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Q + A: Dell Shares Plans for Inspiron Mini 12


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The last time we caught up with Dell senior product manager John New in early September, the world’s No. 2 PC manufacturer was busy launching the Inspiron Mini 9. Nearly two months later, Dell isn’t jumping on the 10-inch bandwagon with ASUS, HP, Lenovo, and MSI. The company stands alone as the only one bold enough to venture into the 12-inch category. Yes, Dell is sticking to its marketing guns that the Mini 12, like the Mini 9, is a companion to a primary computer. But there’s no question that this netbook will be big enough, if not powerful enough, for some buyers to think twice about splurging for a $1,500 or $2,000 ultraportable. We spoke with New about the Mini 12’s target audience, mobile broadband options, and whether Dell believes it is blurring the line between netbooks and notebooks.

How is Dell differentiating the Dell Inspiron Mini 12 from the Mini 9?
With the Mini 9 the keyboard and screen were pretty small. The Inspiron Mini 12 gives a closer to full size keyboard, and a 12.1-inch display with a nice 1280 x 800 resolution. We are also able to include a hard drive on this – a 40, 60, 80 GB 1.2-inch, 4,200 RPM hard drive. So large screen, more comfortable keyboard and more local storage, which gives people more of an autonomous operation. But we still think this type of product is best when connected to the Internet. It also a different set of Intel Atom processors.

So you’re not using the typical Atom N270 processor?
Here we are using a 1.3 or 1.6 Intel Atom Z520 or Z530. These are the next generation Atom processor, they have the same clock speed but they are more energy efficient. We will have processor options on this one, while on the Mini 9 we just have the 1.6-GHz N270.

What do you expect the battery life to be with this processor?
We will offer a 3-cell battery standard, but will make a 6-cell battery available. The 6-cell will be $79 and should get around 6 hours of operation. We are seeing around 3 hours on the 3-cell.

Will you offer the same operating system choices as you do with the Mini 9?
At launch the Mini 12 will be available only with Windows Vista. And we expect before the end of the year to have the Linux and XP variants available.

So Microsoft is easing up on the restriction of using Windows XP screens larger than 10 inches?

They have actually been flexible with us. The screen size limits have been adjusted, and the 12.1-inch size is now allowable for XP. But frankly, I have Vista running on mine and it performs quite well.

Could you share how the Linux version of your Mini 9 has been doing?

We are relatively new to it and we have been very clear about the capabilities of the system and the operating system. For us it is much more about a netbook can and cannot do.

ASUS has started putting a Linux skin over Windows XP. Does that seem like something you would do in this category?

We have dabbled in that a bit with the Studio line with the Dell dock and in this category stay tuned. We think making Windows friendly to those that are unfamiliar with it is an opportunity.

When you launched the Mini 9 there was some talk about mobile broadband partnerships. Will the Mini 12 also have mobile broadband connectivity options?
When we launched the Mini 9 there were lots of teardowns that showed the wireless WAN card on the motherboard. This category is well suited for that technology, but we are not announcing that support at this time. We want people to know you can’t just go out and pop in a SIM card and expect it to work. It is not a user serviceable addition, unless you go with a USB mobile broadband card. It does not have the internal antennas for plug and play at this point.

What about Mobile WiMax?

It really is a limited service right now. It will be another great option for users, and we aren’t asleep at the wheel. When it becomes available in a broader sense we will be joining the effort. I am excited about its potential, and once it proliferates it will be a cool option for users.

Do you think that with the Mini 12 the crossover between netbooks and traditional notebooks has begun?

The experience is a good one when you are watching a DVD, with the optional external DVD/multi-drive drive, on the Mini 12. But it you were trying to rip a DVD with this system it would take a very long time. There is still going to be that major separation between performance with this system and traditional, full-function notebooks. The Mini 12 isn’t going to perform at the same level as a a dual-core processor, with 3GB of RAM and a 5,400 rpm hard drive, and we are trying to make that clear to customers.

ASUS and others have said that they won’t go down the 12-inch netbook road for fear of cannibalizing other notebooks. What’s your response to that?
My goal is to make sure that people considering this type of product know what its good at and what its not good at. If you are the user that spends a lot of the time in the Web browser, using Web mail, and updating Twitter this is an outstanding platform for a great value. But if you are going to plan on using a system like this for all your school needs I think you are going to bump up against performance walls. That is where having the flexibility of having a full performance system comes in, where you are running real-time virus scanning and running multiple programs.

How big do you think the market for netbooks can become?

We see it as an interesting category to get in. We are going to continue investing in the category and I don’t think its going to go away. To that end, I think having these options in these price bands helps open up computing to those who couldn’t have necessarily afforded it.

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