Of course, all this talk of HSDPA is somewhat moot if the Mini 9 isn’t good to use and key to this are three things: the screen, the keyboard and the touchpad. Starting with the latter Dell has, to use some American parlance, knocked it out the park. Its touchpad is nicely integrated through a slight dip and a textured finish (similar to that on the Inspiron 1525), is well proportioned and has buttons directly below it. These also have a nice springy mechanism that isn’t as stiff and awkward as those found on the Eee PCs.
As with all the netbook screens, the 8.9in display is LED backlit and has a webpage friendly 1,024 x 600 resolution. This, as we’ve always found, is just about good enough but we’ll always fancy a little more vertical resolution since we often find full-screening the browser necessary when using online applications like Google Reader. Unusually, though, the screen has a glossy finish instead of an anti-glare one and we were ready to rant and rave about how awful it was, until we found we rather liked it.
Clearly it’s more reflective than an anti-glare screen and in some conditions this is definitely a problem, but in the right conditions (anytime indoors really) we found it worked very well. Video, obviously, was the main beneficiary thanks to enhanced black levels and colours, but as a whole we simply found the screen great to use. It’s bright, sharp and easy to read and colours are rendered pretty well. Our only other complaints would be the shallow viewing angles, but the nature of the machine means this isn’t such a big deal.
When we look at the keyboard things get a bit interesting since Dell has clearly thought very hard about how to make it work in such a small machine. Gone, for instance, is the top row of F1-F12 keys, moved to the middle row of keys as secondary functions that run up to F10 only. Thus all the shortcuts that would normally be assigned to these, such as brightness, volume and wireless radio controls, are secondary on the numeric keys instead. This creates space for two things: a) that large and easy to use touchpad and b) slightly taller alpha numeric keys.
It’s the latter that gives the Mini 9 the edge in typing experience over the Eee PC 901 since, though the keys are no wider, the elongated shape provides that extra bit of surface area that makes accurate typing that bit easier. It helps, too, that the keys themselves have a nice sense of depth and a positive feel that’s very impressive given their small size.
All this said, everyone’s mileage will vary. If you do happen to have big hands then the likelihood is you won’t get on with the Mini 9, that’s just a fact of life. There are also one or two idiosyncrasies in the layout that take a little getting used to, like the Delete key on the bottom row next to the cursor keys and the impossibly small right-Shift key. In fairness, it’s no smaller than that found on the Eee PC 901 and at least this one is to the left of the cursor keys instead of the right, but if you prefer a large right-Shift key then it takes a little getting used to.