Late last year Dell broke the mold and launched the Mini 12, the world's first Atom based 12-incher. As you probably know, Intel and Microsoft have put in place a number of draconian restrictions, in an attempt to keep netbooks around the 10-inch mark.
Not only did Dell go for a bigger screen, but it was also the first vendor to use a Z-series Atom, and it was one of few manufacturers to offer a Vista option on the Mini 12. Mind you, Vista on a 1.3GHz Atom doesn't really sound like a great idea, unless you enjoy watching snails race.
Apart from the obvious advantages of having more screen realestate and resolution, another upshot of going for a 12-inch form factor is the uncramped layout and spacious trackpad.
The Mini 12 looks like a 12-inch ultraportable, not a netbook, but in the end it feels like a netbook, not a pricey featherweight for businesspeople. It's cheap, and there's no way of hiding it, but luckily, it doesn't feel too cheap.
Although Dell didn't stick to Redmond's and Santa Clara's design guidelines and restrictions regarding panel size, the rest of the package is a bit more netbookish.
In the entry level version the Mini 12 ships with 1GB of memory, a 1.3GHz Atom Z520 and just 60GB of storage. Bottom line, nothing too interesting to report in the hardware department.
Design and Build Quality
Sticking a cool and power efficient Z520 into a 12-inch body wasn't a problem, and it allowed designers a fair bit of freedom. The body is under an inch thick all around, and thanks to ridiculous thermals, there's no ugly cooling vents on the sides.
It's not much thinner than most 10-inch netbooks, but thanks to the bigger footprint, it looks quite a bit more elegant and thin. It's not a MacBook Air, but it still has a nice profile, maybe not befitting a catwalk, but still slim enough to turn some heads.
The glossy silver finish on the palmrests looks and feels nice, and it's pretty resistant to smudging as well. The same can't be said of the piano black lid, which is prone to gathering fingerprints and dirt.
The spacious trackpad clearly indicates this is no 10-incher, and overall the Mini 12 looks quite a bit more serious than your average 10-inch netbook. The shiny power button is a bit too tacky, but luckily it's small and doesn't stick out much.
We have no major complaints about build quality, it's pretty good for this price class, although you can't expect it to be on par with light and thin 12-inch and 13-inch units which cost at least twice as much as the Mini 12.
The rough plastic used on the bottom of the chassis feels sturdy, but also a bit rough and cheap, like a piece of trim on a cheap car. The same goes for the black plastic surrounding the keyboard. It could have been a bit smoother, as it looks cheap.
Overall, the Mini 12 looks and feels pretty good, mainly thanks to its big footprint (29.9 x 22.3cm), and 23mm thicnkess, resulting in a sleek, elegant appearance. With a 3-cell battery, it weighs just 1.26kg. At this price point, you really can't ask for much more.
Keyboard and Trackpad
Obviously designers made use of the extra room, and fitted the Mini 12 with a spacious, well laid out keyboard.
It's by no means spectacular, it's 92 percent standard size, just like the one used on the Mini 10, but it's a far cry from most netbook keyboards. There's not much to complain about, although it feels a bit soft, it's still somewhat better than the keyboard used on the Mini 10. The plastic used on the keys is a bit too rough for our taste.
The trackpad is pretty bit and comfy. Almost nothing to complain about here either, although it lacks multi-touch, which is featured on the Mini 10.
The keys could have been a bit better, they are pretty soft, and have a bit too much travel.
Ergonomics, Everyday Use
Obviously the Mini 12 is a bit easier to live with than 10-inch netbooks. Not only does it offer 2 more inches of screen acreage, but it's also got quite a bit more pixels to boot too, 1280x800, like most 12-inchers. You won't scroll much, and some applications which are next to useless on netbooks will be a lot more enjoyable. Also, the extra resolution allows for hassle free browsing and text editing with much less scrolling and straining.
Don't get us wrong, we like 10-inch netbooks as well, but a 1280x800 panel makes a world of difference. You can use it for hours without straining your eyes, and more importantly getting annoyed. Sadly, the Mini 12 is the only 12-inch netbook on the market, and it won't stick around for much longer, as it seems dell will focus on the 10-inch Mini 10 and Mini 10v.
The connector layout is straightforward.
Two USBs, VGA and DC-in on the left...
Another USB, along with a memory card reader and LAN connector on the right.
Nothing at the front or back.
We got a 3-cell sample, and obviously battery life wasn't too impressive. We were getting under 3 hours of endurance, and depending on the workload and wireless use, it could even run out of steam after about 2 hours flat.
The Mini 12 is basically a mixed bag. Although it offers a vastly superior screen compared to regular netbooks, it still comes up short in some departments.
The 3-cell battery doesn't offer much endurance, and the 1.3GHz Atom would struggle with Windows, and it's not a very impressive performer under Ubuntu either. This is hardly Dell's fault, and many other vendors still opt for the same CPU. Even Acer's new 11.6-inch Aspire One 751 is powered by the Z520. The Mini 12 also lacks storage, 60GB is basically 100GB short of what you're supposed to see on a netbook.
With the shortcomings out of the way, it's obvious the 1280x800 12-inch screen provides you with a lot more comfort than a regular 10-incher. I'd be willing to trade 100GB of storage for 2 inches of screen space anytime, but just 60GB of storage simply won't be enough for many users. The Mini 12 also looks good, it's a very thin, sleek piece of kit. It won't turn heads like a MacBook Air or Dell Adamo, but it's good enough considering the price.
Until a few weeks ago, the Mini 12 was the only Atom based notebook with a decent, 12-inch screen. However, Acer's Aspire One 751 has joined the club, and it offers an 11.6-inch 1366x768 screen, and identical CPU and 2GB of memory, 160GB of storage and XP for just over €400. Some reviewers have blasted its build quality, but since we haven't tried it out yet, we really can't say how it measures up to the Mini 12.
Dell has recently announced it's pulling the Mini 9, and the Mini 12 will probably follow suite soon, and considering Intel's stance on 12-inch netbooks, we might not even see a successor. You can still get it in most markets, with prices starting at about $400. It's a bit cheaper than the Acer, but it's also not as well spec'd as the Acer either.