HP strikes chord with Mini-Note PC

The computing giant looks to make its mark on the market for trendy mini notebooks by aiming narrowly.

Updated 6:15 AM PDT to reflect official announcement, as expected.

The biggest name in computing is joining the growing mini-notebook fray.

On Tuesday, Hewlett-Packard announced its new Mini-Note PC, due to begin shipping next week. You might recognize it as the HP Compaq 2133, which was the internal HP name back when early images were leaked online .

HP Mini-Note
HP's Mini-Note has an 8.9-inch screen and weighs in at 2.6 pounds. (Click image for photo gallery.) Hewlett-Packard

HP's entry into the trendy mini-notebook market is certainly the biggest name--so far. To get an idea of how popular these devices are of late, check out Amazon.com's list of 10 most-purchased PCs. Three of Amazon's top 10 notebooks are versions of the Eee PC from Asus. The rest is comprised of Sony Vaios and Apple MacBooks. That a traditional white box PC maker is in the same list as those two, which are pricier laptops with a legacy of good design is fairly amazing--but not entirely shocking. The Eee PC has been the talk of the gadget and tech world since its fall 2007 launch.

Now HP has just put its fairly large boot smack into the middle of Asus' territory. Will it be able to steal the Eee PC's thunder? It has a good chance. Though it's slightly bigger than the Eee PC, the Mini-Note also has big brand-name backing, and slightly more flair for design than the Eee.

Though HP is flaunting the low-end $499 version of the Mini-Note, don't be fooled. This is not a pricing competition with Asus. HP is the largest PC manufacturer in the world, and if it wanted to make the most inexpensive Windows machine out there, it likely could.

Instead, it chose a combination of mature features (Wi-Fi, USB, a Via processor) with some nice bonuses, like a spill-proof keyboard, a shock-resistant hard drive, and a sleek aluminum case.

What's more likely is this: It's probably the first major fork in the road for this category of computing. NPD is predicting that many more manufacturers will throw their hat into this same ring sometime this year (Acer is rumored to be next). The devices will probably break along the lines of an Eee PC-type device, and the Mini-Note: low-cost, Linux-based Web companions versus tiny, full-featured Windows notebooks, according to Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for The NPD Group.

Key features
The Mini-Note is nice-looking and boasts some appealing features: it weighs in at 2.6 pounds, has an 8.9-inch screen with 1280x768 resolution, and comes with an optional Webcam. But the difference here is it could, if need be, actually function as a primary computer: the option of SUSE Linux with a 64GB solid-state drive or Windows XP or Vista with up to 160GB of hard drive space.

HP Mini-Note
HP touts the Mini-Note as "smaller and lighter than many math or science books." Hewlett-Packard

The key difference for a lot of users, however, will be the Mini-Note's keyboard. It has essentially a full QWERTY keyboard, shrunk just 8 percent smaller than the traditional typing surface we're used to.

On low-cost laptops intended for students--like the XO from One Laptop Per Child, the Eee PC from Asus, and the Classmate PC from Intel--a major complaint and a key limitation is the twee keyboard, which poses a challenge for average adult-size fingers. That's why the keyboard--and not the screen, the battery, or the motherboard--is driving the form factor of the Mini-Note. HP says it built the entire machine around the custom keyboard.

Like the three aforementioned machines, the Mini-Note is not aimed at the mass market. It starts on the low end at $499 for the Linux, SSD version, but a fully configured device with Vista can top out at $1,200.

Who'll use it?
For its part, HP is looking at two very specific niches of users for the Mini-Note--primary and secondary school students, and business travelers. Though Asus also insisted it was targeting kids with the Eee PC, HP's brand name and more sophisticated configuration options give it much more room to actually reap a profit from these things, noted Rubin.

HP might ship the most computers in the world, but it also recognized an opportunity they could be missing out on, according to Dan Forlenza, vice president and general manager of HP's business notebooks division.

"We like (market) share, but we're more interested in profitable growth," Forlenza said in an interview.

Education is a niche in which HP doesn't lead. The Palo Alto, Calif., PC maker shipped just over a million computers to U.S.-based K through 12 students last year, which puts them in third place behind Dell, with 2.7 million PCs in schools, and Apple with 1.2 million units, according to IDC.

"The mass market (for these kinds of devices) isn't as wide as a lot of folks think because of their limited functionality," said Richard Shim, PC analyst for IDC. Though the feature set of small notebooks like the Mini-Note and its ilk will expand in the coming years, its best feature--the price--will lose its shine as mainstream notebook prices also continue to fall.

Notably, HP isn't trying to market this as a UMPC-like device that could work for everyone. It's a wise move that could spare the Mini-Note PC from the same fate as HP's previous attempts at this category (the Journada, the OmniBook), according to Shim. "We all have drawers full of handhelds that can attest to that. It doesn't seem like there's a lot of wiggle room in the market for this type of product from a mass-market standpoint."

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About the author

Erica Ogg is a CNET News reporter who covers Apple, HP, Dell, and other PC makers, as well as the consumer electronics industry. She's also one of the hosts of CNET News' Daily Podcast. In her non-work life, she's a history geek, a loyal Dodgers fan, and a mac-and-cheese connoisseur.

 

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