Tech: HP Mini 210 Netbook Review
I’ve been quite happy with the Acer Aspire One I picked up two years ago. The Aspire One has saved my bacon during law school lectures, airline flights, and road trips; for such a small machine, it packs a lot of utility. Heck, I even managed to write a 40 page patent law paper on it (not recommended, BTW).
The downside of all that constant use is that the Aspire One’s battery life is now down to about an hour when off of AC power. This isn't Acer's fault, it's just physics - all lithium ion cells degrade with time, and I'm sure the constant charge/discharge cycling of daily use doesn't help, either. The Aspire One's battery life is now so meager that I have to lug the AC adapter around with the netbook if I want to take it anywhere.
So, I looked around for a new netbook and settled on the HP Mini 210, mostly because a member of my family works at HP and has access to an employee discount. Even without the discount, you can pick up a Mini 210 for around $325, which is in line with other Intel Atom netbooks at the moment. Is it worth the money?
CASE DESIGN AND FORM FACTOR
The HP Mini 210 is a fairly handsome netbook, with noticeably better styling than my old Aspire One. I've seen better (the Mini 210’s got nothing on the 11" Macbook Air ultraportable), but the plastic is decent and resists fingerprints fairly well. If you're a fashionista, you can also pay a little extra and get the top and bottom case panels in various colors.
In terms of size and weight, the Mini 210 is a little larger and 3/4 pound heavier than my old Aspire One, mostly due to the larger 6-cell battery. HP smartly designed the Mini 210's battery; it angles upward, into the hinge area. This means the Mini 210 doesn’t have that awkward looking “foot” that a lot of 6-cell batteries have - the battery fits flush with the bottom of the netbook. Like in many modern laptops, the clamshell screen has no latch mechanism.
Here's an overview of the ports and switches on the HP Mini 210, which on the whole are pretty standard for this class of computer. From left to right, there's a multicard reader, power switch, 2 USB ports, a hole for a security lock, and an Ethernet jack:
On the other side, you can see the power jack, a video out, another USB port, and a multiaudio port.
One interesting plus for the HP Mini 210 - it's quite easy to pop the bottom panel to access the hard drive and RAM for upgrading:
KEYBOARD AND TOUCHPAD
The Mini 210 sports the island-style keyboard that’s all the rage nowadays. The keyboard itself is fairly solid, with less flex than my old Aspire One. It’s nearly full size, too, with plenty of space in-between the letter keys to make typing easier. There are two quirks you should be aware of, however. The first is that you need to chord a separate function key in order to access F1 through F12 and the "Insert" key. Without pressing the function key modifier, the top row of keys manipulate various aspects of the 210, including its screen brightness, volume control, and wireless adapter. The second quirk is that there are no "Page Up" or "Page Down" keys - kind of a bummer if you're used to using those keys to scroll through long web pages.
The touchpad is probably the part of the Mini 210 I like the least. Taking another cue from Apple, it has integrated left and right mouse click buttons - you press down on the corner of the touchpad instead of hitting a separate button. I've always found this to be vague and imprecise compared to dedicated mouse buttons. The touchpad does support some basic multitouch gestures, like two-finger scrolling and two-finger zooming, and it's not bad for what it is.
My Mini 210 has a standard 10.1" 1024x600 glossy LCD screen. As with most netbooks, the available viewing angle is poor-to-moderate - move your head about a foot to any side off of center, and the reflections from the screen surface begin to overwhelm the image. At two feet off-center, it's basically unusable.
You can order the Mini 210 with a higher-res 1,366x768 screen. As explained below, this upgrade is only worthwhile if you opt to put in the optional Broadcom video decoder card. Otherwise, it's not a very compelling upgrade.
PERFORMANCE AND BATTERY LIFE
My Mini 210 came with an Intel Atom N475 processor clocked at 1.83 GHz, a minor step up from the typical N455 at 1.66 GHz. Compared to my old Aspire One, which is equipped with Intel's first-gen 1.6 GHz Atom processor, the Mini 210 is slightly faster. The difference is very small, but noticeable; for instance, streaming video from a site that used to stutter every ten seconds now runs smoothly.
HP offers the 210 with a Broadcom video accelerator card for viewing 720p content. I've read mixed reports on this upgrade - though it works fine for watching files already on your system, it is hit and miss for many other types of streaming HD content. In any case, it adds considerable cost to what is supposed to be a cheap PC, so I decided to do without.
Battery life was average to good for this size netbook. Under constant use (YouTube videos, blogging, downloading and program execution), the Mini 210 will last about 5-6 hours, with the screen at about 80% brightness and speaker volume at a reasonable level. Tone down your usage, dim the screen, and kill the wireless, and the Mini 210 could last through a flight from New York to Paris.
The Mini 210 is a good example of how far netbooks have come in the past few years. Mind you, there are probably objectively better options for those in search of a netbook, but the HP sits in a comfortable, middle-of-the-pack position. If you can find a good deal on one, it's well worth a look.