Comparing Apples And Ubuntus.
February 16, 2009 2:16 PM   Subscribe

How does the Macbook Air with OS X compare to the Dell Mini 12 running XP or Ubuntu?

I've been buying Macs since 1994 and work exclusively with them, mostly because I'm a freelancer (thus, I work from home). I'd like to buy a netbook-ish laptop for surfing the web and writing on the go. This would be a secondary computer, so I don't need bells and whistles. I don't even need a CD/DVD drive.

I have poor vision, so I'm looking for one that's just a bit bigger than the 7 to 10 inch netbooks, but I'd still like it to be light and small. I'm thinking 13 inch screen max with a resolution no larger than 1280 X 800-ish.

That led me to the Macbook Air, refurbished, for $999, or a Dell Mini 12, which can be had for a lot less. Or, should I be looking at something else entirely? I fear the 10 inch Eee might be a bit too small of a screen.

How do they really compare?
Would I prefer Ubuntu to XP?
Is it worth it to spend more for the refurbished Air?

I'm having trouble comparing apples to apples since only one of them is, in fact, an Apple.
posted by 2oh1 to Computers & Internet (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I've been thinking about this kind of question a bit myself lately. One of the things that sets all of Apple's current laptops apart from many others is the build quality. The Air feels like a solid ingot. Also, IMO, it has that ineffable covet-inducing quality that emanates from Apple hardware.

Of course, you pay for that build quality, which gets at a key question: do you want to buy something cheap that you can regard as disposable, and not cry if it gets lost or destroyed. Or do you want to buy something solid, that will hold up to hard use a little better, but you also want to take better care of?

Obviously software is a separate issue. I'm a Mac fan, and aside from that, I'd say there's value in sticking with a platform you already know, both in terms of getting up to speed and making things work between computers.

In terms of performance, I think the Air has a pretty strong advantage, although it's obviously no speed demon. But you're not buying for performance anyhow. Better battery life on the Air too, I think.
posted by adamrice at 2:53 PM on February 16, 2009

Best answer: You can also get the Dell Mini refurbed for $350 or so on Dell Outlet. If you want to compare Apples to apples.
posted by smackfu at 3:02 PM on February 16, 2009

Response by poster: Actually, right now they don't appear to have any refurbed Mini 12's. Just the 9's. At least, not on
posted by 2oh1 at 3:09 PM on February 16, 2009

If you're an ultra nerd you can hijack another netbook and make your own OSX version. At half the price of the Macbook Air! :D
posted by nikkorizz at 3:17 PM on February 16, 2009

My girlfriend just bought a new MacBook, the second from the bottom (what would have been the black MacBook two years ago). Compared to her previous, two year old MacBook, this one is very light.

The complaint about the Air is that it's sluggish compared to the regular MacBooks, but that's subjective. But if you're looking at a Mac laptop again, it's worth looking at the low end MacBooks and seeing if they're small and light enough for your needs, so you're not paying for excecutive slim.
posted by fatbird at 3:33 PM on February 16, 2009

I don't have information specific to to the Air or the Dell Mini, but I have a couple of things that might be of use.

On build quality...
I've had two Dell laptops which I used daily at work for several years and they have been rock solid machines. I also have a Dell desktop which I've been running since 2001 which has also given me no wacky issues. I purchased an iBook G4 and the logic board went bad in 1.5 years, leaving my iBook unusable. YMMV

On would you prefer Ubuntu to XP...
I am running XP Home on a Sony Vaio PCG-SRX87, which is kinda of like a netbook from 2003. I do web and email and light Office work on it and XP works just great for it, however I'm definitely more of a Windows guy. But the way things are nowadays, there is a lot of crossover software which can semi-unify the experience.

I installed Ubuntu and it frustrated me, but I am a Windows guy. However, if you get it pre-loaded and the driver issues are addressed, then it might not be an issue. But as I stated above, with all of the crossover software, Ubuntu could probably be a pretty low-maintenance experience.
posted by bwilms at 3:58 PM on February 16, 2009

if you're going to do writing on it, having a real keyboard is great. the netbook keyboards aren't bad per se, but it's nothing like even having a MacBook keyboard.

if you've not run Windows or Linux since '94, you may want to consider the problem of using it full-time. it can be a challenge - especially if you've used a Mac for the past 15 years. that would be the breaking point for me; I'm already very used to what apps I use on OS X and it's just bothersome to try to work on Windows in the same capacity. not saying it can't be done, but it's something to consider.

running Ubuntu may very well feel totally alien if you haven't ever used it. however, at least with Ubuntu, you can use a Live CD to boot your existing computers from. if you've got a modern Intel-based Mac, just go to Ubuntu's website and get and burn a CD - you'll be able to boot off of it and use Ubuntu without having to actually install it. if you've got an older, PowerPC (G4/G5)-based system, go here and get the Desktop CD to accomplish the same. (Ubuntu doesn't officially support the older PowerPC-based Macs anymore, so there's just community-driven CD images, and there's not a LiveCD of the latest Ubuntu 8.10. not that I could easily find, anyway.)

I'd seriously consider the software on it - I've had and gotten rid of netbooks before simply because it's hard for me to really deal with Windows more than just occasionally nowadays. also, I tend to suggest veering towards the normal MacBook if you're looking at an Air, as the regular ones are cheaper and faster. they're not as light, though, or as solid-feeling.
posted by mrg at 4:24 PM on February 16, 2009

Do NOT get the Mini 12. I have a Mini 9 and over on the active Dell Mini forums, we're speculating that the Mini 12 is about to be replaced or phased out due to poor sales. The major reason is that the specs are pokey and it's not upgradeable.

1. The Mini 12's 1GB RAM is soldered to the board and can't be upgraded. You'll quickly be wishing for that extra 1GB memory overhead.
2. The Air's dual core processor runs laps around the Mini 12's single core Atom Z530 processor. Really, no comparison.
3. The Mini 12's Intel GMA 500 integrated graphics chip really stinks. It's like 2 generations old. Compare to the Macbook Air's modern GeForce 9400M.

Now before writing off the entire category of netbooks, you should go down to Best Buy or Staples and check out the 9/10-inch netbooks. You would think the screen is too small but you quickly get used to it. With the netbook-friendly Windows 7 beta OS, it's very easy to use.

If however the 10-inch screen and resolution is too small, then you may want to go with the Macbook Air. The Mini 12 has been compromised at too many levels to be a decent portable machine.
posted by junesix at 4:34 PM on February 16, 2009

The complaint about the Air is that it's sluggish compared to the regular MacBooks, but that's subjective.

I had a friend making more or less the same decision and he went with the Macbook Air because the mini he wanted was back ordered. I have a MBA and it is sluggish. Nothing terrible and it's worth it for me because it's basically my travel machine, but it's slow to boot, slow to wake from sleep and CPU intensive stuff like scrolling [I don't do anything super processor intensive with it] has some lagtime. All of it is worth it for me, but if you're a real sticker for speed or if it's your main machine (also has a "small" hard drive relative to what other machines have and it's non-replaceable) I'd go Dell otherwise, yeah I'm real fond of the Macbook Air. You can always get a ThinkPad with Ubuntu for next to nothing if you decide you need or want a PC for some reason.
posted by jessamyn at 4:36 PM on February 16, 2009

As an alternative option, you may want to consider the Mini 9. For such a small package, it's a real workhorse of a machine. I use it at home plugged into a 22" LCD at 1680x1050 resolution through the external VGA port. Bluetooth allows me to use a full-size keyboard and mouse wirelessly. I effortlessly upgraded the RAM from 512MB to 2GB with a $25 module from And with a 32GB solid state drive, it boots up Windows 7 Beta in 8 seconds from hitting the power button to working (as fast or faster than returning from hibernation in most computers). If you prefer OSX, you can use that too and many Mini 9 users bought it specifically because it does OSX and often better and faster than Apple's own machines. I personally have OSX and Windows 7 dual boot on my Mini 9. I'm probably going to sell my 13" Macbook soon.

From time to time, you can find the $199 basic Linux configuration on the Dell Outlet website. With upgrades, it's a blisteringly powerful, compact $450 machine at just 2.3 lbs.
posted by junesix at 4:54 PM on February 16, 2009

Response by poster: This would definitely *NOT* be my main computer. For lack of a better way to say it, I'm looking for a great coffeeshop machine. Since I work out of home, I spend too much time in front of this screen and find that my creativity here is gone when it comes to my writing (non-work-related writing, I mean). So, I really want a laptop I can take somewhere else and write. And if it's easy to lug around when I travel, even better.

I was seriously considering an Eee PC, but I checked out their 10 inch 1000H (or HA?) at Best Buy. I'm afraid to buy one only to find it's just too small of a screen. I really have terrible vision, which is why I'm looking for something just a bit bigger than what is normally considered a "netbook".

I get frustrated trying to play with PCs at stores like Best Buy because they're all chained up with bars over them (across the hinge, anyway) and pushed back a bit on the display tables. You can't comfortably pull one up and play with it.
posted by 2oh1 at 5:00 PM on February 16, 2009

Response by poster: I wish I had the vision for something like a Mini 9, but I don't.
posted by 2oh1 at 5:02 PM on February 16, 2009

Hardware aside, the accessibility features that are a part of OS X may make the Macbook Air more attractive. It's trivial to increase font sizes, zoom into the screen or invert the colors for higher contrast. Have someone at an Apple store show you the features available for users with poor vision - that alone might make the decision easier.
posted by aladfar at 5:27 PM on February 16, 2009

Response by poster: Oh, I'm quite familiar - though I don't need them (beyond the basic increasing of font size for text on web pages if it's too small). If the rumors of resolution independence in a future release of OS X ever turn out to be true, I'll be a happy, happy man.
posted by 2oh1 at 5:31 PM on February 16, 2009

I use Ubuntu on an Eee 901 (similar to a Dell Mini 9) and it runs fine. Speaking of which, you might want to look at some of the larger Eees. Their build quality is pretty solid and they're very easy; I wouldn't recommend my 9" screen if you have poor eyesight though.
posted by rhymer at 6:38 AM on February 17, 2009

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