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Dell Inspiron 910

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Having dragged a full-size laptop through several airports – and had it eyed suspiciously by customs agents on two continents – very small, very light laptops couldn’t have happened soon enough. Referred to as netbooks, ultraportables and toys, depending upon who you bump into, the latest generation of diminutive computers redefine portability.

They’re also obscenely cool.

The Dell Inspiron 910 is arguably the slickest of the available netbooks. Rugged, inexpensive and surprisingly powerful, it costs less than an economy plane ticket to anywhere interesting, and it can do practically anything a full-size desktop computer can… for as long as your eyes hold out.

The first thing you need to know about netbooks is that they’re real computers running real operating systems – rather than pretentious cell phones with keyboards – but their capabilities are somewhat limited by their size. Ideal for answering e-mail, surfing the web and performing other modest tasks on the road, these things will make your brain hurt if you try to use them for the sorts of things you’d typically do at a desk.

The Inspiron 910 has an 8.9-inch screen and a very compact keyboard. The screen has a resolution of 1280 by 600 pixels, which means that for practical purposes it will show you a desktop that’s as wide as that of a conventional computer, but about half as deep. The geometry of the computer largely mandates these peculiar dimensions, and in practice, they take little getting used to.

The small size of the system’s display panel is compensated for to some extent by its very sharp, clear image. While uncomfortable to use for extended periods, it’s surprisingly easy to work with until ocular fatigue sets in. You’ll probably need to get a little closer to the screen than would be the case for a full-size laptop.

It will be apparent upon unwrapping one of these systems that small size and light weight were just about the only things its designers thought about. It lacks a DVD drive – you’ll need to equip yourself with an external one to install software onto the system. It also lacks a traditional hard drive – up to sixteen gigabytes of internal flash memory pretend to be a hard drive for the Inspiron 910. Solid state hard drives, while initially a bit scary, have the advantages of weighing almost nothing; generating very little heat; consuming minute amounts of power and not dissolving into a cloud of shrapnel if they’re dropped.

Dell offers the Inspiron 910 in a variety of configurations. The one we bought has a gigabyte of system memory, a sixteen-gigabyte solid state drive, a web camera, Bluetooth and an internal SD card interface – which proved to be a great deal more useful than it initially seemed.

You can order the Inspiron 910 with Windows XP or Ubuntu Linux – the latter option, while smaller and cheaper, effectively limits the system to performing those tasks installed with the operating system unless you’re reasonably proficient at running and updating Linux. We chose Windows XP.

You don’t want to run Vista on one of these things – actually, you don’t want to run Vista on much of anything if you can avoid it.

While a sixteen-gigabyte hard drive probably sounds like something you’d pass over at a garage sale, it’s more real estate than you’ll need in a netbook. Keep in mind that you’re unlikely to use this system for the sorts of things that require a lot of drive space. It’s not intended for gaming, collecting music, storing videos or developing web sites. We installed Firefox, a mail application, Word, Excel, all the Alchemy Mindworks software, and several in-house applications, and we were surprised to find that less than half the drive had been spoken for.

The SD memory card port in the Inspiron 910 is a worthwhile feature if you’ll be taking your computer on the road. An SD card installed in it appears under Windows as Drive E, and it will behave just like a conventional disk drive. However, any sensitive documents or other content you’re nervous and twitchy about stored there can be removed from the computer when it’s not in use, and carried around in your pocket. SD cards are very, very small. Thieves have a much harder time stealing stuff that isn’t there.

The Inspiron 910 has three USB ports – while it also has a better-than-average touch pad, I use one of the ports to plug a mouse into. Touch pads are the tools of unclean spirits. It has remarkably good WiFi which proved capable of maintaining a fast connection to our in-house network at distance from the router that totally silenced laptops a few years ago.

It doesn’t have an internal modem – a loathsome, primitive bit of technology that’s all but essential in some of the world’s more backward quarters. You’d probably want to buy an external USB modem to accompany it if you plan to visit some of them.

The Inspiron 910 is based on an Intel Atom processor, a chip that was actually designed for small notebooks. It’s remarkably quick, and miserly in its power requirements.

Our Inspiron 910 gets about four hours of work done on a fully charged battery. It’s easy to look at in bright light – which can be said of few of the other netbooks we considered. It has a respectable keyboard – the keys are large enough to touch-type with, albeit with a few unintuitive key placements. It’s surprisingly quick booting up – probably because of its non-existent hard drive. It’s extremely stable and rugged, being the only computer in house that’s never actually crashed to date.

It works well in the woods behind our house, which is quite surreal. With the advent of a WiFi range booster, it’s proven capable of surfing the net therein, too.

Configuring the Inspiron 910 isn’t substantially more difficult than getting any other Windows XP system into daylight. You’ll probably want to lose the pre-installed McAfee anti-virus software in favor of something a bit less intrusive – we used AVG. You’ll find the Inspiron disappointingly slow until you do. The software for the web camera, if you spring for it, likes to boot up and switch on the camera as soon as the computer starts, a behavior most users will wish to disable. There are a number of small applications installed with the system that you might not need, and will be able to remove.

Perhaps because of its relatively small hard drive, the Windows XP installation for the Inspiron 910 defaults to enabling disk compression for the entire primary drive. This will utilize the drive more effectively, at a considerable speed penalty. You might want to turn this one off – it’s in the Windows Explorer Properties dialog for drive C.

Ranging in price from about 350 to about 450 dollars as of this writing – you’ll probably want to add a bit more for a Bluetooth interface and an external DVD drive – even a well-stuffed Inspiron 910 isn’t much of a wallet crusher. A mile down an airport concourse with another half mile between you and your gate, it’ll probably seem cheap at twice the price.