The Dell Inspiron Mini 9 is the latest contender to the netbook throne, but can the inclusion of HSDPA connectivity via a built-in SIM from Vodafone be the masterstroke? We get surfing to find out.

The Dell Mini 9 is, like the MSI Wind, is glossy, small and cute. Build quality, which is better than the Asus Eee netbook range, sees a glossy outer shell and a bright 8.9-inch (1024 x 640) screen on the inside.

Below the screen is as you would expect a QWERTY keyboard with all shortcut keys accessed via the function keys rather than as separate buttons littered around the place. In fact the only other buttons you'll find on the netbook are the two mouse buttons (left click, right click) and a power switch.

Speakers are tucked in under the screen meaning they are facing you and while they are not great, they are certainly enough to listen to the odd episode of Megawhat or YouTube vid. There is of course a 3.5mm headphones jack, which will give you better performance.

For talking to others there is a built-in webcam (1.3 megapixels) above the screen and a mic in socket for improving the audio if you're planning on Skyping people on a regular basis.

Get past the layout of the keyboard, which is small but functional, and the trackpad, again small but at least with the click buttons underneath, and the Dell Inspiron Mini 9 features three USB sockets, an SD/MS/Pro/MMC card slot alongside a VGA and Ethernet in down the side.

The SIM card slot is actually tucked away behind the battery compartment and it's easy to get your SIM in and out, but kept well out of the way of light-fingered commuters when you aren't watching.

Under the hood, the Mini 9 is powered by the now almost standard Intel Atom 1.6GHz processor, and you'll get 1GB of RAM on-board to help Windows XP move along nicely. Storage comes in the guise of a rather small 8GB Solid State Drive, of which almost 4GB will be taken with programmes Dell has bundled on the machine. Get past the mass of Google software it asks you to install (everything from the toolbar to Google Desktop) and you'll be up and running with Microsoft Works and McAfee Security Center.

The lack of storage, certainly against the HP Mini-Note and the MSI Wind is very disappointing and means that you'll be needing to find additional storage space if you plan to do anything other than surf the web and write the odd letter. Start saving images and you'll be filling that space up faster than you can say "Where's all my storage gone?".

There is a 16GB Solid State Drive version available, however not via Vodafone, so those needing more memory will have to bear this in mind. We would recommend if you could stretch the extra cash to go for it, but then you don't get the Vodafone offering. A tough one.

However, that SSD means power usage is reduced, so you'll get about 4 hours from the battery, depending, of course, on what you do with it. Screen full brightness and using the in-built HSDPA offering will pull this figure down, we got about 3 hours from a combination of Wi-Fi and mobile broadband usage.

Of course the whole purpose of the Mini 9 from Vodafone is that you've ditched the need for a dongle sticking out the side. Once the SIM is installed it's just a case of loading the Vodafone Mobile Connect software and it does the rest connecting you in seconds rather than minutes.

The software is the same as you would get if you bought a dongle separately, however, the advantage here is that you don't have to wait for the USB dongle to power up: it's not a big deal, but it will save you a couple of seconds if you are looking to send that email before you jump off the train.

Having been a long-term user of the Vodafone Mobile Connect offering, the reception is very good in and around London (and most of the world for that matter) and we've had very few connection issues getting online due to reception.

For those not familiar with the connection software from Vodafone, the software dashboard allows you to monitor your mobile broadband usage, send and receive text messages and saves you remembering a series of numbers or codes when it comes to getting online. It really is a press of a button.

The Vodafone broadband offering isn't the cheapest on the block for mobile access, but is comparable with the Carphone Warehouse Webbook netbook offering, although with the Webbook you do get a bigger screen and more storage space.

Vodafone is offering the Mini 9 at £25 for 1GB of data a month for 24 months and £30 for 3GB of data a month for 24 months with the laptop thrown in for free on both tariffs.

Compare this to mobile broadband access, and you'll be paying £15 more a month for the benefit of that free laptop in the mix. Top10-broadband.co.uk, a price comparison site for mobile broadband tariffs in the UK currently has a Vodafone HSDPA dongle at £15 a month for 3GB of data for 24 months and this means the laptop will cost you around £360 over the 2 years, a premium of £60 over buying the laptop without the SIM card based on current prices.

Verdict

So, what's the verdict? Well, with netbooks designed to surf the Internet, including the 3G SIM in the unit is a logical one. Yes, you will have to pay a premium for the inclusion of the SIM over the 2-year contract, but at least you get the feeling that this is going to last you 2 years rather than the 10 minutes you get with the Asus Eee offering.

As a netbook offering, the only criticism is that the SSD just isn't really big enough. While you'll gain space in your bag by not having to carry around a dongle, that space is likely to be taken up with a portable hard drive.