I have this… uh… friend whose wife gave him a belated Christmas present in mid March: a tricked out Dell Mini 9. He wanted this machine because a) it’s one of the only netbooks that can use all of its built-in “peripheral” hardware while running Mac OS X, b) the 12” PowerBook G4 he used for role-playing is falling apart, with a dead DVD drive and failing wi-fi card and c) the Mini 9 was cheap enough to buy as an experiment. OK, maybe c) isn’t really true, but he wanted it anyway. Features and cost were like this:

Dell Inspiron Mini 9
  Intel® Atom Processor® N270 (1.6GHz/533Mhz FSB/512K cache)
  Obsidian black
  2GB DDR2 RAM at 533MHz
  Glossy 8.9 inch LED display (1024x600)
  Intel Graphics Media Accelerator (GMA) 950
  64GB solid state hard drive
  Ubuntu Linux version 8.04.1
  Wireless 802.11g mini card
  Integrated 1.3M pixel webcam
  Built-in Bluetooth 2.1 capability
Portable CD/DVD-RW Drive with DVD Playback Software $80.00
Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard) $129.00
Total $728.00

This is about as tricked out as you can make the Mini 9. Other configurations will be cheaper. It actually looks like Dell doesn’t even sell the 64MB drive as an option any more (at at least, as I write this). Another thing to note here is that the pixel dimensions of the screen are pretty close to that of the 12” PowerBook G4 (which were 1024x768).

To set up the machine (probably violating one or more license agreements in the process) my friend followed the instructions provided by Gizmodo. He reports some deviations from the instructions there:

  1. The post says “some drives are mysteriously not compatible with installing OS X on the Mini 9”. This might not be entirely true. The first attempt, using a brand new OS X DVD failed, as described. The second used an OS X DVD from the initial release of 10.5. This succeeded. So, it may have something to do with what version of the install disk you have. I believe the current version of the installer disk is called version 10.5.2. Among other things, it has new video drivers at the very least. To repeat, this version did not work, but the original 10.5 disk did. Might have just been coincidence, as there was a hiccup with installing from DVD
  2. At step 4, the install process seemed to hang, and the DVD drive seemed to stall and spin down. Unplugging the drive (which immediately displayed a bunch of errors on screen) and plugging it in again caused it to spin up, and suddenly the install sprung to life and continued fine (with the 10.5 disk; the same technique didn’t work with the 10.5.2 disk).
  3. As a result of coercing the DVD to spin up, the painful USB drive-based install (Gizmodo steps 5 through 11) was not needed in this case.
  4. It took my friend a while to come up with a name for the hard drive volume during step 12, during which the DVD drive spun down. Again, the solution was to unplug it and replug it in. The UI froze until doing this, but resurrected once the drive was spinning again.
  5. There should be a step 19 added to Gizmodo’s instructions: boot into the BIOS and DISABLE the “Legacy USB Support” setting. Waking from sleep will not work until you do this. Note that, to be able to boot from USB devices, this setting needs to be re-enabled.
  6. There should be a step 20 added as well: Most windows size themselves correctly on the netbook, but some contain dialogs that don’t fit the small vertical resolution of the screen (which is only 600 pixels). Unfortunately, on the “doesn’t fit” list are some of the System Settings panels. This can be fixed by setting the scaling of the System Settings application, using the following command line:
    defaults write com.apple.systempreferences AppleDisplayScaleFactor .85

So far, everything has worked one the machine except trackpad scrolling. There appear to be some hacks to enable this, but these have not yet been applied, but may need to be soon. My friend claims that the trackpad is a bit uncomfortable, with the buttons needing way too much downward travel to activate. Using a miniature external mouse helps quite a bit.

Some other general observations from my friend:

  • The machine as a whole is slightly less stable than OS X usually is, though not significantly. When waking from sleep, sometimes the UI gets these sort of stalls, but usually another sleep/wake cycle brings things back to normal. One beta application that has always crashed every so often on standard Macs seems to crash a bit more often on the Mini 9.
  • It takes a while to get used to the shift keys, particularly the one on the right.
  • Spaces seems more useful on this machine, particularly when used for gaming, combined with the “full screen” features of Acrobat and Safari.
  • Some of the Fn keys work, and some dont:
    • Fn-1 (sleep): works
    • Fn-2 (toggle wi-fi/bluetooth): does not work
    • Fn-3 (battery status): does not work
    • Fn-4 (mute): works
    • Fn-5 (volume down): works
    • Fn-6 (volume up): works
    • Fn-7 (print scn): untested, since I haven’t set up a printer yet
    • Fn-8 (screen/vga/mirror): when no monitor is connected, doesn’t work
    • Fn-9 (contrast down): works
    • Fn-10 (contrast up): works
    • Fn-[key in home row] (F1 through F10): works; however, no keys exist for F11 through F13. This is not a huge deal, but some of the default Exposé key bindings need to be changed if you want to use them.
  • By default, the “alt” key is mapped to the Mac’s “command” key, while the “Windows logo key” is mapped to the Mac’s “option” key. This matches the positions of a Mac keyboard correctly, but it is totally wrong as far as nomenclature. Typically a Windows “alt” maps to a Mac’s “option”, leaving the “Windows logo key” to map to the Mac’s “logo key” (i.e. “command”). This can be changed around in the System Preferences if you want. Apparently the keys come off reasonably easily if you want to move them around a bit.
  • The machine is noticeably lighter than a MacBook Air. If you’ve ever lifted an Air, think about that a bit.
  • It seems to run movies of varying resolutions very cleanly, and FrontRow looks great. No battery tests have been done while doing this, so how long you could watch movies on a plane is undiscovered.
  • It runs games like Fate in 800x600 resolution, at reasonable frame rates. I’m guessing it would run WoW OK, with some of the settings turned down.