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Figure 4 shows the Mini 12 side-by-side with my "reference" travel notebook, the Fujitsu P7120. The "mini" seems to dwarf the Fujitsu and its footprint is noticeably larger.

Fujitsu P7120 and Dell Mini 12
Click to enlarge image

Figure 4: Fujitsu P7120 and Dell Mini 12

Figure 5 attempts to show the footprint difference between the Fujitsu and Mini 12.

Fujitsu P7120 on top of the Mini 12
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Figure 5: Fujitsu P7120 on top of the Mini 12

I don't have a photo, but the 12 is actually thinner than the Fujitsu. Or at least the main body is. As is typical for these beasties, the 6 cell battery props up the back end of the 12, setting a maximum height greater than the Fujitsu's. The battery is also where a good deal of the weight is, which I found out when I removed it. Without the battery, the 12 is surprisingly light!

Folding the 12 inch screen all the way back does not make the netbook tip backward. But I found that when I tried to hold it by the battery pack with the screen open (for doing walk-around wireless testing) there really wasn't enough clearance in the gap between the bottom of the screen and the battery pack for my fingers to fit. In contrast, I can grip the Fujitsu P7120 by its battery bar just fine with the screen open.

Port complement is three USB 2.0, one 10/100 Ethernet, 15 pin VGA and mic and headphone. There is also a 3-in-1 memory card reader. But as I have found on other netbooks, the reader allows SD card insertion only about half way. So if you're hoping to stick an SD card into the card reader for some handy extra memory, you probably shouldn't unless you remove it when you are on the move!

The power button is inside at the top left above the keyboard. Dell apparently decided to save money on LEDs, since there is only a power light, which you can see at the top right near the hinge. It also softly throbs when the Mini is sleeping or in hibernation and also lights up when the notebook is off and the charger is attached and plugged in.

In Use

With everything that the Mini 12 has going for it, Dell unfortunately decided to mess up the keyboard. You would think that in a just-shy-of 12" width that its makers could have fit a just-about-full-size keyboard. But you would be wrong. Figure 6 shows plenty of wasted width on each side of the keyboard.

Mini 12 Keyboard
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Figure 6: Mini 12 Keyboard

And with all that space below the keyboard, why didn't they shift the arrow keys down so that they didn't have to narrow the , . / and Shift keys in the bottom row? Actually, the key tops are just about 0.5" across and high; the same as on my normal keyboard. And spacing isn't that much narrower than my desktop keyboard's 0.75" center-to-center. But for some reason, the keyboard felt a bit off.

I have no complaints about the large Synaptics touchpad, which is larger than the one on my Fujitsu and on most other netbooks. And the two separate mouse buttons are also good-sized and easy to press, although they do depress more than I would like (yes, I know I'm being picky).

A few other things worth mentioning:

  • Volume from the speakers mounted just above the keyboard was a bit anemic on some content until I dug into the Audio settings and increased the Wave slider to maximum
  • The 1280 x 800 glossy screen was bright, clear and had a decent viewing angle
  • As noted earlier, the bundled webcam applications were pretty good
  • The mini was completely silent in operation, even when watching video. This is because there is no fan
  • The 1 GB of RAM is soldered onto the main board, so isn't upgradable
  • For maximum battery life, choose the "Max Battery" power scheme, which cuts the CPU clock rate from 1.6 GHz to 798 MHz. If you want to watch videos, however, you'll have to switch back to the 1.6 GHz clock

Verdict

Despite the foolish compromise on the keyboard, I think the Mini 12 is probably a keeper. I really like the larger 1280 x 800 screen (vs. 1024 x 600 on 10" netbooks) because it cuts down on webpage scrolling and provides more room for multiple windows. Although the screen establishes a larger footprint than you get with 10" systems, it still fits nicely (and lightly) into my travel bag.

The one last system (for now, at least) that I had hoped I would have in at the same time as the Mini 12 is the HP 2140 that was just trotted out at CES. I have been lusting after it since I saw it at the show, ordered one the first day they were available last week and it was supposed to be here by now. But on Tuesday (the estimated ship day), HP contacted me with the news that they would not be receiving the 2140's from China until February 13 due to the Chinese New Year celebration. Sighhhhh....

So I have a few more days to decide whether to keep the Mini 12, or send it back to await the 2140's beautiful keyboard and metal case (but smaller display and beside-the-trackpad mouse buttons that I know I am not going to like). I guess I can always order the Mini 12 again, and even come out ahead (even with restock fee) ordering the $479 version.

Update 2/3/2009

Follow up: I was going to return the Mini 12 in anticipation of the HP 2140. But when I called the Dell Return folks, I was offered a $50 discount to keep the product. When I said that $50 wasn't enough of an incentive, I was then offered a $75 discount, which I accepted.

I don't know if this is standard Dell policy or a reflection of the current lousy economy. But I now have a new, light, slim computer that will become my standard wireless test machine, once I install an Intel WiFi Link 5300 mini-PCIe card into it.

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