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Little PC Gets the Big Stuff Wrong

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By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, June 12, 2008

A small, light laptop makes an excellent second computer -- unless it costs more than your first.

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The computer industry has been taking its time to grasp that point. The smallest, lightest computers have routinely sold for $2,000 or more, with most under-$1,000 offerings limited to heavy, bulky laptops that can't stray far from a desk or a power outlet. (Dell has one under-five-pound machine that starts at $1,000.)

But late last year, Asus's $299 Eee PC showed that you can cut both weight and cost from the standard laptop recipe.

Now the biggest computer vendor of them all is trying to get into this end of the market. Hewlett Packard's $499-and-up 2133 Mini-Note comes from the same basic template as the Eee but falls woefully short in some aspects.

That's a shame, considering the details HP got right with the Mini-Note. Its screen, at 8.9 inches, leaves enough room to read any Web page without scrolling from left to right, and its tightly packed keyboard permits touch-typing, unlike the Eee's dainty keys. (HP's cramped touchpad, however, deserves an F: With mouse buttons on its sides instead of in front of it, you can't drag things with the usual thumb-and-forefinger gesture.)

With a webcam, WiFi and wired networking -- but not a dial-up modem -- two USB ports, Bluetooth wireless to connect peripherals, a secure digital card slot to add memory, and an ExpressCard slot for such capabilities as cellular data service, the Mini-Note also has most of the options you'd find on a much larger, pricier PC.

Like other micro-laptops, it lacks a built-in CD or DVD drive. That need not be a problem, given how many media programs can be installed from the Web.

But HP falls on its face with this machine's software. The company offers a choice of Microsoft's Windows Vista (in Home Basic and Business editions, with an optional "downgrade" to Windows XP) or a version of the open-source Linux operating system, Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10.

None of these choices serves this machine well.

Windows Vista fits worst of all because of the extra memory, storage and processing power it needs. The cheapest configuration to ship with Vista costs $599 -- and with just a gigabyte of memory, it will often stumble when trying to run Vista.

The model HP loaned for this review came with Vista Business instead of the cheaper model's stripped-down Home Basic, twice as much memory, a faster processor and an upgraded battery that protruded from its backside.

All that conspired to push its cost to $749 and its weight to 3.2 pounds (plus another 0.8 for the power adapter). Its underside grew uncomfortably hot, and its battery ran for only 3 hours and 20 minutes with the computer constantly reloading a few Web sites and playing a loop of digital music.

HP compounded the Mini-Note's problems by loading it with a bizarrely inadequate software bundle. Although the company took the time to put on a trial copy of Microsoft Office 2007 and a useless HP toolbar for Internet Explorer 7, it couldn't be bothered to load an anti-virus program or such standard Web helpers as Adobe Reader.

The Linux version of the Mini-Note -- the only option at the $499 starting price -- should have been a more compelling alternative. This efficient system needs less memory than Vista and can fit in flash-memory storage instead of a hard drive, though that option cuts the Mini-Note's storage capacity to just 4 gigabytes.

HP did not make the mistake of Asus, which shipped an over-simplified, locked-down edition of Linux on the Eee PC. HP includes a real version of the operating system.

But it's also a difficult version to use. Novell's infuriatingly complicated, cranky implementation of Linux is almost guaranteed to send a beginner reeling in horror, or at least distaste.

On the $549 configuration HP loaned, loaded with a gigabyte of memory and a 120-gigabyte hard drive, trouble started with a prolonged and often perplexing setup sequence, continued with wireless-networking software that took two tries to connect to a standard WiFi network at The Post's offices and compounded its offenses with outbreaks of needless jargon and an intimidating array of control panels.

Worst of all, this model somehow couldn't use its own sound card.

Without sound, I couldn't duplicate the battery test used on the Windows version, but the smaller battery that kept this model's weight to 2.8 pounds expired in about an hour and a half of Web use.

This Linux model did bundle a far more generous assortment of add-on software than the Windows version, including the free, Microsoft-compatible OpenOffice. But that can't make up for HP choosing a version of Linux that will tax the patience of anybody who must maintain it without an IT department's help.

The most usable version of the Mini-Note may be one downgraded at the factory to run XP -- which, considering how poorly XP has aged since 2001, is a sad commentary on the state of the PC business.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro atrobp@washpost.com. Read more athttp://blog.washingtonpost.com/fasterforward.


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