The Netbook wars have heated up, with PC makers adding upscale features such as larger HD displays and faster low-voltage CPUs to systems, in an effort for push prices up past the usual $299-$399 range.
We've seen HD Netbooks from Sony and others, usually with prices closer to $599, so we're excited to see HP's new Mini 311 packing in an 11.6-inch, 1,366x768 screen, as well as Nvidia's Ion graphics chip, all starting at $399. You're still stuck with the same Intel Atom N270 CPU, 1GB of RAM, and Windows XP, but that's typical for a $399 Netbook. Our review unit added the slightly faster Atom N280 CPU, an optional white lid design, 802.11n Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth, for a total of $494.
The real payoff is in the Nvidia Ion, which, while not a true discrete GPU, offers enough power to play HD video files smoothly (a sticking point for Netbooks), as well as do some basic gaming. For nongraphics tasks, it won't affect performance much (and GPU support for Flash video, such as Hulu, is still a work in progress), but it does solve some of the frustrations associated with Netbooks, without driving up the price.
As much as the Mini 311 may be our new go-to Netbook, we'd be hard-pressed to suggest buying one of these right now, when Windows 7 comes out at the end of October. With Netbooks exempt from Microsoft's , it makes more sense to wait a few weeks and get the new OS out of the box (which should also make it possible to get past the artificial 1GB of RAM limit on XP-powered Netbooks).
|Price as reviewed / Starting price||$494 / $399|
|Processor||1.6GHz Intel Atom N270|
|Memory||1GB, 1066MHz DDR2|
|Hard drive||160GB 5,400rpm|
|Graphics||Nvidia Ion (integrated)|
|Operating System||Windows XP|
|Dimensions (WD)||11.4 inches wide by 8 inches deep|
|Screen size (diagonal)||11.6 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||3.3 / 4.1 pounds|
With a high-resolution screen and better graphics packed into a standard-price Netbook, you'd be right to expect a little cost-cutting somewhere else. The Mini 311 is far from the flashiest-looking laptop out there, even among low-cost Netbooks. Most of the chassis is a dull, generic, gray plastic, with either a black or a white lid with a subtle swirl pattern. The white version, which we had, costs an extra $20 for no particularly good reason, and the very faint gray swirls on it actually made it look a bit dingy from a distance. On the plus side, the system itself feels sturdy enough, and there was no flex in the lid when we pulled it open and shut.
The keys on the keyboard have the same slightly scalloped shape and wide faces that we've seen on HP's other Netbooks, such as the Mini 110. It's a design we approve of, but in this particular case, the keys themselves felt a little loose and wiggly when typing. Likewise, the touch pad did not impress. Made of the same material as the rest of the wrist rest, it offered too much resistance to our fingers. There's a legitimate reason most laptop touch pads have a distinct, slick surface. We also had to go into the control panel to crank up the pointer speed--perhaps the default settings were created with an older 1,024x600 Netbook in mind. Two sliverlike mouse buttons under the touch pad also felt cheap and insubstantial.
The 11.6-inch wide-screen LED display is one of the Mini 311's highlights, with a 1,366x768 native resolution. We've seen this on a handful of other Netbooks, from the Sony Vaio W to the Asus Eee PC 1101. It's still very readable, and provides enough screen real estate that going back to a lower-resolution Netbook display feels positively claustrophobic in comparison. While the screen was glossy, we were actually more distracted by the even glossier black plastic screen bezel.
|HP Mini 311||Average for category [Netbook]|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, single headphone/microphone jack||headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||3 USB 2.0, SD card reader||2 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11g Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
The HP Mini 311 includes a standard set of connections for a $399 Netbook (entry-level models under $300 may be tempted to drop one of the USB ports or HDMI output). Still, extras such as 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth will cost extra. While not as customizable as Dell's Netbook line (curiously also named "Mini"), there are options for the CPU, networking, and mobile broadband.
At tasks which are not graphics-intensive, the Intel Atom N280 CPU performed as expected, roughly matching other Netbooks. As always, we consider Atom-powered systems to be fine for basic tasks such as Web surfing, e-mail, and office tasks, and even basic Photoshop work--as long as your expectations are kept realistic.
Putting the Nvidia Ion to the test, we did the unthinkable, loading up a handful of full-fledged PC games on a Netbook. Most Netbooks can barely handle casual games such as Plants vs. Zombies, to say nothing of full 3D graphics. Despite the hype, this is definitely not going to be your main PC gaming rig, but Unreal Tournament still managed to get 23.2 frames per second at 800x600, which is borderline acceptable. Tweaking the settings could likely squeeze a little more out of that game. We also installed Call of Duty 4, and during a particularly intensive firefight sequence, we ran into some stuttering at the same 800x600 resolution, but overall found it to be fairly playable (although your definition of playable may vary).
The major triumph for Netbooks is still to be useful all-around devices, and as the Nvidia Ion shares much of its DNA with the GeForce 9400 graphics found in the 13-inch MacBook (which is excellent for an integrated graphics solution), the real bottleneck to achieving this goal is the 1GB of RAM and the single-core Atom CPU. We'd be very interested in seeing how the same gaming tests run under Windows 7 with double the RAM.
We also fully expect to see road warriors hacking away at World of Warcraft on the HP Mini 311 at airport departure gates and in coffee shops. In fact, HP should just paint a giant WoW logo on the back of this thing and sell it as a $400 portable Warcraft machine.
Video playback was excellent, and our test 720p WMV file ran flawlessly--something no other Netbook has been able to do. Web-based video is a bit of a different story, but an updated version of Flash (reportedly available in November) will let streaming Web video take advantage of the GPU. For right now, Hulu on-demand content ran decently as-is, but not radically better than other Netbooks.