HP’s Mini 1000: A new netbook

HP’s second-generation foray into the mini-laptop space, also known as netbooks–the HP Mini 1000–has a couple of advantages over its predecessor (the HP 2133, which we reviewed back in early April). Gone is the Via C-7M processor; gone, too, is the pipe dream that any current netbook could handle Windows Vista (the Mini 1000 runs Windows XP). The Mini 1000 that we received for testing packs Intel’s 1.6-GHz Atom processor; 1GB of RAM; a 4200-rpm, 60GB PATA hard disk; and Windows XP. Translation: It falls in place with the rest of the current mini-notebook pack. The Windows XP version, available as of Wednesday, starts at US$399. The model we reviewed, as outlined above, will set you back $549. That price instantly pushes it to the high end of the mini-notebook category–and to nearly as much as a full-blooded all-purpose laptop.

If anyone asked me what I would have done to change HP’s first mini-note, the aforementioned HP 2133, I’d have had a pretty cut-and-dried checklist: Add a more capable CPU; amp up the RAM; use XP instead of Vista (one version of the 2133 used Vista Business Edition, no less); change the touchpad’s design (I grew to hate the mouse buttons that flanked the pad’s left and right sides); and if HP could, drop the price a little. But they’d better not mess with the keyboard, the speakers, or that sweet metallic shell.

This model incorporates many of those suggestions. However, in spite of its Atom processor, the Mini 1000 slips a little toward the back of the pack. Of course, I’ve learned to keep lowered expectations for netbooks–the average WorldBench score for the category hovers around 35. HP’s Mini 1000 eked out a 30. So, while it’s not nearly as speedy as Lenovo’s IdeaPad S10 (which earned a 41), the Mini 1000 also is notably faster than both Dell’s Inspiron Mini 9 (which crawled across the finish line posting a 25) and the original HP 2133, which scored a poky 23. Not all our tests have finished yet, which is why we haven’t yet posted a rating. Specifically, we don’t have final battery-life results. We’ll update the review with that information later. However, HP spokespeople feel comfortable saying that the 3-cell battery lasts about 3 hours. We’ll see. In addition, HP plans to release an optional 6-cell battery wedge that sits below the Mini 1000 and props it up (it’s due in January 2009, price to be determined).

While not in our test unit, HP briefed me on a forthcoming optional video processing chip that can go into the Mini 1000. I was tempted to wait until early 2009 (when HP spokespeople say the chip will be available) to see how much it’ll boost performance. Unfortunately, the HP folks have nothing more to add at this time. We’ll update as we learn more.

Not Heavy Metal

HP’s new mini-note doesn’t stop with just changes to its inside guts. This time, HP chose to use a 10.3-by-6.5-by-0.9-inch plastic shell, as opposed to the 2133’s aluminum case. That metallic exterior made for a meaty, mature netbook: It didn’t feel like a toy–it was something sturdy in your hands that could take a beating.

With the Mini 1000, you get a reasonably hard plastic lid with a groovy design on top. That makes it slightly more stylish than many mini-notes–but not much. Citing a lighter weight (2.25 pounds, as opposed to the 2.8-pound 2133) and lower production costs, HP sees the plastic as a better choice. Me? I’d prefer the heavy metal if only because of the gleaming lines and substantial feel.

I also wasn’t a huge fan of the original touchpad, but this one is a little more tolerable. While I still think it’s annoying to have the mouse buttons flanking the left and right sides of the touchpad, the implementation is a better this time around. The buttons are slightly raised and angled toward the mousepad and, if I’m ever annoyed, I can always disable the on-board mouse with a button touch. But why should I have to do that?

Thankfully, some things haven’t changed–particularly, the size of the fantastic keyboard. The oversized, square keys looks like something that belongs on a full-size notebook. In fact, the main QWERTY and number buttons are large enough to fit your entire finger. No need to carefully hunt-and-peck on this keyboard.

I found the audio impressive, and it matched my experiences with the earlier model. The ingenious top-mounted speaker also serves as a sturdy hinge for the device; this design saves space. And while I’m not one to say that you could use the Mini 1000 as some incredibly dorky boombox, it does get decent audio without turning into a crackly mess.

Now, the 10.2-inch screen–like most glossy screens–is a little hit or miss. Indoors, you can easily make out what’s happening on the 1024-by-600-pixel panel–and images look great. If you were to see the Mini 1000 on a store shelf, you’d likely be attracted to it like a very nerdy moth to a flame. Try taking it outside in direct sunlight, though, and you’ve got yourself a large portable mirror. It’s still usable, but you really need to crank up the brightness all the way to see anything. Even then, I could easily shave myself with its reflection. (HP also offers a smaller version of this model, with an 8.9-inch screen; a tweener screen–10.1 inches–will be available later this year).

One thing I’ve always liked about Acer’s Aspire One is how Acer put two SD card slots in the device. One was a little more recessed so that you could pop in extra memory and just let it sit there as additional storage. Here, HP is taking a cue from Acer–kind of. In the back right side of the device is a well-hidden and way-recessed USB slot.

That allows you to pop in an additional 2GB, 4GB, or 8GB USB flash drive. The problem: Where Acer’s solution lets you insert any card you have, HP has you buy their proprietary form-factor memory (Mini Mobile Drive) that wedges deep inside the machine. This approach isn’t nearly as compelling as Acer’s.

I also noticed that HP decided to cut out some of the inputs. The machine skimps a little by providing a shared headphone/mic jack, a 10/100 ethernet jack, two USB 2.0 ports, an SD Card reader, and a proprietary dongle port if you want to shoot out video to VGA. Just be prepared to shell out another 30 bucks for the VGA dongle. At least it has 802.11 b/g Wi-Fi and optional Bluetooth 2.1 to compensate for the lost ports. Also bank on 3G broadband, which will be available later this year.

As for the software, HP tries making a clean go of it on the Windows flavor of this machine. Our test unit came preinstalled with Microsoft Works, AIM 6, and an HP Wireless Assistant. While I salute the bloatless install, I quickly found myself missing a backup solution, like the one that Lenovo smartly packs into the IdeaPad S10.

HP also skimps on a detailed physical instruction manual. Instead, you get a glossy foldout sheet that basically shows you where the power button is and how to get to the computer’s onboard Help & Support Center. It’s a fairly handy series of links to the user manual, but it’s just gussying up what Microsoft already offers in its operating system. To give credit where it’s due, though, HP’s Help & Support Center is a little more user-friendly.

The other bonus is a free six-month subscription to HP Upline. This online storage option covers three PCs, and appears similar to the services offered by Dell with its Inspiron Mini 9: A free basic account for Box.Net good for a couple gigs of online storage. Other Models, Other OSs

HP doesn’t offer only a Windows version of the Mini 1000. The Linu…sorry, HP…the Mobile Internet Experience version of the HP Mini 1000 is due to come out in January with a tiny 8GB or 16GB flash drive. That interface, while it looks fairly fresh, is still very much in a beta stage, so I’ll reserve comment for now, but the initial demos show a very frosty–dare I say, “Vista-ish”?–interface. The MIE version of the Mini will cost about $380.

And probably the flashiest mini-note to date, set to arrive by mid-December, is a customized red take on the Mini designed by Vivienne Tam. The Asian-themed model comes with painted trees on the lid and a “Double Happiness” enter key. Umm, yeah. And proof that you can put a price on Double Happiness: You’re paying $700 for the privilege of rocking this prêt-a-computer.

With the Mini 1000, HP does a good job keeping most of the things that worked on the 2133, while upping the performance and managing to cut prices in the process–well, not counting the fashionista-flavored model. Is a Mini 1000 right for you? If you’re limiting your outdoor use (the glare can be a pain), this is a good choice; but it’s not the swiftest mini-note on the block.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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