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 Miniâ€ 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.
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).
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 11.6â€ 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.
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 pastâ€¦ 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 (1.2â€ at the back end and .78â€ toward the front). It is also rather light — weighing in at 3.26 pounds making it easy to tote around.
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.
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.)
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 â€˜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
The Mini 311 has a high resolution screen when stacked upagainst most netbooks. The screen is 11.6â€ 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: