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$280 Dell Mini 9 running OSX is blueprint for the future

Anyone who follows me on Seesmic will know that I have been experimenting with a Dell Mini 9 Netbook running OS X. And I have to say it has been simply AMAZING.

I ended up choosing the Dell Mini 9 as it appears to be the only Netbook whose chipset doesn’t have any major incompatibilities with OS X’s driver set. (MSI Wind is a close second, but the internal mic doesn’t work – which is a deal breaker for Seesmic and Skype).

And now Engaget and ZDNet have noticed that Dell have slashed the prices on these babies. You can also pick up great deals over on Dell’s Outlet site. I managed to pick up a pristine 32Gig SSD/1Gig/Web Cam/Bluetooth refurb machine for $260 after 20% rebate with free shipping (such deals come and go, keep an eye on

BTW: it’s wroth noting that the baseline model being touted is a Dell Mini 9n which is a slightly different model to the non-N and I don’t know whether it is equally as OS X compatible.

Why is this a future product line for Apple?

Because the iPhone doesn’t suit everyone as the truly portable Apple experience. Like many, I can’t stand typing anything longer than a twitter or SMS on the iPhone on-screen keyboard. It also still doesn’t give me multitasking of multiple applications nor true ‘full internet’ browser experience.

Laptop owners are buying Netbooks as second machines for times when they don’t want to carry their full-size and highly expensive main units. Desktop owners are buying them as their toe-dip into the laptop water – perhaps not really needing one but wanting to experiment given such a low entry point.

In many ways, a Mac Netbook is what the Mac Book Air should have been – especially as for many it serves as a secondary Apple laptop to a primary MacBook Pro 15 or 17 machine.

The fact that it can fit in a manila envelope is technically amazing but but doesn’t make it more practical to lug around than a Mac Book or Mac Book Pro. You certainly can’t fit it into a purse or regular non-laptop bag. That’s because it’s uber-small on the wrong dimension – thickness. What was the last time you complained your laptop was too thick.

Netbooks are often as much as an inch thick – but crucially only 10″ x 7″ or so, making them carriable in practically anything – even just your hand. They often also have as many as 3 USB ports on them, plus VGA and network ports (compare to the Air’s cripplingly situated single USB and no standardized NIC or VGA/DVI ports).

Apple MacBook AIR compared to MacBook Pro

The Mac Book Air design is also inherently expensive, and arguably it’s biggest flaw. It should have been a cheap affair – like the White Mac Book – rather than the pioneer for Apple’s expensive aluminum unibody design.

Steve Jobs has described the netbook vertical as ‘a race to the bottom’ – but by that he’s been referring to the price point. But with all of the mainstream netbooks based around the same Win XP/Intel Atom CPU platform with a 9″ or 10″ screen, the only differentiator any of them can offer is price.

However, an Apple Netbook would have a guaranteed notable differentiator in it’s operating system. Factor in the fact that it’s also likely Apple would make an aesthetically amazing unit and you already see a compelling alternative proposition, even at a higher price point.

Apple have never competed on price and they would be foolish to do so in the Netbook market. But if Dell can sell me a unit for $260 then there is no reason why Apple can’t manufacture such a unit with the kind of profit margins they enjoy on their other lines. The Dell Mini 9 utilizes a commodity Intel stack that runs OS X with little problem and clearly the same chip-set could be purchased by Apple for the same price Dell does.

Factor in that an Apple OS X Netbook would probably be a $600-$750 affair running on the same internals as my $260 Dell and you can see where Apple’s healthy profit margin is.

And despite that margin I know that I would gladly pay $750 for such a unit.

MacBook Air/MacBook Pro photo by Maury McCown

UPDATE: Gizmodo has a great guide on how to install OS X on to a Mini 9. I’m guessing its now going to be hard to get the larger capacity drive units on the Dell Outlet site as everyone will be wanting one!

Published in News


  1. Hi Ben,

    I recently bought a Mini 9 for the same reasons and I wanted to see by myself what was the buzz for Netbooks.

    I’ve been impressed by the Mini 9. Performances are great for that class of machine and DELL did a pretty good job for the design. It’s by far the most elegant Netbook on the market.

    I haven’t installed OS X yet (I don’t have the ISO at my place) but installed Windows 7; this is the same class of system as OS X so I can start doing some tests.

    Everything runs perfectly so far; all devices has been recognized and the system run pretty smoothly with all visual effects.

    Concerning Apple, I’ve been a fan of the 12″ PowerBook and it’s too bad they haven’t replaced it but like you, I know think a Netbook might fit in their product line. As you said, even if the iPhone is great but it’s not designed for working or typing for a long time.

    Just a couple of questions: (1) what technique did you use to install OS X on the Mini and did you have to look for drivers; (2) does the trackpad support the 2 finger scrolling gesture? If not, I’m really gonna miss it.

    Thank for your post.

  2. Ben Ben

    Hey Fred,

    I followed the instructions over on the MyDellMini OS X Forum, specifically this howto.

    Between the native OS X drivers and the boot disk they have created, all of the drivers are automatically installed. You will need either a USB DVD drive OR a USB stick/Hard Drive with at least 8gig of space free.

    Clearly installing OSX onto a non-Apple built machine is ‘controversial’ to say the least. It’s worth noting that the MyDellMini Forum make it clear that you should own a spare license to Leopard as they don’t support installing via a Bit-Torrent distributed warez image.

    From that perspective installing OS X onto a non-Apple machine stops being a criminal issue (of software theft) but instead a civil issue of installing against Apple’s terms of use that don’t allow installation of their software on machines they don’t produce.

    I can’t condone software piracy but I’m happy to stray outside Apples monopolistic terms of use, especially for personal research use.

    Let me know if you need help!

  3. Thanks for the links Ben, I got the same actually.

    I share your points concerning the install of OS X on non Apple computer. I’m a Mac user and I do own a Leopard license.

    As I’ve never bought a PC in 8 years so, as you do I consider this as a personal experiment.

  4. Ben Ben

    Just make sure you have a *retail* copy of Leopard and not an OEM copy that came with a specific hardware config (because those disks can’t be used even on other Apple machines).

    Remember it should be an extra spare license – eg a Leopard 5-seat Family Pack which is currently only being used on four or less computers.

  5. davesmall davesmall

    It is amazing that you’ve gotten OS X running smoothly on an under $300 computer.

    However, that Netbook isn’t what I’d want for a second computer. I would take issue with your criticism of the MacBook Air for emphasizing ‘thin’ over ‘rectangular dimensions.” It isn’t the thinness of the case that’s so important, it is the screen resolution.

    My MacBook Pro 17″ laptop enjoys a screen resolution of 1920 x 1200 pixels. That’s a lot of screen real estate that I can use to position documents side by side and juggle multiple open windows. The MacBook 13.3 inch now has a native screen resolution of 1280 x 800. The MacBook Air enjoys the same 1280 x 800 resolution. I believe your Dell Mini 9 has just a 1024 x 600 resolution making it rather cramped for serious work. (note: multiply the pixel count to get the screen area. The MacBook has a much much greater surface area than the Net Book. The Dell has a 614,400 total pixel screen surface whereas the MacBook has 1,024,000 and my 17″ MacBook Pro has 2,304.000).

    This would not be a practical substitute for my iPhone because it lacks any sort of wide area G3 communications. If you could provide it with a G3 modem the monthly service charge would quickly negate any savings on the computer itself.

    And then you also have the fact that it isn’t legal to install OS X onto one of these. You will note that Apple has managed to brick iPhones running jail broken software by future software releases. Your Dell may get bricked by a future OS X release (or you may be locked into the current release).

    I’d say it’s cute but it isn’t a bargain and it is definitely not the direction in which Apple should go.

  6. Ben Ben

    Interesting perspective Davesmall – and you are right that the Mini isn’t necessarily a good 2nd computer.

    For me, it’s my 3rd Mac – and I concur I wouldn’t do any serious work on it. I bought it because I’m getting to a point where I want a computer on me *all the time* and there are times when i don’t want to lug a 15″ MacBook Pro with me.

    My Mac Pro at home has 3 24″ screens connected to it, so I share the belief in good screen size for productivity.

    Sitting in the coffee shop for 30 mins looking over my news reader and email on the Mini 9 is ideal and it’s sweet spot. In the car, needing to pull over and check Google Maps or open up the attachment a friend sent me via email of where our meeting is – another sweet spot for this.

    I can fully understand your points in your comment, however they are actually related to Notebooks in general and not just ones running OS X – and you have to concede that Netbooks have been the hot segment of the computer market for the last year. It doesn’t explain why most people are estimating that netbook sales will account for 50% of sales.

  7. Ben Ben

    Davesmall – also I take your point on 3G. Fortunately I have a Blackberry and they allow you to tether the EVDO connection via Bluetooth to a computer – which gives me the 3G connection I need.

    Apple could try to break forthcoming updates – but the mod community seems to be very much on top of that so far. I also don’t technically need to update the laptop with newer versions of OS X if I don’t want to, of course.

  8. davesmall davesmall

    Ben – thanks for your perspective. I do have the NetShare application on my iPhone. It is a laptop tethering app that was up on the App Store for a brief period (about one day) before Apple took it down. I was one of the lucky ones who got a copy. So I can get online with my laptop using the iPhone as a modem. However, it is a bit tedious to change settings and get it running.

    Having already said that I think Apple should not do netbooks, perhaps I should also say what I think Apple should do.

    The elephant in the room is the AT&T monthly connection charge. It’s about $70 per month for an iPhone including the data plan. If you want another data plan for your laptop that could add another $50 or so (and you’d have to purchase an express modem). I think we’d all like to be ‘just connected all the time’ no matter which device we happen to be carrying at the time. There are many users who would love to have an iPhone but can’t afford that hefty monthly charge. Very few can afford AT&T’s charges for both an iPhone and a laptop. They need to come up with a billing system that is ‘by user’ rather than ‘by device.’ And the rates need to be lower overall. I think this is the big limiting factor on technology as we go forward.

    But given the current state of affairs, I’d prefer to have something that I’d call a convergence device. That might be a tablet computer with a pull-out bluetooth headset. It would be more of a computer than the iphone (copy/paste, multiple processes running, real keyboard for high speed typing (probably external via bluetooth), and it would be capable of running any OS X application. I’d see that as a replacement for my iPhone rather than a second laptop. I’d be willing to lug around something a bit larger in order to get the added functionality. But I wouldn’t want it to be so big that I couldn’t pull it out and use it at a restaurant or in the car.

  9. Ben, thanks for the precision regarding the license.

    And by the way, do you have anything not working OS X on the Mini? I’ve seen in your Seesmic video that anything seems to work smoothly.

  10. Have been running OS X on an Advent 4211 (MSI wind variant) since the summer and it’s become the main machine I use at home when not working (and sometimes I even use it then, if there’s just emails to do). It’s one of the best purchases I’ve made, though I wouldn’t have bought it had it not been able to run OS X.

    Am keeping an eye on the HP 2140 as it has the larger screen resolution, which is my one gripe with these netbooks.

  11. David David

    I think you are mistaken on a few points.

    “I believe your Dell Mini 9 has just a 1024 x 600 resolution making it rather cramped for serious work.”

    With a 9″ screen.. much higher resolutions would be pointless. There is also no need to normally have multiple windows open side by side. It’s simple to switch from window to window with a keystroke.

    For serious work.. you use a fullsize laptop that is a PITA to carry.

    “This would not be a practical substitute for my iPhone because it lacks any sort of wide area G3 communications.”

    You COULD get a Dell Mini 9 with an internal 3G card.
    Dell sold them in the USA with an AT&T deal and in Europe with a Vodaphone deal.

    Many of them for sale via the dell outlet, have the AT&T card, or have just the connector but lack the card.
    (new ones are currently shipping without the connector)

    My dell mini 9 has:
    -an aftermarket 3g card (which can also function as a GPS receiver when required)
    -64G of SSD storage (love the shock resistance)
    -2 gigs of ram
    -9 inch screen

    I use it for marine navigation, skype, checking weather/hurricane forecasts, sending emails while sitting in a bar, coffee shop or outside someplace, reading ebooks, listening to audiobooks, writing documents, and occationally web browsing.

    It not even close to my “real” computer in power but for what it is meant to be.. with a few minor complaints, it’s great.

    you say:
    “Factor in that an Apple OS X Netbook would probably be a $600-$750 affair running on the same internals as my $260 Dell and you can see where Appleā€™s healthy profit margin is.
    And despite that margin I know that I would gladly pay $750 for such a unit.”

    For the life of me, I can’t see why someone would pay $750 for something you can have for $300.

    Heck, for $750 I could have even installed $350 worth of 128G SSD in it.

  12. I have a hackintosh (aka MacBook Nano) Dell Mini 9 also.

    They go for 3000RMB here in China with a legit copy of Windows / 16G Ram / Bluetooth / Webcam

    Easier than pie to install OSX. Install the EFI Boot CD to a USB CDRom, boot from my disk imaged install DVD, and ready to use in 30 minutes or so.

    You do need to remove the printer drivers to install though, and post install a run through with XSlimmer is recommended to trim the fat. Still, with a 16G drive, I still get 5G free after installing iWorks, and usual software like Firefox, Adium, Skype, etc.

    I’m typing this on one now!

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