Laptops

Hands on With HP's Mini-Note Netbook

Hewlett-Packard's 2133 Mini-Note may end up as the premium choice among the entire mini-laptop, or netbook, category of devices announced so far.

And people interested in the device will pay for it. HP's Mini-Note is the most expensive netbook I've tested so far at NT$25,900 (US$844) in Taiwan for the premium model running on Microsoft Windows Vista Business.

For a lot less money, you can get a much less powerful Mini-Note. Prices start at US$499 for a Mini-Note running on SuSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 from Novell, a 3-cell lithium ion battery and a 4G byte flash memory module for storage. And there are rival netbooks even less expensive than the cheapest Mini-Note, such as Acer's Aspire one, which I found for NT$13,500 (US$440) at one store in Taipei.

HP offers a variety of Mini-Note models at different prices and software. In Taipei, one with SuSE Linux and a 120G-byte HDD (hard disk drive) sells for NT$17,900. The company also offers Mini-Notes with Windows Vista Home Basic OS, one with Windows XP available only in China, and FreeDOS.

But this is a situation where you really get what you pay for.

The Mini-Note is made of aluminum and is the most professional looking netbook I've seen so far, a mini-business laptop that runs well. It does a lot of the things a netbook should do well, for a mobile device aimed at Internet surfers.

The sturdy build of the Mini-Note will help limit damage from drops, which are bound to happen more often with a mobile device than one that sits on a desktop all day.

The aluminum finish doesn't add significant weight either, with laptops in HP's Mini-Note line-up ranging between 1.2-kilograms (2.6 lbs) to nearly 2-kilograms for the top end model with a 6-cell lithium ion battery that I tested. The small device is 255-millimeters by 165mm and 33mm thick.

The difference in the aluminum build compared to other netbooks such as the Eee PC by Asustek Computer of Taiwan, is striking. Most netbooks launched so far appear to use light plastic materials as their outer covering, a big difference from the Mini-Note in terms of feel.

The quality of the 8.9-inch screens on the Mini-Notes are excellent, with 1280 by 768 pixel resolution. The nice screen was complemented by decent speakers on either side. It's the kind of device you could watch a movie on.

The Mini-Note I tested was running on a 1.6GHz C7 M ULV microprocessor from Via Technologies, had 2G bytes of DRAM, a 160G byte HDD (hard disk drive), could connect to the Internet via an Ethernet port or wirelessly on WiFi 802.11a/b/g.

It also had a Web cam and Bluetooth 2.0, the wireless technology for file transfers and other uses.

Boot-up time is one area the Mini-Note failed to match its rivals. The Vista-based netbook took over 60 seconds to boot-up, the slowest of all the devices I've tested so far. The Aspire one running on a Linpus Linux Lite OS, by contrast, booted-up in just 12 seconds.

Other applications also seemed to take more time to boot up and run. I came away from the trial unimpressed with the idea of using Windows Vista for netbooks. Components such as the microprocessors in netbooks are far less powerful than on a regular laptop or desktop. On netbooks I've tried with Linux OSs or Windows XP, software has been generally faster and smoother.

The Mini-Note makes up for that fault in other areas.

The big keyboard on the Mini-Note was among the nicest I've used. HP shrank the keyboard to 92 percent of normal laptop size but kept some of the main features that make typing easy, such as space between keys so your fingers know when they've left one key to strike another.

I was able to type comfortably without mistakes on its keyboard.

Some of the keyboards I've used on rival netbooks haven't worked out so well, and it's not rocket science. Intel's ClassMate PC, designed to be as cheap as possible for distribution to school kids in developing countries, boasts one of the best downsized keyboards I've used. The secret to a good keyboard design seems to be raised keys, instead of flat keys, and space between keys. That's all the ClassMate keyboard does and it's a lot smaller than most keyboards used on netbooks.

Other things make typing easier as well, for those who plan to use it for a lot of e-mails, messaging or writing.

The 6-cell batteries on these devices makes typing easier by elevating the keyboard and screen. The trade-off is that the 3-cell batteries make the device flatter, and are lighter.

Raising my hands a bit above the keyboard, as opposed to resting my palms or wrists on the space in front of the keyboard as I do on my regular laptop (IBM ThinkPad), also helps make typing easier on a netbook. But it gets tiring.

HP product manager Phil Devlin also points out that the Mini-Note's keyboard is spill-resistant, another nice feature for a mobile device likely to find its way into a coffee shop. However, spill-resistant, he said, does not mean spill-proof.

HP describes the Mini-Note as "Small but Mighty" on its Web site, and I couldn't agree more. It's stylish, sturdy and easy to type on.

But it's one device where the major drawbacks, the heavy price tag and slow boot up and run time with Vista really hurt. Netbooks should be inexpensive and run fast, and some rivals to the Mini-Note that use XP or Linux OSs are better at that.

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