A year ago, HP jumped into the netbook market. Well, stepped in. Well, put a toe in. The HP 2133 was a 2.9-pound portable with a glossy 8.9-inch display and one of the nicest, nearest-to-full-sized keyboards — 92 percent of full size, HP bragged — yet seen in the segment.
But while the 2133’s specifications more than stood up to the 7-inch screen and crowded keyboard of the pioneering Asus Eee PC 4G, it was saddled with a sluggish VIA C-7 processor and marketed mostly as a backpack buddy for students in grades K through 12. Not until last fall did HP step up with a full-fledged consumer netbook, remodeling the 2133 around Intel’s ubiquitous Atom CPU and a 10-inch screen to make it the Mini 1000 (and giving it a glossy red case and artistic frills to appeal to fashionistas with a pricey Vivienne Tam Edition).
Like other netbooks, of course, the 2133 and Mini 1000 have been purchased and used by bunches of businesspeople as well as kids and consumers — the idea of an easy-to-afford, easy-to-carry PC companion for checking e-mail, browsing the Web, and doing a little touch-up work on a report or presentation created on a desktop is what’s made the category a smash.
But now HP has gotten around to getting specific: The 10.1-inch-screened Mini 2140 is the company’s first netbook aimed specifically at mobile professionals. Externally, this means an aluminum rather than plastic case — plain silver-gray, without the squiggle-and-swirl patterns that decorate HP’s (and other vendors’) consumer notebooks or the Crayola red, blue, and pink hues available on other netbooks. We find it handsomely understated, or understatedly handsome if you prefer.
There’s also some extra engineering done with reliability in mind, led by a technology HP calls 3D DriveGuard — a three-axis accelerometer that senses a sudden drop or shock and instantly parks the hard drive. We’ve seen this safety feature in HPs, Lenovos, and many other business laptops. It’s a pleasure and a plus to see it in a netbook, although you shouldn’t mistake any 2.6-pound compact for a truly ruggedized system. Our test unit sailed through a few bumps and fumbles, but we refrained from dropping it more than an inch or two onto a desk.
If you’re truly terrified by the prospect of a hard disk crash, you can custom-order a Mini 2140 with an 80GB solid-state drive. However, that no-moving-parts solution costs $575 more than the 160GB, 5,400-rpm Hitachi drive in our model. Actually, our model in its entirety cost $449.
Your OS of Choice
That gets you a Mini 2140 with the abovementioned 160GB hard disk, Windows XP Home Edition, and the same Atom N270 processor seen in nearly every netbook at your local electronics outlet — a 1.6GHz single-core chip (well, one-and-a-half-core for applications that can take advantage of Intel’s Hyper-Threading Technology) with 512K of Level 2 cache.
One gigabyte of DDR2 memory is standard; the system maximum of 2GB is a $50 option, and also requires a change from Win XP Home to another operating system — HP offers Windows Vista, Vista with a “downgrade” to Windows XP Professional, and SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10. The McAfee online security suite and trial version of Microsoft Office 2007 are preinstalled.
On the HP’s left side you’ll find microphone and headphone jacks, a USB 2.0 port, and a VGA connector for an external monitor. A second USB port is at the right, along with an Ethernet jack and Secure Digital and ExpressCard/54 slots — the former for a flash memory card, the latter just right for a wireless broadband add-in. That’s not to say the 2140 doesn’t have wireless chops of its own — Broadcom’s 802.11a/b/g/draft-n adapter covers every WiFi variation, and Bluetooth is built in as well.
The flush-fitting, three-cell battery pack barely gets a passing grade: HP claims it provides up to four hours of life, but our real-world work sessions (with WiFi switched on and screen brightness at its next-to-top setting) ended after two and a half hours. A six-cell battery that juts slightly from the back of the case is a $25 option.
Netbooks are all about convenience, not colossal benchmark scores, but the Mini 2140 proved perky and responsive in all the usage scenarios we threw at it. For the record, it narrowly outran the 8.9-inch Acer Aspire One with the same Atom processor and Intel GMA 950 integrated graphics that we tested last August.
The HP posted a PCMark05 score of 1,539 (CPU 1,293; memory 2,159; hard drive 4,719; graphics 576), with a CrystalMark 2004R3 rating of 29,210. Would-be gamers looking forward to anything racier than Minesweeper will be predictably disappointed, with a 3DMark06 score of 122 and a leisurely seventeen and a half minutes to render Cinebench R10‘s sample image.
HP was wise not to meddle with the first-rate keyboard that debuted on the 2133: The flat, floor-tile-style keys span 7.5 inches from A to apostrophe, just half an inch less than on a desktop keyboard, and have a soft but fairly snappy typing feel. HP says that a clear coating over the board, dubbed DuraKeys, protects the finish and printed characters from wearing off with time.
As with many larger laptops, the cursor arrows team with a Fn key to replace dedicated Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn keys, but there are no other cramping compromises. And the Ctrl and Delete keys are properly located in the lower left and upper right corners, respectively.
The 2140’s touchpad works smoothly but is slightly less appealing — it’s rectangular rather than square (like a widescreen HDTV compared to an old 4:3 aspect ratio set), which leaves it a little short on vertical maneuvering room, with rubbery mouse buttons placed on either side rather than beneath. You’ll grow accustomed to it with a little practice, however.
Short on Resolution
More seriously, the touchpad’s not the only thing that seems stretched and shortened. While the first HP netbook’s screen squeezed 1,280 by 768 pixels into 8.9 diagonal inches, making the cursor and small menu or dialog-box text uncomfortably small for our aging-boomer eyes, the Mini 2140 boasts a bigger 10.1-inch display but lesser 1,024 by 576 resolution, lopping 4 percent off the Y axis compared to the 1,024 by 600 that’s become an unofficial netbook standard among other vendors.
The reason is that HP decided to jump on the 16:9 bandwagon, advertising the same aspect ratio as HDTV and most of the newest full-sized, entertainment-oriented laptops. The oddity is that, (a.) we don’t anticipate users watching a lot of HD video on a netbook — yes, you could plug in a USB tuner, but the Atom CPU and GMA 950 graphics will never add up to satisfying hi-def performance. And (b.), the screen is too small to show HD anyway, since the smaller of the two HD formats is 1,280 by 720 pixels.
Meanwhile, you’ll have to do a bit more scrolling in everyday applications, or get used to seeing one fewer spreadsheet row. A couple of complaints on HP’s shopping site even claim that a few programs don’t work on the 2140, software refusing to believe that a modern PC wouldn’t have at least the 600-pixel vertical resolution of circa-1990 SVGA. We had to plug in a monitor to run our benchmark tests.
Fortunately, a “Coming Soon” tag on the same HP site promises a 1,366 by 768 HD panel option for the near future, though we’ll have to wait and see how much it adds to the Mini 2140’s price. For now, we admit the 1,024 by 576 screen is crisp and bright (if only at the top couple of its LED backlight settings), with handsome colors and sharp text. We also really like the scratch-resistant acrylic cover that makes the entire display area a seamlessly smooth, glossy surface — we hate blowing or brushing away dust particles or hairs only to see them snag between a screen and a bezel.
A Step Above
It’s nice design touches like the screen cover and keyboard, as well as hardware advantages like the ExpressCard slot and Bluetooth, that you must keep in mind when considering the HP’s $449 price: It’s about a hundred bucks more than you’ll pay for an otherwise comparably spec’d (1.6GHz Atom, 1GB RAM, 160GB hard drive, 10.1-inch screen) rival from Acer, MSI, or another manufacturer at your local superstore.
The Mini 2140 is one of the nicest netbooks we’ve seen. As is, we’d gladly pay a $50 premium for its excellent keyboard alone; whether we’d pay a $100 premium is a little less certain. It might depend on whether HP threw in the six-cell battery or the higher-resolution screen. Or, since we’re greedy, both.
This article was first published on Hardware Central.