The term "mini-laptop" may not have been coined by the people at Asus computers -- but they've sure made it their own. In less than a year, Eee PCs have defined the genre.

Others have tried to muscle in on the action -- Hewlett-Packard ( HPQ) and Intel ( INTC) come to mind -- but the original Eee PC and all of the new models (they seem to introduce them every month or two) still reign supreme.

But you knew that at some point, some company would step up to the challenge. And that company is Dell ( DELL).

The new Inspiron Mini 9 is Dell's contender in the battle for mini-laptop supremacy. It is small (9.13 by 6.77 by 1.07 inches) and lightweight (less than 2.3 pounds). It's also configurable. You can choose your operating system (Ubuntu Linux or Windows XP), memory (512MB or 1GB) and solid-state storage (4GB, 8GB or 16GB). You even have your choice colors: Obsidian Black or Alpine White.

The Mini 9 is entirely powered by Intel. It has an Atom processor (1.6 GHZ), a 945 PM chipset and the Integrated Graphics Media Accelerator 950. It sports a terrific glossy 8.9-inch screen, 802.11g Wi-Fi, 3 USB 2.0 ports, a three-way media card reader and a four-cell battery pack (good for about four hours of use before needing a recharge).

I asked Dell if I could try a Linux-based model. That's because Dell offers the current version (8.04) of Ubuntu Linux. I've been using it on a home laptop for more than a year, and I love it. It's fast, full of features that anyone can use, and best of all, free.

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