In a world of drab IT clones, a dash of creativity can grab attention. Dell has long offered a choice of lid designs on its laptops, and the latest Inspiron Mini 10 follows suit with seven vibrant colours to pick from. That isn't the only appeal, though, as the whole netbook looks more interesting than most.
It's the decision to position the hinge slightly forward from the back of the base that gives the Mini 10 its distinctive look. Partly to allow for a six-cell battery without a protrusion at the rear, partly to leave space for future port additions, it makes the Dell progressively thicker from front to back. But it also makes it stand out from the netbook crowd.
The cherry-red finish on our sample contrasted nicely with the white base and the black interior, and the 10.1in screen surround is thick and glossy, like the screen itself. We're delighted to see a 1366 x 768 resolution on this top-end model, as it makes a difference in daily use, particularly when browsing web pages. It fits the 10.1in size nicely too, and it's matched by a decent backlight and reasonably good contrast. We're not blown away by its quality, but in netbook terms it's one of the better screens.
There are some advances inside too. Intel's Pine Trail platform, comprising an Atom N450 and the NM10 chipset, had it running through our benchmarks at the usual pace - a score of 0.32 is as expected. But this netbook has an extra addition to give it an edge: as well as the Intel GMA 3150 graphics, which won't handle HD video, you get a Broadcom CrystalHD Media Accelerator, which will.
To test it, we downloaded the release candidate of Adobe's Flash 10.1 and updated the CrystalHD drivers. This done, YouTube and iPlayer videos ran smoothly at 480p, and upping that to the screen's optimum 720p resolution saw it very close to smooth playback. We still saw dropped frames in fast-moving scenes, but for the most part it's surprisingly watchable.
The best part is that all that entertainment won't kill the battery, as Dell has plumped for a six-cell unit that provides an impressive amount of juice. Our light-use test, leaving the netbook idle, saw it die just two minutes short of the ten-hour mark, which is remarkable. That fell to 5hrs 2mins when pushed to its limits.
The rest of the Mini 10 follows the usual template. There's a 1.3-megapixel webcam above the screen, and the array of ports around the base is fairly standard. A 10/100 Ethernet port, 802.11bg wireless and Bluetooth take care of communications, while three USB 2 ports and a D-SUB output are nothing out of the ordinary. A card slot supports SD, Memory Stick and MMC formats, and the base assembly for mobile broadband devices.
If you're thinking the Inspiron Mini 10 sounds a reasonable purchase, there's one monumentally bad design decision we haven't got to yet, and it's one that does its best to destroy all that goodwill in one stroke. The touchpad is by some distance the worst we can remember enduring in years of laptop testing.
The buttons are integrated into the touchpad itself, with markers to show where to click, but they don't work. Instead, you have to click towards the centre to get a response. That's if you've managed to manoeuvre the cursor into the right position in the first place - the comfortable position of resting a thumb on the button while you work is no longer viable, and if you move your finger even slightly away from the centre, you'll veer into overzealous scroll areas and ping your cursor all over the place.
It's so unusable that we're simply astounded it's still there - we complained about it when the original Mini 10 arrived, and never imagined it would be the one part of the chassis that didn't get updated.
That's a shame, as the rest of the Mini 10 is rather alluring. Its design is eye-catching, the battery life outstanding, and the media accelerator makes a decent fist of playing HD content. If Dell had opted for the most uninteresting of touchpads, the Inspiron Mini 10 may have earned our recommendation. Instead, it goes down as one of the most frustrating netbooks we've had the displeasure of testing.