Not every computer with an Atom CPU is a netbook – or is it?

Dell has officially pulled back the curtain on the Inspiron Mini 12, a light weight and relatively cheap 12 inch notebook. It looks almost exactly like the Dell Inspiron Mini 9, which has a 9 inch screen. But the Mini 12 is bigger, has a higher resolution display, a full sized keyboard (with function keys), and a different version of the Intel Atom CPU which uses less energy thus providing longer battery life.

The Inspiron Mini 12 is also a bit more expensive, with prices starting at $599, while you can pick up an Inspiron Mini 9 for $349.

Here’s a semi-complete rundown of the specs:

  • CPU: 1.3GHz Intel Atom Z520 or 1.6GHz Intel Atom Z530 procesor
  • Display: 12.1 inch, 1280 x 800 pixel
  • RAM: 1GB
  • Storage: 60GB or 80GB, 4200RPM
  • Operating system:Windows Vista Home Basic at launch, Windows XP and Ubuntu coming soon
  • Connectivity: 802.11b/g WiFi, Bluetooth, Ethernet
  • Expansion: 3 USB ports, headphone and mic jacks, built in mic, 3-in-1 card reader
  • Battery: 3 cell (estimated 3 hour battery life) with an optional 6 cell battery to be available later for $79
  • Dimensions: 11.77″ x 9.02″ x .92″ ~ 1.09″
  • Weight: 2.72 pounds

Overall the Inspiron Mini 12 is a thin and light computer that should be able to handle your basic computer tasks like web browsing and editing documents. It’s a bit more underpowered than most 12 inch notebooks you’d find, but it’s a bit bulky by netbook standards. Sure, it weighs less than an Eee PC 1000H, but it’s a few inches larger which makes it just a tiny bit more awkward to throw in your bag.

And that leads to the obvious question: is the Dell Inspiron Mini 12 a netbook, or just a light weight notebook? There’s no question that this machine was inspired by the notebook trend. It’s priced like a high end netbook, and on the insides it has a lot in common with a netbook. But if we start to call 12 inch notebooks netbooks, are we dilluting the term?

A lot of web sites today are describing the Inspiron Mini 12 as a device that stretches the definition of a netbook. I’d say the Asus Eee PC S101 is a device that stretches that description. The S101 is virtually identical to the Eee PC 1000H on the inside, and it’s smaller than the 1000H not larger. But it happens to be ridiculously expensive by netbook standards. The Inspiron Mini 12, on the other hand breaks what I consider one of the defining characteristics of a netbook: it must have a 10.2 inch or smaller screen.

But maybe I’m being too rigid. So I turn to you, and ask… is the Inspiron Mini 12 a netbook?

There are other annoying things about the Inspiron Mini 12. There’s no easy access panel on the back of the computer for upgrading the RAM or hard drive. And even if you do pry the case apart and find the RAM, there’s no point in upgrading it, since as APC Magazine points out, the chipset only supports up to 1GB of RAM – the amount the computer ships with. But somehow that doesn’t prevent this from being one slick looking notebook. Maybe even a subnotebook. I just can’t decide whether it’s really a netbook.

  • http://liliputing.com Brad Linder

    Well, the larger question (for me, anyway) is whether this is something I
    should bother covering on this site in the future. I would have asked if
    it's a liliputer, but despite my best efforts netbook seems to be the
    accepted term these days. :)

  • Tancred

    If only is came with a flash drive :( I would buy one in an instant.

  • John

    since netbook is a made up marketing term, it can be defined either way, who cares about a name if it suits your needs?

  • OpNickC

    I'd say yes, but not just because of size or price: the system has a maximum of 1GB of RAM. I don't think it can be considered a full notebook due to that spec.

  • skuban

    I think sub-notebook is the best term for the Mini 12. Dimension wise it's basically the same as my Sony SZ 13″ (tho its 2 lbs lighter) making it to big for netbookdom. Lacking an internal drive & CPU power along with a RAM cap at 1 Gig make it difficult to call it a notebook. I think sub-notebook fits better than what — super-netbook?

    Super might fit next year when Dell throws a dual core atom and 9400M in there ;)

  • http://www.chadwsmith.com/ Chad78

    Let me start by saying, I agree and acknowledge that terms like “Netbook, UMPC, MID, PMP, sub-notebook, smartphone” etc are marketing terms that have no set meaning. I mean, they marketed the MacBook Air as being “Ultra Portable” even though it's footprint is actually larger than that of a MacBook. Ultimately, if Dell wants to market this as a netbook, it can. However, I think we, as consumers, as bloggers, as everyday people, can take ownership of a word and give it meaning. Without a set definition, words are meaningless. So, I will set out *my* criteria for a netbook. And despite what marketing companies might label a device, I'm going to check the specs and come to my own conclusions. That being said, whether a device is a “netbook” or not – that's not going to affect my desire to buy it. I buy because of a device meeting my needs or not – not what its label is.

    The Dell Mini 12 is not a netbook. If this thing is a netbook, then the MacBook Air is a netbook. If this is a Netbook, the old 12″ iBooks or PowerBooks were netbooks. It's not a netbook because it's too big. Laptops 12-inch screens have been around for a lot longer than the netbook idea has been. This simply does not qualify.

    Just because something has a certain CPU doesn't make it a netbook. There are netbooks with non-Atom CPUs. Netbooks came out before the Atom, so you can't use that as your litmus test. I mean, what about netbooks that use Via processors, or Celerons, or ATOMs? Do they not qualify because they have a different CPU?

    A netbook has to fit a number of criteria, the brand of CPU isn't one of them. Here's a quick list:

    1) Small – it has to be physically smaller than a normal notebook. 12″ is a full sized notebook. As I've mentioned, the iBook and the Powerbook both had 12″ models years ago – long before the word “netbook” had any meaning. (I'm sure other manufacturers had 12 inch laptops, too, I'm just not as familiar with those models.) If you need a hard and fast number – the screen has to be 10″ or smaller to be a netbook.

    2) Light – this is different than small. The frame itself does have to be under a certain size, but it also has to be lightweight. This is where the MacBook Air is netbook-ish – it's lightweight, (compared to other Mac Laptops – but still not very light). But it's not a netbook because it fails number one.

    3) Full Internet experience. This means stuff like, of course, full HTML support, but also Javascript, AJAX, and Flash. I mean, if I can't watch YouTube on it, it's not a NETbook. This disqualifies stuff that runs WinCE or some cell phone OS as being a netbook. So just because your cell phone has a widescreen display and a QWERTY keyboard doesn't make it a netbook.

    4) Along with that – a full desktop experience. Again, WinCE doesn't cut it. Neither does Android. The OS can be Windows or Linux, or if you want to hack it, Mac OS X – but whatever OS you use – it has to be one that can run programs I'm used to. Firefox, OpenOffice.org, VLC – etc. These types of programs, desktop programs, have to be able to run on it. I'm not saying it will be blazing fast, or that you'll have all the room you want for all the apps in the world on your SSD, but the operating system needs to support standard applications.

    5) Cheap. Basically, if I can't buy a model of your computer for less than $500 US – it's not a netbook. Probably need to make that number sub-$400 at this point. Something like the OQO isn't a netbook. It meets all the other criteria – it's small, it runs full Windows XP, it is light, it does the full Internet – but it ain't cheap. Same thing goes for other UMPCs that start above the $1K mark. These are not netbooks. They are tiny notebooks – or clamshell UMPCs – but they are not netbooks.

    Dell's Mini 12 fails at least 2 of those. It's too big and too expensive. And, really, if it's more than 2.5 pounds, I'd say calling it “lightweight” is a bit of a stretch, too. I didn't put these in order of importance, but #1 is the biggest one. A device can be lightweight, cheap, offer a full net experience, and a full desktop – but if it has a 21″ screen – it's not a netbook.

    Also not mentioned, but worth noting, of course the device has to be portable. Meaning a Mac Mini mght be small, lightweight, cheap, and full powered, but it's not portable. No screen, no keyboard, no battery = not a netbook. But I just thought that was so obvious I didn't list it. However, I think maybe I should, since there are devices out there that would be netbooks, except they lack any form of Wifi. You can't be a netbook without portability, and that includes wireless internet. Make that number 6.

  • DougC3

    The Mini 12 is definitely liliputerish and netbookish. Whether it is a netbook or sub-notebook is one question and IMHO whether it should be covered on the site is a slightly different question. It definitely has important netbook affinities and I think a more eclectic approach (chosing the best elements from all sources) is in order, because we may miss some important developments here if we're too narrow-minded.

    Everyone has been complaining about all the netbooks having the same old specs, so when something comes along with a slightly different set of specs we don't want to be too quick to exclude it. IMHO this is the same problem faced in other real-world taxanomic situations, where you might wind up with a category like “nuthatches and their kin,” or “milkweed butterflies and their kin” :)

    The Mini 12 is interesting, for example, because of its use of the Z series of Atom processors and it would be good to keep track of these things and see how they pan out…. So I would like for the site to be open to covering “netbooks and their kin” when something interesting comes along, especially it might impinge on later netbook development (eventhough it'll make more work for Brad ;)

  • DougC3

    This is a *really* well thought out and thoroughgoing discussion and definition of a netbook, and on first reading I can't fault any of it :)

    I never thought the Dell Mini 12 met the definition of a netbook. However, in my humble opinion, I still think it's OK for Brad to discuss an occasional, interesting related item even if it does not strictly fit the definition of a netbook. It might be an interesting or welcome change of pace. Maybe he could start by saying something like, “this is not really a netbook, but I thought you might be interested in it.” ;)

  • john

    ah, fair enough. sorry to be so snippy :-) My mother was killed by a gang of rogue marketing people…

    Love the site btw.

  • DougC3

    After re-reading, I like your definition even better, but I would like to see you flesh out the area of the keyboard and the bottom end of the size limits.

    I think a netbook has to be able to accomodate touch typing, at least for a dextrous user; so I think anything with below around an 8 inch keyboard would fall into a category like “smaller UMPCs.” (But I don't think it hurts to occasionally discuss these on this site if they have some netbook functionality [but not OQO type stuff].)

    For my own use I might be a little more flexible about upper weight and price limits for certain features. For example, a bigger, heavier battery enhances mobility, the most important netbook criterion, by letting you stay gone longer (while detracting from it by being harder to carry).

    I guess it goes without saying that the processor and OS have to match up in size well enough for the device to handle the tasks you outline above.

  • http://www.chadwsmith.com/ Chad78

    Why? How is >10% of the storage a good thing? It's got a 3-in-1 card reader. You could possibly remove the hard drive and boot off an SD card if you really wanted to. I've got an Asus 701 4GB Surf with XP Pro and 2GB of RAM. My only real complaint is the lack of storage. I bought an 8GB SDHC card and have to put all my apps on the SD card, because there's less than .5 GB on my “hard drive” after Windows and Firefox. Now, sure, a lot of that is the bloat of Windows – but the point is 4GB SUCKS. A lot of netbooks come with 160GB hard drives now, or at least with that as an option. That's more storage than my Late 2007 MacBook! I have no idea why anyone would rather have a microscopic amount of storage. Real world tests have proven that these flash drives are usually *not* faster, and are rarely more power efficient than hard drives. So really the only benefit is noise levels, and possibility more shock resistant. Neither one of those is enough, IMHO, to sacrifice 160GB of storage for the same price as 4GB of storage.

  • http://www.chadwsmith.com/ Chad78

    Thanks. I'm glad you like my defintion. I guess another thing I would need to add would be form factor. That kind of goes along with the non-numbered number 6 where I disqualify the Mac Mini. A Netbook needs to be a notebook shaped thing. A clamshell design.

    Slight variations like the swivel-to-tablet convertable mode like the Gigabyte – or the unique open all the way with the keyboard on one side and the monitor on the other style of the NoahPad can be made – but it should resemble a laptop/notebook/clamshell device to the average person.

    That would disqualify the OQO and other tablet-style UMPCs that might otherwise fit the netbook criteria I just made up.

    To recap:

    1. Size – less than a 10″ screen
    2. Weight – under 3 pounds or very, very close
    3. Full Internet – AJAX, Flash, … and Download – that wasn't mentioned earlier, but I should be able to download stuff from the net.
    4. Full Desktop – Be it Windows XP, Linux, or Mac OS X – it's got to be the real deal – not some cell-phone OS slapped onto a laptop looking thing (I'm glaring at you, thankfully dead Palm Foleo).
    5. Price – Under US$500 for the base model – maybe even $400
    6. Portability – runs off a battery, has built-in screen and keyboard, has Wifi (or 3G/WiMax/Bluetooth – something to get wireless internet)
    7. Form factor – Looks like a notebook, has a screen, QWERTY keyboard, some sort of trackpad, or touchscreen, or control nub, or something. Clamshell or similar design – swivel tablet is acceptable.

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  • DougC3

    If I'm gonna write the great American novel (or pamphlet or blog post)on this thing, the keyboard has to be big enough to conveniently type on. No?

  • http://www.chadwsmith.com/ Chad78

    You should ride go karts. Some with flames painted on the sides so they go really fast.

  • http://www.chadwsmith.com/ Chad78

    Well, one of the biggest complaints against the entire netbook concept is that the keyboard is always going to be too small. There are some really good netbook keyboards out there now. I saw an HP Mini Note at a conference last week, and the keyboard is huge compared to my Eee 701. That being said, it's still not full sized.

    If you are getting down to what is a *good* netbook and what is a bad netbook – that's a different issue than what is a netbook and what isn't. By today's standards my groundbreaking 701 is a bad netbook. It has next-to-no storage. It has a tiny keyboard. The screen is small and low res, there is too much wasted bezel, no BlueTooth, only one SD card slot, no webcam…. But it's still a netbook.

    If you are asking if someone came out with a 4″ screen, 1Ghz CPU, clamshell device with a tiny thumb keyboard, but a full Desktop OS (something like the Pandora – openpandora.org – but with full desktop Linux, not some ARM-based porta-distro) would I consider that a netbook?

    I'm not sure how to express the minimum size. Basically it hasn't been an issue yet. Basically if it is small enough to fit in your pocket, then it isn't going to be a clamshell design. Or it's not going to run a full desktop OS. Or it's not going to cost less than $500. Like would the Fujitsu Lifebook U810 qualify if it was less than $500? That's a good question. Or would the Pandora qualify if it ran Desktop Linux?

    That's not something I'm sure about yet. If I had to make a statement on that, I'd say pocketable is too small for the name netbook. Then you are getting into UMPC land – clamshell or not.

    But I think market conditions will keep that question from needing to be asked for a while. If you get much smaller than a 7 inch screen, you're either going to have to raise the price, or cut the power/features – and either choice prevents it from being called a netbook, in my mind anyway.

  • kilo

    I would like you to continue covering the Mini 12. I have been a regular reader of your site for 2 months now but did not have a chance to check out the current generation of netbooks until this past weekend (I have seen and used the original 7″ EEE PC and OLPC XO before).

    I went to Best Buy and checked out the MSI Wind and an EEE with an 8.9 inch screen and was astounded at how small the monitors are. They look a lot bigger when you are just looking at photos online. Then I picked up the Macbook Air, felt how it weighed the same as a netbook, and thought, “Why would I settle for a 10 inch screen if I could get a 12 or 13 inch screen for the same price?” The footprint or dimensions are of course larger than a typical netbook, but for my needs, weight matters more than volume.

    For that reason, I have been checking out used and refurbished ultraportables from 3 years ago (like the Thinkpad X41, Toshiba Portege R300, Latitude X1) that weigh as much as a netbook but have 12 or 13 inch screens. They go for the same price as a new netbook (or less) but I am reluctant to pull the trigger since I do appreciate the warranty on a new netbook and the guarantee of a new battery.

    I frequent this page regularly because my particular needs are very similar to those of the traditional definition of a netbook:

    1) 3 lbs or less
    2) $500 or less (the Mini 12 would definitely be stretching it, maybe would be cheaper at Christmas?)
    3) Preferably comes with a version of Linux

    Up till now, I was waiting for a new EEE 1000H or MSI Wind to hit $300 or less. But with the Mini 12 out now, maybe I should wait until that model gets a bit cheaper. Does anyone know of any other new computers that have 12 inch screens or higher, weigh 3 lbs or lower, and are in the same price range? That info would be super helpful!

  • Vince

    Excellent points – I wholeheartedly concur. Semantics aside, Brad – keep covering the new Dell!

  • http://www.chadwsmith.com/ Chad78

    Well, one of the biggest complaints against the entire netbook concept is that the keyboard is always going to be too small. There are some really good netbook keyboards out there now. I saw an HP Mini Note at a conference last week, and the keyboard is huge compared to my Eee 701. That being said, it's still not full sized.

    If you are getting down to what is a *good* netbook and what is a bad netbook – that's a different issue than what is a netbook and what isn't. By today's standards my groundbreaking 701 is a bad netbook. It has next-to-no storage. It has a tiny keyboard. The screen is small and low res, there is too much wasted bezel, no BlueTooth, only one SD card slot, no webcam…. But it's still a netbook.

    If you are asking if someone came out with a 4″ screen, 1Ghz CPU, clamshell device with a tiny thumb keyboard, but a full Desktop OS (something like the Pandora – openpandora.org – but with full desktop Linux, not some ARM-based porta-distro) would I consider that a netbook?

    I'm not sure how to express the minimum size. Basically it hasn't been an issue yet. Basically if it is small enough to fit in your pocket, then it isn't going to be a clamshell design. Or it's not going to run a full desktop OS. Or it's not going to cost less than $500. Like would the Fujitsu Lifebook U810 qualify if it was less than $500? That's a good question. Or would the Pandora qualify if it ran Desktop Linux?

    That's not something I'm sure about yet. If I had to make a statement on that, I'd say pocketable is too small for the name netbook. Then you are getting into UMPC land – clamshell or not.

    But I think market conditions will keep that question from needing to be asked for a while. If you get much smaller than a 7 inch screen, you're either going to have to raise the price, or cut the power/features – and either choice prevents it from being called a netbook, in my mind anyway.

  • http://www.talua.org Glen

    Remember how this all started? Computers for the developing world.

    I work in the developing world and am trying to get low-power computers for our college. It is difficult because they all have screens and keyboards that are too small for everyday use. This laptop is much better suited to our needs and I have been waiting for a long time for this release.

    But the market that everyone considers now is in the developed world. Maybe this computer won't be as popular in the US, Australia etc, but it could be popular in a different market, among those who will never blog on this site.

    I would really like to see actual power consumption in watts.

  • platon1

    It's a subnote spinoff…

    I welcome your coverage of such near relations since at buying decision time one needs to keep track of upper and lower bounds…

    I had an eepc 7g and replaced it with an
    aspireone to get a bit more room on the hd and provide an alternative that used xp without a problem and still would duel boot a linux if a fully working standard version turned up…

    I also use a nokia 800n for times when I want less..

    But I want to keep an eye on stronger and lighter net books and their slightly larger kin for the sake of future decisions and advice to others who might want slightly more than the aspireone sized netbooks…

    The attraction of Dell is that they support ubuntu which ties their netbooks into that large open source community. The eee's have a strong open source following but Asus has take a different tack in its relationship to opensource which makes their products less useful in the long run in my opinion.

  • Vince

    Excellent points – I wholeheartedly concur. Semantics aside, Brad – keep covering the new Dell!

  • kilo

    I take issue with criteria #1. A 10 inch screen size maximum is totally arbitrary That's just the level that manufacturers have pushed the limits of netbook-dom in the past few months. I think it also is biased toward people who want netbooks because they fit a certain way in their bag rather than those who are just looking for a light-weight computer.

    As for the price criteria, that is certain to change. The HP Mini-Note, under your criteria, would not qualify as a netbook as of a few months ago before the price was drop. Now it is competitive with the prices of other netbooks so it would qualify. The same thing is likely to happen with the Mini 12.

  • http://www.keyofgrey.com Sean

    Good information to know. I'm liking the Asus S101 you linked as well. Not sure if this matters, but the link for the Asus S101 goes to ABC.com instead.

  • http://www.chadwsmith.com/ Chad78

    The 10 inch screen is not totally arbitrary, and I've given a number of examples of why it is not arbitrary. If you don't have a size limit, then the term has no meaning. A netbook is all about size. You take away the size limit, what have you got? Underpowered cheap laptops? You might as well buy a used Dell from 2 years ago if you want a cheap 15 inch notebook.

    The HP Mini started below $500 – so it qualified. I don't get your point with that.

  • http://www.chadwsmith.com/ Chad78

    Um, the MacBook Air cost nowhere near $500! It starts at more than 3 times that! If all you want is a lightweight notebook – you're not looking for a netbook. If price doesn't matter, you don't need a netbook. There's a huge difference between a MacBook Air and a netbook. If you can't see that, you've got problems.

  • DougC3

    I can go along with this, but, for my own personal use, I think some touch typing should be doable with a netbook, which would place the eeePC 701 or 900 near the bottom of the size range.

  • John

    what ever happened to IBM's “butterfly” keyboard design? It seems to address the “small screen, small keyboard” conundrum pretty well. I never used one, but I hear they were pretty nice. Too complex?

  • DougC3

    One more thing. This is getting into hair splitting and semantics, but I sort of forgot about the RazorBook clones when we were discussing software and keyboard requirements above. Even though these devices do not offer a “complete” desktop or internet experience, I think they offer enough netbook functionality to be included in the netbook category. Representing the small end of the size range and capability range, they are also the most portable.

    Even though these devices have limited room for software in main memory, they can be very valuable specialized tools as well as perform many normal netbook functions such as email, word processing and other office functions, and limited (but sometimes very important) web surfing, with Linux or Windows CE. More and more businesses, banks, etc, are building mobile oriented web sites which are handled with ease by these smaller OS's.

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  • http://wayan.com/ Wayan

    Its out based on price and target market for me.

    This is not a computer priced for a developed world school budget or developing would businessman – not at $599 and up. I think your general $400 limit is a good one, with the occasional exception for $450 machines.

    This is targeted at the road warrior who wants to have a cheaper laptop for home or backup use, or the aspiring road warrior wanting something cool, but unable to afford the MacBook Air.

    Um, still makes me want one for the Mrs and I to use on the living room couch..

  • nielsandersen

    I think this is more for latte-sipping, but sort of broke college students who can't afford a macbook air or a voodoo envy. I think it pretty much mentioned youtube watchers and tweeters in the press release.

    the choice of the poulsbo chipset severely limits this device's usefulness for a road warrior IMHO.

    That being said I think it's still totally relevant for Brad to continue to cover this type of device on liliputing. The term netbook is still very much under development and I think it makes little sense to rein it in so narrowly already.

    I would ove a device like the wind in an 11 or 12 inch version with a screen resolution of 1280×800. To me that would be the ideal netbook. I think it would still be very portable (could easily be under 3 lbs) and cheap and would not need all the core 2 duo magic and optical drive hoopla of a full fledged laptop.

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  • Dale

    I won't buy a more expensive netbook for the simple reason that Microsoft is forcing Dell and other manufacturers to limit them so much to get XP. If Vista wasn't so bloated and heavy to run, we wouldn't be seeking to load XP instead.

    Microsoft was very concerned that people would buy these XP machines in preference over more expensive Vista machines that require much more performance just to run the bloated Vista OS. So they force manufacturers to limit machines like the mini-12 to 1 gig of Ram (and possibly the resolution as well).

  • Dale

    I won't buy a more expensive netbook for the simple reason that Microsoft is forcing Dell and other manufacturers to limit them so much to get XP. If Vista wasn't so bloated and heavy to run, we wouldn't be seeking to load XP instead.

    Microsoft was very concerned that people would buy these XP machines in preference over more expensive Vista machines that require much more performance just to run the bloated Vista OS. So they force manufacturers to limit machines like the mini-12 to 1 gig of Ram (and possibly the resolution as well).