HP's 2133 Mini-Note takes on the Eee PC

The latest ultraportable is a bit heavier and pricier than the Eee, but has a better screen and sleek design

Last year, Asustek's Eee PC became a surprise hit by providing far more power and usability than a smart phone for light-traveling road warriors with far less expense and bulk than a traditional laptop. HP's new 2133 Mini-Note PC goes even further, providing a bigger, brighter screen and a host of other advantages that could make the device a mainstream hit.

The new HP mini-notebook computer is a bit bulkier and slightly more expensive than the Eee, but it is also more powerful, polished and usable. It does a good -- although not perfect -- job of negating one seemingly immutable law of mobile computing: The smaller devices get, the more sacrifices are required in terms of usability.

In fact, the Mini-Note's big, bright screen, its ability to run Windows Vista, and its reasonable starting price of US$499 (for a version with a 1.0 GHz Via processor, Novell's SuSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10, 512KB of RAM and a 4GB solid-state drive) makes it worthy of serious consideration by travelers who need to regularly write e-mails and edit documents but who don't require heavier-duty computing tasks.

Out of the box

I tested a US$599 version of the Mini-Note outfitted with a 1.2GHz Via processor; 1 GB of RAM; a 120 GB, 5400 RPM hard drive; and, surprisingly, Windows Vista Home Basic. There are two other configurations: For $US549, you get the same configuration I tested but with Suse Linux, while US$749 give you a Via 1.6 GHz processor, 2 GB of Ram, Bluetooth, a 6-cell battery (rather than the standard 3-cell), and Windows Vista Business.

The first thing I noticed when taking the 2133 Mini-Note PC out of the box was its sleek anodized aluminum case. The notebook weighs in at 2.6 pounds and measures a hair over an inch high at its thinnest point. It's 10 inches wide, 6.5 inches deep and 1.05 inches (at front). That makes it roughly an inch wider but otherwise about equal in dimensions to the Asustek Eee.

That extra width is well-used by the Mini-Note's wider 8.9-inch display (versus 7 inches for the Eee). As a result, it is easy for HP to justify its higher price. At US$599, this Mini-Note is $100 more than Asustek's current high-end EeePC, although reportedly slightly cheaper than Asustek's next-generation Eee, which will sport an 8.9-inch screen.

The Mini-Note has one more feature that many road warriors will treasure -- DriveGuard -- which senses when the laptop is falling and automatically shuts down the hard drive to minimize data loss.

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Vista ready?

After plugging it in, I was surprised to find that the test unit came with Windows Vista Home Basic -- Vista is notoriously resource hungry, so mini-notebooks are, almost by definition, light in processing power and RAM departments. (In fact, Microsoft recently extended the life of Windows XP so that it could be installed on small, low-cost notebooks incapable of handling Vista.)

My concerns about a lack of power were initially justified when the Mini-Note took what seemed like forever -- well, 45 minutes, actually -- to go through its first-time startup routine as it configured itself, installed software and re-started multiple times. I expected subsequent boot-ups to be excruciatingly slow, but re-starting the device after that required only about two and a half minutes, which isn't exactly screaming performance but still isn't far out of line for a Vista laptop.

Not surprisingly, applications took longer to load than they would on a typical desktop, but again, performance was quite reasonable given the lack of power (besides, nobody buys a small device like this because of its blazing speed). Still, the Mini-Note's Windows Experience Index score was a relatively paltry 1.7 (higher is better). By comparison, even my five-year-old 2.8GHz Pentium desktop computer with a mere 512KB of RAM scored 2.0. And Lenovo's X60 tablet/laptop, with a 1.83 GHz Core Duo processor and 2GB of RAM, scored about 5.

Usability

The ultimate test of ultra-small laptops is usability. Needless to say, like any small device, the 2133 Mini-Note PC has its trade-offs, but not as many as you might expect.

In particular, its 8.9-inch display is very bright, sharp and pleasing to use. My only complaint with the Mini-Note's screen was that its default resolution of 1280 x 768, while quite sharp, resulted in icons and text that were too small to comfortably view. That problem was easily solved by lowering the resolution to 1024 x 768.

Input is the other key area of on-the-road usability and, in this area, the Mini-Note achieves mixed results. The keyboard is laudably large for such a small device -- HP claims it is 92 per cent the size of a full-sized laptop keyboard. It's about 10 inches wide, which is almost exactly the same size as the keyboard on my old Dell X300 laptop. The individual keys are also large -- about two-thirds of an inch square.

However, the keys are packed together, flush with one another with no beveled edge to provide a tactile distinction between the keys. As a result, I found my fingers sliding off the keys from time to time, leading to mis-typed words.

I did get comfortable with the keyboard after a while, but not the touchpad. The size of the touchpad is generous at 2.75 inches wide and 1.25 inches high. But the mouse buttons are on the right and left sides of the touchpad instead of below it, which is the case with virtually every other laptop I've ever used.

When buttons are below the touchpad, you can click a button with your thumb while keeping your index finger on the touch pad. However, to click a button with the Mini-Note, you must either take your finger off the touchpad or twist your hand uncomfortably so you can use your thumb. And click-and-drag operations require use of fingers on both hands. This isn't a deal-breaker, but it is an annoyance.

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Connectivity, power and media

The HP 2133 Mini-Note PC is nicely connective. It has built-in 802.11 a/b/g support -- it instantly made the connection to my wireless network -- and a gigabit Ethernet adapter. It also offers an ExpressCard/54 slot that can be used for a variety of tasks, including use of a 3G wireless broadband adapter.

The device also has two USB ports and a standard video port for connecting to a free-standing monitor. In addition, it has an SD flash memory card slot for viewing media and other information. Its built-in speakers are surprisingly good for this type of device, but you'll be unlikely to rely on them for more than an occasional listen.

Battery life, however, will be an issue for some. The top-of-the-line US$749 version of the Mini-Note PC comes with a six-cell lithium ion battery with a rated battery life of 4.5 hours. However, the 3-cell battery that comes standard with all less expensive models, including my review unit, is only rated at two hours, fifteen minutes. This means that you can't use the Mini-Note to watch a movie or work during a long flight unless you are on an airplane with power ports. HP notes that the short battery life is partially offset by the fact that it charges to 90 per cent of capacity in only 90 minutes.

Invariably, the Mini-Note's success in the market will depend on how well it compares to the current leader, the Eee PC, and there the jury is still out. Although the Mini-Note is heavier than the Eee PC, has less battery life, and is a bit more expensive, it also offers a much wider range of options, along with a large, beautiful screen.

HP, which is best known for its conservative business-focused laptops and desktops, has developed a small laptop that will appeal to both consumers and business users, not to mention students. It is polished and complete enough to move the mini-notebook style of laptop into the mainstream.