Fujitsu Siemens Amilo Mini Ui 3520 notebook review

3.5 out of 5
£279.99 (60GB), £289.99 (80GB)

For

Unique design, keyboard layout, ExpressCard slot, no bloatware

Against

No built-in 3G connectivity, keyboard flex, perhaps not the best use of space available

We last looked at the Amilo Mini Ui 3520 when it was spotted at IFA in September, but finally it arrives at Pocket-lint towers for some scrutiny. But can the netbook from Fujitsu Siemens Computers, a rather late entrant into the market, offer anything over the competition?

With a name like the Amilo Mini Ui 3520, the first question is what to call it. It doesn’t just roll off the tongue like "MSI Wind" does. That aside, it does fall firmly into the netbook fraternity, featuring the ubiquitous Intel Atom N270 processor, running at 1.6GHz, whilst the screen takes the 8.9-inch format, so towards the smaller end of the spectrum.

This fairly typical spec is backed by and entirely typical 1GB of RAM and a slightly small 60GB hard drive (an 80GB version is also available). We say small, because some competitor devices are now offering double the capacity. However, there is a very good argument for saying that you shouldn’t really be storing masses of data on a highly portable device of this type.

But the most defining feature of the Amilo Mini is FSC’s black and white design which many have likened to an Imperial Stormtrooper. The black areas are the core working areas, so the screen has a black surround, whilst the black waist is the home to the various connection options.

The white lid is not your only option, however, as it comes with a coloured clip-on shell, and various options will be available to customise your own Mini to your liking, including a transparent version for your own artwork or pictures.

But on a frame this small, things do get squashed down, so that screen surround is just a little too thick for our liking and we reckon you could have got another inch on the diagonal without having to increase the overall size of the lid. The screen is a non-glare 1024 x 600 pixel display, common to others of this size. The anti-glare treatment does mean that if you are sitting on a train you’ll fare better than some of the glossy rivals, like the HP Mini-Note.

Equally, the keyboard doesn’t reach the edges of the base, so whilst things are cramped, the full space available hasn’t been used like it is on some rivals. The keyboard itself doesn’t get the normal splashproof treatment found on the Mini’s bigger siblings and the keys do end up being rather small, but comparable to other 8.9-inch rivals. The main letter keys themselves are slightly larger than the other keys, but a little too small for our liking and not a keyboard you can dedicate yourself to much typing on. There is also a distinct flex to the keyboard, so occasionally it seems to ripple as you are typing.

One thing that should be praised is the decision to keep the Shift, Ctrl and Fn in the bottom left corner, and Delete in the top right, as you’d find on a normal notebook keyboard, as this means it is better suited to those who use shortcuts, something that saves a lot of work on a device this small.

The trackpad is also rather small and sees the buttons put to the left- and right-hand sides, a solution that we’ve never been entirely sold on, but you do get used to it. A compact mouse is your best bet and you can disable the trackpad with F6, something worth doing if you do hook up a regular mouse, as hitting it with your palms is fairly common.

Other function shortcuts allow you to disable Wi-Fi, control volume, disable the webcam, adjust the screen brightness and so on, which are all good power saving options. The screen will let you turn the brightness down a long way, to eek more power from the battery. In this vein there is also a throttling option, dubbed "silent mode" in some documentation, which essentially cuts power to the graphics and processor to give you more battery life.

A resultant side effect is you need less cooling so the fan doesn’t need to go crazy, but equally, it doesn’t make the Mini silent. Not that the Mini is a noisy netbook by any measure, in fact it runs fairly quiet and pretty cool.

What the throttling does do, however, is give you about an hour extra out of the battery. The 4 hours maximum life that has been cited is fairly ambitious, but can be achieved if you don’t want to do much, turn everything down or off and throttle the power. This is fine for listening to music or basic document reading. However, if you are surfing the web and fancy watching a video, then throttling will make it difficult, so you’ll have to come back into regular mode. We averaged about 2.5 hours from the battery with close management of power usage whilst using Wi-Fi. Adding a 3G modem also pulls on the battery life and you’ll be closer to 2 hours from a full charge.

But netbooks these days are becoming more about mobile internet so the Mini has a trick up its sleeve in the form of a 34mm ExpressCard slot. You could use this for a range of ExpressCard options, but the intention is to allow the addition of a 3G modem, which might be a tidier solution than a mobile broadband dongle, if you can find one to suit your needs. Whilst this provision is appreciated, as a late entrant into the netbook world and onboard solutions becoming more popular, we’d have rather seen a modem built-in.

You also get Bluetooth and those with a compatible handset might opt to use their mobile phone for their mobile internet connection via this route.

Other connection options give you LAN, 2x USB, VGA and a 4-in-1 card reader (SD/SDHC, MS, MMC, MSPRO), as well as the normal headphone and microphone sockets. You do get an array mic up with the bezel-mounted 1.3MP webcam, which seems to work pretty well - certainly adequate for Skype conversations on the move.

You don’t get much by the way of software, which might be a blessing for some, or a bane for others. It runs on Windows XP as many netbooks do. There is a trial of Norman Security Suite, but little else - no Open Source software or trials of Office, so you’ll have to arrange those yourself. The only software from FSC is the diagnostic tool. The plus side of this is you can install what you want, rather than having to pick your way through a load of bloatware and remove it.

Verdict

Overall we like the design of the Amilo Mini Ui 3520: the Stormtrooper-ish black and white livery make it unique and something of a head-turner. Admittedly we did have some complaints with the keyboard - a little too much flex - but we applaud the consistent layout.

If anything, it does look as though there is some wasted space here however: a little more on the screen and keyboard without increasing the overall size could have made this a cracking little netbook. Battery life remains an issue - as it is for many of the lower cost rivals - but unfortunately at this point in the evolution of netbooks, the Amilo Mini seems to be missing the vital ingredient - the 3G modem.

But for some that might not matter and around the home or within your favourite Wi-Fi zones, the Mini performs pretty well, and looks good to boot.