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Little Laptops Lacking Luster

Oh cruel computer industry, must you tease me so?

For the third time this year, I've tested a laptop that I thought might be the perfect reporter's companion for that next trek to CES -- and for the third time, I've found it flawed in too many, seemingly easily, avoidable ways. I'm getting tired of coming to the same conclusion so often.

The latest offender, or perhaps victim, is HP's 2133 Mini-Note, a $499-and-up subcompact model.

The frustrating thing is, when you combine the Mini-Note with the Asus Eee PC I reviewed at the start of January, you'd have a pretty darn good ultralight/ultracheap/ultrasmall laptop. Take the Mini-Note's keyboard, and add the Eee's touchpad. Keep the Mini-Note's screen, but go with the Eee's quiet, cool performance. And so on.

Going by its specifications, Asus's new Eee PC 900 satisfies some of this wish list, but I don't know if its software is any better than the too-simplistic implementation of Linux on the first Eee model.

Oh, yeah: software. That. I would really like to know what on Earth HP was thinking when it picked Novell's woeful SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop for the Mini-Note. This is one of the worst distributions of this open-source operating system that I've seen in years -- it had me repeatedly spluttering in exasperation yesterday about its cryptic dialogs, ill-chosen defaults and apparently infinite array of control panels. As I say in today's podcast (MP3), when you see "Enterprise" in a product's name, you're usually safe to assume it means "Need an IT department to run this."

Why couldn't HP have thrown a copy of Ubuntu on the Mini-Note instead? It's made for use by normal human beings and lives up to that ideal far better than SUSE (see my review from 2006; I plan on covering the new 8.04 release here soon). If I have time, I'll try to throw a copy on the Mini-Note myself before I have to ship it back to HP.

With HP's other alternatives being Windows Vista -- far too much operating system for such a low-powered machine -- and the obsolete Windows XP, it's a lose-lose situation all around.

Or am I being too picky here? Have you picked up a Mini-Note? Which operating system did you go with, and how is that working out for you?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  June 12, 2008; 10:02 AM ET
Categories:  Computers  
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Maybe we should all go back to the Radio Shack TRS 100.

Posted by: Arlington | June 12, 2008 11:06 AM | Report abuse

HP also gave me a MiniNote 2133 for evaluation, and I, too, have my issues with it. The user guide comes on a CD, but the machine doesn't have one. When I put the CD in my Mac, I discovered that the links didn't work properly. That's because the user guide uses Microsoft Compiled Help (really!) and only works with Internet Exploder on Windoze.

While I, too, would have preferred Ubuntu, I can live with SuSE, but the update process is flaky. HP apparently wants to control the frequency of updates. I get lots of Novell SuSE update and patch notifications for another SuSE machine, but none of these are available for the MiniNote. It's also pretty painful to do manual downloads. HP, of course, has a longstanding relationship with Novell going back to Netware, as do most of their targeted enterprise customers, so I suspect that relationship played a role in their decision-making.

I had no problem putting a generic CD-RW/DVD-ROM drive in a USB port and having it recognized without my doing anything at all. When I wanted to try watching an unencrypted DVD, I tried to download totem and VLC, both of which would have made that possible. Neither effort was successful, though the problem with VLC was that it had recently been updated and not all of the needed libraries were available, so that may work when I try again.

My overall assessment is that the MiniNote is a bit short of being ready for prime time. I'm waiting to try the MSI Wind and Asus EEE 1000, both of which are due in the US in the next month or so. Both use the new Atom chip and should be a bit zippier.

Posted by: TonyW | June 12, 2008 11:16 AM | Report abuse

I have a mini-note, and agree with the OS comments. I Installed Ubuntu 8.04, and am pretty happy. I love the 1280*768 screen (wish it was 10", but it's perfectly usable), the keyboard, etc. Wish it had an atom, I'm sure next gen will, but overall it meets my goals of reducing my backpack load while providing the functionality I need.

Posted by: Bruce | June 12, 2008 12:59 PM | Report abuse

Haven't seen the mini-note, Rob, but it's clear you didn't read through the oodles of comments from owners of the eee who felt you were way off the mark with your complaints on the little guy: the OS is robust, as robust as any out there. You just need to move it to Advanced mode and, voila, Real Computer (tm). And it doesn't take a certified geek to make that switch, either. Help Is Out There.

Posted by: Bush -- not related | June 12, 2008 1:11 PM | Report abuse

Rob, up until very recently I would have agreed with you completely concerning the various pitfalls of the ultra-mobile low cost PCs available. However, the MSI Wind is looking to change all that and after reading Laptop Magazine's review, I can't wait to order mine this coming Monday, in black and with XP by the way (2.6 lbs @ $499), which as far as I am concerned, has actually improved significantly with age.

Posted by: Malcolm Furgol | June 12, 2008 1:34 PM | Report abuse

I am using HP 2133 Mini-Note PC with Windows Vista, 1 GB Ram, 6cell Battery.

I would like to say I am happy with all basic functions like web browsing, music , and much more.

Its a beautiful product. I am liking it very much.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 12, 2008 5:21 PM | Report abuse

I agree with the assessment of SuSE as a poor choice. I have not been able to install any software packages and my machine experiences lock-ups frequently. I will be moving to Ubuntu this weekend.

Posted by: Mike Paugh | June 13, 2008 8:11 AM | Report abuse

the 2133 is a really nice machine, and you really need to put XP on there. I'm not sure what's "obsolete" about XP - it runs everything, is as stable as OSX (yes, and I DO have both running at home)... and most importantly it runs briskly on the 2133.

If you're savvy enough to haggle over flavors of Linux, then be smart enough not to judge hardware by the software that comes with it.

It's like judging a movie by by the quality of the popcorn that the theater sold you.

Posted by: Steve | June 13, 2008 3:29 PM | Report abuse

To your recent 'right-on' article, 'Little PC Gets The Big Stuff Wrong', I posted the following comment. I feel strongly that HP screwed this one up so badly that I want to 'ditto' that comment to this 'right-on' column of yours. Keep up the great, insightful hard work.

"I've written to HP regarding this same subject, and--believe it or not--got no reply! HP used to be THE premiere technology company but, sadly, have devolved into a hubris-ridden (and -driven) company.
HP has chosen a take-it-or-leave-it attitude with the 2133, hoping the cosmetics (case, keyboard, display) will make up for the poor choice of basic, major components (CPU, operating system); and, worse yet, make up for the lack of options which would, if implemented, show the machine in its best possible light.
Example: VIA's C7M processor, running at 1.6 GHZ (only available with a Microsoft OS), coupled with 2GB of RAM (which is only offered with a MS OS) would make a dynamite Linux machine, and PARTICULARLY [caps added for this 'ditto'] if another Linux distribution were to be offered.
As it is, what with the flood coming (Asus 901, 1000; Acer Aspire One, Dell's Mini-Inspiron, MSI Wind, and ALL the others), I'm afraid that HP's 2133 is going to drown. And HP will have another chance to see what happens to a great high-tech company--founded and run by engineers and scientists--which gets overrun by non-high-tech people. The real question is: how many more chances do they get?
Most sincerely..."

Posted by: tfosorcim | June 13, 2008 10:03 PM | Report abuse

I wish the factories would just sell us what we want instead of what their corp partners want to sell.
An ASUS w/ EduUbuntu would be a huge boon to schools,. Mini APPLES (iPODs) would make portability of data easy.
MS mini ver of XP would be fine for most daily apps (basic wp/spreadsheet/database/ net access to online services).
It isn't like we aren't ready to buy.

Posted by: al | June 13, 2008 11:29 PM | Report abuse

Hope to see your review of the MSI Wind soon.

Posted by: fredt | June 14, 2008 9:34 PM | Report abuse

I was very interested in the HP2133 but didn't think that Vista was the proper OS. I called them up to ask about installing XP and after the Rep spoke to one of their Tech support people, he came back and said that it wasn't a good idea because I wouldn't have all the necessary drivers. I was told that I would have to purchase the higher priced version of the HP2133 with Vista and then downgrade. I decided to wait a while longer since I'm pretty sure other alternatives are on their way that will provide better performance without having to dance the OS mambo...

Posted by: James | June 16, 2008 11:24 AM | Report abuse

I purchased the Asus Eeepc 8G with IT'S version of linux, immediately changed it's 1GB memory for a 2 GB stick and added a 16GB SD card and an 8GB thumb drive.

I stuck a 4x DVDRW in a USB external case and spent three weeks with the kit in a hotel in OK for my job.

I never used linux before and still have no idea how to add external proggys,
but this kit was fast and did almost all I asked it to do.

The camera is sharp, the case and keyboard rugged, and it's wifi and rj45 connections were dummy proof.

I downloaded, played, and burned movies easily. (That includes DIVX, AVI, XVID,
Mpeg, and full length DVDs & DVDRs)

I had no trouble accessing my bank, phone, and credit card records and paying my bills.

It plays MP3s with GREAT table-top stereo sound and handles music management as well as the better known Windows players.

The keyboard took some getting used to,
but my small fingers didn't have trouble after a few days.

The only problem I had was an inability to convert Full screen AVIs to 320x240 MP4s
for my Blackberry Curve.

I googled all over but couldn't find a way to do it.
I suspect that Linux has no quick n' dirty proggy for conversion.

Anyway, the battery lasted for about 3 hours, the mouse that they furnish is a dream, and it was as small and light as a paperback book.

What more do you want?

Unless it's the 8.9 inch Asus Eeepc 900!

Posted by: WTJ1 | June 18, 2008 1:57 AM | Report abuse

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