At a Glance
- An honest-to-God discrete GPU in a netbook
- Reasonable power for the price
- Glossy screen a little tough for outdoor use
While still in testing, the first Ion netbook so far delivers on its promise: The first truly affordable netbook that can play games and HD video has arrived.
Commuting to work this morning, I was playing Left 4 Dead on HP’s Mini 311-1000NR–that’s right, on a netbook. Few netbooks are up to that task, and HP is first to market with an nVidia Ion-based portable. The 3.22-pound, 11.4-by-8.0-by-1.2-inch Mini 311-1000NR has a reasonable amount of power and a $399 asking price. (Our review unit, as configured, sells for $450 as of October 5, 2009.)
What’s Ion? If you’ve somehow missed the reams of stories I’ve already written about the Ion platform, here’s the executive summary: For netbooks or nettops, it marries an Intel Atom CPU (in this case, the 1.66GHz N280) to an nVidia Ion LE GPU, yielding more-powerful, affordable machines that can output high-def video and even allow you to play some games.
Also fueling this machine are 1GB of RAM and a 160GB 5400-rpm hard drive–standard-issue netbook guts. In basic PC WorldBench 6 tests, it earns a 37 — fairly average and expected. What we found in our standard 3D gaming tests wasn’t quite as thrilling as originally hoped: 16 frames per second in Enemy Territory: Quake Wars at 1024 by 768 pixels (at normal settings).
Gaming on a netbook is one of the big bullet-point promises of the Ion platform–but don’t expect to run Crysis Warhead. I tried: After a lengthy load time, it was a start-and-stop experience at 800 by 600 pixels with everything but the monitor turned off. Though I can say that I “played” the game, but it isn’t exactly “playable.” I had much better luck with Left 4 Dead and with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. At the same resolution–with visual effects switched to low setting–both were slightly jerky (frame rates bounced along in the 20s), but playable. For laughs, I tried running the ridiculous Resident Evil 5 Benchmark that challenged the Core i7; at 1280 by 720 pixels, the Mini 311-1000NR managed 7.7 frames per second. (A $4000 desktop replacement laptop gets ten times that performance–not a huge surprise there.)
AMD’s tweener-class Neo CPU, which came on board the category-defying HP Pavilion dv2 (a model that earned a score of 45 on WorldBench 6). And now the HP Pavilion dm3, due to replace the dv2, is just around the corner…so those could be slightly pricier alternatives. HP spokespeople say that they expect the Mini 311-1000NR to deliver roughly 5 hours of battery life. Make that 6 hours, 5 minutes — according to our tests. Yep, it’s always nice to see when companies underpromise and overdeliver.
Like the Acer Aspire One 751h, the Mini 311-1000NR has a relatively large 11.6-inch screen as netbooks go. The LED BrightView display, at 1366 by 768 pixels (with a 16:9 aspect ratio), looks fairly sharp despite some glare problems when used outdoors in direct sunlight. Once I settled into a shady spot, though, I threw all sorts of test 720p content at the netbook, and it ran clean, with maybe one stutter-step moment out of all the video I installed on the machine’s hard drive. The Mini 311-1000NR runs Hulu at full-screen as well. Just don’t hold your breath for HD streaming video (unless maybe you can wait a little longer for a Flash update to support GPU acceleration). A quick launcher from the tool tray provides access to a number of video-calibrating options–from color and brightness to bit-depth and resolution–with minimal on-screen digging.
HP’s take on the platform is fairly stylish–no surprise considering that the Mini (and the Pavilion, for that matter) sports curved lines and interesting patterns on a glossy finish. In this case, the Mini 311-1000NR comes with a white or black swirled lid that’ll hypnotize you.
The keyboard reminds me of the dv2’s, just shrunken down a little bit. HP spokespeople say that the Mini 311-1000NR’s keyboard is 92 percent of full size. I’ve seen the dips in the buttons termed “scalloped keys,” and the little lips do make them a bit easier to type on. Still, if HP had let the keys spread closer to the sides of the machine, the company might have been able to enlarge the buttons to 93 or even 94 percent of full size. And I wouldn’t have complained.
The touchpad and button placement along the bottom of the netbook toes the line–and it’s a world better than on previous Mini models, which stupidly dropped the left and right buttons in flanking positions on either side of the touch area. The left and right buttons on the Mini 311-1000NR feel firm though a little plasticky. One thing that I did miss was the little kill switch for turning off the touchpad. In its absence, I often found myself accidentally grazing the touchpad or buttons and inadvertently moving my cursor.
The I/O ports lining the box are in line with what you’d expect on a netbooks: three USB ports, a 10/100 ethernet jack, VGA out, 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, and a Webcam. Upgrade options include 802.11n, Bluetooth, and 3G WWAN broadband.
Among the minor tweaks that I approve of are a headphone out/microphone combo jack (compatible with the four-conductor headsets used in some cell phones), HDMI-out (taking advantage of the GPU, obviously), and a five-in-one flash card reader that can handle SD/MMC, Memory Stick/Pro and XD picture cards (most netbooks handle only SD/MMC cards).
So at this point I see a fairly good deal jammed into a machine that actually looks like a fairly good deal. Meanwhile, where is the Lenovo IdeaPad S12 with the Ion under the hood? Lenovo was the first company to announce support for the chipset, but we’re still waiting on its first product. If you’ve resisted the urge to buy a netbook until something with a little more oomph came along, this could be your machine.