Dell Inspiron Mini 12
Netbooks are going to be big this year - in every sense of the word. Sensitive to complaints about small, low-resolution screens and ever-eager to invent another lucrative niche, manufacturers are expanding their line-ups with more comfortably proportioned 12in screen models, and Dell is among the first with the Inspiron Mini 12.
Now a netbook with a 12in screen may seem like an oxymoron and we're still stuck on what to call the Inspiron Mini 12. One thing is certain, though - netbook or low-cost laptop, this is one very portable portable. It weighs just over a kilo and is just 27mm at its thickest point, which is almost as thin as the Apple MacBook Air .
The Dell Inspiron Mini 12's desktop footprint is obviously larger than any 10in netbook, but it's no more of a chore to carry around (unless you favour a big coat pocket, of course). At 1.23kg, it weighs about the same as its smaller screened brethren and feels disconcertingly light for its dimensions.
Sadly, the Inspiron Mini 12 isn't quite as stylish as Apple's premium portable, but its low-key good looks should at least mean that it won't attract too much attention when you whip it out in public. The black and silver plastic case is nicely complemented by a glossy black lid, and both red and pink lids are also available (though you need to order them by phone rather than online).
The selection ports are the same as on every other netbook, but we did note that the Inspiron Mini 12 also has a hole beneath the battery that looks tailor-made for a SIM card slot. Dell hasn't announced an embedded-HSDPA model yet, but one looks likely, particularly since it already offers the HSPDA-equipped Inspiron Mini 9 through Vodafone.
The 1280 x 800 of the 12.1in screen resolution provides some much needed breathing room and the Inspiron Mini 12 is much less taxing to look at for long spells. The screen is sharp and bright, and the glossy coating makes for vibrant colours, albeit at the usual expense of complete outdoor visibility.
The big let-down, however, is the keyboard. Dell hasn't capitalised on the extra space of this larger chassis and the Inspiron Mini 12's keyboard is no bigger than that on any other 10in netbook. The keys feel cramped and spongy, and some are an odd size. In short, it's really not that pleasant to type on - a crying shame for a netbook that's otherwise so perfectly suited to sitting at to write.
The large touchpad is a plus, but its equally large buttons have a cheap rattle and sink too far into the case when pressed.
Dell is offering the Inspiron Mini 12 in two configurations, depending on the operating system. OS aside, the only difference is in processor an storage - Ubuntu gets an Intel Atom Z520 1.33GHz processor and a 40Gb hard disk; Windows Vista gets an Atom Z530 1.6GHz chips and an 80Gb hard disk.
We tested the Ubuntu model and frankly, it didn't feel very snappy. It took around a minute to boot from cold and the slick, animated Ubuntu interface was a little laggy. This shouldn't be much of a problem if your plans for the Inspiron Mini 12 don't go much beyond word processing and internet use, but it's something to bear in mind if you have any more demanding applications in mind.
We weren’t able to test the Windows Vista Inspiron Mini 12, but we did install it on our Atom Z520 model, out of curiosity. And to our surprise, it actually ran rather well – or at least better than Ubuntu. The UI was much more responsive, although there was a noticeable difference between 800 x 600 and 1280 x 768 and while this bodes well for the Z530 1.6GHz configuration, it raises in interesting point.
The Poulsbo chipset (or SHC-US15W, if you're feeling geeky) and Intel GMA500 graphics paired with the Atom Z5x0 processor inside the Inspiron Mini 12 are supposedly capable of decoding 1080p video, but we’ve yet to see this – or even 720p video decoding – demonstrated successfully. Under Ubuntu, the Inspiron Mini 12 struggles with windowed YouTube and iPlayer videos; Vista does not, but still can’t play them smoothly full-screen. At a guess, we reckon that the Atom processor isn't offloading video processing to the graphics chip, which can only be the fault of the drivers.
The Atom Z5x0 processor used in the Inspiron Mini 12 (as well as also the Sony VAIO P Series and forthcoming Asus Eee PCs) is functionally the same as the Atom N270 chip that's so far been popular with netbook manufacturers (and just as hopeless at HD video), but there are a few important differences. Both chips are manufactured using a 45nm process, but the Z5X0 is about half the size of the N270 - it's a 'Silverthorne' chip that Intel really intended to be used in handheld Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs), while the 'Diamondville' N270 is pitched at low-cost laptops.
A more important difference, however, is that Poulsbo chipset we mentioned earlier. Since Intel didn’t intend it to be used in laptops, Poulsbo can only use 1Gb of RAM – presumably more than enough for a relatively undemanding MID, but a bit of a squeeze for a netbook though, particularly one that runs Vista. So even if you could get easy access to the innards of the Inspiron Mini 12, it wouldn’t do you any good.
UPDATE: Intel's revised Poulsbo specification (PDF) now supports 2Gb of RAM, but while we're uncertain about the revision used in the Inspiron Mini 12, it's academic, since the memory is soldered to its motherboard.
Dell claims the three-cell 24Wh battery is good for three hours' of use - we're still running out battery tests, so we'll see how accurate this figure is shortly. The travel-size one power adapter is a welcome addition, though.
Dell wants £329 for the Ubuntu Inspiron Mini 12 and £399 for the Windows Vista model. Fair prices on the face of it, but it's worth noting that in the US, the Ubuntu model costs $399 (around £290) and lo! A Windows XP model (with Atom Z520 processor, 60Gb hard drive and 6-cell 48Wh battery) costs $479 (around £345). So, not the best trans-Atlantic pricing parity we've ever seen (though not the worst either), but we'd be less miffed about it if Dell offered a Windows XP model over here, too.
As the first example of the new wave of 12in netbooks, the Dell Inspiron Mini 12 sets a middling benchmark for other manufacturers. Its proportions are perfect, but the keyboard is a let-down and we'd really like to see Windows XP as an option, preferably with a 1.6GHz processor. Of course there's nothing to stop you installing Windows XP yourself Dell has Inspiron Mini 12 Windows XP drivers available for download), but the Ubuntu model is a tad too puny for our taste, so you're better off spending £70 more and wasting a Windows Vista licence - or waiting a bit to see what the competition comes up with.
© Dennis Publishing