T-Mobile is very late to the 3G netbook party, but its first entry is the cheapest you’ll find on any network in terms of total cost of ownership. How much cheaper? The data plan for the Dell Inspiron Mini 10 with T-Mobile webConnect ($199 with two-year contract) costs $40 per month for 5GB. That’s $20 less than what AT&T and Verizon Wireless charge, or $480 less over the length of the contract. For those scoring at home, that’s nearly enough for a Wi-Fi-only iPad. Even better, this mini-laptop delivers considerably faster mobile broadband than other 3G netbooks, especially in areas where the carrier has fully upgraded its network to HSPA 7.2. So what’s the catch? You’re still paying $1,159 over two years for a secondary PC with a relatively small 10-inch screen. And the Inspiron Mini 10’s touchpad leaves much to be desired. So is this 3G netbook a good deal or should you pass?
With the exception of the little T-Mobile webConnect sticker below the keyboard, the 3-pound Mini 10 looks identical to the more recent models we’ve already reviewed. And that’s mostly a good thing. We like the sleek, wedge-shaped design and the glossy white border on the sides. The lid and bezel are glossy black, but thankfully the area around the keyboard has a textured finish that resists fingerprints.
The keyboard provided good tactile feedback and zero flex. We also like the direct access keys which let you adjust the volume and brightness without pressing Fn first. However, we pretty much despise the touchpad. It integrates the mousepad buttons, which are stiff, making an otherwise nice machine difficult to use. We also found it harder to select text and to scroll on this netbook than others we’ve tested. It gets worse. Because the touchpad is close to the front lip of the netbook, you have to be careful not to accidentally brush against it when typing so you don’t move the cursor. For us, the touchpad is almost a dealbreaker, but others may feel differently.
Like the Pine Trail Mini 10 we evaluated several months ago, this Mini 10 became very warm during testing. After letting it sit on our desk idling with the screen turned on, we measured a temperature of 106 degrees Fahrenheit on the desk itself. We consider anything above 100 degrees to be unpleasant.
Performance and Battery Life
No big surprises here. The Inspiron’s run-of-the-mill 1.66-GHz Atom N450 processor and 1GB of RAM give you enough horsepower for surfing the web and light productivity chores, but it’s far from a speed demon. After resuming from sleep, it took 7 seconds just to open the Paint program, and we noticed a significant delay between typing items in the Start menu search box and results appearing.
Nevertheless, the Mini 10 is fine for surfing the web. The netbook did a fair job juggling multiple tabs in Google Chrome when we visited our favorite news sites, updated our Facebook page, and streamed Pandora. Still, we noticed a pause in a Travis track while loading CNN.com. As with earlier Mini 10s, the twin speakers underneath the front side of the system pumped out fairly loud and clean audio.
Keep in mind that this version of the Mini 10 doesn’t feature a high-res screen or Broadcom’s video accelerator chip. In other words, the video experience is lacking. Even over Wi-Fi the netbook choked on Hulu videos at full screen.
As we expected, the 3G radio inside the Mini 10 took a significant toll on endurance. Although the Wi-Fi-only version of this netbook lasted 9 hours and 3 minutes when performing our LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous web surfing), it dropped to 6:05 over mobile broadband, which is below the six-cell netbook average of 6:20.
3G Performance and Pricing
Integrated mobile broadband is the reason why you’d want to buy this netbook from T-Mobile, and in this area the Mini 10 excels. In our tests we saw as high as 3.6-Mbps downloads and 1.2 Mbps on the uplink. That’s pretty fast. By comparison, the Gateway LT2016u for Verizon Wireless topped out at 1.7 Mbps down and 700 Kbps up. On the Nokia Booklet 3G, which rides on AT&T’s network, we saw only 1.2 Mbps and 360 Kbps, respectively. The Mini 10 was at its best closer to Manhattan, where T-Mobile has more fully deployed its HSPA 7.2 service with the all-important fiber backhaul for the fastest possible speeds. Overall, we saw an average download speed of 1.7 Mbps and 1-Mbps uploads.
The Mini 10 delivered our favorite sites pretty quickly in Manhattan, taking 7, 8, and 9 seconds, respectively to load ESPN.com, CNN.com, and NYTimes.com. Those times dropped to anywhere between 12 and 15 seconds in central New Jersey. If the webConnect Manager software shows that you’ve dropped from 3G to EDGE data, find a Wi-Fi connection as soon as you can. We gave up downloading Speedtest.net after 30 seconds.
Speaking of Wi-Fi, the built-in software does a good job of letting you know when a connection is available, but we found it to be too aggressive. On more than one occasion a pop-up appeared telling us that the utility was automatically connecting to AT&T Wi-Fi, which is a T-Mobile HotSpot Roaming partner.
The good news is that your data plan includes unlimited access to thousands of nationwide HotSpot locations, and it doesn’t count against that 5GB cap. Conveniently, the software shows you how much data you’ve used, and after a few days use we only chewed through 0.2GB. Should you go over 5GB, T-Mobile won’t zap you with an overage charge like it did in the past; it will just slow your connection down. Yes, you can pay $25 for 200MB of data, but we wouldn’t recommend it. Plus, if you go over it will cost a steep 10 cents per MB.
If you were to buy the Dell Inspiron Mini 10 directly from Dell with the same specs as the $199 T-Mobile model, you’d pay $329. That’s a savings of $130. But in exchange for that savings you’ll wind up spending $960 over the next two years just for data. That sounds like a lot for a netbook—and it is—but it’s still considerably less than what other carriers charge for their mobile broadband plans. If the touchpad worked better we might be more enthused about this machine, especially since it delivers faster 3G data than the competition. While the Mini 10 with T-Mobile webConnect has some things going for it, the $49 webConnect Rocket USB modem, which you can pair with any netbook or full-size notebook, is a better value.