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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

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