I am now the proud owner of a Dell mini. I have been hankering after one of these beauties for some time and when Dell announced they were launching their own I waited eagerly to get my hands on one. I have been using it for about three months now having bought it in October (brilliant purchase experience see my post on the Foviance website) and so here are my initial impressions.
In a previous blog post on mini-laptops (31st August) I suggested they would change the world but now I am not so sure. At least they won’t change it yet, nor for the reasons I initially thought. They may however for different reasons.
I wanted to buy the Dell mini with the Ubuntu operating system that Dell offer which is Open Source Software (OSS). One of my original thoughts was that due to the price point of the overall package and the anticipated use of the device people would be prepared to try an OSS operating system and this in turn would alter their purchase behaviour when buying their “main” PC/Laptop. However, the purchase options pushed me toward the XP machine because it had more solid state storage (16Gb vs. 8Gb) and minimal price differentiation (£30 difference) and so I ended up with the XP.
What I have discovered after three or so months of using a mini is that my ideal or dream of what mobile working would be like is far from the reality. The device in itself is very good – if a little slow at times. I loaded Skype on to it and initially when the configuration had it launching at start-up I could literally go away and make a decent lunch (and probably eat some of it) before it was ready to be used. First lesson: load as little software on to it as you can get away with it is not designed for that.
The mini is designed for accessing the Internet. In the US, Dell promote a relationship with Box.net, an online storage company, and bundle 2Gb of internet storage with the mini through a special deal. And Internet connectivity is where my problems start.
I can’t fault the mini as in itself it is fast, has good graphics, acceptable keyboard size (it’s small but so is the laptop) lots of USB ports, an integrated SD card slot (I have an 8GB card on mine bought from Amazon for £9.99 and interchange them for music and movies) and high quality web-cam. The problem is what is between my mini and the Internet.
I commute in to London every day and so anticipated using the mini on the train to blog and work online. I have a Vodafone USB Internet dongle to make the connection and here is a bit of ethnographic research for you about my trip home trying to get online.
- Get on to train at 19.13 ready for the departure time of 19.18
- Power-up laptop (which I keep on standby and it take a few seconds only to come to life) and plug in USB dongle (to be clear I have already installed it)
- Train is now on the move
- 19.20: see connection box appear and press connect
- 19.22: connection is made so launch browser
- 19.24: browser home page appears so select WordPress to access my blog
- 19.25: start writing.
- 19.26: connection is lost, WordPress tries to autosave and hangs
- 19.28: I can start writing again but continue to get connection problems throughout the journey and give up after managing just 150 words
My dream of connectivity is ruined. I naively believed that using the Internet effectively on the train would be possible and it simply isn’t. I add to my dissapointment using Skype on the wireless network in my office for a call with the US. We had to resort to the landline, partly driven by the unexpected launch of video that brought everything to a halt. I hadn’t expected the video to launch – having a built in web-cam means this is possible but the internet speed meant it was in fact impossible.
None of this is a huge surprise, the UK’s Internet speed has been the butt of jokes the world over and late last year Ofcom, an independent organisation which regulates the UK’s broadcasting, telecommunications and wireless communications sectors, carried out research to identify the actual vs. advertised broadband speed. The results, covered by independent broadband analyst “thinkbroadband.com” illustrate that UK broadband users are not even getting the speeds they are paying for; the average UK consumer broadband speed is 3.6Mbps. I raise the issue because it is hard to separate the connectivity performance of a device designed with connectivity in mind, from the device itself.
If I had written a review of my mini after just a few weeks of ownership I would have likened it to a glorified iPaq – great for movies, music and a bit of work stuff around the edges.This would have been entirely unfair but is an important area for device manufacturers to be aware of. I observed identical behaviour to my own in China recently where Foviance conducted research into mobile phone usage. Users complained bitterly about their devices when what they were actually unhappy about was the connectivity. If users cannot separate one from the other – and in the future that will be increasingly difficult, device and software manufacturers need to consider how they sign-post performance lags to consumers.
Now I have learned to work around the frailties of the Internet connection I am much happier. I have installed OpenOffice, which means I can work offline and then copy work up when I have a better connection. Openoffice is surprisingly good. It looks and acts like MSOffice and my positive experience of using it has resulted in me loading it on to other PC’s around the home – most notably my kids laptop. I would seriously consider using it at work; unthinkable only months ago.
So perhaps my mini laptop will change the world a bit by driving the adoption of OSS applications at the desktop level. In some ways I hope it doesn’t and that my dream of connecting “any time, any place, any where” is delivered within my commuting lifetime.