HP Mini 5103 dual core netbook review

The HP Mini 5103 is the latest business-class netbook from Hewlett Packard. Physically it looks almost exactly like the HP Mini 5101 and 5102 which precede it. The primary difference is that in the US the netbook is only available in a new dark brown “espresso” color. Under the hood, the HP Mini 5103 has all the things that made those earlier models special — plus a number of new options.

First up, the netbook comes standard with a 7200RPM hard drive, a hard drive sensor which stops the drive from spinning in the event of a fall to prevent damage, a battery with a built-in LED to let you know how much power you have left, and an all-metal case made of aluminum and magnesium alloy.

The HP Mini 5103 is also the first HP netbook available with a dual core Atom N550 processor, although it will also be available with single core Atom N455 or N475 CPU options. The model HP sent me to review also has a number of other premium options, including a 1366 x 768 pixel HD display, a capacitive touchscreen, a Broadcom Crystal HD video accelerator, 2GB of memory, and Windows 7 Professional.

While the base model of the HP Mini 5103 runs $399, those options all add to the price, and I suspect the unit featured in this review would likely run well over $600, since HP won’t be offering all these options together in a single “smart buy” configuration. The touchscreen alone, for instance, would cost $50 extra.

Design

For the most part, the HP Mini 5103 is physically identical to the HP Mini 5102 I reviewed a few months ago, so portions of the design section of this review may seem familiar. Physically, the only difference is that the new model ships in the US in a new “espresso” brown color, which is dark enough to be mistaken for black from some angles. The sides of the computer and area around the screen are black, but the rest is dark brown.

There’s a brushed aluminum finish on the lid, while the magnesium alloy chassis including the palm rest area has a matte, smudge-resistant finish.

Even though the laptop has an all-metal case, it’s just as light as most 10 inch netbooks which are covered in plastic. It just feels sturdier.

With a 4 cell battery and standard display, the HP Mini 5103 measures 10.3″ x 7.1″ x 0.9″ and weighs about 2.6 pounds. Add a touchscreen and it will get a little thicker, and add a 6 cell battery and the laptop gets a little thicker and heavier.

The HP Mini 5103  also looks a bit bulkier, thanks to its boxy design. While the corners of the netbook feature a rounded design, the edges are a bit sharp.

There’s a single access panel on the bottom of the netbook which you can use to replace or upgrade memory. HP has devised a nifty system for letting you do this without a screwdriver. You simply push the two switches holding the battery in place to remove the battery. Push them again and the RAM access panel door opens up.

You might not actually need to access the memory slot all that often, but this feature should make it much easier for schools or businesses that buy the mini-laptop in bulk to upgrade the memory of multiple laptops at once without dealing with tiny screws that are easy to lose.

Around the sides of the computer you’ll find 3 USB ports, a VGA port, Ethernet jack, mic and headphone jacks, and an SDHC card slot.

At the front of the computer there’s a switch that you can slide to toggle the netbooks wireless modules on and off.

And above the keyboard there’s a power button and two dedicated shortcut keys for launching the default web browser and email applications. You can also use these buttons to launch HP’s quick start software that lets you load a web browser or email app without first waiting for Windows to boot. There’s also a new app that lets you view your Outlook calendar from the quick boot screen.

Some of the design elements that make the HP Mini 5102 stand out from the netbook crowd aren’t visible. For instance, there’s the 7200rpm hard drive, which is significantly faster than the 5400rpm hard drives found in most netbooks. HP also offers a high performance solid state disk option for the HP Mini 5102, although that configuration option drives up the price dramatically.

Display

The HP Mini 5103 is available with a 10.1 inch, 1024 x 600 pixel display which is virtually indistinguishable from those on any number of other netbooks. The demo unit HP sent me, though, has two premium options: a 1366 x 768 pixel HD display and a capacitive touchscreen.

The touchscreen makes the screen a little thicker, so if you purchase this netbook with a standard display, the laptop will be a tiny bit thinner.

The HD display is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it’s nice to have enough room to view virtually any PC program without scrolling, or even to open two web sites side by side. On the other hand, at the default settings, text on web pages looks very tiny and if, like me, you don’t have perfect vision you may find yourself squinting or leaning close to the screen to see.

Of course, you can adjust the DPI settings in Windows, or zoom in and out of web pages or other applications. But honestly, I prefer my 1366 x 768 pixel displays on 11.6 inch or larger screens.

The touchscreen isn’t so much a mixed blessing, as kind of useless as far as I’m concerned. Don’t get me wrong, the capacitive touchscreen is fairly responsive, and multitouch gestures such as pinch to zoom work as expected. The on-screen keyboard works reasonably well for entering text — although it seems a little silly to reach up to the on-screen keyboard when there’s a perfectly good physical keyboard just below it. But I encountered two problems that pretty much keep me from using the touchscreen.

The first, and most obvious is that the display doesn’t fold down over the keyboard for use in tablet mode — so you actually have to physically lift your hand and move it toward to touch the screen. It takes less time and effort to move my fingers down to the touchpad below the keyboard.

The second issue is that the capacitive touchscreen recognizes the electronic impulses of your fingertip instead of more precise input from a fingernail or stylus. While that works pretty well when you’re pressing large icons on the desktop or taskbar, it’s a bit trickier to hit smaller targets such a the close or minimize box in a program toolbar.

It gets even tougher when a program is maximized so that you have to press very close to the edge of the screen. I suspect that, like the tiny text, you could partially address this issue by changing the Windows DPI settings, and I did get a little better at using the touchscreen the more time I spent with it. But I still found it to be an awkward input method. You can see what I mean in the video near the end of this review.

I’m personally not convinced it makes sense to put a touchscreen on any notebook if you can’t rotate it for use in tablet mode. But if you do see a use for this kind of design, I suppose it’s nice to have the extra option. My understanding is that HP won’t be offering the touchscreen in any “smart buy” configurations, which means you’ll probably have to pay a pretty hefty premium to configure the netbook with a touchscreen.

Keyboard and Touchpad

HP has outfitted the Mini 5103 with an island-style keyboard which has flat keys with a bit of space in between each key. Honestly, it looks like HP might have put a little more space between the keys than was strictly necessary. There’s probably enough space for the netbook to have slightly larger keys.

That said, I was able to tap out about 100 words per minute using this keyboard, so there’s really not much to complain about. One quirk is that HP sets up the top row of buttons to control hardware functions by default, such as adjusting the volume or screen brightness. If you actually want to hit F5 or F11, you’ll have to hold down the Fn button plus the appropriate key simultaneously.

The touchpad features two distinct buttons for left and right clicking, and a scroll area on the right side which you can use to scroll through images, web pages, and documents. There’s no support for multitouch gestures such as pinch to zoom or two-finger scrolling.

Performance

The HP Mini 5103 will be available with a choice of processors, including single core and dual core Atom chips. The demo unit I received has a dual core 1.5GHz Intel Atom N550 CPU. As you’d expect, the computer performed much faster on some CPU-intensive tasks — but not always twice as fast. To get the full benefit of a dual core processor you need to run software that can fully take advantage of multiple cores, which not every application does.

On the other hand, the HP mini 5103 definitely felt quite zippy and responsive. Subjectively, it feels like one of the fastest 10 inch netbooks I’ve used. But it’s not as powerful as a machine with an Intel CULV or AMD Nile processor. Not by a long shot.

For instance, in a series of tests, I found that the HP Mini 5103 scored higher marks at transcoding video files and creating ZIP archives from larger folders of files than laptops with single Core Intel Atom processors such as the HP Mini 5102 and HP Mini 311, which have 1.66GHz Intel Atom N450 and 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270 processors, respectively. The HP Mini 5103 even bested the Asus Eee PC 1201N in one test, which shipped with a dual core 1.66GHz Atom 330 desktop-class processor.

On the other hand, the HP Mini 5103 wasn’t much faster than other Atom-powered notebooks using the WinLAME audio transcoding tool. While I noticed a slight difference in the amount of time it took to launch resource-intensive software applications, the difference wasn’t huge. It still took 20 seconds to load GIMP and 15 seconds to launch OpenOffice.org.

While the HP Mini 5103 may be fast for an Atom-powered netbook, it’s still pretty slow for a notebook — even a low power one.

The chart above shows what happens when you pit the HP Mini 5103 against the Acer Aspire One 521 and Asus UL20A. The Acer laptop has a 1.7GHz single core AMD Athlon II Neo K125 processor and the Asus model has an 1.3GHz dual core Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300 CULV chip. Whereas the HP Mini 5103 came out at the head of the pack when competing with other Atom-based laptops, it loses every test against these computers.

You might not think that’s a fair comparison to make, but like the HP Mini 5103, the Acer Aspire One 521 is a 10 inch mini-laptop, and it sells for $349, which makes is significantly cheaper than the HP model. It doesn’t get the same kind of battery life as the HP netbook, but it will run for over 5 hours on a charge.

The HP Mini 5103 did score a little higher in the Cinebench 2D graphics rendering test than the Asus Eee PC 1201N, an older dual core Atom powered notebooks. But the Eee PC 1210N and HP Mini 311 trounced the HP Mini 5103 in the OpenGL 3D graphics rendering test. While the Atom N550 is certainly faster than older Atom chips, it’s still bundled with relatively low performance Intel integrated graphics while those older notebooks have NIVDIA ION graphics.

The Asus UL20A, by the way, scored 2-3 times as high as the HP Mini 5103 in the 2D graphics rendering test, and more than twice as high in the OpenGL test.

Finally, I ran the 3DMark06 benchmark to see how the HP Mini 5103 with a dual core processor would fare. While it definitely came out ahead of of the HP Mini 311 in the CPU portion of the test thanks to its dual core processor, the integrated graphics were just no match for NVIDIA ION or ATI Radeon graphics, bringing down the overall 3DMark06 score. In a nutshell, this is not a gaming machine, although you can probably get some older or less resource-intensive games to run on it.

As far as Microsoft Windows is concerned, the Atom N550 dual core processor makes a pretty sizable difference in performance. Computers with single core Intel Atom N450 chips typically get processor scores of about 2.3 in the Windows Experience Index. The HP Mini 5103 with a dual core Atom N550 chip gets a 3.1 in that test.

Another feature setting this netbook apart from many others is the optional Broadcom Crystal HD video accelerator, which helps decode high definition video without taxing the CPU. So while Intel says that the Atom 550 CPU should be powerful enough to handle 720p HD video playback, the demo unit I reviewed had no problem with 720p or 1080p video playback.

The HP Mini 5103 with the Broadcom accelerator can also handle 1080p Adobe Flash video quite well — provided there are no text overlays. When I tried watching YouTube videos with overlay ads, the playback was choppy, but when I watched ad-free HD videos they looked choppy.

There’s no doubt that the HP Mini 5103 is a little more powerful than a typical netbook. Whether you’ll notice that extra power, though, depends on what you’re using the netbook to do. If you’re running multiple applications at once, the dual core processor and support for hyperthreading (which is why Windows shows 4 different CPUs instead of two) will help quite a bit. Or if you’re running CPU-intensive tasks such as transcoding media files using a utility that supports multiple threads, the Atom N550 CPU should help. The Broadcom card also helps with 1080p HD video playback. But you’re not going to want to use this netbook for serious gaming and you shouldn’t expect it to perform as well or as quickly as a larger, more expensive laptop at day to day tasks.

I did notice that the HP Mini 5103 seems to be a bit noisier than many other netbooks I’ve tested, since the fan was running much of the time I was using the netbook. This was also the case with the HP Mini 5102, so I wouldn’t necessarily blame the new Atom N550 processor. On the bright side, the laptop didn’t get unusually warm during use.

Battery

You might expect the extra power from the Atom N550 to come at the expense of battery life. Indeed, HP suggests that the laptop takes a bit of a hit in their tests, while offering a 20 percent performance boost in CPU only tests. But you know what? I got about 6 hours of run time from the HP Mini 5103. That’s just about exactly the same amount of run time I got from the HP Mini 5102 with a single core Atom N450 processor.

On the one hand, that’s much lower than the 10 hours of battery life HP promises from the 6 cell, 5700mAh, 66Whr battery, but it’s really not that bad for a dual core mini-laptop. More importantly, it looks like the Atom 550 processor doesn’t drain power all that much faster than a single core Atom chip.

The netbook is also available with 1880mAh battery, which offers significantly less run time. The lower capacity battery sits perfectly flush with the back and bottom of the netbook, while the 6 cell battery juts out a bit from the bottom, which serves to tilt the keyboard a bit from back to front.

I know some other reviewers have managed to squeeze more battery life out of their demo units. All I can say is, I turned on the laptop and started surfing the web, writing this review, looking at a few videos on YouTube, and about 6 hours later the battery died.

Verdict

Overall, the HP Mini 5103 is an attractive and high performance netbook — which is to say, it’s still a pretty low performance laptop. With a dual core Atom N550 processor, the netbook is definitely faster than the average mini-laptop at some… maybe most tasks. But it’s not really that much faster, and it’s hard to say whether it’s worth paying for this upgrade option without knowing exactly how much HP will charge for the netbook with the Atom N550 CPU.

The base price for the HP Mini 5103 is $399, but at that price you essentially get the same machine as the older HP Mini 5102 — just with a 1.66GHz Atom N455 chip instead of a 1.66GHz Atom N450 processor. The only difference is that the N455 supports DDR3 memory.

Adding the Broadcom video accelerator, HD display, touchscreen, 2GB of memory, and Windows 7 Professional options all serve to increase the price of this netbook. But it’s nice to have all those options. Few netbooks are available with half of those things.

If HP can offer this netbook with a dual core processor, Broadcom card, and maybe and HD display for under $500, there’s a lot of reason to consider this netbook instead of some of the competition. On the other hand, the Acer Aspire One 521 offers better performance in most situations for just $349, even if it gets slightly less battery life (about 5 hours) and has a plastic case instead of metal.

Video Review

You can check out a brief video overview, below, for a better look at the netbook’s design, display, and video playback capabilities.

  • gman

    With all due respect, when you start comparing this netbook to that netbook or this netbook to those “ultra thin”, “thin and lights” or “ulv laptops”, I think the weight of the computer should be mentioned. People might look at weight as being a deciding factor. IMO, it should be highlighted in your reviews. Weight comparison and price comparison along with your great benchmark tests. Thanks.

    • http://liliputing.com/ Brad Linder

      Good point. With a 4 cell battery, the laptop weighs 2.6 pounds.

      • Rif

        Please also remember to show and weigh power supply and cables as well. TIA for adding metric units.

  • Noone

    For a while the stylesheets and images on your site have failed to load. Looking at the page source the missing bits have the address “http://liliputing.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/” which does not seem to exist.

  • aftermath

    Very commendable review (I won’t even ask if you tried to set the DPI to 155.16 PPI. :) ) I really thought that this may be my first netbook. It looks like not.

    That you picked up on the fact that touchscreens get annoying on the edges and in the corners of the bezel imply to me that you’re really being thorough and honest about experiencing the device. This is a pet-peeve of mine and many others in the tablet community about touchscreen devices. Because it’s a digitizer limitation, one of the few recourses that you have it to boost the DPI of the display.

    Try the freeware game “osu!” if you want to flex your multitouch muscles. Warning: this will eat away at your free time.

    I agree that a touchscreen on a laptop-like device that doesn’t convert into a slate mode isn’t of much value. A touchscreen isn’t really a “value added” component, especially when the screen is small (on very large screens, I can see the appeal). At the risk of going all “first principles”, touchscreens are usually found on hand held computers (like slates) because when you’re holding a device with one hand you need a way of providing input with the other. If you already have the luxury of two-hand input and off-screen input devices (which really are better), then why bother with a touchscreen? In most use cases, it’s pretty worthless (certainly, there are some valid justifications for having one, and it’s nice that you can get it just because you want it). More importantly, touching the screen of your computer is about as good for usability as touching your eye glasses. You get all of the acute joy of not being able to see what you’re working on, and all of the chronic joy of fingerprints messing with the clarity of the display.

    Also, you commented in your video that capacitive implies multitouch. Some capacitive is not multitouch, and some resistive is.

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  • Rif

    FTA: The HD display is a mixed blessing.

    For me the small physical screen but with high resolution is one of the prime reason why I am interested in this notebook. With 10.1″ (25.5cm) screen has 211 DPI – excellent. Another advantage that underscores the seriousness of this product is the mat screen, which probably makes the netbook look more dull in the shop but is far better than a brilliance screen for using under not optimal light.

    • Rif

      Ups, after recalculating – the DPI is 155 not 211.

  • Aaron

    designed for asian fingers in my opinion but
    hp has always held up its “unframeless” design making a
    touchscreen awkward when doing anything around the
    edges of the screen i really dont think this netbook would
    really work for a business with all the bells and whistles installed.

    • Giovanni

      Aaron: You are clearly aware this is a netbook review. Considefr looking at 17″ widescreen laptops instead. There’s no place for “racial” overtone in a technical forum.

  • Davidsgolden

    Would the 5103 run Photoshop CS5 without problems or is the program too heavy for this netbook?

  • Shashwat

    I have been a user of an Intel Atom based netbook(not an HP though) for almost 2 years now. The performance has been highly satisfying & just goes to show the amount of effort put into developing such a marvelous product.
    Lately, I’ve been considering buying a new netbook as mine is quite old now. I like the look of this one, plus I have absolutely no doubts about the Intel Atom processor.I’ve heard great reviews of HP products but haven’t ever had a chance to personally try one out. Plus, I’ve never tried the dual core Atom processor either. Think I’ll give it a try. All the additional features seem quite exciting too.
    Shashwat.

  • Irfan Ahmad

    Nice Video Brad