Up close with Dell’s Eee PC killer

During a packed two day international media briefing at Dell’s headquarters in Austin Texas the single product which attracted the most attention was the company’s forthcoming mini-note.

We took the opportunity to very briefly get hands-on with a pre-production model of Dell’s mini-note and pepper the product managers with as many questions as we could. Not that we got as many answers: staffers refused to elaborate on the hardware specs target price or even the product’s name although ‘Inspiron Mini’ has been bandied about.

“I’m not going to talk about about the specification of the product” insisted Dell senior vice president Jeff Clarke during a briefing on the company’s directions in the notebook market. We suggested to Clarke that he wasn’t much fun; he smiled and said he gets that a lot “especially from the press”.

[#PAGE-BREAK#Processor and operating system#]

However given Dell’s relationships with Intel and Microsoft it’s almost a certainty that an Atom processor sits under the hood and Windows XP will be parked on the hard drive. Ubuntu may also appear on the OS checklist based on Dell’s desire to drive this as a first-time PC into emerging markets and its current support for Ubuntu as the Linux distro of choice for desktops and notebooks. But beyond that all speculation of RAM disk space and battery capacity remain educated guesses at best.

What we do know is that this Lilliputian laptop is due by August. “We’ll be launching later this summer” confirmed Alex Gruzen senior vice president for Dell’s Consumer Product Group. Unless Dell pulls off a July release Dell will find itself at arriving at the tail end of the current crowded mini-note pack.

“The reason we were later to the market is we’ve been working on getting the right keyboard” explains Gruzen who says the optimised keyboard is “unique to Dell”. “The keypad design accommodates as best as possible the best user experience for this class of products.”

It’s true that the alpha keys are all of a good size although others are noticeably slim and the function keys have been dropped altogether: the Fn modifier activates hardware-related shortcuts mapped onto the keyboard with no facility to call up the usual F1-F12 keys. “This was a trade off so the rest of the keys could be bigger” Gruzen says.

The model we saw has several subtle differences from the unit which Michael Dell was seen carrying it around during last week’s D6 conference. The labelling on the keyboard was more subdued which we preferred although the shortcuts activated by the ‘fn’ key were littered around the keyboard rather than being logically arranged along the top row of numeric keys as they were on Michael Dell’s own machine.

These shortcuts included dropping the unit into standby mode adjusting volume and screen brightness media playback turning wireless on and off toggling between the mini-note’s screen and an external screen (which connects to the device’s VGA output port) and calling up a display of remaining battery life.

[#PAGE-BREAK#Special features#]

The mini-note has a good selection of ports including three USB jacks (one more than this writer’s much larger and more expensive MacBook) VGA output and a memory card reader. A small placeholder sticker indicated a possible location of four status LEDs (for Wi-Fi Bluetooth caps lock and number lock) above the top-right corner of the keyboard.

The unit also shares some traits of the HP Mini-note 2133 and MSI Wind which like the Dell model are manufactured by OEM colossus Compal such as a wedge-shaped chassis and the screen (which we measured at 9 inches) being mounted directly on a hinge sitting on the lower on rear of chassis. It’s expected to be offered in a range of colours similar to the current Inspiron notebook line (the lid of the unit we saw was decked out in a glossy black compared to the bright red of Michael Dell’s machine).

Gruzen believes the mini-note will appeal to several types of customers: school students users in emerging markets seeking a low-cost notebook “where this may be their first PC” and “a travel companion for someone who just wants to quickly access the Web” for blogging social networking and a quick fix of news. “This is a 20-30 minute experience or however much time it takes to have a cup of coffee. You come to a hotspot check some information like stock prices upload some photos then shut it down and go”.

David Flynn is visiting Austin Texas as a guest of Dell.