WHO NEEDS A LAPTOP?
For all the yakking I have been doing about my iMac, it has been easy to forget that I also recently acquired an HP Mini 1000 (just prior to the Great Gateway Crash of 2009). It is also the second portable computer I have ever owned. The first was a “luggable” 386 that I had back in college that also happened to be my first PC (my first-ever computer was a Commodore 64). Eventually, it went to binary heaven and all of my PCs before purchasing the Mini since have been desktops.
I never gave any thought to owning another portable computer, having rarely lugged my luggable anywhere. It was nice to be able to take it home during long holidays, but it was bulky enough to where I really didn’t want to take it anywhere else. My advice to friends regarding laptops was always the same: “Be 200% certain you need one before you buy one.”
I held to that philosophy for quite a few years. At the time, laptops were expensive and easily broken. To me, they only made sense for students and businesspeople, but not really for anyone else. Prices eventually went down, but even then, I was uncertain of the quality of the less-expensive models. I was also unwilling to spend enough to purchase one of decent quality; I figured that even the best laptop wouldn’t last very long. That mindset kept me from even considering a laptop. I would occasionally flirt with the idea, but would never follow through on it.
ENTER THE NETBOOK
I was intrigued by Netbooks when they first came onto the scene, but I initially turned my nose up at them. They had limited storage space, cramped keyboards, underpowered processors, small screens, no CD/DVD drives (admittedly, not as big a deal as it used to be) and just plain could not do all of the things that a full-powered notebook could. Also, my T-Mobile Dash was good enough to get by when I was “off the grid.” I could check my email and do some light web browsing with my Dash, and that was all I needed.
It soon occurred to me that if the only things that I were doing on the road were email and web browsing, why not do them on a bigger screen using an actual computer that could also do a few other things? After all, whenever I was on the road, I was doing little things like email and web. The desktop was for all the big nasty stuff. I figured that spending $300 on a quality Netbook was a better idea than spending $400-600 on a cheap notebook, so I picked up a HP Mini 1116NR at Ye Olde Best Buy.
The first thing that impressed me about the Mini was its size. The length and width are about equal to a comic book and it is only one inch tall. The 8.9-inch screen is nice, but I should have spent the extra fifty bucks for the 10. The keyboard is easily one of the best things about the Mini. According to HP, the keyboard is about 92% the size of a laptop keyboard, and quickly took to it. Incidentally, the iMac’s keyboard is just a bit larger, the difference being a little additional space in between the keys. Unlike the iMac’s keyboard, though, the Mini’s keyboard also has all the keys I need to get around Windows. The touch pad took a little getting used to, and I eventualy started carrying my iMac’s Mighty Mouse around for extended computing.
I was a little disappointed with the Mini’s performance at first; there were noticeable lags when running Firefox, and occasionally the system would stutter as if waiting for something. It also seemed to take awhile to get going after I turned it on.
After doing some research I found that the main bottleneck is the hard drive. The Mini has a new-fangled Solid State Drive which is basically some flash memory chips with a hard drive controller attached. The benefits are durability and reduced power usage, but they come at the cost of speed and performance. After doing some searching online, I found some Windows tweaks that improved performance somewhat, and tossed in an extra gigabyte of memory for good measure. The Mini takes a little while to get up to speed, but once it gets going, the performance is acceptable for web browsing and running Microsoft Word. I have also been able to do some light audio editing using Audacity. Frankly, I think this could be a pretty capable PC if it had a regular hard drive.
Speaking of the hard drive, the 1116NR has a 16GB hard drive, about half of which is taken up by Windows and the (thankfully small) amount of crapware installed on the machine. Expansion options are available (see below) and an SD card slot provides an easyway to transfer files.
ON THE ROAD
The first “road trip” I took with the Mini was to my parents’ house for Easter. Everyone oohed and aaahed at the Mini’s size and I was pleased to find that I could tether it to my cell phone and surf the Net at a whopping 10 mb/sec on T-Mobile’s crappy 2G cell phone network. The connection would get flaky at times, and T-Mobile’s 3G coverage is way behind their competitors. I think I’ll be looking for a new cell phone provider when my contract ends in December.
I soon bought a small case for the Mini, and while I’m pretty sure carrying it around costs me a few Man Points, the utility of having everything I need (and a few things I don’t) is worth it.
Ironically, the HP Mini’s biggest problem is HP. I know that they have mouths to feed at home, and stockholders that need to be kept happy, but there are some pretty blatant design decisions that appear to have been made for the sake of squeezing more money out of customers. It might be good business, but certain things come off as outright “dick moves” when compared to other Netbooks.
Many Netbooks have standard VGA connectors, which are identical to those found on full-sized notebooks. These are used to connect the Netbook to a monitor, which can be used as a secondary display. You simply plug the monitor’s cable into the connector and press the appropriate button. Instead of a standard VGA connector, though, the HP Mini uses a custom connector, which, of course, requires a custom cable, which, of course, can be bought from HP. Shortly after I purchased the Mini, I went to HP’s website to see how much the cable was going to cost. Initially, the cable was priced at $20…and was out of stock. A few weeks later, the cable was available, but priced at $35. While I certainly now have no intention of using the Mini’s VGA-out functionality, I would be pretty upset if I needed to.
The HP Mini also “features” a recessed USB port on the right side to the back. This connector is for HP’s “Mini Mobile” expansion drive, which can be had for $25 and bumps up the Mini’s internal storage capacity by an additional 4GB. Some smart guy figured out that the “Mini Mobile” drive was actually a thin Transcend USB drive attached to a cover…the same cover that is included with the HP Mini. I picked up a 8GB drive for $30 from Amazon, attached the cover, snapped it into place, and got twice the storage capacity for only a few dollars more.
The Mini’s 3-cell battery life clocks in at about two and a half to three hours. I have read that is good for a Netbook, but I find myself looking for an outlet quicker than I would like to at the coffee shop. HP is more than happy to sell an extended life battery for over a hundred dollars which makes zero sense to me considering that it raises the Mini’s cost of ownership into cheap-laptop territory, which, in my opinion, defeats the purpose of a Netbook!
Overall, the Mini does its job well, has a great keyboard and screen, and is highly portable.
If I could go back and do it again, though, I would have gone with the 10-inch screen, as well as purchasing a Mini with a standard hard drive instead of the SSD. In my opinion, the performance hit that comes from using a SSD is too high, and mars what is an otherwise nice portable computer. Also, while I can easily live with 16GB of storage, I know I am in the minority.
Despite the performance issues and HP’s over-reliance on add-ons, I have enjoyed my Mini so far, and hope to continue to do so for some time. I may try to install Windows 7 out of morbid curiosity, XP is growing a little long in the tooth, and I hear 7 has some SSD optimizations that just might give the Mini a performance boost.
The decision to get a Netbook rests on whether you can live with the compromises that come with owning one. The HP Mini is not meant for power users or gamers, but for those who would like an inexpensive computer to handle light duties while on the road, it hits the spot.
NOTE: The author received no compensation for this review.