I read, it seemed that the Dell Mini’s keyboard size was just behind the Acer Aspire One’s but larger than the Asus Eeepc. Keyboard size is especially important if, like me, you intend to do a lot of touch typing. The Acer is mostly parallel to the Dell in other respects. There are some tradeoffs, for example the Acer has a lower grade webcam. But both the Acer and Asus have fans and when I listened to an Acer in a store it sounded quite noisy. So that pretty much eliminated the other contenders.

Although the Dell designers made a few strange keyboard choices, which require some adjustment the Dell Mini presents no significant problems to extended bouts of touch-typing. Examples of the strange choices? There are functional F11 and F12 keys but they’re not labeled as such. Also Dell chose a glaringly awkward place to put the apostrophe key, which is probably the single biggest design flaw I can think of. I’m adjusting, in time I probably won’t notice. I might even grow to love its placement. Years ago, my first car was an old Saab 900, which was famous for its quirks, like having the ignition on the floor instead of by the stearing wheel. I loved that.

The Dell Mini is silent, more attractive than any other netbook (in my opinion), and surprisingly fast. In a lot of forums, people tend to say that these new netbooks are slower than other laptops or desktops. That’s true in benchmarks I’ve seen. I assume that if you’re using it for heavy gaming or other intense processing the Mini might feel slow. For example, I haven’t experimented with any of my midi or other audio work on it yet but I suspect that the difference in speed will show up in that sort of situation. Nevertheless, for most of what I do the Dell Mini feels indistinguishable from my high-end 64 bit desktop system. Hook up a nice external monitor, keyboard, and mouse and I believe it would be perfectly fine doing double duty as a convenient desktop replacement for most people.

The operating system: here is a criticism of Dell. Dell promotes its Windows version. When I purchased my Mini, I went through the ordering process for both a Windows version and the Ubuntu Linux version. For an identical system, Dell offered a special deal, which strangely brought the Windows version price below the Ubuntu version. I haven’t used Microsoft products like Windows on a home computer in many years. I don’t like Windows and all of its problems. I don’t want to deal with viruses or digital restrictions. In most aspects I also think the Windows user interface is more difficult to use than Linux counterparts. In other words, there’s no good reason for me to pay for a computer with Microsoft Windows pre-installed. I wanted the Ubuntu version.

But Dell was doing a counterintuitive promotion and offering the Windows version cheaper than the Ubuntu version. So I bought the Windows version. When I received it, I immediately booted to an Ubuntu install USB drive and just overwrote the system with Linux. Now that might not seem like much of an issue however, the point is that it took me some time to do that. Dell would be providing a much better user experience if they would allow people to configure systems with Linux preinstalled for the same price if not less than the Windows version. I wonder how many other people did what I did.

The Ubuntu Netbook Remix (UNR) for the LPIA architecture I understand is designed to take advantage of the low-power Intel Atom processor. It doesn’t come with the support for certain proprietary features like flash, but that can be easily added through a related repository.

I’d like to comment on the UNR edition of the Ubuntu distribution. Canonical seems to have put some serious effort and good intentions into developing a specialized interface, I think with a smart goal of better addressing the small screen space available in the netbook size. I tried this new interface and believe that while it has some interesting features (like the way it combines the taskbar with top of the windows), ultimately I chose not to use it. It covered the desktop with all the application icons in a cluttered, segmented menu system and it only allowed me to display one maximized window at a time. While that made the most of the desktop space, in my opinion it did so by removing useful functionality. Like the ability to have a couple windows open and dragging between them. I also disliked what I felt was a high quantity of clutter in the new interface.

Fortunately there’s a fairly simple option to switch back to the standard Gnome interface. If I were Dell, I would shipped the Mini this way. However, the standard Gnome setup in Ubuntu is not well suited to the Mini’s 1024×600 9″ display. The standard Ubuntu Gnome interface has a panel at the top of the screen and a window list panel at the bottom (so two chunks of screen space are always used up). Worse, the menu panel is segmented with lengthy text for each menu. I saved a lot of space by getting rid of one of these bars, removing the menu item text and substituting it with a single menu button icon. Now the only thing on my screen is a panel at the bottom that lets me easily access all my programs or places. I also find that the multiple desktop feature in Linux is more useful on the Mini because it minimizes window clutter on one desktop screen (plus the touchpad will nicely switch between desktops by brushing its top right corner). This solution seems to me like an easier way to make the best use of screen real estate without sacrificing the usability that most people expect. Plus it doesn’t require a whole new specialized interface. It’s essentially the same type of setup that you’d find on a Windows system or KDE interface–I think this setup works better.

I have a preference for KDE and would like to try the pretty new KDE 4.2 on my Mini, but I want to wait until there is an LPIA-specific version. In the meantime, I’ve grown to appreciate Gnome much more than I remembered and with the small changes I mentioned above, find it a totally comfortable, appealing, and usable interface. With Compiz effects installed too, the Mini’s interface is so elegant, it matches its hardware design.

Finally, the Dell Mini’s LED display is clear and bright as others have noted in far more detail than I. Aside from the slick design, noiselessness, price/features, speed, and Linux-capable nature, what else do I like?

Forget the technical aspects, the point is this computer feels, actually, personal. It’s a trusty aid available when I need it without demanding room space or other resources. I sit down in the living room and access whatever I want through the wireless Internet connection. I can write to my heart’s content with the Dell Mini comfortably on my lap (unlike most regular sized laptops). It’s not like an appliance that would degrade the appearance of the room. When I’m done I put it to sleep and toss it on the bookshelf–guests don’t even notice a computer is sitting there.

8 Replies to “Dell Mini & Ubuntu Love”

  1. My wife has been using hers for 3 months, finally she said to change the Ubuntu, she finds it looks like WIn98 and its depressing as hell.
    She wants it to look like our other home computers which run PCLinuxOS w/KDE3.5 and Mandriva w. KDE4.2 and a few loose Puppy here and there.
    Ive never been prouder of my little Windows addict :-)

  2. Josh, Have you managed to put kde 4.2.1 (I believe it is the very latest).

    I am waiting to put a SSD card into my desktop machine. It has the ASUS motherboard that supports a direct boot to a mini-linux supporting webbrowser and email .

    I am a Fedora Geek


  3. Is there a way with Ubuntu on the Mini 9 to get it so that it doesn’t maximize every window when you open it? I’m using the standard (Classic) Ubuntu desktop.

  4. Ricardus, the only way that I’m aware is to use the standard Ubuntu desktop as opposed to the remix one that has Maximus. But I don’t know why it would maximize all your windows still since it sounds like you’re already using that interface. You might check the Ubuntu forums or I found this group useful. Here’s a link that sounds like your same problem. And this explains how to stop maximus.

  5. I just received my Mini 9. It shipped with Dell’s custom Ubuntu, but I almost immediately wiped it clean and installed plain vanilla Ubuntu 8.10. I tried the UNR, and while I like the general idea, I prefer a plain desktop. I like how you have the main menu (just the Ubuntu “circle” icon instead of the Applications, Places, and System words taking up space). Dell’s custom Ubuntu also had the menu like you have it, but I can’t figure out how to configure it that way. Could you tell me how you got it to look the way you have it?

  6. Oh, if you right click on the panel it gives you the option of removing the wordy menus and adding the other type of menu. I’m forgetting exactly what it’s called offhand because a few weeks ago I wiped the mini clean and installed the latest Kubuntu jaunty beta.

    The latest KDE interface is really slick and almost everything has worked flawlessly on the Dell mini. The only real exception is I haven’t figured out how to make the wireless connection remember my password automatically.

  7. Thanks. I just figured it out. Right click on an open part of the panel, select ‘add to panel,’ and add ‘main menu.’ I didn’t try that before because I thought the ‘main menu’ was what I already had (with the words).

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