By: John Dodge
Hewlett Packard's HP Mini series of netbooks stands out for its keyboards-one of the key evaluation criteria in this category of systems. In fact, the keyboard makes the HP Mini the Cadillac of the netbooks I've tested so far.
However, when I say "Cadillac," that's in the context of portable computers whose keyboards will never rival those found on full-sized notebooks or desktops. Consider that the HP Mini keyboard is 10 and 5/16 inches across, versus 18 inches across for my Dell desktop.
For most users, the keyboard is the make-or-break component of a netbook. The Mini's square, flush-mount, non-tapered keys felt good during tests, and minimized a single peck hitting two keys. Typos don't go away entirely with the Mini's "92 percent" keyboard, as HP calls it, but, hey, it's a netbook, and you wanted small, right?
The model I tested, the HP Mini 1030R XP Home series, weighs 2.38 pounds and will easily slip into a large pocketbook. It has a decent 10.1-inch LED BrightView display, although a shiny screen overlay tended to attract glare.
The system I tested came with 1GB of memory, the maximum, but several models in this line start with 512MB of RAM. The Mini is based on the Intel Atom N270 found in most netbooks, although earlier models used Intel Celeron chips.
The mini I tested has no hard disk, but the longer I used it, the less critical the hard disk seemed to become. (What's more, a hard disk is a drain on power). This means relying on the system's 16GB of solid-state storage, 15.25GB of which is useable (and half of that consumed by pre-loaded Windows XP).
USB memory sticks can add another 8GB of storage, with an SD card reader that can accommodate still another 8GB. The Mini also comes with a 60GB hard drive option.
There are two USB ports and a proprietary HP Mini Mobile Drive slot that accommodates only HP USB devices. Other ports include standard audio-out and RJ-45 for cabled Internet.
Speaking of Internet connectivity, the wireless 802.11g card works well, but video will tax a netbook's performance.
A new netbook twist is built-in 3G mobile broadband. If you sign up for the usual two-year activation from AT&T or Verizon, HP knocks off $100 of its $449 unit. While this could really propel the netbook market-an estimated 25 million to 35 million are forecast to be sold this year-broadband at $60 a month is expensive.
A few things about the HP Mini bugged me. One was that the screen tilts back only a few degrees from the straight-up position, failing my slouchability test. In other words, I can't slouch or balance the unit on my crossed legs and still make out what's on the display. In fact, you're still better off using netbooks at a desk because they are disappointingly hard to balance on one's lap.
Also, the Mini's buttons on either side of the touch-pad feel awkward. I much prefer them across the bottom of the touch-pad, as with the Lenovo and Asus netbooks. Another irritant was the image jumping around as it tries to fit within the confines of the smaller display, although the Mini was not the worst offender on this score of the netbooks I've looked at.
Don't expect the three-cell lithium-ion battery to last much beyond 2 hours on a single charge, but using a netbook for longer than that taxes the eyes and brain. I take the recharger and cord with me wherever I go anyway.
Some netbooks have a six-cell battery option for 4 hours or more of battery life.
All in all, the HP Mini is one of the most competent netbooks I've seen so far. The keyboard alone is worth the HP Mini's relatively high price of about $500.
Bear in mind, though, that netbook prices are dropping fast and more and more features are being added.