PROS: Very small and light, outstanding battery life, solid productivity experience, great keyboard, a no-brainer to upgrade/service, priced very well with online coupon
CONS: no line-in audio jack, excessive bloatware, pastel lid colors, sub-par GPU
The last time I looked at an Atom netbook was perhaps October of 2010. That machine, a Toshiba NB305 priced at $399, came with a single-core N455 processor. While it was nice to use and difficult to put down most of the time, I seriously wanted to get more performance from it, especially given how running on max battery settings (ECO mode) all but crippled any tangible functionality. My outstanding experience with the HP Pavilion dm1z last year further proved that netbooks can be made to work so much better, especially when careful thought is put into the selection of components.
But given that the Nile-based dm1z is no longer available, what is there for the performance-oriented netbook die-hard to choose? Today, you have two options, Intel's N570 versus the AMD Brazos E-350. If playing games is important to you, your choice will be the AMD platform. But for getting work done, watching videos, and every other daily task I can possibly think of EXCEPT for gaming, I've come away with a solid appreciation for the N570 - not only does it deliver where it needs to, but it does so very well.
The unit that I have here today is the HP Mini 210-2100 series CTO model, available online from HP.com. The specs for my particular unit are as follows:
-Charcoal black lid and base
-Windows 7 Home Premium 32-bit
-Intel Atom N570 dual-core CPU (1.66GHz) with Broadcom Crystal HD video accelerator
-2GB DDR3 RAM
-250GB 5400RPM HDD
-2nd 6-cell battery
-10.1" 1366x768 HD Brightview Infinity LED display
-802.11b/g/n WLAN with Bluetooth
Examining the specs reveals this is about as fully-loaded as you can get in an Atom netbook. The total price for this configuration would normally be well north of $550, except that I was lucky enough to find a 25%-off coupon. That brought the price down to just $404. Even more amazing is that second battery only ended up costing me $38, bringing my total to $442. Don't blame me if I appear a little too excited, but a fully-loaded netbook for $404 and a spare netbook battery for $38 was a deal I simply could not pass up!
Many people would outright favor the AMD E-350 as opposed to ANY Atom netbook. But before you ask me what it is I've been smoking (and I haven't been smoking anything), you might want to carefully look at what the HP Mini 210 offers, and compare that with the current C-50 and E-350 netbook offerings.
Chief on that list would be HP's own refresh to last year's dm1z. The 2011 variant comes with an E-350 dual-core CPU running at 1.6GHz paired with a Mobility Radeon 6310 GPU. While the GPU end of the system is a good 20% stronger than the 4225 found in last year's Nile platform, the same cannot be said for the CPU. In fact, benchmarks show the E-350 runs much slower than the K625, more closer to a K325. Being how exceptionally well-balanced the K625/4225 CPU/GPU combination performed, can you really expect better results pairing a more powerful GPU with a weaker CPU? I think not. Brazos still cannot match Atom for battery life, it's 11.6" footprint is larger/heavier than the 10" 210 Mini, and the price difference is still a good $50 more. You may also have a tough time fitting that 11.6" chassis inside a 10" netbook case.
Fancy the leaner/smaller C-50 netbook variety? Good luck finding one first! Other than Acer's 10.1" Aspire One AO552, I'm unaware of any other model available today. True, Toshiba offers the NB550D, but only in countries outside the USA. At just $309, the AO552 certainly looks attractive, until you realize you're getting only Windows 7 Starter, 1GB RAM, a 1024x600 display and no bluetooth. Given the hassle and cost needed to upgrade such a watered-down netbook, the HP 210 Mini is a far better option - especially considering it's better build-quality, keyboard and speakers over the Acer. It doesn't even need mention that the N570 overwhelmingly beats the C-50 in performance.
Similar to the Intel N550, the N570 is a dual-core Atom with hyperthreading enabled. That means you get a 2C/4T processor, albeit running at 1.66GHz as opposed to the N550's 1.5GHz speed. For those who've tried an N550 netbook and have come away more-or-less impressed, the N570 should improve on that experience by a good 10%. Alternatively, for those horrified by what the N455 was able to deliver, the N570 will blow you away.
Running the same benchmarks as I used in my HP dm1z review, the N570 scored 2572 in my testing with 7-zip (8MB). That's less than 10% behind the score of 2761 achieved by the K625, higher than the 2290 scored by the N550, and more than likely better than numbers posted by AMD's E-350. But as helpful as synthetic benchmarks are for providing an apples-to-apples comparison, it's what the N570 can do in everyday tasks that truly shows how useful it can be.
With that in mind, I ran the VOB to WMV test - 10 hours 50 minutes. Not too good. However, the WME to PPC test came back with an insane result of just 2 hours 12 minutes - that's actually faster than a 2.66GHz mobile Core 2 Duo!!! Clearly, if your work involves using multi-threaded software, the 2C/4T N570 will show you it's no slouch.
How does performance in other every-day tasks feel? The same as you would get from any other dual-core notebook. Web browsing, email, and Office all run smoothly. This is mostly thanks to the 2GB RAM installed which makes Windows 7 run, as I like to say, normally. If you've been used to working with a dual-core notebook and have wanted to move to something lighter and a lot more portable, an N570 netbook would be worth a good look.
|The right extras can make a huge impact|
For playing back HD video the HP 210 Mini comes with Broadcom's Crystal HD video accelerator. While previous reviews have been harsh citing driver incompatibility, I can thankfully report that the 3.7.20 driver installed on the 210 Mini does the job well. So well that I threw pretty much every video codec I could at the system, and all results came back with a resounding success.
How successful you ask? 1080p WMV-HD played back with just 22% CPU utilization - compare to the K625 that required 50% to do the very same task, and that was with the help of discreet graphics! Hulu 480p on the N570 - 37%. Are you a YouTube junkie? 480p/720p and 1080p videos all played back with 30%/65%/70% respective CPU usage. Got an account with Netflix? Stream movies easily with just 65% CPU utilization. Even full-screen ESPN3.com live sports streaming is possible at full quality without any stutter or lag - sweet!
Unfortunately, the lack of a HDMI port will limit what you can do with that HD capability. A VGA connector still lets you output a PC signal, and some TV's will work with that. On the plus side, the HD 1366x768 display lets you enjoy full-resolution 720p content on-the-go nicely. Install a roomy 750GB hard drive, and the HP 210 Mini can become a full-blown mobile movie jukebox.
Supporting that solid video capability is built-in Dolby Advanced Audio. While not quite as impressive as the sound I got from the dm1z, the software allows selection of music/movie/game profiles with the addition of a fully-customizable 10-band EQ. I admit it won't replace a good set of speakers, but the enhancements definitely help when listening to music or watching movies. Compared to the horrible speakers I've heard on every other 10" netbook on the market, the 210 Mini provides pretty decent sound, with very good volume. Plug in your high-end cans and the Dolby Advanced Audio really takes off - combined with some 720p content for an intense personal audio/video experience.
I'm also very happy with the keyboard. The chicklet-style layout is very similar to typing on the Toshiba NB305, and the silver finish is attractive on the eyes. The lack of isolated, inverted-T cursor keys turned out to be just a minor annoyance for me, but you could argue the 10" footprint for spacing issues. The built-in trackpad buttons are, on the other hand, better done than what I saw on the dm1z, and the trackpad offers the same multi-touch capability. Even so, I'm inclined to use my wireless trackball with the 210 Mini, as it pairs amazingly well with the mobility of a netbook.
I chose to go with the standard 250GB 5400RPM hard drive for my unit. It performs okay, runs dead silent, and may be easier on the battery than a 7200RPM model. I haven't made up my mind yet about what hard drive I will upgrade to in the future, but I'm thinking a 250GB SSD would fit the bill. I like to leave room for a dozen or so movie rips for when I travel, and a 128GB SSD would have been too restrictive, while a 500GB 7200RPM drive seemed like overkill. I do want to get the maximum battery time and performance I can from the unit, so a SSD definitely is the way to go. Alternatively, a 128GB SSD paired with a 750GB external 2.5 inch USB hard drive would work well too, facilitating full-system backups alongside a much larger media library.
|Not a bad sight... for a netbook!|
Upgrading the HP 210 Mini is practically child's play, with a solution so simple it makes me wonder why no other manufacturer has thought of it. As shown in my Glamor Shots piece from last week, the bottom is a flush one-piece panel sans vents or screws. To pop it off you just slide an orange latch located under the battery. Once open, the entire bottom of the netbook is exposed, allowing unrestricted access to the hard drive, memory, wireless cards, CPU fan or complete system board removal. It's a welcome design not only for when it comes to upgrading components, but for effortless maintenance - those who've had to waste 6 hours totally disassembling a notebook just to clean a cooling fan will know what I'm talking about.
As was the case with the dm1z, the 210 Mini also comes with HP's QuickWeb utility. This lets you fire up a custom linux-based GUI in place of Windows, giving you faster and more simple access to everyday tasks such as email, web, photos and music. It permits access to your USB ports for printing or plugging in a thumb drive to browse files. It even offers native Skype support for using the webcam. I admit I had difficulty accessing my home WiFi hotspot using QuickWeb, but it may just be a security issue, as I'm not having any problems doing the same under Windows.
The 210 Mini also offers built-in GPS and mobile broadband. I didn't get the latter as the current sad state of affairs in the US with 4G coverage and capped plans has turned me away from carriers. How does the GPS perform? Unfortunately, I haven't had the chance to seriously try it out yet, as I lack a proper vehicle mount to use it on the go. It does work with Microsoft's Streets and Trips software, and since it needs no active data connection, can also work in places where Google Maps fails.
Likewise, the 10.1" 1366x768 LED display is also a big plus in my book. Regular 1024x600 netbooks have always been a pain to work on as the limited resolution hampered long menus and would get in the way of productivity. No such issues with the 210 Mini. I can do the bulk of my work as effortlessly as I do on my larger 17" workhorse. Yes, the screen is smaller and the increased DPI does take time to adjust to, but text is still legible even with two web pages loaded side-by-side. As was the case with the dm1z, the colors on the display were washed out, but a simple adjustment of the brightness and contrast in the GMA3150 control panel corrected that.
With a starting weight of just 3.1lbs and measuring 10.55x7.51x0.9 inches in size, the 210 Mini is more than likely the smallest and lightest content creation device available. Can you call a netbook a serious productivity tool? Sure you can - last year's dm1z is evidence. But while the Nile platform is sadly no longer available, I have to admit the N570 makes for a strong alternative, albeit in a smaller/lighter footprint and with much longer battery life.
Speaking of battery, the HP 210 Mini will keep you at work/play for the longer part of the day. And despite what you might think, that additional processing core won't shorten your unplugged time versus a single-core Atom. HP ships the 210 Mini with a 6-cell 66WH 5700mAh li-ion battery rated to go 10 hours. Real-world run time is obviously not that long, but impressive nonetheless, and on par with most other Atom netbooks. Using max battery settings with all wireless off, WMV playback time came in at 6 hours 40 minutes, with VOB playback close behind at 6 hours 25 minutes - enough to enjoy 3 full-length features on one charge. Alternatively, you can keep WiFi on and enjoy 4 hours 45 minutes of Hulu playback or 5 full hours of Netflix streaming. Carry a second battery with you, and enjoy anywhere from 9 to 13 hours of unplugged movie entertainment.
|Small, light and easy to pack|
Keep your eye out for that online coupon and you can grab one for $38 just as I did. Packing a spare battery will give you a lot more flexibility. This actually came out cheaper than the $77 it would have cost me to get a high-capacity battery for the dm1z, is much smaller/lighter, and lasts a full hour longer.
As much as I like the 210 Mini, there were a few negatives I did encounter. These aren't necessarily deal-breakers for most people, or interfere with how the N570 performs, rather just minor nicks on my part. For example, I use Cool Edit Pro heavily for my audio work, and the lack of a line-in/mic jack prevents me from recording from an external source. No big deal, I can always get a USB sound card, and my larger notebook does provide the relevant jack.
A more striking observation was the amount of bloatware allowed to run on startup. Checking the processes field on task manager's performance tab shows over 100 processes in use. That's a lot considering my 17" X305, also loaded with Toshiba bloatware and installed with the exact same suite of productivity software, shows just 76 processes. I'm not seeing any slowdowns with the system at all, nor does it feel sluggish in any way, but I do have to question HP towards pursuing such an inefficient approach - 100 processes is overkill given the feature-set of a netbook, and totally unnecessary. Fortunately, there's nothing stopping users from reinstalling Windows minus the hoopla, although for the time being, I'm not seeing such a step necessary.
Other than the matte black lid, HP also offers a few other color choices for the 210 Mini, except they are hardly what some would call "manly". I found the pastel colors didn't exactly fit well with me. For whatever reason HP decided to omit some of the better colors in it's lineup - a dark red or brown option would have been my favorite, or perhaps offer the white/champagne imprint colors that HP had on the old Pavilion dv4 notebook. I settled on the black out of necessity only, but hey, a nice airbrush job on the lid is doable.
Don't get me wrong here - I still believe the Nile-based dm1z is the best netbook out there. Unfortunately, it's no longer available, so those who happened to get one should be feeling very lucky right now. I also wasn't terribly inclined to plunk down $570 for such a unit when I knew that comparable performance would eventually be priced better in a 10" form-factor. What a difference a few months makes! For over $100 less, I now have a smaller/lighter unit, with a CPU on par with the E-350, same HD display and a spare battery thrown in for cheap. True, I won't be running Civilization V on the Mini, but that's why I keep a quad-core SLI notebook.
What about that E-450 Brazos refresh due in H2? Information I've seen so far doesn't really point to any noticeable CPU performance increase (only a 50MHz speed bump). I'm actually saddened by AMD at this point, because they had a killer product with Nile, a product that was in my opinion pulled from the market prematurely. Pairing a more powerful GPU with a weaker CPU is hardly progress, and will only bottleneck today's games running at 1366x768, never mind more CPU-intensive tasks.
Finally, HP has also announced a moderate refresh for the 210 Mini lineup. Due out sometime later this month, pictures shown so far don't point to any functional differences, save for the addition of that dedicated mic jack. If you want a black keyboard instead of silver, and fancy a splash of color on the palm rest, you may be happier waiting for the newer models, but the internals will continue to stay the same as what you see here.
In my case, I have to say I'm very happy and quite impressed with the HP Mini 210-2100 series. It is the smallest/lightest most feature-rich netbook currently available, provides very acceptable performance for handling numerous productivity/multimedia tasks, and can keep you away from an outlet all-day long. Fully-loaded for just $404 (with coupon), the HP 210 Mini is a 10" netbook seriously worth it's price.
I'm keeping mine!