Asus has a lot to answer for.
Its original Eee PC sub-notebook, announced just under a year ago, has leapt off shelves - watched with great interest by a growing number of notebook manufacturers.
One year of development on, we're starting to see these manufacturers' attempts to match the Eee PC's portability, low price point and general loveableness come to fruition.
A few such notebooks have passed largely unnoticed, but none since the original Eee have been greeted with quite such excitement as HP's offering; the Mini-Note.
Not just for kids
The company insists that the Mini-Note has been designed primarily for education, and though we'll accept that as a starting point, we struggle to believe that every design decision was made so that little Eric could do all his homework on the bus and still have room in his bag for his lunch box.
Take the curvaceous magnesium alloy shell, the near full-sized keyboard or the stunning high-resolution glossy screen.
The rock-solid build quality means it’s quite a lot heavier than its rivals – not particularly schoolchild friendly - and aesthetically, it’s a far cry from the creaky white plastic Eee PCs gracing the shelves of Toys R Us or the One Laptop Per Child association’s toy-like XO-1.
It begs to be kept wrapped in microfibre cloth, protected from wayward compasses and pencil sharpeners that may compromise its beauty. Its looks beg comparison with the Macbook Air, and remind us of the form factor we all hoped for from Apple. It’s simply too exquisite – too adult – to have been built for the classroom.
Slow for the UK
In order to bring the product to market as soon as possible, HP has opted to use VIA’s single-core C7-M processor; a processor family as sluggish as it is dated.
The UK seems to have been dealt a poor hand with the Mini-Note; while US buyers can choose from a number of customised editions, our choice is simply ‘Linux’ or ‘Windows Vista’.
For us Brits, there’s very little reason to opt for the latter; the processor is the same paltry 1.2Ghz chip as the Linux version, with no sign of the 1.6Ghz model in the UK.
It’s a huge shame, as while the extra memory and larger six-cell battery of the higher-end UK model does go some way to making up the speed differential, the ‘upgrade’ to Windows Vista is hardly worth paying for.
Vistaon the Mini-Note is like putting Pavarotti behind the wheel of a two-seat convertible; he'll get from A to B, but the extra bloat means he's not the best man for the job.
But that's the thing - it does get from A to B. Having read preliminary reports, we were expecting performance under Vista to be simply ludicrous, with Vista’s interface rendered pixel by pixel.
Downgrade to Windows XP
In reality, in everyday web browsing, working with Microsoft Office 2007 and playing videos, it’s no slower than a low-end Celeron notebook for the same price.
In the US, HP is offering a 'downgrade to Windows XP' option - we presume the word 'downgrade' is only used to keep Microsoft happy, as for all intents and purposes you'll be giving your Mini-Note a new lease of life by switching to Microsoft's older, wiser operating system.
That said, those looking for a real-world example of the Mini-Note’s abilities under Windows Vista will find comfort in the following: What was originally thought to be a suicide mission ended in tremendous satisfaction after we installed Adobe Lightroom and successfully developed a batch of five 8Mbit Canon RAW images with negligible wait time between adjustments.
Photographers looking for a mobile digital darkroom should take note; the high resolution screen makes mobile Photoshopping a reality, and with the inclusion of an SD card slot, powered USB socket and a 120GB hard drive as standard, there’s a huge amount more scope for backing up and storing batches of images on the move than with the EeePC’s 20GB SSD.
Similarly, if you’re looking for a sub-notebook in order to do any kind of writing, the search ends here.
While the EeePC had us screwing our hands into claw shapes to type, the Mini-Note’s ‘borderless’ keyboard is a dream to type on. There’s simply no compromise when typing; it feels more natural than many full-size notebooks, with concave keys guiding your fingertips as you glide over them, providing just the right amount of feedback with minimal travel.
And if you need to get that finished document to where it has to go quickly, there’s a very welcome ExpressCard 54 slot on the side of the Mini-Note, just waiting for a 3G wireless internet card.
Not good for video
As a portable media player, however, the Mini-Note falls flat. The 1.2Ghz processor struggles to play full-screen video at anything beneath ‘high performance’ mode, which reduces battery life considerably.
At full speed, and provided you don’t do too much in the background, DivX-encoded movies and QuickTime trailers will play with no noticeable frame rate loss, though YouTube videos are very choppy under Vista due to the processor-intensive Flash decoding required.
It’s worth noting that 'downgrading’ the 1.2Ghz Mini-Note to Windows XP clears up a lot of such issues.
Video is sharp and colourful thanks to the gorgeously-high PPI 1280x768 resolution, glossy display, but don’t expect to take advantage of the Mini-Note’s screen resolution with any high definition content – the VIA Chrome9 graphics chipset simply isn’t powerful enough for anything much higher than 480p.
Battery life a concern
In normal desktop tasks, though, it makes a world of difference, even compared to the EeePC 900’s 9” screen; the extra resolution brings its screen real estate close to those twice the size. It’s not as bright as we’d hoped, and while it’s perfectly viewable, the option for one more step of brightness wouldn’t go amiss in lighter environments.
The stereo speakers flanking the panel are equally worthy, making up for a lack of bass with detail-laden volume that never sounds distorted.
Battery life is perhaps our biggest concern with the Mini-Note; with the processor clocked at half speed and the brightness set to 70% using Vista’s power management options, we were rewarded with just over four hours of battery life from the larger –and heavier - six cell battery.
This is fine if you’re browsing the web or writing spreadsheets, but you’ll struggle to play a film full-screen with the processor at half speed, and turning up the power means the Mini-Note will be dead before the credits roll.
Our other concern is heat, though this is evidently a design decision; place the Mini-Note on your lap and you’ll soon know about it. Like Apple’s metal-bodied notebooks, the Mini-Note’s shell is used to dissipate heat, and while it’s certainly no worse than Apple’s Macbook Air, it’s still not quite the cool and comfortable little computer we might have imagined.
When the Eee PC came out, we set aside a little portion of our salaries, awaiting the results of a backlash from other manufacturers.
The HP Mini-Note is firm proof that it’s been worth the wait – it’s a radical step up from the Eee PC in build quality, and despite the inflated asking price, there are few who will disagree after seeing it face to face that the extra hasn’t been put to good use.
It’s just an enormous shame that the 1.6Ghz version won’t be released in the UK, as internally, the slower processor puts it far behind the Eee PC’s Intel processor when it comes to video and multi-tasking.
The UK editions are still very capable sub-notebooks, but as upstanding British citizens, we can’t help but feel a little cheated.