Asus’ Eee PC has defined the budget subnotebook genre, serving up relatively low-end hardware that’s just fast enough in an ultraportable form factor with an affordable price tag. It’s a simple formula, really, and one that made the Eee PC an instant hit despite its small, low-resolution screen and a Lilliputian keyboard that really only works if you have the diminutive digits of a 12-year-old. Given the Eee PC’s instant popularity, it’s clear some folks are willing to live with some compromises to get a nice price on a teeny laptop. However, those limitations have surely turned off plenty of potential customers who were hoping for a budget subnotebook that was perhaps a little more, er, notebook-like.
If you’re looking for more screen real estate and room to type than the Eee PC provides, HP’s Mini-Note may be right up your alley. One of the first would-be Eee PC killers, the Mini-Note directly challenges the Eee’s weaknesses with a 92%-of-full-size keyboard and an 8.9″ display with an impressive 1280×800 WXGA resolution. The system also features and ExpressCard slot for broadband Wi-Fi users and support for standard 2.5″ mobile drives, should you require more than just a few gigabytes of storage capacity. Throw in a brushed aluminum chassis that would make Apple fans swoon and the sort of configuration flexibility you’d expect from HP, and the Mini-Note’s potential grows.
Targeted squarely at students, the Mini-Note looks on paper to be a more reasonable compromise than the infectious Eee PCone suitable for a much wider range of computing tasks. But does it work in the real world? Read on for our in-depth look at HP’s first budget subnotebook PC.
A subnotebook with style
Looking at the first wave of budget subnotebooks to hit the market, it’s clear aesthetic appeal wasn’t a priority for most manufacturers. The Mini-Note, however, has a definite sense of style. Rather than encasing the system in pedestrian plastics, HP splurged on a brushed aluminum shell that has understated but undeniable industrial sex appeal. Yeah, I’m a sucker for anything wrapped in brushed aluminum. Or bacon. But I digress.
Of course, there’s more to the Mini-Note’s curb appeal than the mere presence of brushed metal. The overall design is very sleek, channeling some of the best elements of PowerBook chic. The Mini-Note feels as solid as it looks, too. A magnesium alloy frame keeps the chassis virtually flex-free, and build quality appears to be excellent. Only time will validate the Mini-Note’s durability, but based on our initial impressions, the system should be able to handle the abusive rigors of student life.
The small size of subnotebook systems forces manufacturers to get creative when it comes to placing various system components. On the Mini-Note, for example, HP squeezes the power buttonwhich is really more of a spring-loaded slider than an actual buttononto the front edge of the system. A second slider over on the right-hand side of the front edge controls the system’s integrated Wi-Fi and optional Bluetooth 2.0 capabilities, allowing users to toggle wireless networking with the flick of a switch.
Speaking of size, HP says the Mini-Note measures 10″ wide, 6.5″ deep, and as little as 1.1″ thick (255 mm x 165 mm x 27 mm if you’re not interested in multiples of the king’s forearm). According to our trusty tape measure, however, the Mini-Note actually measures 10.3″ wide, making it a good inch and a half wider than the Eee PC. The Mini-Note gets close to 1.26″ thick at its beefiest point, and that’s before you take into account the additional girth of our test system’s optional 6-cell battery, which adds another 0.8″ or so.
In addition to being slightly larger than the Eee PC, the Mini-Note is also a little heavier. In its lightest configuration, with a 3-cell battery and solid-state drive, the Mini-Note tips the scales at 2.8 lbs (1.27 kg)nearly three-quarters of a pound more than the two-pound (0.92 kg) Eee PC. That’s a significant difference as a percentage of total system weight, but it doesn’t feel like nearly that big of a handicap in the real world, where volume seems to matter more than weight. I certainly don’t mind carrying around an extra pound if it’s well spent, and Mini-Note has enough advantages over the Eee PC to make the additional weight worthwhile.
The two advantages that really define the Mini-Note are revealed when you crack the system open, exposing its screen and keyboard in all their glory. We’ll start with the keyboard because it’s the reason I’m able to write this review comfortably reclined on the couch rather than holed up in my office. Unlike the Eee PC, whose keyboard is much too small for speedy typing unless you have tiny, child-like hands, the Mini-Note serves up a proper keyboard that just about anyone should be able to use comfortably.
HP says the Mini-Note’s keyboard is 92% the size of the real thing, and after hours and hours of typing, I can safely say that’s close enough. There’s plenty of room for even my meaty, Neanderthal mitts to bang away at nearly 100 words per minute with no more typos or accidental keystrokes than I encounter on a full-sized keyboard. To be fair, however, the 1 key is a little narrower than the others. That takes some getting used to, but only because you’re otherwise under the impression that a full-sized keyboard sits at your fingertips.
If only the Mini-Note’s trackpad gave the impression of using a real, er, trackpad. The trackpad is actually a decent size and it has a generous vertical scrolling area, but its surface is a little tackier than I’m used to, requiring a gentle touch for accurate tracking. More annoying is HP’s decision to put the mouse buttons on either side of the trackpad rather than below it. Left-clicking requires two hands, and right-clicking is a royal pain, making me wish HP had opted for a simple “eraser head” track stick on the keyboard that would have left plenty of room for mouse buttons below.
Putting the Mini-Note side-by-side with the Eee PC makes the difference in keyboard size readily apparent, and it’s even more glaring if we zoom in on individual keys. There’s more to the Mini-Note’s keyboard than its comparatively jumbo-sized keys, though. Those keys also have an excellent, positive feel; each keystroke ends with a satisfying click after what feels like just the right amount of travel. Keyboard feel is something that I’m particularly picky about as a writer, and it really is a joy to bang away on the Mini-Note. Heck, I prefer its keyboard to those on most full-sized laptops I’ve used.
And there’s more. HP says the keyboard is spill-proof design that shields internal components from potentially conductive or damaging liquids. That’s exactly the sort of feature that should resonate with students powered by caffeinated (or other adult) beverages. Don’t think you can douse the system with a full pint or a cup of coffee, though; HP says the keyboard can only handle a couple of ounces of liquid.
In order to fully appreciate the Mini-Note’s keyboard, you really have to spend some time typing with it. The system’s screen, however, is instantly impressive. Perched under a VGA webcam and between two thin bezel speakers lies an 8.9″ panel with a generous 1280×800 display resolution. Those who have been following the budget subnotebook space will note that the new Eee PC 900 series also features an 8.9″ screen. However, that panel’s resolution is only 1024×600, which yields 40% fewer pixels than the Mini-Note’s WXGA display. Those with poor eyesight may find Mini-Note screen’s higher DPI a little challenging, but my far-from-perfect eyes didn’t have problems until very late at night after I’d been wearing my contact lenses for more than 16 or so hours.
I crave screen real estate, so tolerating a little 2AM squinting for substantially more pixels is a trade-off I’ll gladly make. The higher screen resolution allows the Mini-Note to play nicely with a much wider range of applications and web sites, and it makes the system a better Remote Desktop Connection client, too.
Picture quality is another important consideration, and the Mini-Note delivers plenty of brightness with sharp contrast and great colors for such a small screen. There’s a little ghosting, which is to be expected from this class of display, but viewing angles are surprisingly good.
The Mini-Note’s LCD should be durable, too, thanks to HP’s use of an “innovative treatment” to give the screen a scratch-resistant coating. Innovative, in this case, appears to mean reflectivemore reflective than most transreflective coatings I’ve seen on laptop screens. Unless you’re using the system in virtual darkness, you pretty much have to crank the display brightness up all the way to avoid staring at a faint reflection of yourself in the screen. The reflective coating definitely doesn’t deal well with the sort of bright overhead lighting I remember from my university days, although fortunately for students, black text on a white background seems to be the most immune to annoying reflections.
Around the left side of the Mini-Note are one of the system’s two USB ports and its microphone and headphone jacks, which are fed by an Analog Devices HD audio codec. A VGA output is also provided, should you wish to hook the system up to a larger display.
From this angle, we can also see the Mini-Note’s exhaust port, which features two layers of venting artfully cut from the system’s aluminum skin. I can’t help but think that a single vent layer would have been sufficient here, especially since it would be likely to allow for greater airflow. As it stands, the Mini-Note’s fan seems to be on at all times, regardless of system load. At least the fan is quiet; it’s only barely audible if you have the system sitting on your lap, although it does get louder when the system is plugged in and charging.
Spinning the Mini-Note to the right reveals another USB port, the system’s power connector, and a Gigabit Ethernet jack fed by a Broadcom networking chip. Interestingly, HP cautions that wired networking might not be fully up to speed due to the poor cache performance of the system’s VIA C7 processor. In our own testing, we measured GigE throughput at a paltry 127Mbps (with 100% CPU utilization to boot), which isn’t much of an improvement over plain old 10/100 Fast Ethernet.
The right-hand side of the Mini-Note houses the system’s SD and ExpressCard/54 expansion slots, as well. The former is perfect for anyone looking to offload pictures from a digital camera (budget subnotebooks with plenty of storage capacity make particularly good travel companions), while the latter is compatible with cellular broadband cards that are all but essential for road warriors. Of course, the Mini-Note has its own integrated Wi-Fi capability, too. Base configurations include a Broadcom 802.11b/g wireless module, and users can upgrade to an a/b/g unit if they please.
There isn’t much to see at the rear of the system apart from the battery. Pictured above is the optional 6-cell unit, which is rated for 55 watt-hours and 4.5 hours of run time. Standard Mini-Note configurations come with a three-cell, 28-watt-hour battery that HP says will keep the system running for 2.5 hours.
The presence of a 6-cell battery option is great for users who need longer run-time, but because of how the screen hinges back behind the system, the larger battery is forced to poke out beneath the case. This arrangement puts the keyboard on a slant, which is great if that’s how you prefer to type, but not so hot if you like your keyboard to sit flat. Having the battery sticking out of the bottom also makes it more difficult to slide the Mini-Note into a notebook sleeve or bag.
If you’re wondering just how much charge your Mini-Note battery has, you can check its status without even booting the system. Like many full-sized laptops (and unlike the Eee PC, we might add), the Mini-Note’s battery has a four-light indicator that quickly conveys the charge level.
Speaking of charging, the Mini-Note comes with a 65W power adapter. The adapter is much smaller than the power brick for my 14″ notebook, but it is larger than the diminutive plug Asus includes with the Eee PC. At least the Mini-Note’s power plug can be inserted into a power bar without obscuring other outlets. The same can’t be said for the Eee PC’s power adapter.
Flipping the Mini-Note onto its back reveals, well, very little. There are a couple of vents on either side of the system’s underside, but little else of interest. Surprisingly, there isn’t a screw in sight.
For a peek up the Mini-Note’s skirt, we first have to remove the battery to expose three screws that sit along the back edge. Removing these screws pops off the keyboard, providing access to the system’s guts.
In the top, right-hand corner we can see a standard 2.5″ mobile drive bay. This bay houses a 4GB solid-state flash drive with the $499 Linux-based Mini-Note configuration, but it’s otherwise occupied by a traditional hard drive. Users can choose between 120 and 160GB models at 5,400RPM or a speedy 7,200-RPM drive with a 120GB capacity. You’re also free to upgrade the drive on your own, giving the Mini-Note considerably more flexibility on the storage front than the Eee PC.
Speaking of flexibility, the Mini-Note can be configured with up to 2GB of DDR2-667 memory. The system features a single SO-DIMM slot, and users are free to swap in their own modules. Changing the memory or hard drive won’t void the warranty, either.
HP manages to keep the Mini-Note cool with just a single fan, which isn’t terribly surprising considering this laptop uses an ultra-low-voltage VIA C7 processor and Chrome 9 integrated graphics. The C7 runs on an 800MHz front-side bus and features 128KB of L2 cache, while the Chrome 9 IGP offers DirectX 9 support and MPEG2 (but not MPEG4) decode acceleration. 1.2 and 1.6GHz CPUs are available for users who pony up for Windows-based configurations. Those who opt for a Linux config can only choose between 1.0 and 1.2GHz processors.
With VIA’s own Nano processor just over the horizon and Intel’s Atom tipped for the next Eee PC, among other contenders, the Mini-Note’s C7 definitely looks a little weak. HP wanted to make the Mini-Note available to consumers as soon as possible, though, and the system has been selling since April. Atom-based notebooks aren’t expected to be available until later this summer, with those based on Isaiah to follow even later. Naturally, HP is eyeing both processors for a possible Mini-Note refresh.
Life with the Mini-Note
The Mini-Note’s extensive configuration options are unique among the current crop of budget subnotebooks. $499 gets you the base model with SuSE Linux, a 1GHz CPU, 512MB of memory, a 4GB solid-state drive, and 802.11b/g Wi-Fi. $50 will upgrade that system to a gig of memory, a 1.2GHz processor, and a 120GB 5,400-RPM hard drive. Add another $50, and you get a copy of Vista Home Basic and 802.11a/b/g wireless.
The latter two configs are probably the best values in the Mini-Note lineup, because prices climb pretty steeply from there. It’ll cost you over $700 to get an XP-based configuration, because that operating system is only available as a downgrade from Vista Business. With all the bells and whistles, including 2GB of memory, a 1.6GHz CPU, 7,200-RPM hard drive, 6-cell battery, and Bluetooth, expect to spend over $800.
The bottom end of the Mini-Note range stays within budget subnotebook territory, but the top configurations are a little pricey for our tastes. We’re just not sure there’s a point to loading up on memory and splurging on a faster hard drive with just a lowly C7 under the hood. HP sent us its most expensive Mini-Note model for testing, and in retrospect, we should have explicitly requested one of the lower-end configs.
So we can’t tell you how some of the more reasonably priced Mini-Note variants perform, but I can say that the top model handles Vista about as well as the Eee PC deals with Windows XP. The system doesn’t move with much sense of urgency, but then neither does the Eeewith either Windows or Linux.
I really didn’t know what kind of performance to expect from the Mini-Note, and things didn’t get off to a good start. Vista takes nearly a minute and a half to boot, during which the start-up sound stutters horribly, presumably because the C7 is overwhelmed by the task of simply loading the operating system. However, once within Windows, performance is acceptable. Sluggish, but acceptable. CPU utilization tends to jump around quite a bit, particularly when scrolling through web sites, but browsing with multiple tabs isn’t a problem. Video playback is smooth, too, at least with the sort of DivX videos common on BitTorrent sites. Don’t bother with high-definition content, though; CPU utilization with standard-definition video already hovers between 60 and 80%.
The only real problem with the Mini-Note’s performance is that, with a proper keyboard and a fairly high-resolution screen, you get lulled into thinking that you’re using a real laptop. Fire up Photoshop, video editing software, or even an encoding app, and you’ll quickly realize that just isn’t the case. The Mini-Note is really only fast enough for basic tasks like word processing, spreadsheets, SD multimedia playback, email, and web browsing, just like the Eee PCbut with a far superior screen and keyboard.
On the battery front, we can only report our experiences with the 6-cell unit. At full screen brightness with Internet Explorer rendering the TR front page and Wi-Fi enabled, the Mini-Note managed 2 hours and 51 minutes of run time. Swapping web browsing for DivX video playback only shaved two minutes of battery life, putting the Mini-Note well short of HP’s 4.5-hour battery life claims.
Of course, we were running at full screen brightness (necessary to avoid the screen’s annoying reflectivity issues). Dialing back the brightness to 40%the “HP optimized” default in Windows Vistacoaxed 4 hours and 12 minutes of run time rendering the TR front page. That’s a little more reasonable, although hardly a triumph given the screen’s high reflectivity at 40% brightness.
I’m pretty torn over the Mini-Note. There are a lot of things about this little notebook that really turn me off, including its highly reflective screen coating that all but demands running the display at full brightness, which of course shortens battery life. The trackpad button placement is annoying, and so is the 6-cell battery bulge sticking out the bottom. GigE networking that’s gigabit in name only thanks to the system’s underpowered C7 processor doesn’t help, either.
The Mini-Note definitely rings in on the expensive side of the budget subnotebook spectrum, too. Paying a little extra doesn’t bother me, though, because while the Mini-Note may be in the same class as the Eee PC, it delivers so much more. Add it all up: a 92% keyboard that doesn’t handicap typing, a WXGA screen that offers 40% more pixels than the Eee PC 900’s 8.9″ display, an ExpressCard expansion slot for broadband Wi-Fi, the ability to swap in a 2.5″ mobile hard drive of your choice, and a simply gorgeous brushed aluminum chassis that feels as solid as it looks. Taken together, these things more than justify the Mini-Note’s higher price tag.
HP has built a good budget subnotebook platform hereone that could be significantly improved with a few little tweaks, like a scratch-resistant screen coating that doesn’t moonlight as a mirror finish and a processor with enough horsepower to back up the system’s networking credentialsa processor like Intel’s Atom or VIA’s Nano, perhaps. Both are close enough to hitting the market that we’d recommend holding off on a subnotebook purchase to see how things shake out.
If you can’t afford to wait, the Mini-Note is easily a more flexible and robust alternative to the Eee PC. It’s a much better option for anyone who needs a real keyboard and a higher resolution display. With a nip here and a tuck there, though, we think the Mini-Note could be much better.