Dell Inspiron Mini 12 review

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Dell Inspiron Mini 12 review

Dell sent us the cheaper of the two available models which comes with a 1.33GHz Intel Atom Z520 processor, a single gigabyte of memory, a 4,200rpm 40GB hard disk and Ubuntu 8.04 installed. The pricier ?347 Mini 12 boasts a 1.6GHz Z530 processor, 1GB of memory, a 4,200rpm 60GB hard disk and Vista Home Basic. And, yes, both come with a small, 3-cell battery.

There is no option to buy a Mini 12 with Windows XP Home and a 6-cell battery as Dell’s American customers can. This combination costs just $479 excluding shipping in the US (around ?342) and it makes infinitely more sense than either of the UK configurations.

And, while you might expect even a lightweight Atom to be more than a match for the likes of Ubuntu, it turns out to be disappointingly underpowered. Booting to the desktop takes a reasonable 1min 10secs, but load up OpenOffice or Mozilla Firefox and the Mini 12 staggers into action with all the dynamism of a geriatric. Even basic navigation, such as opening system menus and adjusting preferences is punctuated with irksome pauses.

Considering the Mini 12 uses an Intel Z520 processor alongside its matching GMA 500 graphics chipset – a chipset which is theoretically capable of decoding HD video even on low-power Atom-based platforms – we were also surprised to find that graphics performance was poor.

In fact, the Mini 12 struggled with streaming internet video let alone HD files. Both BBC’s iPlayer, Youtube and juddered along at well below their usual, smooth framerates, and expanding the window to fill the screen slowed action to a crawl. DivX files were also too much for the Mini 12: playback alternated between smooth and stuttery with aggravating regularity.

We were so concerned by the performance that we ended up installing Vista out of sheer desperation. Amazingly, it proved snappier and more responsive than Ubuntu. The 1GB of memory still left it making a meal of multiple applications, but it did feel subjectively better. Streaming video from iPlayer, Youtube and was smoother too, but CPU usage was still peaking at 80% even while playing in a window. We suspect that Intel’s GMA500 drivers aren’t quite as mature as they could be – once a suitable driver is available we’d wager that the video playback in Vista and Ubuntu might just improve.

Losing battle

Poor battery life hammers home the Mini 12’s limitations, however. The three-cell battery helps maintain the smooth lines and light weight, but its limited 2,400mAh capacity leaves the Mini 12 expiring just short of the three hour mark. Turn on the 802.11g and Bluetooth wireless networking and start using the Mini 12 in anger, and that soon dwindles closer to two. As we mentioned earlier, US customers can opt for a third variant of the Mini 12 which offers a six-cell battery partnered with Windows XP Home. If the UK were treated to such delights, this review would have read very, very differently.

There’s little use staring wistfully at Dell’s US site however, and apart from its fine display, there’s really very little to recommend the Inspiron Mini 12 in its butchered UK form. Indeed, any hope that some benefit might have come from its larger frame is extinguished by a multitude of sins: a poor keyboard, modest performance, non-existent video acceleration and an unimpressive array of features leave it languishing behind Samsung’s NC10 in all but screen resolution.

In light of these ergonomic deficiencies, even the presence of XP Home and a high-capacity battery would only elevate the Mini 12’s score from a maudlin two to an unremarkable four. Updated video drivers might still improve the overall experience, but as it stands the Mini 12 is a major disappointment.

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