WORLD FIRST review of Inspiron Mini 12: Dell’s super-slim netbook!

WORLD FIRST review of Inspiron Mini 12: Dell’s super-slim netbook!


Let’s set the scene. I’m in Shanghai attending a regional Dell event with selected media analysts and partners. During a break between sessions I grab a much-needed coffee in the ante room. Also imbibing the juice of the bean is Michael Dell who’s perhaps the most affable and genuinely down-to-earth technology uber-exec I’ve ever met. Especially for a zillionaire from Texas.

I compliment him on the company’s Inspiron Mini 9 netbook which is a superb little machine. “Yeah we’re real proud of that†he beams like an equally proud dad might. “Hey have you seen this one the 12 inch model?â€

And with that Michael Dell himself gives me a sneak peak at his namesake company’s latest show-stopper – the long-rumoured 12 inch version of the Mini 9. I’ve seen an early prototype model some months back but this is the real deal all shiny and ready to roll. Dell’s Japanese customers will be first to get their gadget-loving mitts on the Mini 12 before it’s released in Australia the US and Europe around the middle of November.

But you don’t need to wait another day to get up close and personal with this pint-sized 12 inch portable which blurs the lines between netbook and notebook. APC spent some quality time with the Inspiron Mini 12 to bring you an exclusive hands-on report  of Dell’s $999 netbook!


Dell’s anticipated Inspiron Mini 12: the little netbook with the big 12 inch screen goes on sale mid-November for $999

An end to MacBook Air envy?

The 12 inch screen officially makes this the world’s biggest netbook but the word ‘big’ just doesn’t seem to suit the Inspiron Mini 12. Even when you know the stats – that the profile tapers from 24mm to 21mm and when fitted with the three cell battery the netbook weighs in at 1.24kg – you can’t appreciate its sylph-like proportions until you hold this this featherweight flybook in your hand.

That said it’s still not quite as anorexic as the ASUS Eee PC S101 which uses a solid state drive and lithium polymer battery to enjoy a 1kg weight and a tapered waistline of 25mm down to 18mm at its thinnest point. But you have to wonder if this isn’t the closest thing yet to a $1000 MacBook Air.

Design

Both the Mini 9 and Mini 12 were designed by Dell and manufactured by Taiwanese OEM/ODM Compal which is the world’s second largest laptop maker (its fierce rival Quanta holds number one spot).


Brothers in arms: the Inspiron Mini 9 and Inspiron Mini 12 get in close for a family portrait

And here’s a bit of trivia we know you’ll enjoy: Dell’s internal codename for the Mini 12 was ‘Yao Ming’ in honour of the 2.29 metre (7 feet 6 inches) Chinese pro basketballer who shoots for the Houston Rockets. The Mini 9 was appropriately codenamed ‘Qiao Hong’ after the Chinese table tennis champ.

Anyway there’s no mistaking the Inspiron Mini 9 and Mini 12 for siblings. They share an identical visual language and design DNA: the same glossy silvered top deck and display frame dark charcoal top deck inserts (although there’s no thick black surround for the 12’s upsized screen display) a drop hinge melding the screen to the chassis and a matte black keyboard with blue highlights.


Family resemblances: both the 9 inch and 12 inch netbooks share the same design DNA

The Mini 12 also feels to have inherited the same solid build quality as the Mini 9 which is vital when a netbook spends so much of its time not just on the move but being moved around – constantly in and out of carry cases on and off desks and tables the lid raised and shut a dozen of times a day.

The underside of the case was expectedly warmest where the disk drive was mounted but the temperature never went past the point of being toasty into the zones of ‘uncomfortable’ or ‘spermicidal’.

A quick 360 tour

The lid is finished in a glossy and slightly speckled black which loves to collect fingerprints and smudges in its spare time. Knowing Dell other colours are sure to follow.

A mono speaker (Dell says there was simply no room for two speakers!) is wedged under a perforated strip sandwiched between the keyboard and the display hinge.

The narrow leading edge of the Inspiron Mini 12 is squeaky clean without a switch or indicator light in sight. Nor are there any buttons or bright lights on the top deck apart from the power switch. To toggle wireless on and off you stab the Fn+F2 keyboard shortcut while an on-screen alert shows if you’ve suddenly started typing in caps.

On the left side lurk two USB ports VGA out the DC power socket and a vertical security lock slot.

Coming around the right we spy the 10/100 Ethernet jack a third USB port mic and speaker sockets and the SD/MS memory card slot.

That’s all pretty standard fare for a netbook but it also matches up to what you’d find on most 12 inch sub-notes and most of the time it’s really all you need.

Keyboard

Perhaps the loudest complaint heard against the Mini 9 is its keyboard. The unit’s small footprint necessitated a tweaked keyboard layout which repositioned some keys shrunk others and dropped some entirely.


Keys in a squeeze: the Inspiron Mini 9’s keyboard was pared back to fit that netbook’s smaller form factor

Happily the Inspiron Mini 12 adopts a more standard sub-note layout with near full-size keys (a quick measure of a prised-off letter key came in at 1.8mm x 1.7mm but we could be out by a few mils).

Keys that’ll please: the Inspiron Mini 12 gets a more standard sub-note keyboard although you’ll still face a period of adjustment

Yes there’s a complete set of function keys (all the way to F12!) on the top row. Alt and Ctrl keys make a return to the right side of the spacebar accompanied by a nice fat Right Shift key while the quote mark key scoots up to sit next to the Enter key.

Touch typists will still be stymied by the odd dimensions of some keys such as the right Ctrl key being longer than the one on the left which makes it a little too easy to hit this rather than the thin left arrow key. But almost every 12 inch subnote requires some adaptation to its keyboard layout and the Mini 12 is at least a few happy steps above hunt-and-peck mode.

The movement itself is also tightened: keystrokes feel that little bit stiffer crisper more positive. There’s a tad less squish than on the Mini 9 (of course one person’s squish is another’s ‘soft’) but still a well-defined travel. The trackpad is also upsized to 4.5cm x 7.7cm with a lightly textured surface for better traction.

Storage

Unlike the SSD-only Mini 9 the Mini 12 is fitted with a hard disk drive of 60GB or 80GB (Aussies get the 80GB version). The drives belong to the Spinpoint N2P family from Samsung’s Ultra Mobile range which are 1.8in 4200rpm PATA drives with an 8MB cache and a barely-there 5mm profile. This is the same drive as used in Acer’s Aspire One and the ASUS Eee PC 900 series. During our time with the Inspiron Mini 12 it ran whisper-silent.


Spin that thing: Samsung’s 5mm high Spinpoint N2P ultra-mobile hard drive helps the Inspiron Mini 12 keep trim

Screen

The screen clocks up to 1280 x 800 but while bright and sharp it has roughly the same mediocre viewing angle as the Mini 9 (although you’re unlikely to be sharing your netbook’s screen with anyone) but didn’t appear too overwhelmed by ambient outdoor light. A 1.3 megapixel webcam surmounts the display.

Connectivity

The Inspiron Mini 12 has two mini-card slots tucked under its belly: the first is for a Broadcom 11g Wi-Fi card with the second sporting a 3G HSDPA wireless broadband modem in selected markets (something we note that none of the much-hyped Apple MacBooks haven’t managed to find the inner strength to do yet).

The SIM card slides into a slot in the battery bay adjacent to the battery connector. Bluetooth 2.1 also gets a berth.

3G ready: when Dell releases the 3G version of the Mini 12 (and Mini 9) early next year your SIM data card will nestle in this slot at the rear of the netbook which is usually concealed by the battery.

Dell tells us that 3G will be available on both the Mini 12 and Mini 9 in early 2009. Help files on the Mini 12 identified the card as ‘Dell Wireless 5330′ which is produced by Ericsson and includes a GPS receiver along with 7.2Mbit/s downlink and 2.0Mbit/s uplink on the 2.1GHz 1.9GHz and 850MHz bands (so both our 3G and Next G services are covered).

There’s also the usual GSM/EDGE on 850MHz 900MHz 1800MHz and 1900MHz for the global market. However the lack of HSDPA support at 900MHz means that the Mini 12 will be next to useless on the 900MHz 3G regional extensions to Vodafone’s mobile broadband network.

Not ‘upgrade-friendly’

The Mini 9 delighted with its upgrade-friendly nature. Flip it over like a turtle and a single panel provided fast access to a bay containing the solid state drive memory slot Wi-Fi card and a bay for the optional 3G mini-card.



Unplug and play:
the Inspiron Mini 9’s easily accessible bay delighted upgraders

The Inspiron Mini 12 takes a more traditional approach. It’s not sealed a la MacBook Air but nor is there a handy hole through which those key components can be reached. It’s more like any notebook with naught but a ventilation grill a pair of battery lock latches and a scattering of 16 screws around the underbelly.

No upgrades for you: alas the Inspiron Mini 12 makes no such concessions to the screwdriver set.

Under the hood

Like most netbook manufacturers Dell reached straight for Intel’s Atom processor when designing the Inspiron Mini 12. But they didn’t choose the N270 chip which underpins almost every netbook the Mini 9 among them.

Instead Dell’s engineers fitted the Inspiron Mini 12 with chips from the Z-series ‘Silverthorne’ family (specifically the Z520 and Z530) which Intel designed for the much smaller breed of mobile internet devices (MIDs) rather than netbooks.

The Z520 and Z530 are almost identical to the N270 ‘Diamondville’ netbook chip. They share the same single core 1.6GHz engine (the except for the lower-spec Z520 which clocks at 1.3GHz) 512KB of Level 2 cache 533MHz FSB and hyperthreading support. So the Inspiron Mini 12 should prove just as peppy as any other netbook on the block.

Nor is Dell saving on the bill of materials: at US$40 per thousand the 1.3GHz Z520 costs just US$4 less than the N270 while the beefier 1.6GHz Z530 comes in at a much higher US$70.

The key differences are in size and power. Silverthorne CPUs measure a tiny 13mm x 14mm which is almost half the size of the N270. The Z brothers also enjoy a significantly lower power ceiling of 2.0 watts against the N270’s 2.5 watts.

That 500mW delta may not seem like much but in the netbook and notebook world every bit helps especially if you want a sleek slim design into the bargain. The power savings also go some way to offsetting the increased appetite of the Mini 12’s larger screen.

Small wonders: the Inspiron Mini 12 is the first netbook to use
the Silverthorne-class Atom processor (shown left with its companion
Poulsbo chipset at right) instead of the more popular N270 Diamondville
chip. (photo courtesy of anandtech.com)

Parked next to the Z-series processor is Intel’s low-power Poulsbo chipset (which now goes by the official moniker of SHC-US15W hence why so many people still calls it Poulsbo). This is the matching collars-and-cuffs chipset for Diamondville and it’s a surprisingly clever devil.

Poulsbo is a ground-up design which combines the Northbridge memory controller and  Southbridge IO controller integrated 3D graphics (through the GMA500 graphics core) plus HD audio and HD video (all the way to 1080p decode we’re told although external resolution peaks at 1366 x 768 or what the boffins now say is called ‘HD Minus’ in an effort to make it sound more respectable).

There are plenty of other natty tricks in Poulsbo – if you’re keen for more details check out the deep dive at AnandTech.

But there’s a significant drawback to Poulsbo and it’s one that will certainly cruel the Inspiron Mini 12’s appeal to many ‘power users’. The chipset supports a maximum 1GB of RAM.

This is all that Intel considers that first-gen MIDs would need. But MIDs would never be expected to carry the same load as a netbook – you wouldn’t run desktop-grade software like Windows or Office on them for instance.

As a result while the Inspiron Mini 12 packs 1GB of memory out of the box that’s as far as you can take things. The RAM chip is in fact mounted directly on the main board (which also helps keep the system trim – it’s the same approach taken by Apple for the MacBook Air). Even if you conducted open chassis surgery to remove the 1GB chip and implant a 2GB wafer the Inspiron Mini 12 still won’t see more than the first gigabyte.

OS and software

Dell’s global blueprint for the Inspiron Mini 12 sees the netbook launch with Windows Vista Home Edition while “optional Ubuntu and Windows XP operating systems will be available before the end of the yearâ€.

Unless you live in Australia where it’s Vista now the possibility of XP in “early 2009†while Ubuntu is “still being looked at†according to a Dell spokesman. As detailed in our introduction to the Mini 12 Dell cites the lack of connection managers for its telco partners under the Mini 12’s forthcoming 3G mobile broadband module as the reason Linux remains a no-show.

But back to the world of Windows. This is the first netbook we’ve seen since HP’s 2133 Mini-Note that’s preloaded with Vista and it’s a testament to Intel’s Atom architecture that Vista runs better than we expected (it’s certainly better than on HP’s VIA C7-M chip).

Yet we’re not convinced that shoehorning Vista into a netbook is the path to true wisdom especially when that netbook hits the memory ceiling at 1GB. That’s barely enough for the OS on its own let alone once you run some security software in the background and a fire up any halfway decent application.

Using the Mini 12 proved our point: screens were slow to draw the little spinning wheel was forever popping up to do its thing and with more than a few windows open things get downright skittish.

The Mini 12 needed a full two minutes to get to a usable desktop although standby and resume took about five seconds each and those are the most likely modes that a netbook user will rely on between sessions.

One point just for showing up: want to run Vista on your netbook? Now you can although the system rating of 1.0 doesn’t give us much confidence…

As with the Mini 9 the Mini 12 gets a fistful of extra software such as Google Desktop and the Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer and a 90-day trial edition of McAfee Internet Security 2009.

We were pleasantly surprised to see a full version of Microsoft Works Suite 9.0. The suite’s word processor and spreadsheet now not only look and work identically to their Office counterparts they can save and open the Office 2007 XML document formats. The inclusion of Works could go some way to alleviating the need for Mini 12 buyers to load up the more memory-intensive Office suite.

Also making an appearance is the Dell Dock which despite the Mac-like connotations of the name is no more than a prettied-up program launcher which slides in and out from the top of the screen as needed. I can see this appealing to average users who may even take the time to customise it with their own groups and program shortcuts but it says something about the Windows OS that Dell feels the need to add another launcher to the desktop.

Dell Dock: it looks a little Mac OS-ish but is really just a shortcut bar for launch your most-used apps.

Battery life

If the Inspiron Mini 12 has a single Achilles Heal it’s likely to be battery life. At launch the netbook will be supplied with a three-cell 24Whr battery which Dell rates at 3.5 hours. We think that figure belongs to the ‘zero screen brightness zero wireless and zero activity’ mode of operation – it’s one step short of the netbook going into standby mode.

Battery brigade: the Inspiron Mini 12’s long three-cell 24Wh battery top doesn’t stack up against the Mini 9’s chunky four-cell 32Wh battery.

We set the Mini 12 up for a more real world test. We switched on the 11g Wi-Fi set the screen brightness to 66% wound the volume to full and sat back to enjoy a handful of DiVX videos. The Mini 12 managed 2.5 hours before the battery went belly up – a half hour less than the Mini 9 (which sports a smaller screen and bigger four cell 32Whr battery) achieved during the same test. Replace the hard disk hammering of video playback with more conventional usage of wireless Web browsing email and a little ‘productivity’ time with the Works suite and we doubt you’d top three hours.

If you want longer life on the go and don’t mind giving your Inspiron Mini 12 a little extra ‘battery booty’ Dell will release optional six-cell slab early next year. Like other six-cell solutions this larger block will extend about half an inch past the rear of the Inspiron Mini 12 (which in this writer’s opinion helps gives the netbook a handy grip area) and also raise it up a half inch from the desk (which happens to give the keyboard a slightly more ergonomic tilt and provides more space room for under-chassis airflow).

Over to you…

The Inspiron Mini 12 isn’t set to please everyone. Some will slam its price tag as being too high for a netbook and ask why you wouldn’t buy a ‘real’ notebook for that price. Others will decry the presence of Windows Vista and the 1GB memory limit either on their own or as a pair. And we expect the battery life to raise some eyebrows and lower some credit cards.

Yet I can think of plenty of mainstream users – typically the family friends and workmates of many APC readers – for whom this $999 netbook will really hit the sweet spot by blurring the conventional boundary of form factor and blowing apart the long-standing sub-note barrier of price.

Would you buy the Mini 12 for yourself or recommend it to a friend? Are maxi-sized mini-notes a natural step in the evolution of the netbook or an over-priced aberration? Share your thoughts with the rest of the APCmag.com community…