The HP Mini 311 Review – Part 3 – The How

This is the last part of my multipart “review” of my recently acquired HP Mini 311.  This is probably the most difficult to put down since at this point, it’s changing on a regular basis.  The How, is how things are going to be done, and how things are being done.  For example, i am currently typing this using windows Live Writer in Windows XP on this machine.  However I’ve spent MOST of the time using this machine in Ubuntu.

So I’ll start at the top with Windows Live Writer, since I already brought it up.  This is a program I’ve been wanting to use ever since it was first released.  The beef I always had was, keeping everything organized in one place.  Probably the primary reason I wanted a computer like this in the first place was for writing.  So far it has proven to be an excellent tool for this.  Now, i will give you that, because I use a “two fingered method” of typing, the transition to the slightly smaller keyboard hasn’t been much of an issue.  If you’re used to touch typing on a full sized keyboard, you may have some issues.

It is perfect for this use however.  It’s light weight enough that I can carry it anywhere in my bag.  Which means, for example, if I’m out eating somewhere, or at the park during lunch or whatever, i can easily pull it out if I feel like typing something up.  This has, so far, only amounted to a translation to writing more blog posts for my various outlets for such activities.  I plan to try to transition this into more long form writing.  It’s something i used to do that I do enjoy and have lots of good ideas for, but I can generally never find the time.  Being able to type virtually anywhere is a blessing for this.

Part of this type anywhere ability, I’ll admit, is the battery.  Not the battery size or anything, just that it’s there and works.  I’ve had a few used laptops over the years and none of them had a decent battery.  So using the computer say, while sitting in bed, required I dig out the cables and find a spare outlet nearby etc.  It was a hassle.  At this point I’d estimate that I plug this machine in maybe once a day for an hour or so, usually while it’s sitting on my office desk.

Back to Windows Live Writer.  It was probably the first program I installed since it’s an excellent tool for blogging.  The interface is intuitive, the ability to easily attach multiple blogs is great and in general, it’s something Microsoft should be proud of. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be a Linux equivalent.  There are Linux blogger tools that are similar, but none of them are quite as robust.

Which leads me to the second part of the How, Ubuntu.  I’ve got a long and sordid history with Linux.  I do use it fairly regularly however… sort of….  Most of the Linux based set ups I “use” are “set it and forget it” style set ups.  An FTP server for work.  A file server at home.  Occasionally I log onto these machines via VNC and putz around with settings or play around with CURL but for the most part, they are autonomous creatures,  I’ve tried using various flavors of Linux “full time” but generally I have little long term success.  The other issue is that I’m not going to inflict that general irritation on my family with say, my main home machine.

This is where the personal portable, touch it and die Netbook is handy.  I can dual boot with ease.  I’m still not really ready to go all in and wipe out my XP install or anything, but I do use Ubuntu way more than I do XP. 

Again… sort of….

I’ve also been experimenting with VirtualBox to run a virtual session of Windows XP on top of my Ubuntu install.  Can you wrap you head around that?  I have an “underpowered” PC that can boot to either Windows or Ubuntu, and inside Ubuntu, it can also run Windows.

This allows me to do things I can’t do with just Ubuntu, like run Windows live writer (eventually).  Or play DOS based games like Diablo 2 or Grand Theft Auto.

Ubuntu however should get a post all of it’s own so I’ll save more of the details on that for later.

The HP Mini 311 Review – Part 2 – The What

So I wrote up a rather lengthy “review” or at least partial review last week for this new machine I’ve been using.  The thing to note is that, for the most part, I didn’t mention much actually pertaining to the device.

That’s where this post comes into play.

After careful consideration, I went with the HP Mini 311.  In my research, I’ve found that for the most part, most Netbooks have essentially the same specs.  There are quite a few options if you’re willing to spend more than $500 but for anything less you’re going ot get more or less the same formula.

  • N270 or N280 processor
  • 1 GB of RAM
  • 160 GB hard drive
  • Windows XP SP3 or Windows 7 Starter (DON’T GET STARTER)
  • Webcam
  • 3 USB Ports
  • VGA Port
  • 9-10” screen
  • Etc.

The Mini had two main advantages that swayed me to pick it and one minor advantage.  The minor advantage is really minor, I like the way it looks.  It has a nice two tone black and silver chassis that isn’t obnoxiously colored but isn’t too boring.

The major advantages come in the visuals.  Firstly, it has an 11” screen.  This makes it slightly larger than your average Netbook but not as humongous as a laptop.  The footprint is almost identical to a standard 8.5”x11” sheet of paper.

Secondly is the nVidia Ion Chipset.  Basically, instead the of integrated Intel graphics chip most Netbooks have, this has a separate chip made by a company that more or less specializes in graphics chips.  According to CNet’s benchmarks, this machine scores a massive factor (think hundreds to a thousand) times higher than most netbooks in the graphics department.  A bit of research actually suggests the Ion is a rebranded downsized version of the GeForce 9400 chipset, which is conveniently the same card i use in my desktop machine.

So what does this mean?  Two things.  Firstly, it runs video better than most Netbooks.  Secondly, I can play some 3D games.  No, I’m not going to be playing with screaming FPS and ultra graphics settings but it’ll still work.  I’ve already tested this with the two most graphically intense games I play, Team Fortress 2 and Second Life.  TF2 will need some settings tweaks (I only spent like 5 minutes testing it out) but it’s doable for a quick game.  SL is definitely usable and reasonably smooth is less busy areas.

As for other aspects, the wireless rage is decent, much better than my old laptop.  The speed is good, I’ve loaded this thing down fairly heavily and haven’t seen a huge dip in performance (more on this in Part 3).  I’m even dual booting with Ubuntu, though there was a bit of a hassle making that work smoothly.  Battery life is decent and works for 3-4+ hours easy.

In short, I’m pretty satisfied with my experience so far.  I’ll go into more detail on exactly what that experience entails however in the next post…

The HP Mini 311 Review – Part 1 – The Why

DSC00020 Even back when the only option available was the OLPC, I knew I wanted a Netbook.  Ok, actually I saw the OLPC for the “mostly a toy” that it is, but the concept of a cheaper “unerpowered” PC was something I’d been pushing for a while.  Even with a desktop.  The idea being that computer parts just get cheaper, and my old Pentium “Whatever” is still good enough for most of what I need to do, why can’t hardware manufacturers continue producing “old models” and sell them for half the cost of the “current generation”?

A Netbook isn’t quite this.  It’s not like the Atom Processor is a Pentium 4, though I imagine there’s some similarities if you break it down.  I’ve also pushed the idea of a smaller more modular PC.  Granted, that a Netbook isn’t more modular.  Anyway, I do think it would be a great idea to build a PC that is essentially just a bank of USB ports inside.  Need to upgrade the processor?  Just swap out the stick.  Maybe add a second one, or a second GPU.  Need more Hard Drive space?  Stick a few more flash drives into the bays.  Basically, I see it as sort of like Star Trek’s Isolinear Chips.

But I’m running off topic…

After a long wait, I have finally managed to purchase a Netbook of my own.  I generally don’t make too many large purchases and when I do I tend to procrastinate forever on if I actually want it or what else could I buy.  The plus is that I tend to end up pretty well satisfied after excessive research.  Not always though, see my LifeDrive, which failed too early in it’s life.

The original plan for the longest while was to go for the MSI Wind u100.  Many reports suggested it packed the best bang for the buck in it’s price range of around $300.  I really wanted to get something with Nvidia’s Ion Processor inside however.  The Intel GMA graphics chips are supposed to be alright but I was hoping for that extra kick.  The intention being that I could potentially use the diminutive machine to play some games.  I don’t expect to be able to play the latest whatever on PC at blazing speed or at full graphics settings but an occasional putzing with TF2 or the ability to log onto the online world of Second Life would be a huge benefit.

Which brings up a point with choosing a Netbook, expectations.  In my research I’ve seen many MANY people suggesting “Netbooks suck”, “Too underpowered”, “Get a real Laptop for $100-$200 more”.  The thing is, I wanted a netbook for many of the reasons people seem to be badmouthing them.  I don’t WANT to spend hundreds of dollars more for a 14-15” laptop.  Not to mention a $500 Laptop is pretty low on the low end and likely the build quality is going to be crap next to a $400 Netbook.  We have several people using Laptops at work.  The $2500 Microns we used to use were extremely sturdy and robust and lasted for 5-6 years.  We’ve got $500 Dells that are almost falling apart that are in rough shape after only 2 years.  The point is, buy cheap, get cheap.

There’s also the size factor.  Ideally, I wanted something that would fit in my “Nerd Bag”.  I have an old full sized laptop.  The bag for it is huge and the thing is heavy enough that it makes my shoulders hurt lugging it around.  I want something light that’ll fit in a bag that’s convenient that I’d be more likely to carry around with me.

As for underpowered, I’ve been using this device for roughly a week now.  No, it doesn’t play TF2 as well as my desktop PC.  No, I’m not going to load up Adobe Premier and make it render a 2 hour video.  No, I’m not going to watch massive HD videos at full screen.  What I can do is type.  I can write blog posts such as this one.  I can listen to iTunes.  It’s got several USB ports and runs Audacity just fine so maybe i can finally start doing that Podcast I’ve been meaning to do.  The point is, this device is an excellent tool. for what I wanted it for and for what I expected from it. 

It’s also helping me become once again more comfortable with the keyboard.  I grew up on DOS.  I’ve been working on various Linux projects on the command line for a while, I used to be able to zip around Windows easily without using a mouse but I’ve gotten rusty at it.  The fact that I simply don’t like touch pads in general (not just on this device) has helped me harness a skill I’d lost to help my overall computing habits.  I’ll argue against the Linux mindset that the command line is superior to a GUI, but I’ll argue for the idea that the keyboard is more powerful than the mouse for productivity.

Anyway, I’m getting a bit long so I’ll wrap things up a bit here.  In the end, chose the HP Mini 311.  I don’t recall exactly where I first came across this model but it has more or less everything I wanted.  The reality is, a LOT of these machines have identical specs.  160 GB Hard Drive, 10” screen, N270 Atom processor, 1 GB of RAM.  For a bit more than the Mini, I got the Ion Processor and an 11” screen.  The Mini 311 also has a slick 2 tone color pallet going for it.

But I’ll get more into the details in Part 2, “The What”…