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Review: Netbooks & Integrated 3G

Mini notebooks are the hot new thing – they're cheap and portable, and about the only kind of computer gear anyone's buying at the moment. However, very few models come with integrated 3G.

In a highly portable device, having built-in connectivity to wide-area wireless networks is entirely logical and is set to become standard in the emerging "netbook" product category. To test this theory, I've been reviewing one of the few devices to support this feature today – the Dell Technologies (Nasdaq: DELL) Mini 9 notebook with integrated 3G/HSPA from Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD).

The Dell Mini is one of the better-specified netbooks on the market, with Bluetooth, integrated Webcam, a solid-state drive, and surprisingly good build quality. In essence, it's a small Windows XP machine.

The penalty for being light, portable, and inexpensive is that performance takes a hit. Based on the Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) Atom processor, the device feels a little underpowered compared to a full-sized laptop, and XP itself is perhaps not ideal for this form factor. Another issue is the nine-inch screen, which offers good picture quality, but due to its small size you have to scroll down Webpages more often than normal.

These are tradeoffs you just have to live with for now, and if I were buying a low-cost computer for personal use, or to supplement a work machine, I'd definitely go for a mini notebook.

Embedded 3G/HSPA capability – the reason I wrote this review – is what makes the Dell Mini stand out. The Vodafone 3G network itself is solid, so the idea was to determine whether integrated 3G is any different from using an external dongle. (See Vodafone's Blazin' 3G Upgrade.)

There is an argument that the performance of integrated 3G modems is compromised because of the way antennas (currently) tend to be fixed internally inside laptops or minis. I couldn't notice any difference. Signal strength is often the major influence on 3G/HSPA performance, and this, according to my ad hoc tests, was as good on the Mini as with an external laptop dongle. The British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) iPlayer video streams at a steady 1 Mbit/s were no problem, and the service would often burst to 3 Mbit/s on the downlink.

The benefit of pre-integrated 3G/HSPA comes down to not having to deal with the randomness of USB peripherals (and associated connectivity software) and not having to remember to take your dongle with you, or where you put it. From that point of view, it's a definite success. Getting connected is simpler, quicker, and easier. As a standalone package it works very well, and I could imagine having a mini notebook as my only computer and using 3G as a primary connection, with no need for a phone line, fixed broadband service, or a home PC or laptop.

One downside is that you can't share the 3G subscription across devices. So if you also want to use a laptop with an external dongle, you would need a separate account, or have the device you use less often on prepay, or swap SIMs around (ugh). Some way of supporting multiple devices on a single account would be a good step forward and is something all operators will have to bring to market.

Where the value of this "device + service" package really came into focus for me was at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this year. The mini form factor was a revelation. It had enough capability to handle Word, PowerPoint, and so on, yet didn't weigh me down like a standard laptop does over a long week at a tradeshow. Mercifully, the power charger is also small and light. And being home to the world's largest mobile industry event, the embedded 3G worked perfectly across the city.

In conclusion, it's a good package, and the integrated 3G/HSPA brings the "netbook" form factor much closer to an anywhere, anytime, Internet experience. I certainly recommend it.

Equally interesting is to look at this type of device as representing the start of the netbook development cycle, where integrated 3G becomes standard and we start to see smaller, more optimized form factors, with a gradual shift away from PC operating systems toward scaled-up Symbian Ltd. or optimized Linux/Android variants. That would really enable the low-power, always-on, always-connected user experience.

— Gabriel Brown, Senior Analyst, Heavy Reading

Gabriel Brown 12/5/2012 | 4:09:21 PM
re: Review: Netbooks & Integrated 3G


Does anyone else have a Mini or netbook?* What do you think?




Product info on the Vodafone site is here: http://shop.vodafone.co.uk/shop/mobile-broadband-devices/netbook.




<sub>* I reviewed a test unit, which-áI returned.</sub>


gbennett 12/5/2012 | 4:08:18 PM
re: Review: Netbooks & Integrated 3G


Hi Gabe,




Enjoyed the review.-á Three questions:


<ul>
<li>How much power does the integrated 3G consume?-á I ask because I noticed that my external 3G dongle drains the batteries very quickly on my laptop.</li>
<li>Which O/S would you suggest rather than XP?-á I got the impression you were thinking performance wasn't briliant.-á I'm surprised at that because XP on a 1.6GHz Atom should be pretty zippy (at least until your registry gets clogged up in a few months time).-á Vista would run like a dog with a two broken legs.-á Windows 7 might be faster than Vista, but we can't be sure as it's still in Beta.-á Linux and Android do not-áhave a viable Powerpoint-áalternative (Open Office Impress is dreadful, absolutely unusable).-á Symbian likewise has no viable Powerpoint alternative.-á I would love OSX and iWork, but Apple doesn't have a Netbook.-á And by the way - the reason I'm stressing Powerpoint is that it is a critical application for these highly portable devices - we're going to be using them to present slides!-á We need an open office version of KeyNote so I can get rid of Windows once and for all!</li>
<li>What does "pre-integrated" mean?-á If we assume that "integrated" means "already bult in", does "pre-integrated" mean "before it was already built in"?-á :-)</li>
</ul>


You'll be saying "pre-existing" and using "leverage" as a verb next :-)




But seriously these machines are going to be a huge part of our future computing landscape, and the mobile connectivity is key.




Cheers,




Geoff


Gabriel Brown 12/5/2012 | 4:08:08 PM
re: Review: Netbooks & Integrated 3G

Hi Geoff,

1/ I don&rsquo;t think integrated modules consume any less or more power than external dongles. They&rsquo;re pretty much the same thing.

3G does impact the battery life of a laptop/netbook, but I find it&rsquo;s not too bad. It depends on what you&rsquo;re doing. A &ldquo;connected&rdquo; 3G device in idle mode really isn&rsquo;t too bad, but if your device is constantly active (e.g. streaming video), then you will use a lot of power.

Networks can tweak these idle-to-active transitions. There are also new features coming to HSPA in R8 that will help with power consumption, state transitions, and latency. It will be a few years &lsquo;till that works through to end-users, through.

2/ Even though it&rsquo;s a 1.6 GHz processor it feels a lot slower. The problem I have with XP on this form-factor is the time it takes to hibernate and wake-up. This is painful with XP and just doesn&rsquo;t work on a portable/mobile device. A smart-phone OS is&nbsp;designed to be regularly on/off and&nbsp;is much more suited to the use-case.

Hobbyists are buying netbooks and installing OSX on them, so that might work for you.

3/ Whoops. I suppose you could integrate a modem module into a&nbsp;laptop you already own, but &ldquo;pre-integrated&rdquo; was a mistake.

--gabe

http://www.twitter.com/gabeuk

gbennett 12/5/2012 | 4:08:02 PM
re: Review: Netbooks & Integrated 3G

Hi Gabe,
I totally agree about the XP sleeping &amp; waking.&nbsp; I don't know if it's just my perception, but I think one of the XP security updates in the past 12 months must have slowed it down.&nbsp; In the past XP seemed to sleep and wake relatively quickly.&nbsp; Now when I close the lid of my laptop, half the time it doesn't sleep at all, and just runs the battery down in my rucksack.&nbsp; And this is a fairly new install of XP.


I downloaded the Kalyway OSX load and have tried it on my desktop PC.&nbsp; It's a bit fussy about video drivers.&nbsp; I wonder if a Netbook with the integrated video chips would run it OK?&nbsp; Acer are supposed to be introducing a new Aspire One with an updated video chip that "can run Vista Premium".&nbsp; If it has that much horsepower then OSX should fly on it :-)



It would be better if Apple could come to market with a decent Netbook, with a trimmed down OSX, KeyNote, gosh now I'm dreaming :-)


Cheers,


Geoff

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