Ion graphics can't turn this netbook into a gaming rig
To say that netbooks have historically been hobbled by Intel’s integrated graphics is to unfairly ignore their slow single-core CPUs, 1GB RAM maximum, miniscule keyboards, and awkward screen resolutions. It’s an unfair assertion, of course—netbooks came into existence to be cheap, portable, low-powered machines. But the definition of netbook has been stretched, to the point where HP’s new Mini 311, while still considered a netbook, has an 11.6-inch 1366x768 screen, Nvidia integrated graphics, a large keyboard, and can support up to 3GB of DDR3 RAM, for less than $500.
At first, the Mini 311 looks a lot like any other 11.6-inch netbook on the market: Intel Atom processor, 1GB of RAM, 3 USB ports, and a somewhat squashed keyboard. But the RAM is DDR3/1333, not the typical DDR2/667, and it’s soldered to the mainboard, leaving a SODIMM slot free for an additional 2GB of RAM. The screen has a maximum resolution of 1366x768, significantly better than the standard 1024x600—for one thing, websites and programs built for 1024x768 won’t break. And thanks to the Ion platform, the Mini 311 can display 720p HD video, and output 1080p over the HDMI port—that’s right, a netbook with an HDMI port.
The Mini 311's Nvidia Ion graphics are wonderful, but the keyboard feels like quicksand.
Aside from the graphics (and all that that implies) the rest of the Mini 311 is standard netbook fare, and non-graphics-related benchmark scores bear that out. Photoshop and MainConcept scores were within 5 percent of our zero point, as was battery life, which, at just over four hours, is good for anything with discrete graphics, but middle-of-the-road for netbooks. The Mini 311 played our Quake 3 benchmark at 142fps, compared to our zero point’s 58fps. Quake 4 performance on a standard netbook is akin to watching a violent PowerPoint; the Mini 311 pushed out a playable 34fps. It suffered more on current-gen games—Left 4 Dead caps at 10fps when zombies are on the screen, and both Modern Warfare games chug along at a nearly playable 15fps. The Mini 311 isn’t a modern gaming notebook—the single-core Atom CPU is too slow for that—but thanks to its Ion graphics and decent resolution, it can kind of play more modern games than its predecessors.
The Mini 311’s shell is slim and attractive, with a white or black patterned lid and a silver-and-black chassis. The screen is bright and not overly reflective; in fact, our only real complaint with this netbook is its keyboard. It’s big, true, with nice concave chiclet keys, but unlike the keyboard on the Mini 1000 series, the keys feel mushy and slick, rather than firm and matte, so typing is not as pleasant as it should be on a keyboard this big.
Though the Mini 311 is still hampered by the long-in-the-tooth Atom N280 processor, the Ion graphics make up for it. HD video and actual gaming capability on a netbook, plus HDMI-out and up to 3GB of DDR3 RAM? Heck yes. The Mini 311 is only the first in a doubtless long line of Ion-enabled netbooks, but if this is the shape of things to come, we’re excited.
HP Mini 311
Current-gen graphics; great screen; HDMI out; 1366x768 res; good build; supports up to 3GB DDR3.
Mushy keyboard; still stuck with single-core Atom processor.
HP Mini 311
Premiere Pro CS3
Battery Life (mins)
Our zero point netbook is a Lenovo IdeaPad S12 with a 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270, 1GB of DDR2/667 RAM, a 160GB hard drive, Intel GMA950 integrated graphics chipset, and Windows XP Home SP3.
HP Mini 311
1.66GHz Intel Atom N280
Nvidia Ion LE
11.6-inch LED-backlit LCD@1366x768
160GB HDD (5,400rpm)
Three USB 2.0, audio in/out, SD/multicard reader, VGA, HDMI, 10/100 Ethernet