What's not: Windows 7 graphics performance better for video but a little worse for gaming.
Reviewed October 14, 2009 by Lisa Gade, Editor
We've been waiting a year for the first NVIDIA ION netbook to hit the streets, and HP's the first in the US. They decided to ship the new HP Mini 311 several weeks ahead of other brands, and not wait for the Windows 7 rollout. HP will offer 311 models with your choice of Windows XP or Windows 7 after October 22, 2009 when Win7 goes on sale. If you want Windows 7 we suggest you wait since the XP model doesn't offer the same video playback performance under Windows 7 as it does under XP (this issue may be ameliorated by future driver and BIOS releases, but no promises there). Thanks to ION, video and gaming performance are miraculous by netbook standards under XP and the upcoming Windows 7 version of the Mini 311 is just as good.
What's so special about ION? It's basically the NVIDIA GeForce 9400M chipset reworked for the Intel Atom netbook CPU and chipset. While Atom netbooks with Intel integrated graphics (that's every netbook shipped with the exception of the HP Mini 311 as of this writing) do a poor job of video playback, an ION-equipped netbook is something of an idiot savant-- it doesn't have the CPU to do heavy computational tasks but it can play video like a champ. It does a better job than full-sized notebooks with Intel integrated graphics, in fact. That's because the ION is derived from the 9400M, a mid-level graphics solution for notebooks that's found on the MacBook and several other notebooks that want to give you more video and gaming love than standard Intel fare. So we can finally say "hello mobile multimedia machine" to a lowly netbook. This is the first significant performance innovation we've seen since the netbook craze started with the grand-daddy ASUS Eee PC 4G a few years back. There's finally a reason to upgrade, and we expect to see several brands and models sporting the ION in the coming months (Lenovo has announced their 12" S12 with Ion and Samsung has released the N510 overseas). If we gave Editor's Choice awards to technologies rather than products, we'd give one to NVIDIA for their ION platform. It will shift the netbook from web surfing and email machine to a movie and gaming portable.
The HP Mini 311 weighs 3.2 lbs. and has an 11.6" display.
Since these ION machines support HD video, we probably won't see it on 10" netbooks in the short term. They're more ideally mated with higher resolution displays, and thus the HP Mini 311 is an 11.6" netbook running at 1366 x 768 resolution (adequate for 720p playback direct to the LCD and full 1080i to a TV or monitor via HDMI or VGA). What's the difference between the ION and ION LE? The ION LE costs less but it supports only DirectX 9, not 10. Gamers, take note. Though honestly, I'm not betting that any Atom netbook is really up to full DirectX 10 gaming. NVIDIA states that all other specs and streaming video playback, including HD video, are the same on the ION LE as the ION.
Now that we've covered what ION offers, let's take a look at the Mini 311 itself. The standard $399 configuration comes with an LED backlit 1366 x 768 display, the 1.66GHz Intel Atom N270 CPU, NVIDIA ION LE graphics, a 160 gig hard drive, 1 gig of DDR3 RAM, WiFi 802.11b/g, a 6 cell battery and a 5-in-1 card reader (SD size). If you build to order on HP's web site you can upgrade to the Atom N280 ($25), WiFi 802.11n ($25) and add Bluetooth ($25). It seems everything you might want or miss can be added $25 at a time. If the specs seem just like every other netbook on the market, it's because Microsoft and Intel put limits on what the Atom and Windows XP can run on. Look for these limits to raise a bit with Windows 7 (at least RAM and hard drive capacity). Unlike prior netbooks, the Mini 311 maxes out at 3 gigs of RAM rather than 1 or 2.
The netbook looks much like HP's full-sized notebooks in the Pavilion line, just smaller. It's attractive and doesn't scream "cheesy netbook", thanks to curved lines, very good fit and finish and attractive gloss finishes. The lid sports HP's usual Imprint Finish; this one has small swirls and a few dots. It's available in black and white (white costs $20 more-- why we can't tell you). The lid is high gloss but somehow not super-slippery and it shows fingerprints aplenty. The keyboard deck is gloss silver plastic and the large trackpad is also glossy though it's not slick and finger movement isn't accentuated (in fact, it's a little slow). Happily, HP has more room on the 11.6" model and they've dropped the hideous side mouse buttons for a standard bottom of the trackpad location. There is no trackpad on/off switch, so be mindful of your palms when typing.
The keyboard is 92% of full size and is quite easy to type on. Though it lacks the lovely island style keyboard found on the Toshiba mini NB205 and Sony Vaio W, it's large and roomy, and each key has a little depression that helps with accuracy and feel. The keyboard doesn't look terribly durable and you can see key mechanisms underneath the slightly separated keys. The keyboard has plenty of travel, and there's more travel at the left and right sides vs. center.
The power button and wireless on/off button live on the keyboard deck and there are caps lock, charging status and HD activity LEDs. The Altec Lansing stereo speakers live at the front edge under a grille and they sound much better than average for a netbook.
We heap mounds of praise on HP for elegantly designed internals that result in one easy access area to upgrade RAM, the hard drive, wireless and WAN. Two phillips head screws secure a large door on the netbook's bottom. Inside it's neat, tidy and ready for tinkering. The hard drive pulls out via a mylar pull tab, the RAM slot beckons (empty from the factory since the 1 gig of RAM is soldered on the motherboard) and the wireless cards are secured with a screw or two. After reviewing the ASUS Eee PC 1005HA, an otherwise lovely little netbook that requires near complete disassembly to access the hard drive, we're thrilled with the HP.
The HP Mini 311 is an upgrader's paradise. We've put a 2 gig SODIMM in the RAM slot, it ships empty.
Performance, Windows XP and Windows 7
The Mini, as we'd expected, did much better on the graphics portion of the PCMark05 benchmark than other netbooks to date. For comparison we've included the benchmarks from the Toshiba mini NB205, one of the fastest netbooks released to date (it also has the slightly faster Intel Atom N280 CPU).
We don't usually test netbooks with more modern and demanding programs since they're just not up to the task. But in the HP's case, we ran 3DMark06 and got a score of 1510 which is incredible for a netbook.
Display, Sound and WiFi
The Mini has HP's BrightView LED backlit display running at 1366 x 768 resolution. It can drive an external monitor via the VGA port and output to a TV via HDMI. The LCD itself is bright but is lacking in contrast and color saturation. Movies don't pop out with vivid colors and text isn't very high contrast-- it's not as good as the Sony Vaio W or even the ASUS Eee PC 1005HA. We assume HP had to cut some corners to get the price down to $399, hence the OK but not great LCD.
The Mini's speakers are better than the average netbook's. The stereo Altec Lansing speakers are loud and clear. It helps that they're not bottom firing like many netbooks: instead they're located along the front edge under a grille.
WiFi 802.11b/g is standard, and an upgrade to 802.11n costs $25 more. WiFi throughput with the Broadcomm-branded module is very good and speeds didn't drop within 20 feet of the router. Past 20 feet, data transfer speeds were better than average until the 50 foot mark. Bluetooth is optional and it adds yet another $25 to the cost of a Mini 311.
Imprint swirl finish that loves fingerprints.
Graphics, Video and Gaming
The ION LE really impressed us in the Mini 311 under XP. It plays iTunes SD content flawlessly (and Apple's SD content is relatively high res and high bitrate). It played iTunes HD content decently with some frame drops and loss of sync (pausing and resuming playback brings back sync when it's lost). That's very impressive since iTunes HD content kills many notebooks and it's a challenging 1280 x 720 encoded at 4685 kbps on average (that's a very high bitrate).
720p video streamed from the web via Apple's QuickTime trailer site played perfectly. Locally stored video in WMV and MPEG4 (H.264) formats at DVD resolution to 720 x 360 pixels and 2000Kbps played perfectly.
Here's our video showing the HP Mini 311 playing SD iTunes content, HD iTunes video content, a movie encoded at 720 x 360 in MPEG4 (H.264) format, 2,000 kbps and YouTube streaming HQ content:
NVIDIA ION LE specs:
Memory: DDR3 1066/DDR-800
Graphics cores: 16
Texture fill rate: 3.6 billion/sec
128 bit HDR
16x max anti-aliasing rate
NVIDIA Pure Video HD with full 1080p video decode
Supports VGA and HDMI connections
ION also handles the HDD, networking, audio and USB with support for SATA 3Gb/s, 10/100/1000 Ethernet and HD audio.
This isn't your ideal Crysis rig but enough to play some fairly demanding DirectX 9 games at reasonable frame rates and resolutions with effects set to low. For the easy category we tested Rise of Nations and Age of Empires III both of which ran well. RON ran at 60fps at 1024 x 768 (the game is too old to support the Mini 311's higher native resolution). We upped the ante and tried F.E.A.R. 2 at native resolution. With effects set to low and off, it played smoothly. See our video below:
The HP Mini 311 with NVIDIA ION LE playing F.E.A.R. 2 at 1366 x 768 resolution with effects set to low:
What doesn't the HP Mini 311 and NVIDIA ION do well? Flash video such as that on Hulu.com in full screen mode. Flash uses the CPU rather than GPU to decode Flash video, and that's the problem. That's supposed to change by the end of 2009 or the beginning of 2010 when Adobe releases a new version of the Flash player that uses NVIDIA GPUs (including ION). Until then, no full screen, high res Hulu for you on the Mini 311. YouTube however plays well at standard and HQ resolutions, including full screen mode, though you'll notice frame drops in full screen HQ mode.
* Note: our first review unit was defective and had significant graphics problems under Windows 7. Our replacement unit did a better job of video playback than did Windows XP: a marked turnaround. We tested the Mini 311 with Windows 7 Enterprise RTM (the release version of Enterprise that's comparable to the consumer Ultimate edition). It ran very well and we only needed to download drivers for the NVIDIA chipset and graphics card via NVIDIA's website to get everything working properly (make sure to do this before Windows auto downloads drivers and before you run the Windows Experience Index test so the hardware is set up properly). The OS itself and Aero run very well (scoring 4.5 and 4.1 in the Windows Experience Index) and video playback of challenging material was even more impressiv,e managing fluid playback of 1280 x 720 HD content encoded at 2,000 kbps (WMV format). That same WMV clip stuttered badly in XP with Windows Media Player (Media Player Home Cinema with K-Lite codecs did a much better job). Gaming took a minor hit, and we lost about 5-8 frames in demanding games like F.E.A.R. 2 and 3DMark06 dropped 150 points (though the figure was still impressive for a netbook).
In a phrase: suprisingly good. ATOM-based Netbooks often have good runtimes since they have low power CPUs, integrated graphics and small displays. But the NVIDIA graphics is more power hungry as we've witnessed when it's cousin, the GeForce 9400m is used on full-sized notebooks. The HP's 6 cell battery (nicely integrated into the chasis rather than sticking out like a growth) lasted us close to 6 hours on charge with the display brightness set to 75%, WiFi on and doing things like surfing the web, playing streaming YouTube for short bouts and working on Office documents. It managed 3 hours of Rise of Nations (the game ended before the netbook gave up).
The netbook runs relatively quietly and doesn't get terribly hot. The fan is unobtrusive unless you're playing a long piece in Hulu or doing something that maxes out the CPU for long periods of time. The CPU runs at 32 centigrade when under a moderate load (viewing web pages) and the GPU runs at 40 to 45 degrees. Under heavy load (playing video) the CPU reached a max of 45 and the GPU 50 degrees. This are fairly low and accepible temperatures, especially for a system with accelerated graphics.
The HP Mini 311 is the first netbook with the NVIDIA ION chipset and graphics, which earns it praise and a smidgen of reservation. It's a great machine for the price and the graphics performance makes video playback other than high quality Flash video pleasant and gaming is a go. But we haven't seen the competition yet, so we can't tell you where it stands against yet to be released Ion netbooks. Given the standards control that Microsoft and Intel work on the netbook platform, we don't expect major differences from other brands however. We suspect the ION LE will prevail in the short term since it's less expensive and the netbook is all about cutthroat pricing, but if you're looking for Direct X 10 support, wait for a full ION netbook (which may cost $50 to $75 more). Likewise, if Windows 7 is important to you, wait for HP's shipping version.
Pro: A solid machine for the money with really impressive graphics performance for a netbook. Good battery life for a machine with this kind of graphics power and an 11.6" display. Runs quiet and cool.
Con: Gaming performance currently takes a small hit under Windows 7. Screen isn't terribly color-saturated nor does it have high good contrast. Screen glare is distracting. Neither a restore CD nor a restore partition come with the Mini 311; you must order one from HP for $15 if you need it or rely on Roxio Back on Track to make backup images of your hard drive.
Price: $399 standard model as reviewed (more if you add upgrades)
Display:11.6" HD LED BrightView display, 1366 x 768 resolution. NVIDIA ION LE graphics card (NVIDIA 9400M) with 256 megs dedicated DDR3 memory.
Battery:6 cell Lithium
Ion rechargeable. 65 watt compact world AC charger included.
Atom N270 1.66GHz CPU (Atom N280 1.66GHz is optional). 1 gig DDR3 RAM soldered onto motherboard. Has 1 DDR3 1066MHz SODIMM slot for memory upgrades up to 3 gigs total. 160 gig, 5400 RPM SATA hard drive.
Size:11.4 x 8.03 x 0.78-1.2 inches. Weight: 3.22 pounds.
Keyboard and Pointing Device: 92% of full size keyboard, Alps two button trackpad with vertical scrolling area. No trackpad on/off switch.
in Altec Lansing stereo speakers, combined 3.5mm mic and stereo headphone
jack (4 conductor jack).
WiFi 802.11b/g (WiFi b/g/n optional), Bluetooth is optional. 10/100 wired Ethernet. Wireless on/off button is on keyboard deck.
XP Home Edition, SP3. Windows 7 expected after October 22, 2009. Norton Internet Security 15 month subscription, MS Works 9, Roxio system backup/restore software, HP utilities.