Netbook PC Review: Hewlett Packard Mini 5103

I recently reviewed the Hewlett Packard (HP) Elitebook 8440w and loved it, so when I had the chance to look at the recently released HP Mini 5103 my thought was: ‘take the 8440w and shrink it to netbook dimensions and you have the PERFECT business netbook’!

At first glance that seems to be exactly what they did, but of course I needed to put it through the day-to-day paces of my work life to see how it did. And since I have an unhealthy obsession with trying to shoehorn ‘big PC’ games onto netbooks, naturally I had to see how the hardware performed as a portable gaming system. Read on and find out how it did!

The Hype:
Maximize your mobility with the sleek, lightweight HP Mini 5103. Stay productive wherever you go with touch capabilities, flexible wireless options and a choice of productivity suites.

Touch capabilities:
• Work faster and more intuitively — navigate with the optional multi-touch display or the included touchpad
• Enhanced productivity on the go:
• Create professional-looking documents, spreadsheets and presentations with included Corel® Home Office software or Microsoft Office 2010 Preloaded; Purchase Key.
• Improve system performance, conserve power and enhance battery life with the newest low-power Intel® Atom™ processors
• Work comfortably on the nearly full-size (95%) spill-resistant keyboard
• Access e-mail without fully booting up using HP QuickLook 3 , and get online in seconds with HP QuickWeb
• Get a head start on the day by while system is starting by instantly viewing your calendar and battery charge with HP DayStarter

Stylish and mobile:
• Sleek, lightweight, durable metal-encased design starts at only 2.64 lb and has an optional handle for easy portability
• Stay connected in more places with integrated HP Mobile Broadband powered by Gobi, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth®
• Clearly view content on the 10.1-inch diagonal LED-backlit display in your choice of WSVGA or HD resolutions
• Choose a 4-cell battery for lighter weight­ or a 6-cell battery for longer life
• Built with the environment in mind:
• ENERGY STAR® qualified, Registered with a mercury-free LED display, and 90% recyclable or recoverable by weight

The Reality:

As with my Elitebook review, there were some limitations to what I could test due to “corporate security and other boring details”, so I mainly checked out the functionality briefly before getting down to what I could actually test, and therefore left that stuff in the ‘hype’ section. Also, just for fun I took most of the pictures side-by-side with my all-time favorite HP product, the Omnibook 300, which still works quite well nearly 18 years after I first got it!

Before I launch into details, let me provide a frame of reference: I have been on-board with netbooks since the earliest set of 10″ systems launched, using a HP Mini-Note 2133 for a while before buying a Lenovo s10. Those two form the core of what I used for my Netbook Gamer series. But once we were in the ‘all Atom’ land, what could makers do to differentiate? Not much – then we started seeing new graphics chips (ION), and slightly faster CPUs, but anything more than a simple single-core Atom with integrated graphics cost too much to fit the typical ‘small & cheap’ netbook mantra.

It got to the point where getting a netbook that was really differentiated from my Lenovo s10 would have cost me as much as a mid-range laptop … or an iPad. So I have been using my Alienware m11x and iPad and watching the netbook wars from the sidelines. But with a dual-core Atom and a drool-worthy keyboard others have raved about, I simply had to try the HP Mini 5103!

Configuration and Pricing
Netbooks, unlike most laptops, seldom give you much in the way of configuration options. Head to the website for any netbook maker and when you choose ‘Configure’ you get scant options – perhaps a choice of which single core Atom processor, maybe 1GB or 2GB or RAM, and maybe 160 or 250GB of hard disk, and then onto things like Mobile Broadband and high margin accessories.

The Mini 5103 is more like a traditional laptop in this regard, as you can grab the pre-configured version for $399, but the SECOND you click ‘configure’ your cheapest option becomes $522! Wow … so naturally I wanted to see how pricing would look if I pre-configured the system I was given for review.

There were options for the single-core Atom 455 and 475, but since I was given the dual-core Atom 550 I chose that starting package – $542. This option had the Windows 7 Starter, small (160GB) hard drive, 1GB RAM, and the low-end 1024×600 display.

I added a ‘real’ version of Windows 7, 2GB of RAM (1GB in 2010 … really?), the larger battery, the bigger 250GB hard disk and most importantly the better screen. Depending on whether or not you add the Broadcom Crystal AV Enhanced Video Accelerator is the difference between ~$700 and $750.

Wait? My nice $399 netbook suddenly hit the average selling price of normal laptops?

Yep! And suddenly you have a real ‘value prop’ issue on your hands. I headed to HP’s own G62x ‘general purpose’ laptop, and found that for ~$600I could get a 15.6″ display laptop with a Core i3 (faster than dual-core Atom), 4GB RAM, 540GB hard drive, ATi Radeon Mobility HD graphics, built-in DVD drive, and so on. And looking at the dv7t ‘performance’ laptops, $775 would get me a similar setup but with a Core i5 processor, discrete ATi graphics and overall nicer system quality (which could easily top $1000 with a couple of upgrades).

I understand the purpose of a netbook, and my purpose isn’t to suggest a direct comparison but rather to show you where we are playing in terms of pricing. I think that when you start pricing a system above the average laptop selling price you need to have a compelling value proposition. So let’s get back to the matter at hand – looking at the system and seeing what it has to offer.

Connectivity & Expansion

Looking at the side-view images you might be thinking ‘wow, there are 3 USB ports’?!? That is what I thought – the Mini 5103 is very similar to my work laptop in that regard, with a power connection, external monitor connection, and dual USB ports on one side. On the other side you get the third USB port as well as an Ethernet connection, lock, audio in and out, and a SD card slot. There are no ports on the back which is dominated by the battery.

A couple of other thoughts on this: the side-view images show the full extent of the ‘large’ battery, which is a very minor bump … and it also shows the added screen thickness due to the touch screen.

Build Quality
I remember the first time I touched my HP Mini-Note 2133 – it was rock solid and completed different from the original EEE-PC I had tried out previously. It had a distinctly ‘Apple-like’ build quality and feel to it. The HP Mini 5103 is very different – no one is going to think you are carrying around a new Macbook, but they might think from a distance that you have an EliteBook!

Picking up the Mini 5103 you are immediately struck by how solid it feels. It not only looks like an EliteBook, it FEELS like one. This isn’t some flimsy cheapo netbook you’ll be ashamed to carry into a business meeting, this is a high class piece of hardware that was clearly designed to look and feel professional … and be fully function while handling the rigors of constant carrying.

As an anecdote, I carried around the Mini 5103 for work for a while, and on one day that I needed to spend a few hours at a remote office location I only brought a small bag with the HP, my iPad and Livescribe Pulse pen and pad. I was able to take care of everything I needed, and got numerous comments on the HP and how cool it looked … and particularly the keyboard!

Switching between the 4-cell and 6-cell batteries is very simple, with a common two-slider lock system that makes it a breeze to switch quickly. The 6 cell protrudes less than 0.5″ making it a natural ergonomic tilt for the system without adding much bulk.

One minor complaint with the feel is that when opening the screen it just doesn’t ‘feel’ right. I know why – the touch screen – but it still has an odd and uncomfortable feeling lifting up the screen that makes me look every time I do it. Considering I have been primarily laptop-powered for 20 years now … that sort of thing stands out to me.

Keyboard & TrackPad
As I mentioned above, the keyboard on the Mini 5103 got a lot of attention when I used it. Everyone who touched it loved the feel, from touch-typists to hacks like myself! The size is just right and the feeling is amazingly well balanced for a netbook. It is a pleasure to type on and I never had any issues mistyping or with spongy keys or anything else … it just worked, and is better than than many full-sized laptop keyboards.

After such praise for the keyboard, you might expect that all of it came at the expense of the trackpad, which is typically a source of criticism for netbooks. And you would be right. The trackpad is small and cramped without multitouch … but at least it doesn’t have the buttons on the ends like HP did with the original Mini-Note! It is a very common netbook trackpad … which means it basically screams ‘use an external mouse’!

And since I have taken pictures with the Omnibook 300, I just have to say that I STILL love and prefer the pop-out mouse to anything I have ever used on a ultra-portable system.

Touch Screen
When I see a laptop with a touch screen I immediately look for a way to convert it into a tablet. And so it was with the Mini 5103. I got over the added thickness of the screen and started poking my way around clicking buttons on web pages and so on. Then I tried to see how the screen would hinge itself into a tablet, and perhaps where the stylus was hidden. But quickly I realized this wasn’t a tablet simply a netbook with a touchscreen.

At that point I pretty much stopped using the touch screen, but noticed that my kids made much more use of it than I ever did. This is something I discussed with HP and they also found to be true – kids naturally expect touch screen – and after 6 months of an iPad around the house that is more true than ever!

It was somewhat amusing that in the midst of evaluating the Mini 5103 I had to take an annual ergonomics training through work. All I could think as I took the course was ‘the Mini 5103 touch screen is an ergonomic nightmare’! And sure enough, that weekend as my younger son was spending an extended time period working on building a website on the Mini 5103 he eventually asked for an external mouse, stating that the touch screen was making his arm sore.

So ultimately while I think the touch screen is a nifty addition, it is something that no business would EVER want their people using for health reasons (as 70% of workers compensation money goes to ergonomics related injuries) and I doubt that anyone responsible would want a kid to use such a setup for anything but cursory use.

Core Performance
With a dual-core Atom processor you might expect the Mini 5103 to feel more like a ‘normal laptop’ than a typical netbook … and you’d be right. As I did with the EliteBook, I loaded up the Mini 5103 with some of my work software and put it through the paces of my daily routine. I was in the middle of a project that required processor-intensive data analysis using two separate programs, each with particular strengths. I was also documenting the results for the project and therefore needed to spend a bunch of time in typical office programs.

As an ‘office companion’ the Mini 5103 was fantastic: opening presentations, images, spreadsheets and documents was quick and efficient, thanks to the speedy processor and fast hard drive. I was able to load up macros to execute and have multiple applications open at once without ever seeing a slow-down. This is a much different experience than with a typical netbook, where I would want to be stingy with my processor cycles and memory overhead. It made using it for routine tasks a pleasure.

On the more demanding use-cases, I was reminded that it is indeed just a netbook. For a quick analysis I could see things bogging down compared to my work laptop, and when doing massive analysis that could take a couple of minutes on a normal system, the Mini 5103 would take an inordinate amount of time, occasionally locking up the system or at least bringing everything to a crawl. I think much of that falls to a combination of limited memory (2GB) and the limitations of the processor and system throughput.

But I don’t want to seem unreasonable in noting that as a shortfall – these sorts of things were unthinkable on earlier netbooks, so being able to expand the usage of a netbook this far represents a major achievement. I was thrilled by the new level of performance enabled by the dual-core processor.

Gaming Performance
As I mentioned, one test I simply had to try with the Mini 5103 was gaming. Netbooks are limited due primarily to the lack of a discrete graphics processor, but as better combinations of CPUs and integrated graphics arrive they can play more and more games. The Mini 5103 has the Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 3150 paired up with the dual-core Atom processor. That is better than earlier integrated graphics chips, but still not nearly enough to keep up with discrete chips like the nVidia ION in the discontinued HP Mini 311.

My original goal was to capture screens and videos to show the FPS (frames per second) performance in each game, but for some reason I could never get FRAPS (my preferred screenshot and video capture utility) to work correctly on the Mini. It would capture stuff just fine, but the FPS overlay wasn’t listening to my commands!

For my tests I tried several games, including Quake Live, Neverwinter Nights Platinum and Gothic 2 Gold. None of these would work on the HP Mini-Note 2133, but all of them would at least install on the Lenovo s10. I did a review of Neverwinter Nights on the s10 as it was playable, but neither of the other two were.

Neverwinter Nights was very playable, even without all of the tweaking I mention above. I was seeing frame rates between 10 and 30 depending on the area and what was happening on screen, which was very much in line with expectations. I could easily have gotten higher frame rates by tweaking the settings, but the defaults were comfortable.

Quake Live was interesting because I knew the game itself should work well – it is a browser-based game, and later games from the same engine (Jedi Knight II, etc) work great even on the s10. My question was how it would behave online, since I have seen cheap WiFi modules in laptops cause issues for online games. Once again, the Mini 5103 performed perfectly. I was able to play in a variety of matches online without every dropping out. In fact, it was little different than playing on my Alienware laptop. Very nice!

And … then there was Gothic 2 Gold. I was very disappointed that my screens and video didn’t show the performance accurately, but let me explain. Gothic 2 is a huge open-world game from 2002 that was expanded and released as a full ‘gold’ version in 2005. The game allows you to view huge distances, have loads of details, and tons of stuff going on screen at any given time. The price you pay is in graphics performance.

To test the Mini 5103, I grabbed a save game from my Alienware and transferred it. Even though both have 1366 x 768 screens, on the HP the game got reset to 800 x 600, and I tweaked it back up to 32 bit. My defaults were full details for everything and maximum view distances.

Here is a video showing the performance, me dropping settings, and subsequent performance.

At full settings, I was getting a maximum of 3 frames per second! You can’t really see it so much in the video, where it looks like the performance is more like 5 – 10 FPS. What you don’t see is the control lag, but you get a hint when I’m dropping the view distances and it stops at 120 and then I toggle it to 100% – the time delay is the delay between keypress and screen update. At those setting the game was completely unplayable.

When I dropped the settings to minimum I was getting a true 10FPS, with no serious input lag. The game looks awful graphically and all detail is washed out, but it is a much more comfortable experience. This really isn’t a game I would ever advise anyone to play on a low end system to begin with – you really want to open up the settings and load up the enhanced graphics patches and enjoy the fantastic world in as much detail as possible.

Ultimately, when it comes down to it, we are once again looking at netbook level gaming performance – just at a netbook that has advanced from the s10 the same way the s10 advanced from the Mini-Note 2133. This is simply not a gaming machine in any way.

HP Value-Added Features
HP is touting their QuickLook and DayStarter features, and for the business traveler I can imagine that there is definitely a usefulness. I wasn’t able to make use of either due to security constraints with my Outlook data, but it looked to be a useful tool with some nice features.

As was true with the Elitebook, I am torn on my opinion of those utilities. In the business travel I have done recently, anyone who has a work laptop with them in an airport or out at a restaurant also has a smartphone. I can easily check my email, calendar or a website on my phone quicker than on the Mini. So I see it as a ‘nice to have’ but probably not particularly useful in general practice.

Review Unit Issues
With my EliteBook I highlighted some issues that I attributed to all of the shipping, handling, creak-tests and who knows what else. So I wanted to make sure to point out the same thing for the Mini 5103 as I am certainly not the first one reviewing this system.

Yet there were no issues. The system was cosmetically in great shape, the fit and finish were in like-new condition, with everything feeling tight and perfectly manufactured. As I stressed before, the round robin world of critical reviews and resetting hardware can be hard on a machine, and that only enhances my opinion of how well build the Mini 5103 is: I would have absolutely no issue simply tossing it in a bag to carry around.

Throughout this review I have had some significant concerns and criticisms about certain elements, and yet this is by far the best netbook I have ever touched. It has rock solid manufacturing quality, great design principles for the keyboard and general hardware, enough connectivity options to be truly useful, and enough performance to actually be usable as someone’s ‘main computer’.

But the reality is that no one is going to use this as a ‘main computer’. It is a companion computer, and therefore faces an uphill battle presenting a value proposition compelling enough to justify the price. I know that the target audience is business users, and perhaps for them it will make the most sense – there will be corporate discounts due to volume of sales with HP, and in many cases business travelers can get their department to buy them an additional PC like this … but I don’t see them spending their own money on it.

My point is that the target audience is extremely limited for a $700+ netbook that doesn’t do better at gaming than most other laptops, and whose dual-core processor simply puts it on track with laptops in the $400-500 range and well below similarly priced laptops from HP and others.

I have written before that the need for differentiation in the netbook space has led to fragmentation and confusion amongst consumers simply looking for the best value for their money.

Review: Hewlett-Packard Mini 5103

Where to Buy:

Price: ~$750 as tested (base model is $399)

Note: Base model single core Atom 455 1.6GHz, 2GB RAM, 160GB 7200RPM HD, 1024 x 600 display
Getting to the N550 dual core, 2GB RAM, 250GB HD, 1366 x 768 display topped out ~$750!

What I Like: Great looks for a business machine; rock-solid build quality; better keyboard than many full notebooks; 3 USB ports(!); excellent general performance for a netbook; solid battery life; excellent balance of features and connection options

What Needs Improvement: Did you say $750 for a netbook?; Too little memory to take advantage of processor; average gaming performance belies need for better graphics processor; touch screen is an ergonomic nightmare; at this price it should have the nVidia ION.

Source: Manufacturer provided review unit

Categories: Reviews


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