I seem to have a thing for netbooks. Honestly, it’s as if someone thought: “What would Ben like in a computer?” when what has emerged as the standard netbook configuration did so. They are small, light, cheap, have decent battery life, are reasonably fast, and invariably, it seems, run some version of Linux. What could possibly be better? The HP Mini Mini 1110NR is the fourth netbook that I have owned. A pair of the original EeePC 701s and then the Via-based HP Mini-Note 2133 preceding it. Also, in the course of my job, I have had the opportunity to use both the Linux and Windows-based EeePC 900, an XP-based Dell Mini 9, an Acer Aspire One, a Toshiba netbook and an Asus EeePC 1000H.
Three netbooks: HP 2133, HP Mini Mi, Asus EeePC 701
However, my netbook of choice for the last two months has been an HP Mini 1110NR. The rather typical specs are are as follows:
- 8.9″ 1024×600 display
- Intel Atom N270 1.5GHz
- 1GB DDR2 RAM (Upgradeable to 2GB)
- 8GB SSD (Options in US from HP for 16GB SSD or 60GB HD)
- 3-cell battery
- 2 USB ports
- SDHC port
- Ethernet, 802.11G wireless, optional 3G
- Dock connector to adapt output to VGA
- Windows XP SP3 or Ubuntu 8.04-based “Mobile Internet Experience” Mi
Now, I loved my HP 2133. With the HP Mini-Note 2140 already available in the US, my original plan was to sell the 2133, buy the 2140 and call it a day. There were a few problems with that, though: The 2140 wasn’t yet available and the 10″ screen had two resolution options: 1024×576 (SD) or 1300×768 (HD). The 2133 had an odd resolution resolution of 1280×768 on its 9″ screen. This was at once one of the better and worst features of the netbook. The higher-res display meant that it was well-suited to desktop-type tasks, but it also meant that I had to squint to see most text. I had tweaked the UI considerably to make this work well, adding the Firefox nosquint plugin and zooming pages to 120%, causing pixelation of images, changed X11 to use 120dpi fonts, and more. This mostly worked fine, but it was still a struggle. So, I was torn between the SD and HD 2140 options. The other problem with the 2140 is that your OS choices are SLED 10 or Windows. I hated SLED 10 on the 2133 and won’t go to Windows.
Enter the HP Mini 1110NR (Mini).
The Mini ships with the OS I wanted, the 9″ version has the screen resolution I was looking for, the SSD means it silent, and it’s only $349CAD at Future Shop. Armed with this information, I bought the Mini. I honestly bought it knowing that I could take it back within two weeks. I figured that, as internally it is similar to the 2140, it would give me a feeling for relative performance compared to my 2133, and it gave me a chance to play with HP’s Linux UI. When I bought it, I was fully prepared to return it and wait for the 2140.
Then a funny thing happened: I used it, found the actual computer to be a much better option than the 2133/2140, and decided to keep it.
Looking at the Mini in specs alone, it is a fairly typical netbook in a crowded market. It has a smallish battery with mediocre battery life (2.5-3hrs on a 3 cell battery) it uses the same CPU as everyone else, the screen is the same size as everyone else etc. However, I have found it to be a cut above all of the other netbooks that I have used. Here’s why:
It’s very thin and light: It weighs a paltry 2lbs, about the same as my original EeePC 701 and a full half pound less than my 2133. It doesn’t sound like much, but it is. This netbook is lovely to tote around and is thin enough that it fits almost anywhere.
The battery life is good enough: 2.5-3hrs doesn’t sound great, but it’s all that I need and is a perfect trade-off for the size of the battery. I had both the 3 cell and 6 cell battery for my 2133. It would get a consistent 1.5hrs on the 3 cell and just over 3 hours on the 6 cell. If I disabled wifi, dropped brightness down a bit, it would help. The Mini gets about the same battery life on a 3 cell that the 2133 did on the 6.
The screen is perfect(ish): 1024×600 is the right resolution for a 9″ netbook. There is a 10″ version but it has two problems: The resolution is HP’s SD, so 1024×576, and the screen is flush with the lid (Like the 2133 and current MacBooks) The screen on the 9″ Mini, while still reflective, is recessed. For some reason, this seems to really cut down on the glare. It also greatly reduces the number of fingerprints and lint that the screen picks up. I was rather surprised by this. Aesthetically, it isn’t quite as nice looking as a flush screen, but functionally it’s much better.
It has the potential to be silent: Yes, I occasionally miss the massive 120GB HD in my 2133, but I don’t miss the extra weight, noise and clicking that it imposed. Yes, the SSD is significantly smaller, but under light load, the Mini is silent, something I greatly value. Unlike the Dell Mini 9, the Mini does have a fan. I am very picky about fan noise and even I find the Mi’s fan quite acceptable. Even under load the Mini is much quieter than any of the many other laptops that I have owned.
The Defining Feature: The Keyboard
Of course, what really sets HP netbooks apart from the competition is their spectacular keyboard. The 2133 was the best laptop keyboard I’d ever used, the Mi’s is even better. True, they don’t feel as solid as the 2133 keyboard but the white letters on black keys make the keyboard far more usable in low lighting conditions.
The Mobile Internet Experience
The OS and software selection is nearly perfect. Ubuntu Hardy Heron (8.04) is still my favourite Linux release. Yes, there are newer versions with enhanced packages, but 8.04 is a Long Term Support release, meaning that it will be patched for 5 years. While I won’t kid myself to think that I’ll be using the Mini in five years time, it does mean that the packages are set, that the distribution is well tested, and that further updates will only enhance this stability. 8.04 is a rock, and is my preferred deployment platform for both servers and workstation.
On top of this very solid base, HP has added a wonderful Gnome-based UI. The interface starts with a home screen with favourite bookmarks, links to a few photos and music, and a summary of mail messages. Clicking on the mail messages takes you to Thunderbird, my preferred mail client. The media portion takes you to “HP MediaStyle powered by Elissa” This is similar to Canola 2 on Maemo or Apple’s AppleTV interface. I find it a little cutesy, but it’s functional. I still prefer Rhythmbox, so I don’t really use MediaStyle.
Why look at high-quality pics on other sites when you can see my terrible phone shot?
Beyond the initial screen, you are presented with a tabbed interface that corresponds to .desktop files in /usr/share/applications. The menus are easy enough to tweak but are fine for people to just use. This actually is the way of the entire interface: You are presented with logical defaults in an attractive package but the underlying system is easily understood, quite standard, and easy to modify if you so desire.
HP has also developed a very nice black theme that compliments the laptop well. The entire package is very attractive, both hardware and software. The design on the lid of the laptop matches the background of the machine, HP has clearly given much attention to detail on the software of this machine.
What’s not to like?
On the downside, the Mini uses a different power adapter than the 2133. Unless, like me, you happen to own both, this isn’t a problem. However, replacement adapters are $70, compared to the 2133’s $45 adapter. Considering the entire laptop was $350CDN, $70 seems far too steep for a spare adapter. I was able to find a third-party alternative from eBay for $25USD. It hasn’t arrived yet but I will report back when it does.
Another downside is that you need an a recently released VGA adapter to plug the laptop into a projector. I had HP ship one to me as soon as it became available. It was $40CAD shipping and taxes included. It retails for $16 in the US. It’s a bit of a pain but is the price you pay for the thinness of the laptop. It would have been better if HP had used HDMI or another interface that has standard VGA adapters such as Apple’s DisplayPort. All-in-all, I feel that this is a fair trade-off for the width of the machine, which most people will never plug into a projector anyway.
HP's oddly long VGA adapter next to Apple's variation
HP is also now selling a 6-cell battery. It’s about $120CAD, so it isn’t cheap, nor is it out of league with the competitors offerings. One could assume that this would give you about five hours of battery life, give or take a half hour. I may buy one of these, I may not.
The only other real downside is that the speakers on the Mi have less low-end than the 2133. The 2133 had excellent sound for any laptop, let alone netbooks. I would say that the Mi’s sound is still far better than average for a netbook.
HP’s Mobile Internet Experience is great for both new and experienced users. I hope they expand this software to other laptop lines. All-in-all, it is much faster than Vista, is at least as easy to use, and requires no anti-virus or malware software. In short, it is an excellent OS and interface for the vast majority of users. I find the interface to be much easier to deal with than Vista and would love to be able to buy a 15″ laptop with this software for most of my family.
Considering that I purchased my first Apple laptop six years ago, things have certainly changed. If you had told me on the day that I purchased my G3 iBook that I would buy a faster, 2lb laptop with comparable battery life, more RAM, that was completely silent for a quarter of the cost of the G3, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you told me that it would ship from the factory with my favourite Linux distribution with completely Linux-compatible hardware (power-management included) I would have laughed at you.
The HP Mini 1110NR is exactly what I was looking for: A remarkably small, fast, inexpensive, and well-made Linux laptop available at all major retailers. Thank you, HP.
Update: Good pictures/info here and here.