My experience with a HSDPA-embedded netbook

14 11 2008

Dell Inspiron mini 9

A couple of weeks ago Vodafone lent us a Dell Inspiron mini 9 netbook with embedded HSDPA and a Vodafone SIM card, and I was lucky enough to have a couple of days’ quality time with this lovely little gadget. Here are my impressions, which I wrote as part of an Ovum report into cellular-embedded netbooks. The majority of this was edited down to fit into the broader report, so I thought I would share it here.

My use case for the netbook
I am a young (late-20’s) professional. I like being constantly connected, and I have an unlimited data plan on my mobile phone. I constantly use mobile email, social networking (Facebook, Twitter) and upload images and video from my phone to online services. I live and work relatively centrally in London (public transport Zone 2), commute by bicycle, and have a fixed line cable Internet service at home. I also use Skype extensively to talk with my family in Australia, and staying connected with friends and family around the world is one of the key reasons I would be interested in any Internet-enabled device.
I used the netbook at work, on the bus in central London, in the pub and at home in Islington. I thought the device itself was well designed and attractive, and I like the small size and light weight. I even ran the 5km to work one morning with the Inspiron mini in my backpack, and didn’t really notice it.
A big part of the appeal for me is the embedded HSPA – I don’t like having to carry a dongle, which I’m always worried about losing or damaging in my bag. I travel overseas frequently, and this sort of device would be a welcome addition to my backpack, for uploading photos and updating a travel blog while abroad, or emailing people to arrange to meet up. Being able to do this without having to carry a full-sized laptop is a very attractive selling point to me.

Device features
Having a small, highly portable form factor requires compromises in terms of keyboard and screen size, and I generally found this model struck a good balance between user experience and size. The screen is big enough for Web browsing and general email, although it obviously requires more scrolling than on a larger screen. A higher resolution screen would be better and allow more content onto the page, but would compromise the ability of manufacturers to produce the netbook at low enough price points (the raison d’etre of the netbook is, after all, to be small and cheap). I also found the screen to be slightly dull compared to my Macbook or my desktop LCD screen, which was a negative when browsing through photos and watching video.
Initially I had problems typing accurately on the reduced-size keyboard, but I found that I adjusted fairly quickly and was able to type at an acceptable rate after a few minutes.

The size and weight of the netbook were excellent, and the finish and build quality were good too. It attracted plenty of attention from colleagues in the office, and from my friends.
Battery life was adequate, even with WiFi and cellular radios switched on. It wouldn’t last for a long flight, but it would get me through a few pints at the pub while writing emails or catching up on my RSS feeds.

Mobile Connect Dashboard
The Dell comes with Vodafone’s Mobile Connect Dashboard software, which allows the user to connect to the cellular network and manage data usage. I thought the software was easy to use and showed me the key information on my data usage very clearly. When using the cellular network it is important to keep a close eye on usage to avoid being charged excess rates, and the software made this simple.

Network speed
I was surprised how fast browsing was using the HSDPA cellular connection. I had no problems with slow downloads or dropped connections, and found the whole experience to be really very good. YouTube videos loaded very quickly and played back with no problems, and downloading large applications was painless. It felt like a true broadband experience.
In a head-to-head comparison between the Dell and a larger laptop using a 3G dongle provided by one of the other major UK mobile carriers, we found the Vodafone network to be significantly faster at loading YouTube videos.

Device speed
We tested the Windows XP version of the Dell Inspiron mini, which has nearly identical hardware characteristics to most of its competitors. This is the Intel Atom chipset running at 1.6GHz with 1GB of RAM and 8GB of solid-state (SSD) storage.
I found browsing performance to be reasonable using both Internet Explorer and Firefox, and after downloading OpenOffice and doing some word processing and simple presentation tasks we found it to perform acceptably, if not blazingly fast. This is not a machine for serious image processing or editing video, but basic tasks like email, Web browsing and office tasks were fine.
I would be very interested to try the Linux version of the Dell, as I think the power constraints of the hardware are not particularly well suited to a full install of Windows XP. Performance is what I would call adequate, but it could have been snappier, particularly initial loading times (although the Dell does wake from sleep mode fairly quickly).
The Dell video chat software that loaded automatically definitely slowed things down, which was irritating.

Overall experience
Overall, I found using the netbook to be a good experience, taking into account the limitations of such a small device. It isn’t capable of replacing my full-size laptop, but there are various reasons why it would be a useful second laptop when portability is required.
My main concern as a consumer is with the pricing and contract model. As a second laptop, I simply couldn’t justify paying £25–30 a month for a secondary device (on top of a similar amount for my monthly mobile bill and my monthly fixed Internet bill). Also, given the huge range of similar devices available in the market, I would prefer to be able to choose the model that suited my needs and buy it outright, then pay for a SIM-only or prepaid data plan separately.
This is not necessarily good news for carriers that want to avoid becoming ‘bit pipe’ players (it provides few opportunities for deep device/service integration and doesn’t prevent me from churning), but from my perspective this would give me more flexibility to upgrade the hardware – at the current rate of innovation in the netbook market, I can’t honestly see the hardware meeting my needs for the duration of a 24-month contract.
I would also like to be able to use my data SIM in multiple devices – or link multiple SIMs to a single data account. As more embedded cellular devices come to market I don’t necessarily want to have separate SIMs and contracts for each device.
So at this stage, although I like the netbook and found it a useful addition to my gadget armory, the price is still not at a point where I would consider it good value for money, and I wouldn’t be willing to commit to a long contract while the market for HSPA-embedded netbooks is at such a nascent stage.

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One response

3 12 2010
Sheet Metal Brake

i would always prefer to use netbooks when i am on the move because they are so very convenient to carry around ~*”

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