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HP Mini 311 Review

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The HP Mini 311 is HP’s first netbook that is equipped with Nvidia ION, which is a video accelerator that allows the Mini 311 to support smooth playback of high quality video (even up to HD resolutions). The 311 is part of HP’s line of Mini” computers which is their low-cost series, or what many call netbooks. I’ve had my hands on several netbook style devices in the past (based on Intel’s Atom platform) and I have to say, the 311 has demonstrated to me the potential of these inexpensive devices. I wrote an article about the value that ION brings to the Mini 311 (and presumably other netbooks which use it), have a read if you are interested, and we’ll definitely be talking about ION performance in this review, so read on! But first let’s have a good look at the computer itself.20100118_019

Hardware Tour

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20100118_003 From right to left: Kensington lock port, A/C plug, Vent, USB 2.0, HDMI

20100118_005 Multi-card reader (SD/MS/MMC/XD), Headphone/mic input, USB 2.0 x 2, VGA output, Ethernet adapter

I’ll spare you detail shots of the front and back as they lack any ports or buttons whatsoever. For the more adventurous of you out there, removing a panel on the bottom allows access to a single RAM slot as well as the HDD, and two Mini PCI Express connectors (one of which was unoccupied on my model).

Specifications

The Mini 311 that I’m reviewing has a 1.6GHz Atom CPU, Nvidia ION graphics, 2GB of RAM, and Windows 7. The screen is 11.6” with a 1366×768 resolution, which is higher than most netbooks (often 1024×600.) Higher resolution, of course, means that one can see more on the screen when compared to a lower resolution.  One can configure most of these specs to their liking, but the base model can be had for a reasonable $399 direct from HP, and possibly even cheaper elsewhere. All models are equipped with ION. If you are customizing through HP, you have several options: a 1.6GHz or 1.66GHz CPU, 1/2/3GB of RAM, 160/250/380GB HDD (or 80GB SSD), Windows XP or Windows 7, and your choice of white or black lid. The 311 can also be equipped with a 3G WWAN chip for cellular internet access for an additional $125. HP says this works on AT&T, Verizon, or Sprint.

Design

20100118_001 I’ll be up front with this one. The 311 is sleek. HP has really stepped up their game lately. While you might be used to very noisy designs on HP laptops of the past… the Mini 311 is undeniably clean, and could easily be mistaken for a more expensive computer just by its looks alone.

The lid, which is predominately black, has a spiral/swirl design which is revealed if one looks closely, which I feel is a nice touch over the alternative (completely black). The 311 slopes down (as you can see in the side images above) to a nice thinness. This slope makes the 311 feel even more thin than it is (1.2” at the back end and .78” toward the front). It is also rather light — weighing in at 3.26 pounds making it easy to tote around.

20100118_026 Once you open the lid on the Mini 311, the clean and sleek look will really grab your attention. There are only two buttons (not counting the keyboard and mouse keys) on the entire computer. These two buttons are the power button at the top left of the deck (the plane that the keyboard is on) and a WiFi toggle button opposite the power button.

20100118_024 The keyboard is also quite stylish, featuring some very spacious keys, and HP’s usual curve look which is found on other netbooks from their Mini line. The trackpad is perfectly flat with the rest of the deck and has a left and right mouse button running along the bottom of it. It is perfectly smooth and the only marking on it is a simple line to show where the scroll-sensitive area is. (We’ll talk more about the keyboard and trackpad, and how well they function, in the performance section below.)

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Performance

Nvidia ION

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The Mini 311 is based on Intel’s Atom platform, as the majority of netbooks are, and while most netbooks out there feel like they are fresh from the cookie-cutter, the ION equipped Mini 311 really stands apart from the crowd.

ION is quite the game changer. In simple terms, ION means that the 311 has a chip that is dedicated to increasing the performance of visually intensive processes. Video playback is particularly improved. The Mini 311 is the first netbook that I’ve seen that can handle HD playback, which for some media junkies out there, is a huge deal.

What is even more impressive is the fact that, when combined with Flash player 10.1, the Mini 311 can provide users with silky smooth flash HD playback. This represents a really important step forward for netbooks; While just a few months ago, a netbook might not even be able to play Hulu videos smoothly — now ION allows the 311 to make quick work of flash content, really completing the idea of the ‘netbook’ which is supposed to be great for the web. Awesome portals of HD entertainment have been unlocked, even for those that don’t want to spend $1000 on a computer. I stand in awe as I watch the Mini 311 handle a 1080p flash video with perfectly smooth playback:

ION also enables the 311 to do some light gaming. I was able to play Half-Life 2 (albeit with the settings turned way down) at a reasonable framerate. Still, I wouldn’t look to play any modern games with the 311.

Screen & HDMI output

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The Mini 311 has a high resolution screen when stacked upagainst most netbooks. The screen is 11.6” and runs at 1366×768. The screen is semi-glossy which some people prefer, while others would rather have a matte screen. In general, glossy displays aren’t going to offer great outdoor (high-sunlight) performance because of glare.

The viewing angles (how accurate the screen looks from an angle) are adequate on the Mini 311. Horizontally, the screen can be viewed at a very steep angle, while vertically it is less than great, but not too bad. If you are looking down on the screen from a high angle, the screen washes-out pretty quickly. I found myself adjusting the screen after repositioning myself in my seat so that I am looking at the screen more head-on when using the Mini 311.

20100118_023 The 311 has one HDMI port which allows you to output video to anything that will accept HDMI (you’ll find an HDMI port on pretty much any new HDTV that you’d see in a store today.) Output to my HDTV works great, but so far I’ve been unable to get the audio to output through my HDTV through the HDMI port. It should be supported however, and may simply a matter of figuring out how to enable it in Windows 7. (Look above in the ION section for a demo of the Mini 311 and HDMI out.)

Keyboard & Trackpad

20100118_014 The Mini 311 features a very spacious keyboard. It has everything that you’d expect from a full laptop keyboard. The style of the keys lend themselves to large footprints, but this comes at the cost of feedback. What I generally say about this type of keyboard is that it is great for people who look at the keyboard as they type, but for those of us that type without looking, it can be less desirable than a keyboard where one can feel more easily around the keys.

20100118_015 The Mini 311 is no different. The keys are very wide and nearly run into each other, with little space between. This ensures that each key has a lot of surface area, but doesn’t provide the feedback that a more traditional keyboard style would (think: raised keys), which allows serious typists to feel their way around the board without looking. Not to say that one can’t get used to it, but if you are an established typist, you’ll need a bit of practice. On the other hand, the 311 keyboard is great for people who are less experienced with typing.

20100118_012 The keyboard has Fn key shortcuts which are bound up in the function-key row. While the letters printed on each key are a bold black color and easy to see, the Fn symbols are grey and very similar in color to the plastic of the 311′s deck and keys. This sometimes makes it hard to see these symbols. At the right angle they can almost look invisible against the grey plastic of the keys. I often have to adjust my angle when looking for a particular Fn-key symbol to be able to see it clearly.

20100118_020 The Mini 311′s trackpad is of ample size, but it lacks the usual hardware trackpad toggle button that is featured on many other HP notebooks. A rather bothersome issue with the 311 is that the trackpad is very close to the keyboard. In testing, I would find that my palms frequently graze the sensitive trackpad, sometimes resulting in a click or movement of the cursor, which can wreak all kinds of havok when you are in the middle of typing something. I found a small utility called TouchFreeze which helps to some extent, but doesn’t completely eliminate the issue. I really wish that there was a hardware trackpad toggle, or even a button bound to the function-keys which would allow you to temporarily disable it, but unfortunately there is not.

The mouse keys on the trackpad a split evenly down the middle and act as your standard right and left click. Clicked in the right place (near the center split) they are nearly perfect in terms of the force necessary to press them down, but unfortunately as you move away from the center click it becomes very hard to press them down. When they are pressed in the right spot, the result is a satisfying click sound with good tactile feedback.

Battery Life

The Mini 311 comes with a 6-cell battery standard (many netbooks come with a 3-cell, and offer 6-cell as an extended battery at an additional cost.) I was surprised to find that despite the large high resolution screen, and Nvidia ION, the Mini 311 has some pretty good battery life. I ran a test using a small piece of software called BatteryEater. The test runs the laptop at 100% CPU usage until it shuts off. All power-saving features are disabled for the test as well. Under these conditions, which are designed to simulate the lowest possible time that the computer will be able to run for, the Mini 311 lasted for 3 hours and 12 minutes. This translates roughly to around 5 or 6 hours of real use, which is decent by most standards. And when I say real, I mean average web browsing and word processing usage. I’m sure you could drain the battery pretty quickly if you are attempting to watch flash HD content for hours on end.

Heat and Noise

I’m very surprised to report that the Mini 311 is not only cool, but it also stays very quiet. There is a single fan which seems to rarely turn on, and when it does run, it is quiet. I have a small handheld computer that is probably 1/4 the size of the Mini 311 and it can make more noise with its fan than the 311 seems to be able to.

I was assuming that with the ION graphics doing some extra processing, the Mini 311 would get pretty hot and have to run the fan often. I’m sure it’ll run constantly when it is being used for high performance applications, but using the Mini 311 for standard web browsing doesn’t seem to prompt the fan to run too often or too loud.

Conclusion

20100118_025 The HP Mini 311 alone could be looked at as a stylish and high quality netbook, but the infusion of Nvidia ION, and the performance that it provides, really pushes the Mini 311 beyond just good netbook, and in to the realm of great value. Adding to this value is a high resolution screen, good battery life, HDMI output, optional 3G cellular internet, and probably most importantly, a reasonable price. If you are interested in purchasing the HP Mini 311, check out links below directly from HP (where it can be customized) or through Amazon:

HP Direct

Amazon

15 Comments

  1. roxazz

    March 3, 2010 at 4:40 pm

    i have the same netbook, but not so good as you write,
    first of all is trackpad its really bad, when computer is cold its working well but after 10 minutes cursos starts jump when i touch trackpad and its hard to work when it jumps far than touch the same place again jumps more to the left.,, thats not all, i allways use it on plastic stand, but it overheats almost allways, i can feel if i start webpage with few flash adds fan turns to full power and believe me its very noisy,and when i minimise it fan slows down, and all computer is hot, very hot, i use newest flash, nesest drivers but it works good only when its cold, few minutes later starts making strange things. like if i leave webpage open with flash content, fan runs like cazy and than it overgeats and cuts out, im annoyed,youtube with no lag only 320p. i want to get rid of it. i have my old msi wind with same processor and intel gma 950, works better, i can scrool news web page with no strugling, who has sugestion tell me what to do with it

    • Ed

      March 1, 2011 at 12:22 am

      I thought for a moment that there might be a few problems with this machine when I find started tampering with it. Touchpad was a bit iffy and definitely took some getting used to. Typing over the internet was slow. The problems I initially had which you mentioned seem somehow to be memory related. After pulling out a 4meg SD card and implementing READYBOOST, this thing fired up like SPEEDY GONZALEZ! Haven’t tried upgrading the RAM yet, (which is pretty easy to do by turning two simple screws on the back BTW), but will likely give it a shot later in the week. I can only tell you that the machine seems MUCH more stable using READYBOOST!

  2. ashleynathomas

    March 8, 2010 at 2:41 am

    The HP Mini is a convenient alternative to carrying your primary notebook PC everywhere you go. Smaller and more portable than your notebook.The HP Mini 311 ($399) is the first Ion-based netbook to hit the U.S. market, and we’re impressed by its ability to deliver high-def video playback, better gameplay, and faster video editing.
    Tablet PC connectors

  3. ashleynathomas

    March 8, 2010 at 10:41 am

    The HP Mini is a convenient alternative to carrying your primary notebook PC everywhere you go. Smaller and more portable than your notebook.The HP Mini 311 ($399) is the first Ion-based netbook to hit the U.S. market, and we’re impressed by its ability to deliver high-def video playback, better gameplay, and faster video editing.
    Tablet PC connectors

  4. acadapter

    June 2, 2010 at 2:12 pm

    I bought my mini 311 at Costco March 1 2010 and have spent at least 20 hours on the phone with HP in India trying to solve the touchpad problems I've had since day one. I don't know what problems others have had but specifically mine are freezing of the mouse and now freezing of the scroller. They remotely downloaded software for the touchpad several times, we did a full system recovery (windows 7) and now the scroller is errratic. I am very disappointed as the machine seemed like my answer for travelling. Honestly the speed, portability and even the keyboard are all great- I made this decision based on the reviews on Laptopmag.

  5. Jasonv

    June 18, 2010 at 2:40 am

    Those of you that are having issues with the touchpad / drivers, run windows 7 and use the stock driver that comes with 7. That fixed my problem with the touchpad, I also have seen others update to the toshiba alps driver as well. (google is your friend)

    Also many issues are resolved by loading windows 7 or reinstalling xp… The default xp install is very poor. Not a huge issue though… Just install windows 7! I'm running windows 7 ultimate beautifully! Also running the full ION hack for full dx11 on my 311-1000nr. (google again). This netbook is flat out amazing for less than $400! Wow!

  6. Ryan4vp

    August 23, 2010 at 10:44 pm

    you can use the FN key + f12 to turn the touchpad off together. If the clicking which is mostly what causes ALL of the problems then just turn the “tapping” feature off. Aside from that it's pretty decent :)

  7. Jesse

    December 21, 2010 at 8:37 pm

    Has anyone had problems with the charger on this computer? My DC port (I believe that is what it is called) is already needing replacement and it has only been a year, I have to get the charger in the perfect position to get it to charge anymore!

  8. Mike Jewell

    January 3, 2011 at 5:18 pm

    My 311 froze while responding to e-mail on a domestic flight at 32,000 feet. Cooling fan was making a loud noise. No luck on attempting a hard reboot. Screen message indicating additional software needed and hard disk “full”. Restored to factory settings with help from India. 10 days later, same thing happened, again at 32,000 feet with fan making same loud noise. Did not attempt reboot until back home. Rebooted without incident and without losing anything. Otherwise, I love my 311

  9. Andrew

    February 16, 2011 at 8:46 am

    This is a horrible product and HP offers no actual support. Support consists of having the customer jump through a series of hoops with no end in sight or attempts to sell you a “new” and better product. This will go on until you are tired and buy a Dell.

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