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HP Mini 5102

July 10th, 2010
HP goes upscale with netbooks.

The HP Mini 5102 is one of those rare netbooks designed for the mobile pro and educational markets at the same time; it's meant for those who don't simply see the netbook as a throwaway extra PC. At $415, even still has an attractive price point, but does the 5102 pack enough features and power over a regluar netbook to satisfy an audience that could pay $100 less? Hardware and software

Our review unit was a base configuration. The $415 you pay for it nets 1 GB of RAM, Windows 7 Starter Edition, and a 1.66GHz Atom N450 processor. The professional focus is evident in the upgrade selections: higher end configurations boast Windows 7 Professional (or XP Professional via a downgrade), 2 GB of RAM, and other features like a higher capacity battery or internal 3G.

The 5100 series comes with a 10.1-inch LED backlit screen; as with most LED screens, we were impressed with both its brightness and clarity, although color accuracy isn't the strong point here. Some 5100 models can be configured with a 1366x768 resolution display,but our review unit was a standard 1024x600 resolution screen. That's typical for most netbooks, but the 1024x600 environment does feel quite cramped, and we’d recommend opting for the higher resolution screen if you plan to work often or primarily from the system.

HP says that the keyboard on the 5100 series is 95 percent of the size of a regular, full-size keyboard. We did some informal typing tests and didn’t have any issues with the supposed five percent reduction in key size. While we could certainly tell that the keyboard was smaller than average, it didn't affect our typing speed or accuracy; these are the same 'chiclet' keys that have been found on Apple and Sony notebooks as well, and the ease of typing shows. HP does go one step further, however. It gave the keys a special coating, DuraKeys, so that the lettering won’t wear off over time. While we obviously couldn’t test the DuraKey coating without long-term ownership, it's an important factor when even more expensive portables can lose labels quickly.

Perhaps the most conspicuous difference for the 5102 is build quality; it feels very durable. The case is constructed out of a sturdy magnesium alloy; the smaller screen size also makes the unit feel more solid as there is virtually no flex or give in the screen. The hinges on the 5102 are quite large, too, so it's unlikely you'll see the hinges loosen or break without inflicting significant abuse. With an overall weight of just over 2.5lbs and measuring less than an inch thick, the 5102 is certainly the right size and weight for its class.

As for the software bundle, HP intends for the 5102 to be useful right away and includes full versions of Corel Office and PDF Complete with the laptop. While the software suites are certainly less popular than their Microsoft and Adobe competition, they certainly work just fine. The Corel suite is close enough to Office 2007 in terms of layout and functionality that you may not notice the difference. HP also throws in a house-brand backup application called HP QuickSync, which is handy though not vital.

Real-world usage

Above the screen of the 5102 sits a two-megapixel webcam. The HP software included with the 5102 for using that camera is simple and usable, but not at all powerful. The webcam quality is quite good and should suit the needs of just about anyone. The microphone, on the other hand, leaves much to be desired. When testing the webcam, we found the pickup on the microphone to be abysmal. We felt that we really had to shout to get a decent volume level upon playback, even as the picture quality was above average.

Like with many of its newer netbooks, HP included just two quick launch buttons above the keyboard of the 5102. When Windows is running ,these buttons launch the web browser and e-mail apps, but when the system is off, they load a pre-Windows user environment -- technically a variant of Linux -- to browse the web or check calendaring and contact apps. The internet application is aptly named HP QuickWeb, but while the idea of getting on the internet in 10-15 seconds is very appealing, the experience was ultimately lacking. The entire user environment is very simple, and the unit felt sluggish just browsing the user interface, let alone online content. HP QuickLook 3 handles the calendars and contacts. While it sounds like a great idea on the surface, it doesn't tap much into outside services like Google's; this would seem to make the real world usability of QuickLook 3 quite limited.

When using the core Windows 7 experience, we had two major gripes with the 5102: its function keys and computing horsepower. As sometimes happens with such netbooks, the HP engineers switched the primary and secondary functions of the function keys. When we hit F5 to refresh a web page, for example, the computer went to hibernate mode. You need to hit a modifier key to get the direct effect. Such things are common to some extent elsewhere, but many of the keys on the laptop we mapped like this. where functional actions took priority of the key’s typical designation.

And for all the premium external fit and finish, it's not really better on the inside than a typical netbook. While we didn’t receive a review unit with 2GB of RAM to compare our 1GB model, to we suspect that the additional memory would make a big difference. Windows often took far longer than expected to load apps and playing back any type of media ,was still sluggish. After loading QuickTime we tried watching a few high-resolution (but not HD) clips on the web, and even when the clip was fully loaded the system simply couldn’t keep up with the video to play it smoothly. While this system is not intended for heavy multimedia use in the first place, we see it as generally underpowered and not suited for any type of media consumption or multitasking. Opening several applications at once with the 5102 sends to send the laptop back a full decade in terms of user experience and system responsiveness.

Wrapping up

We really like netbook from an ergonomic standpoint. The build quality is great, and the screen is beautiful. Apart from needing to pick the HD screen from the outset, it's a definite step up from conventional netbooks if fit and finish are important concerns. Software, too, is a nice treat relative to other netbooks. The included office and PDF software are nice to have. We're not enthusiastic about the quick-boot apps, but that they exist is still important.

That said, it's apparent that you don't get much in terms of a performance edge. You can pay $100 less, and less still if you're careful, to get similar speed even from within HP's lineup. And at similar prices, you can opt for a Mini 311 with NVIDIA's Ion graphics. If you don't mind a slightly older design, it will provide much improved video performance, especially now that Flash 10.1 is available and hardware Flash video decoding is a reality.

The 5102 as such is a qualified success, and then only for some. You have to value its (admittedly sleek) design over its speed, and its software over raw price.

- Good build quality, slick design.

- Full Corel office app suite.

- Sharp webcam.

- Quick-boot web, calendar, contact options.

- Still slow despite the price premium.

- Counterintuitive function key shortcuts.

- Poor built-in microphone.