When you spend time reviewing mobile computers, you need to address the question of what sort of laptop/mobile device you are reviewing. Simply stated, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for laptops/netbooks/notebooks (or MIDs/cell phones/PDAs/etc.) Instead, most devices have a target audience. If you happen to be among the target audience for a particular device, you'll probably appreciate what it offers a lot more than someone with different wants/needs.

Take the netbook. Frankly, anyone looking for a laptop that can do everything they need is almost bound to be severely disappointed by what current netbooks offer. Yes, they're small, light, and generally deliver great battery life. They are also slow — painfully slow. If you have used any reasonable computer built in the past four years, a netbook will typically be half as fast (or less). You definitely shouldn't plan on doing anything computationally intensive. That limitation precludes gaming, video encoding, 3D rendering, and often HD video decoding. It's still possible to do some of those tasks, but the overall experience is frequently far from ideal.


NVIDIA's ION attempts to mix things up in the netbook market by introducing much faster integrated graphics. ION is essentially GeForce 9400M for Intel Atom processors. In the case of the HP Mini 311 we received, it uses ION LE, the difference being that the LE version doesn't support DirectX 10. While gaming is now more feasible than other netbooks using GMA 950 graphics, the Intel Atom processor is slow enough that a huge number of games are still unplayable, so losing DirectX 10 support isn't a huge issue. If you feel otherwise, there are other netbooks (i.e. the Lenovo S12 and Samsung N510) that include the full ION with DX10.

Gaming performance doesn't appear to be a huge concern on any Intel Atom netbook right now, but the video playback acceleration is definitely a benefit for a lot of users. A single-core Atom N270 is generally able to handle 720p x264 decoding (using CoreAVC), but CPU utilization is well above 50%. With more demanding video files (1080p for example), Atom will need help. If it were just x264 videos, the case for ION netbooks might only be moderately interesting, but with the recent release of the Flash 10.1 Beta we finally have GPU accelerated video playback for Flash videos. If you're a frequent YouTube or Hulu user, the case for ION just became a lot more compelling.

Besides gaming, graphics, and video decoding, ION also supports NVIDIA's CUDA technologies. NVIDIA is big on touting the benefits of CUDA, with a few notable applications that leverage the technology to provide improved performance on tasks such as video transcoding. We'll take a look at a few of those applications as well to see if the argument for CUDA applications is compelling.

HP Mini 311 — Specifications
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  • hybrid2d4x4 - Tuesday, November 24, 2009 - link

    Excellent review! Looks like you hit all the important points and I like how the game selection is more relevant to this class of notebook. IMO, this raises the bar for comprehensive notebook reviews. Kudos! Reply
  • OhHenry - Monday, November 23, 2009 - link

    How come they don't give smaller SSD like 32GB or 40GB as an option. I honestly don't need 160GB for a netbook; I do not know what to even put on it. They offered a 80GB but it was quite expensive. On a second note, wouldn't a SSD increase the battery life as well? Reply
  • chrnochime - Monday, November 23, 2009 - link

    Are you sure the samsung nc510 has the DX10 ION? Read elsewhere that the NC510 also has the ION LE, something about keeping the cost down. Reply
  • piroroadkill - Monday, November 23, 2009 - link

    You end up paying more for Ion, getting worse battery life, and still have completely useless gaming performance.

    Seems like a lose-lose to me. I guess it's useful for video acceleration, but that seems like a pretty fringe case for a netbook
    Reply
  • araczynski - Monday, November 23, 2009 - link

    looks like exactly the kind of junk HP likes to push at a price point that would leave anyone with half a brain scratching their head, wouldn't have expected anything more from them. Reply
  • Jaggins - Sunday, November 22, 2009 - link

    I would like to see if an older game like Eve online or WOW would run on these ION netbooks. Reply
  • Lunyone - Monday, November 23, 2009 - link

    I think they would be fine, just only when you get into RAID situations (or where there are alot of people and things going on). I think normal solo/small group playing should be fine. I haven't experienced it myself, but I used to game on WoW with a P3 800 mHz w/onboard graphics (Intel Extreme II, I think). Now mind you this was before the first expansion and the laptop wasn't all that special either, but the Atom would be about equivalent to a p3 at 1.6 gHz (if my reading is right). Reply
  • therealnickdanger - Tuesday, November 24, 2009 - link

    Great article, I was contemplating buying this, but now I'm not so sure. My ONLY gaming requirement is Halo PC (multiplayer). It's an old game, but has some quirks when it comes to its demands on CPU performance. So I really need to know what the 311 can do with this game. I'll mail you a copy if you'd like.

    The game also has a timedemo mode. Just add

    -timedemo

    to the command line. It takes about a minute to rum.
    Reply
  • Devo2007 - Sunday, November 22, 2009 - link

    A few days ago when ASUS announced their new dual-core Atom-based netbook, I ended up thinking that a CULV-based laptop would be a better idea (especially since that netbook has a 12" display, and only a 5 hour battery life).

    Good to see I'm not alone in this line of thinking. :)
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Sunday, November 22, 2009 - link

    Exactly. This isn't really for you, but for anyone else reading that's still wondering I've got numbers. The review is still pending, but just as an example:

    Acer Timeline AS1810T-8679:
    "63Wh" battery (11.1V, 5.27Ah/5600mAh)
    Core 2 Duo SU7300 (1.30GHz)
    4GB DDR2 RAM
    320GB HDD
    Cost: http://www.onsale.com/p/5887001?dpno=7958665">$600

    Battery Life
    Idle: 592 minutes
    Internet: 461 minutes
    x264 720p: 259 minutes
    Internet Minutes/Wh: 7.42
    TMPGEnc MPEG4 CPU Encode: 18.04 FPS

    Compare that with the Mini 311:
    Battery Life
    Idle: 362 minutes
    Internet: 290 minutes
    x264 720p: 225 minutes
    Internet Minutes/Wh: 5.47
    TMPGEnc MPEG4 CUDA Encode: 18.04 FPS
    TMPGEnc MPEG4 CPU Encode: 7.27 FPS

    So here's my point (spoiling my own upcoming article). For $600 you can get a Timeline 1810 that's about 2.5 times as fast in the CPU department, it has twice the RAM, it comes with Win7 64-bit, and battery life is anywhere from 15% to 65% better. Oh yeah, and while the CPU is "10W TDP", you'll note that the HP Mini 311 and the Timeline 1810 both have roughly the same size battery (the Timeline's is about 12% more capacity). For Internet use, the result is 35% better relative battery life.

    Sure, the 1810 I just listed costs $600 and the HP Mini 311 I'm comparing it with goes for about $480. (Unless you really want to save the ~$100 and get XP with only 1GB?) If you get the http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8...">Acer AS1410 (or Gateway EC1435u), you're closer to $400 and you still get 2GB RAM and Win7 (64-bit no less, though with only 2GB that's not a huge deal). A 1.2GHz SU2300 is still going to be at least 75% faster in CPU tasks than Atom N280.

    You can try to make an argument for GPU performance over CPU performance on other laptops, but with Atom the CPU deficit is just so huge that outside of video decoding (something you get with GMA 4500MHD as well) and perhaps CUDA apps, it just doesn't matter much.
    Reply

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