Logo   Banner   TopRight
TopUnder
Transparent
HP Mini 311 Ion-Based Netbook Review
Transparent
Date: Dec 14, 2009
Section:Mobile
Author: Shawn Oliver
Transparent
Introduction and Specifications


HP's Mini range of netbooks have been well respected in the industry, and while they were never as instrumental as Asus in the explosion of the netbook as a whole, they've really managed to nail their niche. From the start, the HP Mini was one of the most fashionable netbook lines out there, boasting subtle curves, a uniform keyboard, gorgeous styling cues and a larger-than-average trackpad. By and large, the Mini lineup hasn't changed too much since its introduction, but that has mainly been the case because Windows XP was pretty much the only operating system available for it (Linux alternatives notwithstanding). Couple that with the limited Atom CPU lineup and the struggle to keep costs down, and we're left with a colorful line of machines that don't actually differ much from one another, save for designs and accents.



Now, there are two major reasons to pay close attention to the Mini 311. It may follow the prior Minis in terms of size and style, but it's the differences within that promise to make this a new, refreshed machine. For starters, HP has loaded Windows 7 onto this machine. We waited for what felt like forever to finally have Windows 7 available for netbooks, and we can confess that it really adds a touch of style and functionality compared to older models with XP. The second major addition is NVIDIA's Ion technology, which--according to NVIDIA--is "essentially the same chipset as our GeForce 9400M used in higher end products like the MacBook line." It's labeled Ion, but if you were wondering what GPU was actually under the hood, there's your answer. This is obviously superior to more generic integrated options like Intel's GMA500, but we were curious to see exactly how much of a difference it made. The CPU is still a lower-end 1.6GHz Atom N270, so can a bolstered GPU really make an average netbook a netbook that's better-than-average? Let's find out.


Highly Stylized - Click To Enlarge

HP Mini 311 Netbook
Specifications and Features (as tested)
  • Intel Atom N270 CPU (1.6GHz)
  • 2GB of RAM 
  • 11.6" LCD (1366x768 resolution)
  • NVIDIA Ion Graphics (Based on NVIDIA GeForce 9400M)
  • 250GB (5400RPM) Seagate Momentus 5400.6 Hard Drive
  • 802.11b/g Wi-Fi
  • No Optical Drive
  • HP Webcam
  • VGA and HDMI Outputs
  • USB 2.0 x 3
  • RJ-45 (Ethernet 10/100)
  • Headphone / Mic Input Jacks
  • SD / MMC / MSPro / xD Multimedia Card Reader
  • Stereo Speakers
  • 92% Full-Size Keyboard
  • Gesture-Enabled Multi-Touch Trackpad
  • 3.2 Pounds (with 6-cell battery installed)
  • Removable 6-Cell Li-ion Battery
  • 11.4" x 8.03" x 0.78-1.20" (Dimensions)
  • Windows 7 Home Premium
  • Price (street): $530.99




You'll notice that the specifications here are somewhat more advanced than on the Mini 311 that shipped back before Windows 7 was out; the 2GB of RAM is a welcome addition, as is the Ion GPU and spacious 11.6" display. You'll also notice that these extras cost dearly, as this is one of only a few netbooks that break the $500 barrier (heading north, that is).

Transparent
Design and Build Quality


HP's Mini range of netbooks has always struck us as being high quality. The build materials always feel top notch, and the form and fit is also stellar. We're pleased to say that the Mini 311 we have on hand continues this tradition, as it's easily one of the best built netbooks we've had the pleasure of testing. From top to bottom, this machine feels like more than just a netbook in terms of quality; granted, it's also much more expensive than most netbooks, so we guess that's to be expected.


Click To Enlarge

Still, we have to credit HP for not cutting corners when it comes to design and build quality. On a netbook, it's easy to get away with "cheaping out" on the actual enclosure, but that's absolutely not the case on this one. We can't help but point out that the keyboard is the most solid keyboard we've seen to date on a netbook. Hands down. There is absolutely no flex whatsoever present, making it one of the most solid typing experiences on any machine, and definitely the most solid on a netbook.


Click To Enlarge

We also love the minimalism here. HP relies on a subtle spiral design on the top lid along with a basic silver/black motif on the inside. It's quiet, it's classy, and we like it. It's the perfect balance of "all business" and "hip," and it can easily be carried around by corporate users or culture-loving teens.

    
Click Any To Enlarge

We also like the placement of the speaker bar just under the front lip of the machine; this keeps the area around the keyboard cleaner and puts the drivers at a nice angle. The only knock we have here is the extra glossy LCD bezel, which loves to attract fingerprints.

    
Click Any To Enlarge

The silver keyboard reminds us a lot of the keyboard on Apple's MacBook Pro. If you enjoy that keyboard, you'll appreciate these solid keys as well. The trackpad is also well built, though we did take issue with the texture (which we'll touch more on later). At 3.3lbs., this one won't burden you down to badly, and we appreciate the third USB 2.0 port as well as the VGA and HDMI sockets. There's even an Ethernet port for those who prefer to go wired when tapping into a network.

    
Click Any To Enlarge

The LCD hinge was just about perfect. The flex and fold happened smoothly, and it stuck perfectly at whatever position we stopped it at. We also appreciate the removable battery; this enables road warriors to carry around extra cells for extra untethered life. Finally, the 11.6" display is great for two reasons. First, it allows for a better-than-average 1366x768 resolution, and second, it allows for a 92% full-size keyboard, which makes typing extremely comfortable even for long periods of time.


Click To Enlarge


Transparent
Software and Accessories


You may be paying extra for this netbook compared to its contemporaries, but you can rest assured that your extra change won't be going to useless software and accessories. The Mini 311 comes with just a few things: a box, the machine itself, an AC power brick and an AC cable. That's it. No case, no mouse, nothing else. You'll get the bare essentials and that's it, so you'll want to factor those "extras" you possibly desire into your budget.


Click To Enlarge

On the software front, you'll find Windows 7 Home Premium on board. This is a huge step up from Windows XP, which was the OS of choice for most netbooks just a few months ago. You won't find too much bloatware loaded on, but that's not to say it's devoid of applications that you'll want to tweak or uninstall right away. The Norton anti-virus software is a real nag; right when you boot up for the first time, you'll be greeted with a huge pop-up that encourages you to continue the installation--only so it can nag you later to upgrade to the full version, we assume. That's not a very good user experience to kick things off.


Click To Enlarge

You'll also get a trial version of the Microsoft Office Suite and not much else. ArcSoft's WebCam Companion 3, CyberLink's DVD Suite, a Pandora app, Microsoft Works, and an NVIDIA control panel are thrown in, but otherwise you'll just find the typical Windows 7 inclusions and lots of room for everything else--things you'll be forced to pick up yourself.


Click To Enlarge

Transparent
User Experience


Let's be really clear here: using the Mini 311 is a far nicer experience in pretty much every aspect when compared to using the Windows XP netbooks that have preceded it. Windows 7 is a pleasure to use, and it's great to see such an advanced operating system running like butter on the same 1.6GHz Atom N270 CPU that couldn't even run Vista adequately. So right away, you're left with a much better experience just by having Windows 7 onboard; in other words, you could add Win7 to any other older netbook and likely be more pleased with the overall experience.


Click To Enlarge

But Windows 7 is only a part of the equation. This netbook also ships with 2GB of RAM, which is double what we're used to on machines in this class. This is a huge help. Applications load faster, multitasking is more feasible and everything is just generally less sluggish thanks to having more memory on tap.

We will say, however, that you won't forget that you're using an Atom-based machine. Even though things are somewhat faster, the machine is still noticeably slower to restore a Firefox instance with ten open tabs than on a Core 2 Duo (or faster) machine. The Atom CPU is certainly the bottleneck here, and until we get a new wave of faster Atoms, it's just a reality that we have to deal with. The notebook is plenty fast to handle basic duties (Word processing, email, web browsing, etc.), but don't expect to handle any advanced tasks here. Gaming, A/V editing and serious multimedia usage is still out of reach, even despite the Ion GPU.


Click To Enlarge

Speaking of the Ion, it's a real boon to netbooks. On other netbooks that we've reviewed that use Intel's integrated GMA500 graphics, we couldn't even get our 720p and 1080p test clips to run at a reasonable rate. On this machine, each and every test clip played back perfectly smooth. Even the 1080p trailers were played back with ease, enabling us to watch high-quality videos on a machine small enough to fit on a coach-class tray table. As you'll see in future pages, the CPU was nearly pegged while playing these videos back (so you can't really multitask when watching them), but at least it's possible. That's far more than we could say about the non-Ion netbooks that we've tested in the past.

We should take this opportunity to reassure you: gaming isn't possible on this machine, even with the Ion. We fired up Half-Life 2, and during our test demo loop, we never saw the game play at over 12 frames per second. It was incredibly laggy and utterly unplayable. Unless you cranked the resolution down to the lowest possible level and disabled all special effects, you won't be playing a serious 3D title--and even after that, it's a toss-up as to whether even an older game will actually be quick enough on the system to be enjoyed. At the end of the day, the Ion enables multimedia playback that cannot be achieved on other netbooks, but that's about it.


Click To Enlarge

Moving on to the keyboard and trackpad, we can safely say that the typing experience here is second to none. The well-built, rigid keyboard honestly feels full-size (though it's only 92% full-size), and we had no issues typing on it for long periods. You could easily write up page-long reports on this sans issue. That can't be said for most netbooks. The layout is also fantastic, and we had essentially no "adjustment period" to speak of. The trackpad, however, was another story. It's rather large, but it's too slick and not sensitive enough. It's also not a true multi-touch pad; it only supports scrolling on the side, so pinch-and-zoom gestures are out. Moreover, the right/left click buttons are too close to the edge and too small in general, which makes them awkward to press. That'd be fine if the pad was good at recognizing right-clicks and double-clicks, but it's not. In other words, you better bring along an external mouse if you plan to use this machine for long; otherwise you'll quickly grow frustrated with the mousing scheme available.

The 11.6" (1366x768) display is bright and crisp, and the viewing angles were on par with other netbooks that we'd seen. We greatly appreciated the extra screen real estate, and considering that 720p video playback is no issue here, it comes in handy. We will say that the glossy panel attracted lots of dust in our testing, and it's not the best screen for outdoor use due to intense reflections. But good luck trying to find a netbook out there with Ion and a matte panel.


Click To Enlarge

Transparent
Gaming Benchmark (ET: Quake Wars)

HotHardware's Test Systems
Covering the bases

HP Mini 311
Atom N270, 1.6GHz, FSB 533MHz
2GB DDR2-800
NVIDIA Ion
On-Board Ethernet
On-Board Audio
250GB Seagate HD
5400 RPM SATA

Windows 7

Asus EeeTop ES2002
Atom 330, 1.6GHz, FSB 533MHz
2GB DDR3-1066
NVIDIA Ion
On-Board Ethernet
On-Board Audio
250GB Seagate HD
5400 RPM SATA

Windows 7

Zotac MAG HD-ND01
Intel Atom 330
NVIDIA ION board
2GB DDR2-800
NVIDIA ION
160GB Toshiba HDD (5400 RPM, 8MB cache)
Windows 7

Acer Aspire Revo
I
ntel Atom 230
NVIDIA ION board
2GB DDR2-800
NVIDIA ION
160GB Toshiba HDD (5400 RPM, 8MB cache)
Windows Vista

 

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars
OpenGL Gaming Performance


Enemy Territory:
Quake Wars

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars is Based on an enhanced version of id's Doom 3 engine and viewed by many as Battlefield 2 meets the Strogg, and then some. ET: Quake Wars also marks the introduction of John Carmack's "Megatexture" technology that employs large environment and terrain textures that cover vast areas of maps without the need to repeat and tile many smaller textures. The beauty of megatexture technology is that each unit only takes up a maximum of 8MB of frame buffer memory. Add to that HDR-like bloom lighting and leading edge shadowing effects and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars looks great, plays well and works high end graphics cards vigorously.





So few netbooks have shipped with 2GB of RAM and an Ion GPU that we're forced to compare the Mini 311 to a handful of Atom-based nettops that we've seen in the past. Not surprisingly, the Mini 311 is the weakest of the bunch. Even at 800x600 with all details set to "medium," the game is simply unplayable. The demo reel completed without crashing, but it stuttered the entire way through. Put simply, you won't achieve high enough frame rates on the Mini 311--unless by "gaming" you're talking about less taxing titles like World of Warcraft and the like.
Transparent
Futuremark PCMark Vantage & 3DMark06


We ran the Mini 311 through Futuremark‚Äôs latest system performance metric PCMark Vantage. This benchmark suite creates a host of different usage scenarios to simulate different types of workloads including High Definition TV and movie playback and manipulation, gaming, image editing and manipulation, music compression, communications, and productivity. We like the fact that most of the tests are multi-threaded as well, in order to exploit the additional resources offered by multi-core processors. We should also note that this is the first bona fide "netbook" that we've been able to run through this battery of tests, so don't be shocked by the low numbers in comparison to these full-fledged notebooks we're being forced to put it up against. We guess it's a victory in and of itself to see a netbook even load and complete these benchmarks!



The Mini 311 performs well here. As we said earlier, most netbooks can't even handle this test, and honestly, the scores here aren't bad considering that an aging 1.6GHz Atom N270 CPU is powering things. We have high hopes that Intel's next round of Atom CPUs will be more powerful, though we do appreciate the benefits of the Ion GPU. Though we can't help but wonder just how much better these scores would be if an SSD was used.


Click To Enlarge



We've just started to run 3DMark06 on netbooks, and are still compiling a new database of 3DMark 06 scores from Atom-based netbooks. Until that happens, we'll give you a look at what kind of score the Mini 311 is capable of. You'll notice that these results are significantly lower than even modern CULV systems, but given the aged hardware, it's somewhat of an accomplishment to see the Mini 311 even complete the task without artifacts or crashing entirely.


HP Mini 311 3DMark 06 CPU Score; Click To Enlarge
Transparent
SiSoftware Sandra & Multimedia Benchmarks

Testing with SiSoft SANDRA 2009
Synthetic Benchmarks

We continued our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA 2009, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant.  We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests (CPU Arithmetic, Multimedia, Memory Bandwidth, Physical Disks).

 
CPU Arithmetic Test; Click To Enlarge


CPU Multimedia Test; Click To Enlarge


Memory Bandwidth Test; Click To Enlarge


Physical Disc Test; Click To Enlarge

You'll notice that the Atom N270 CPU is rather weak in testing, and it's rather weak in practice. The 2GB of RAM and Ion GPU definitely helps on those fronts, but the 5400RPM is predictably sluggish when compared to other options. Still, for a netbook this is about as good as it gets when the current lineup of available technology.
 
To test multimedia capabilities, we attempt to play back a 720p WMVHD clip, a 720p H.264 clip and a 1080p clip.


Click To Enlarge; 720 H.264


Click To Enlarge; 720p WMVHD


Click To Enlarge; 1080p on HP Mini 311 w/ Ion


Click To Enlarge; 1080p on Lenovo S10, Atom + 945GME


The Mini 311 was able to handle each and every HD file we threw at it. Even the high-bitrate 720p and 1080p movie trailers were played back smoothly. The CPU was severely taxed, but if we kept it from running any other heavy duty tasks in the background, we never saw a single hiccup or stutter in playback. That's really, really impressive for an Atom N270-based netbook. This feat of multimedia prowess was literally impossible with older GMA500/Windows XP-based setups. Add an extra gigabyte of RAM, Windows 7 and NVIDIA's Ion, and suddenly you've got a netbook that can play back 720p and 1080p with no issue.
Transparent
Battery Performance


HP's Mini 311 is a great mix of portability and power, in our opinion. The Atom N270 enables great the battery life, while the Ion GPU enables it to be more powerful than the average netbook. That said, this netbook certainly won't last as long as some (Asus' Eee PC 1000HE comes to mind), but if ~4 hours on a single charge is generally plenty for you, we'd say you'll appreciate having the Ion GPU onboard.


Click To Enlarge

Even if ~4 hours isn't enough, at least HP lets you buy extra batteries so that you can have a spare around if need be. We found that our test rig could go for just over 4 hours under "real world" testing, with Wi-Fi enabled, the display always on at 70% brightness and a simulated round of basic tasks humming in the background. If you flip the wireless options off and keep the display at 10%, you'll obviously see an even better result.



For a 6-cell battery in an 11.6" machine with a relatively substantial GPU, the 262 minutes of life isn't half bad. In fact, we were generally satisfied with the result, particularly when you consider that over 5 hours is totally within reason if you're careful with your usage patterns and screen brightness.

Transparent
Summary and Conclusion


Performance Summary: In our SiSoftware Sandra tests, the Mini 311 did well in comparison to the reference systems in the CPU benchmarks, and it matched up well against rival components in other areas too. Bootup was a painful experience (particularly with Norton's anti-virus hogging all of the resources right from the get-go in an attempt to get you to register), and until applications were loaded into memory, multitasking was also a bit sluggish. Windows 7 does a good job of managing this as best it can, but there's only so much you can do before the Atom CPU within begins to drag. We would have liked to have seen a faster hard drive or an SSD in the system over the 5400rpm drive that is included, but we understand the need to keep costs down. The decision to insert 2GB of RAM (compared to 1GB in most netbooks) really helped out, as switching between applications was far easier on this system compared to netbooks we tested just a few weeks ago. We were impressed with this unit's ability to handle our more advanced benchmarks, thanks to its Ion GPU, but this puppy can't handle high-end gaming or heavy 3D tasks. It played back 720p and 1080p content without stuttering, but doing so really pegged the CPU. The 6-cell battery lasted just our 4 hours in our "real world" test simulation, which is definitely respectable for a machine with more than just a plain GMA500 GPU.



If you're in the market for a netbook, it's hard to recommend any machine right now. Intel is widely expected to launch at least one (if not two) new Atom models at CES in just a few weeks, and while they probably won't be huge steps up from the existing N270/N280, they'll still be somewhat more capable. The 1.6GHz N270 in this machine is feeling old at this point. The Ion GPU definitely breaths new life into it, but at over $500, the particular configuration we tested still isn't as potent as we would like it to be. It will handle 720p and 1080p playback but bootup and application loading is still sluggish thanks to its single-core Atom chip.


Click To Enlarge

If you can get past its somewhat aged processor, most everything offered here is really refined. The keyboard is amazingly solid, the screen is beautiful and larger-than-average for a netbook, and 2GB of RAM certainly helps out. Windows 7 also makes a positive difference here, but the 5400RPM HDD won't break any records. Replacing that with an SSD would certainly help cover up the low-end 1.6GHz Atom CPU but would also add to total solution cost significantly, obviously. HP's Mini 311 is stylish, solid and classy with top-notch fit and finish, but it's one of the most expensive netbooks on the market at around $530 (street). With CES just around the bend, we can't really recommend sinking that much money on a CPU that was shipping in netbooks over a year ago, unless you simply can't afford to wait and see what happens in early 2010.  That said, with the enormous success of Dell's Mini 10v this holiday shopping season, this is a welcomed alternative from HP that packs a bit more punch for the multimedia-driven end user.

     
  • NVIDIA Ion makes HD playback possible
  • Fantastic Keyboard
  • Spacious 11.6" Display
  • Three USB 2.0 Ports + HDMI
  • Windows 7 Onboard
  • Stays Rather Cool

 

  • 1.6GHz Atom N270 Is Aged
  • 5400RPM HDD Is Sluggish
  • Preinstalled Bloatware
  • Lackluster Trackpad
  • Very Glossy Display
  • Pricey

 




Content Property of HotHardware.com