HP Mini 311 review

The HP Mini 311 was the first notebook with NVIDIA ION graphics to hit the United States. While this 11.6 inch notebook has a little competition today, it’s still the cheapest NVIDIA ION powered ultraportable, with a starting price of just $399.99. And that could make the HP Mini 311 an attractive computer for anyone looking for a machine with better-than-netbook graphics at a netbook-like price.

But while the NVIDIA graphics certainly give the computer a boost when it comes to HD video playback, 3D graphics performance, and any other activities that can take advantage of GPU acceleration features, the HP Mini 311 has the same 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270 CPU that graces nearly every netbook released in the last 18 months.

And that means that for every day activities such as web surfing, the HP Mini 311 is no better than an average netbook, albeit one with a high resolution display. And in some ways, it might actually not even be as good.

NVIDIA sent me a demo unit to review. The model tested for this review features an 11.6 inch, 1366 x 768 pixel display, NVIDIA ION graphics, a 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270 CPU, 2GB of RAM, a 250GB hard drive, and Windows 7 Home Premium. It has a 6 cell, 55Whr battery and weighs 3.5 pounds.

The HP Mini 311 is available from HP.com for $399.99 and up. At the time of this review, the unit I’m configuring goes for about $510.

Design

The HP Mini 311 is a nice looking machine. Basically, if you took the HP Mini 110 and stretched it out, this is what you’d end up with. The glossy lid will collect fingerpints, but it features an attractive swirly design as well as the usual HP logo.

The base of the computer features a single access panel that can be opened up by removing two screws. This makes it easy to swap out the RAM or hard drive. There’s also an open PCIe slot that can be used to add a 3G module or another accessory.

Around the sides of the notebook you’ll find 3 USB ports, an Ethernet jack, VGA port, SDHC/MS/XD card slot, and an HDMI output.

The speakers are located underneath the netbook near the front, and they’re reasonably loud and clear. The 6 cell battery sits flush with the bottom of the case, so you don’t have to worry about any ugly bulge near the back of this notebook.

Aside from the NVIDIA ION graphics processor though, the HP Mini 311’s defining feature is probably its 11.6 inch display. This glossy screen has a native resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels. That means it can display 720p HD video without any quality reduction. But it also means that you’ll spend a lot less time scrolling to view web sites or applications that don’t fit on a typical 1024 x 600 pixel netbook display.

As I mentioned, the screen is glossy and you can definitely see yourself it in it if the display is dark. But the HP Mini 311 display is hardly the worst offender I’ve seen in this area, and the screen looks great when looking at pictures, movies, or video games.

The notebook measures 11.4″ x 8″ x 1.2″ and weighs 3.5 pounds, which makes it a bit larger and heavier than a typical 10 inch netbook. But it’s not a lot bigger or heavier.

The fan can get a little loud at times, but that’s hardly surprising for a thin and light computer with a decent graphics processor. While a quieter fan would be nice, I can’t imagine building this computer without some kind of fan to help keep the internal components from overheating.

Keyboard and Touchpad

The keyboard on the HP Mini 311 is almost identical to that on the smaller HP Mini 110. The only real difference is that the edges have been rounded to give the keyboard an interesting visual effect.

Thing is, while the HP Mini 110 has a pretty good keyboard for a netbook, it’s only 92% the size of a full sized keyboard. There’s clearly room for a larger keyboard on the HP Mini 311 and it would have been nice if HP had used the extra space. I got a chance to ask an HP representative why the company stuck with the smaller model, and was told it was because HP has received such positive feedback on the keyboard.

That said, I found the keyboard to be reasonably responsive and I didn’t have any problems typing on it. But then, I’ve spent much of the last two years typing on small netbook keyboards.

The touchpad is nice and wide, features two distinct buttons, and a clearly marked section on the right side for scrolling. But there’s one major problem: The touchpad software doesn’t have a setting for disabling tapping while you’re typing. You can either disable tapping altogether, which means you can’t simulate a left-click by tapping the touchpad, or you have to type extraordinarily carefully in order to prevent your palm from swiping the touchpad while you’re using the keyboard. Because if you don’t, the cursor is going to jump all over the place which can wreak havoc when you’re trying to type documents, emails, or pretty much anything else.

Fortunately there is a third-party solution. Liliputing reader Steve Ingraham recommended an open source application called touchfreeze which hangs out in your system tray and temporarily freezes touchpad input when you’re typing. It worked like a charm for me and once I installed touchfreeze I never had another jumping cursor error while typing on the HP Mini 311.

Performance and Graphics

The HP Mini 311 has NVIDIA ION graphics. And that means that unlike a typical Intel Atom powered netbook, the computer can handle 1080P HD video playback quiet easily. I had no problem watching videos downloaded from the Microsoft Windows Media HD showcase using Windows Media Player and other video plays.

The latest version of Adobe Flash Player 10.1 beta also supports GPU acceleration from some video cards. And that includes NVIDIA ION, which means you should be able to stream 720p and 1080p HD Flash video either. Right now this feature is a little hit or miss. Some HD YouTube videos played smoothly while others struggled. But I blame the Flash plugin, not the graphics processor. If you have a netbook with an Intel Atom processor and integrated GMA 950 or GMA 500 graphics, you can be pretty certain that no HD Flash video is going to play properly.

The NVIDIA ION chipset also gives the computer a leg up on the competition when it comes to 3D graphics acceleration. I fired up a couple of 3D games including open source first person shooter Blood Frontier, and found that the HP Mini 311 was more than up to the task. I managed to get more than 30 frames per second during the few minutes I played the game before I was put out of my misery by enemy fire. Have I mentioned that I stink at first person shooters?

But it’s not just HD video playback and video games that receive a performance boost from the NVIDIA ION chipset. ION also supports NVIDIA’s CUDA platform, which means that some applications can use GPU acceleration to speed up tasks that would normally bog down the CPU. For instance, video transcoding tool MediaCoder features a CUDA encoder which can make short work of H.264 transcode jobs.

So while it normally takes a very long time to transcode even a short video clip on a machine with a low power Intel Atom processor, the task goes much more quickly when using MediaCoder’s CUDA encoder. To test this out, I transcoded a 4.5 minute clip from uncompressed AVI to H.264 on four different computers:

  • HP Mini 311 laptop with Atom N270 CPU and NVIDIA ION graphics
  • ASRock ION 330 nettop with dual core Atom 330 CPU and NVIDIA ION graphics
  • Asus UL20A notebook with Intel CULV processor and integrated GMA 4500MHD graphics (no CUDA capabilities)
  • Asus Eee PC 1000H netbook with Atom N270 CPU and integrated GMA 950 graphics (no CUDA capabilities)

As you can see in the chart above, the computers with NVIDIA ION processors were significantly slower at this task than the Asus UL20A when relying solely on the CPU. But using the CUDA encoder, both the HP Mini 311 and the ASRock 311 were able to complete the transcode job much faster than the Asus laptop. Of course, the ASRock ION 330 with its dual core processor was faster than the single-core HP Mini 311 in both versions of the test.

To see how the HP Mini 311 stacks up against the ASRock ION 330 and Asus UL20A in other GPU-intensive benchmarks including 3DMark06 and Cinebench, check out my earlier article on that topic.

But what about tasks that don’t rely on the graphics processor? The chart above shows that the HP Mini 311 was a bit faster than my Asus Eee PC 1000H on basic transcode test. But that netbook has also been running for almost 18 months. The hard drive and other components have seen much more wear and tear than the HP Mini 311, so I’d expect it to score lower on the test. Unfortunately it’s the only other Intel Atom N270 system I have in the office at the moment.

In terms of real-world performance though, here’s what I can tell you about the HP Mini 311: It feels a bit sluggish.

I don’t expect a computer with an Intel Atom processor to work miracles. But I do expect to be able to surf the web with half a dozen browser tabs open or multitask by playing some music, editing an image, and surfing the web simultaneously. And the HP Mini 311 can certainly do those things. But it feels a bit less responsive when doing them than my aging Asus Eee PC 1000H.

The issue is most pronounced for me when running Javascript-heavy web pages. For instance, one of the first things I do when I wake in the morning is log into Google Reader and sift through a few hundred news stories that came in while I was sleeping. On most netbooks, as soon as I hit the key for the next story, the screen advances. But on the HP Mini 311, after going through the first few stories the browser becomes slower and slower to react. Google Reader isn’t unusable. But it’s just slow enough to be annoying.

My best guess as for why this is happening is that the HP Mini 311 has a higher resolution display than most netbooks. A 1366 x 768 pixel display has roughly 70% more pixels than a 1024 x 600 pixel screen. With GPU-accelerated tasks like watching HD video or playing video games, the HP Mini 311 has more than enough oomph to pump out graphics to every last one of those pixels. But for tasks like web browsing that rely solely on the CPU, the Intel Atom N270 chip has to work harder to fill 70% more pixels. And it’s not quite up to the task.

But that’s just my subjective view. To try to get some hard numbers, I ran the standard set of tests that I’ve been using to test netbooks and notebooks for the last few months. Here are the results:

  • Audio transcoding test: 1:23 to transcode a 13:24 WAV file to MP3 using WinLAME
  • Video transcoding test:  8:49 transcode a 4:34 video file to Xvid using VirtualDub
  • Folder copy test: 49 seconds to copy and paste 2186 files totaling 478MB to a new folder
  • Folder zip test: 3:29 to create a 453MB ZIP file containing 2186 files using 7-zip

To see how the HP Mini 311 stacked up against similar netbooks, check out the chart below, which includes my 18 month old Asus Eee PC 1005H running Windows XP, a shiny new Asus Eee PC 1008HA with a 1.66GHz Atom N280 CPU, and an Acer Aspire 1410 laptop with a dual core 1.2GHz Intel Celeron SU2300 CPU. I threw in the Acer Aspire 1410, because at $399, it has the same starting price as the HP Mini 311. And while it doesn’t have the same graphics capabilities as the HP Mini 311, it performs much better in most CPU related tests.

The HP Mini 311 was the slowest notebook in this raft of tests when it came to transcoding video and audio files. It did beat the Asus Eee PC 100H in the folder zip and folder copy tests, but I blame the 18-month old hard drive in the Eee PC for that.

These tests don’t necessarily require the HP Mini 311 to pump out graphics to the HD display, so my hypothesis that the high resolution screen is to blame could be wrong. But the notebook definitely feels slower than a typical netbook when used for some tests… and that appears to be because it is slower.

I also timed how long it takes to start two of the slowest-loading programs I use: OpenOffice.org and open source photo editing application GIMP.

While the HP Mini 311 was able to launch both of these apps faster than the Asus Eee PC 1000H, it was much slower than the other test machines. Unfortunately, this test wasn’t perfect because as I’ve mentioned the Eee PC has an aging hard drive and other components bogging it down, and it’s running Windows XP while the HP Mini 311 is running Windows 7. But as I get more Atom powered review units, I plan to continue running this test.

stuff

Battery

The HP Mini 311 comes with a 6 cell, 55Whr battery. I was able to get about 4.5 hours of run time out of the battery while using the notebook for web browsing and light weight duties such as editing documents. I watched a few short YouTube videos during the test, but didn’t really push the computer to its limits. I suspect if you use the notebook for gaming or watching HD video, you can expect battery life to dip.

It’s worth noting that my review unit is running Windows 7 Home Premium. The folks at Laptop Magazine recently tested the HP Mini 311 with Windows XP and got 5 hours, 43 minutes of run time. When they tested a newer model with Windows 7, they eked out 4 hours, 52 minutes. While Laptop Magazine’s Windows 7 got a more battery life than I did using Windows 7, the more remarkable fact is that they got nearly an hour of extra run time with Windows XP.

If you Windows 7 for some reason or another, then by all means, order the Windows 7 version of this laptop. But bear in mind, the Windows 7 model costs $50 more than the Windows XP version, and it looks like you’ll lose some battery life with the upgrade.

Software

The computer comes with a number of applications from HP and partners.

I didn’t test the software extensively, but here’s a partial list of what you get:

  • CyberLink DVD Suite
  • HP QuickSync powered by Syncables
  • HP Update
  • HP Support Assistant
  • HP Game Console
  • Microsoft Office 60 day trial
  • Microsoft Works
  • Norton Internet Security
  • HP Recovery Manager and Recovery Disc Creator

Conclusion

The HP Mini 311 is an attractive, affordable, and portable computer. If you’re looking for a low cost system that can play modern video games with 3D graphics, this may be your best bet at the moment. But while the HP Mini 311 is strong in the graphics department, it’s weaker than the average netbook in most other areas.

The keyboard is smaller than it should be given the size of the computer. The touchpad is finicky. And the computer feels a bit sluggish when performing everyday tasks. On the other hand, some people may be willing to put up with that sluggishness in return for the higher resolution display which can show most web pages, application windows, and documents without adding left and right scroll bars.

If gaming performance isn’t at the top of your priority list, you might be better off with a similarly priced computer with an Intel CULV processor such as the Acer Aspire 1410, which has a dual core Intel Celeron SU2300 processor and which also has a starting price of $399. While the Acer 1410 can’t handle all the games that the HP Mini 311 can, it has a faster processor and it’s still capable of HD video playback (although your CPU usage will be much higher than on the HP Mini 311).

If you’re looking for the best of both worlds, you may be better off with the Asus Eee PC 1201N, which has NVIDIA ION graphics and a dual core Atom processor. It’s not as speedy at CPU-intensive tasks as the Acer Aspire 1410 or higher priced CULV powered notebooks. But the Eee PC 1201N will be faster than the HP Mini 311 at most tasks, and should offer similar graphics capabilities. On the down side, that dual core CPU uses more energy than the Atom N270 chip in the HP Mini 311, and most reviewers say you’ll be lucky to get 3.5 hours of run time.

It’s all about tradeoffs.

  • RP

    The culprit of the performance penalty and sluggishness you are feeling on the HP Mini 311 might be Windows 7.

    From what I've found out, Windows 7 typically uses up about 20-25% of CPU resources for whatever reason at all, and you don't get the full performance of the CPU as you should under Windows XP.

    That should also explain the extra hour of battery life loss. Further investigation is pending, but so far, I really have nothing positive to say about Windows 7 performance.

    If possible, please try installing Windows XP on this unit and do a comparison. I think that'll be an interesting experiment for you.

  • MrPerfect

    Another thing worth looking at is the mighty list of software HP pre-installed there. Norton Internet Security usually gets a lot of flak for being heavy. Maybe replace it with Microsoft Security Essentials?

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  • Michael

    I would say the 311 and DM1 are the best looking machines around consideing its low price. In some countries, both machine don't have a huge price difference, might as well go for the SU4100.

    The Atom is just a sheer waste of money.

  • http://www.netbookfreaks.com/ Jonas

    I think that HP is pricing the Mini 311 wrong. It would be more compelling closer to $350, and a no brainer below that. When we are at $400 and above, I'd rather go with a CULV, like the Acer you mentioned, which has similar size, weight, and battery time, but better overall performance.

  • http://www.facebook.com/qreeves Quinton Reeves

    This is the most random article to ever come up in my Blood Frontier alerts, not that I'm complaining. Feel free to ignore this off topic comment :)

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  • chris

    if you want to actually use the extra pci-e slot it's not exactly plug-and-play http://newnetbookreviews.net/2009/make-use-of-t

  • anon

    Good review. Now how about testing a Linux version and what happens with that?
    Kubuntu, or CrunchBang , or another Linux like the new ones that Google is releaseing… please (but don't bother testing Ubuntu due to the Mono problem it has).

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  • http://scottsoapbox.com Scott

    Brad

    I think you hit it out of the park on testing and benchmarks:

    Gaming: Real world FPS & 3D Marks06
    CPU: video transcoding w & wo/cuda
    HD: Folder copy & zip
    Speed Feel: App launching

    Well done!

  • http://scottsoapbox.com Scott

    I think it's interesting the AS Rock beat the CULV based UL20A at launching OpenOffice. I look forward to the full review on that little beast.

  • http://liliputing.com Brad Linder

    Thanks, I would have had this review done a week ago if I hadn't spent so
    much time trying to come up with some benches that would actually show
    something useful… and then actually spending all the time running them. :)

    These benches are still a work in progress. I wish I had some more apples to
    apples comparisons available.

  • http://scottsoapbox.com Scott

    Well the good news is that you've honed the system at just the right time. While Ion, dual core nettops, and CULV-books have EXISTED for a while – they are just now becoming widely available to Joe consumer. Heck I've changed my “next netbook” twice waiting for the actual product to hit shelves. (Ion to CULV to tablet CULV)

  • MonkeyKing1969

    It really seems like Windows 7 is the bottleneck. I especially wonder if better touch pad controls might be being held back by Windows 7 being so new. Maybe a new driver is needed?

    Maybe…maybe…with an update or two on the Windows 7 side and on the component driver sides might be enough of a boost this machine into a solid buy. Then again you can't buy now just hoping it will get batter, sometimes thing just don't get fixed.

    Brad, thanks for this review, you have done a great service to the community. Err, you don't happened to have a Samsung N510 to test? [whispers] Early word is not good. :-(

  • MrPerfect

    They're definitely appreciated. Other sites seem to just say “it feels” when reviewing products and leave it at that, but you've got tests and benches to show actual performance.

    I see you've got a paragraph decribing the specs of the machines you tested, which is great since no one could keep track of those other wise. Only suggestion I'd have is make a chart out of that information. That way we could see the CPU(clockspeed, FSB, cache), chipset, graphics, RAM(amount, speed, latencies), and storage(HDD or SSD, size, speed) all lined up next to each other.

  • chorpie

    I doubt that it is Windows 7 that is necking performance. i'd bet that it's got a retail image on there with extra bloatware taking up memory and CPU.

  • thequinox

    Agreed. I would look anywhere but the resolution as the culprit here. Not only does Vista/7 draw everything with the GPU but resolution is really such a small thing, I doubt it could ever matter.

    Most likely bloatware as mentioned. Do a clean install and test it.

  • thequinox

    Agreed. I would look anywhere but the resolution as the culprit here. Not only does Vista/7 draw everything with the GPU but resolution is really such a small thing, I doubt it could ever matter.

    Most likely bloatware as mentioned. Do a clean install and test it.

  • jescott418

    I just bought a 311 through Verizon Wireless. It has Windows 7 premium. Having used a Lenovo S10e with the Intel Graphics. I can really tell the speed improvement. However I do notice some speed lag with the 311 with web page loading. Considering this 311 has the N speed WIFI. I was expecting better response. Especially since I only have the browser running. Could it be Windows 7 and the Atom do not do well together? I am going to try shutting off Aero candy but I do not think that will really help. I have checked the resources and Its really not using any. Maybe its just the fact my other Laptop is a duel core.

  • jescott418

    Yes, the bloatware like Norton could slow in down. I went from 56 processes when I first got my 311 to 46 when I uninstall all the crap and HP's value added software. The interesting thing is that if you turn off the Aero in Windows 7 I believe your actually putting more back on the CPU. So I guess that's out of the question. I would have thought the Atom with Hyper threading would have been better.

  • jescott418

    Yes, the bloatware like Norton could slow in down. I went from 56 processes when I first got my 311 to 46 when I uninstall all the crap and HP's value added software. The interesting thing is that if you turn off the Aero in Windows 7 I believe your actually putting more back on the CPU. So I guess that's out of the question. I would have thought the Atom with Hyper threading would have been better.

  • jescott418

    Yes, the bloatware like Norton could slow in down. I went from 56 processes when I first got my 311 to 46 when I uninstall all the crap and HP's value added software. The interesting thing is that if you turn off the Aero in Windows 7 I believe your actually putting more back on the CPU. So I guess that's out of the question. I would have thought the Atom with Hyper threading would have been better.

  • http://www.laptopadapterac.com/ acadapter

    Got the laptop back from their repairs facility. It actually took them 2 weeks after they notified me that they are sending the laptop back to me before they actually shipped it. Two weeks, during which nobody seemed to know where the laptop was. I kept calling and was redirected from one person to another, who always asked me to call them in 24 hours. Only after I requested an investigation they found it. They tried to blame it all on FedEx, saying that FedEx did not pick it up from them for 2 weeks. What a stupid and lame excuse! They couldn't even come up with anything smarter than that. Anyway, the problem with the touchpad remained unresolved, just like I expected it.