HP Mini 311 notebook review

As netbooks continue to grow in popularity, so do the lines that define them. The HP Mini 311 spec sheet reads more like a traditional notebook rather than something only costs £349 in the UK and $399 in the US. But is it trying to punch above its weight? 

HP has over the last 12-18 months started making a radical change to its design ethos and it's finally starting to show. Gloss plastic in its design, it's no HP Envy, however that isn't to say it's Ugly Betty either. Aesthetics are swish and stylish with a patterned top, silver interior and gloss black framed 1366 x 768 resolution, 11.6-inch, screen that is crisp and the highlight of the netbook. It really is sharp.

That screen pretty much determines the 11.4 x 8.0 x 1.2in dimensions and the 1.45kg (3.2lbs) weight. Ports and sockets are displayed down both sides rather than the back or front. The left gives you a single USB and HDMI output, while the right gives you a SD/MSPro/MMC/xD Card reader, a further two USB sockets, headphones and line-in socket, VGA out and Ethernet. Those looking for an optical drive won't find one. 

 

With a 92% keyboard typing is tight, but by no means impossible and the trackpad has been improved over previous netbooks from HP thanks to the extra space created by the bigger screen. What that means in practice is that the two click buttons are now found underneath the trackpad rather than to the side.

In use and the trackpad is considerably easier to use as the buttons sit ready to be clicked by your thumb. Larger than previous outings, it has a software-based vertical scroll element to it (on the right-hand side) making it easy to scroll up and down web pages for example. What doesn't help though is that it's made from the same material as the rest of the chassis and this can mean that you slide off it or go to click without realising that your thumb or finger has moved elsewhere.

Centre top there is a webcam for video calling and aside from the power on key the only other button is a Wi-Fi toggle switch. Clicking it off changes it from blue to orange. It will let you save power quickly without having to find a software tab (not hard) or help you prove to the air hostess that you really have gone into airplane mode.

Peer inside and the HP Mini 311 can come with a 1.6GHz or 1.66GHz Intel Atom N270 processor, integrated Nvida ION graphics chip, 1GB RAM upgradeable to 3GB, a 160GB, 250GB, 320GB hard drive or 80GB SSD, Wi-Fi connectivity g or n, Bluetooth, and the option of a mobile broadband module.

The netbook now comes with Windows 7 Home Premium as standard over the previous XP when it first launched in at the beginning of October 2009.

The £349 / $399 is the base model and that will get you the 1.6GHz processor, 1GB of RAM, 160GB hard drive, wireless g connectivity and no Bluetooth or mobile broadband. Those looking to save some cash can opt for Windows XP over Windows 7. Maxing out on everything gets you to almost $1000.

In performance and the Mini 311 does well on day-to-day tasks with the Atom processor working hard to make your experience as best as it can be. Microsoft gives it a Windows Experience Index rating of 2.3 let down by the processor.

 

We tested a model with Verizon's built-in SIM card allowing you to surf on the go. The software lets you manage your connection and once you've run through the initial set-up, a very quick process to getting online. The benefit as with all netbooks that have built-in connectivity is that you don't have to fuss with a 3G dongle that sticks out of the side.

Of course where this netbook appeals is that it packs the Nvidia ION graphics chip, which promises to deliver better video and graphics performance, with the graphics processor taking over on the tasks normally assigned to the main processor (in this case the Intel Atom chip) which isn't really up to the job.

The biggest and easiest test to see what can be achieved is playing back HD content. While a 11.6-inch screen is going to give you minimal benefit from going "HD", the built-in HDMI out socket means you can pump it out to an HD Ready TV screen in your home, office or shed.

 

To be able to enjoy HD content via YouTube (i.e., Flash) you'll have to download the newly released Flash Player 10 so you can benefit from the GPU (the ION) doing some of the work rather than just leaving it all to the main processor. Failing to do so will get you nowhere.

You don't need Flash Player 10 to watch HD content you've got stored on the computer. We played 720p footage with no problem, something that isn't really possible on a regular netbook, however pushing the machine to the limit and playing 1080p does give it trouble.

In our tests 1080p DivX HD files weren't watchable by any stretch of the imagination, while a 1080p trailer viewed in iTunes lost lip sync very quickly. Footage stuttered violently. YouTube wasn't much better, and neither was VLC for 1080p footage. Back to what it can do - this is a sub £350/$400 netbook after all - and we could happily watch 720p footage without qualms.

But what about games? We fired up the recently released Left 4 Dead 2 to see how it would cope. We were able to enjoy a full online experience running graphics at 16:9 1280 x 768 without any drop in performance. While we weren't able to run it with all the settings on, the graphics performance was more than good enough for gaming on the move. 10 years ago this rig would have cost you over £1000 for graphics performance like this: that's how far we've come.

While we wouldn't recommend this replacing a dedicated desktop rig or your more powerful laptop, if you are an occasional gamer, or one that isn't playing high-end first person shooters this will be more than enough juice to quench your thirst.

Verdict

The HP Mini 311 looked impressive in our First Look and after using it for a couple of weeks now those first impressions were spot on. As a netbook that lets you surf the web, write the odd email it performs as you would expect and good enough to be one of the top performing netbooks out there. The fact that HP has gone with a standard version of Windows 7 (Home Premium) rather than Starter is also welcomed.

But where the HP eases out over the rest of the pack is the inclusion of the ION chip from Nvidia allowing you to push the limits of what has until now not been possible on a netbook.

There are limitations to the HD element and the 3D gaming. This isn't the answer to everything, however if you want to watch or play movies and games on occasion, as long as you aren't too demanding (1080p or full graphics settings), then the HP mini should serve you nicely.