The business-oriented HP Mini 1103 netbook is good-looking and solidly designed, and it has great battery life. Two years ago it would've earned high praise. Today it reminds us how inadequate Atom-based netbooks are for all but the most basic computing tasks. If the basics are all you need to cover, however, at $299 (as of February 28, 2011) this machine is a good deal with nice ergonomics.
When the 2.78-pound Mini 1103 is clammed shut, it looks like just about every other netbook ever sold. When it's open, the attractively sculpted matte-black keyboard deck raises the machine a notch above the competition. It would've been nice if HP had continued the matte finish to the bezel surrounding the 10.1-inch, 1024-by-600-pixel display, but no such luck.
The keyboard itself is nice to type on, for a netbook design. HP opted for larger alphabetical and editing keys, keeping the cursor-control and function keys smaller. Based on the number of keystrokes per key, this is a logical approach we wish more vendors would pursue. The touchpad and buttons are responsive, and their feel benefits from the texture of the matte finish. Using the Mini 1103 feels more like using a somewhat larger laptop than working on a netbook -- the best thing that can be said about any netbook.
What hurts the Mini 1103 is what hurts most netbooks: a lack of performance. There's simply no getting around the fact that the Intel Atom CPU/GPUs that powered the original Linux-based, 8.9-inch-screen netbooks just fine -- such as the Mini 1103's single-core 1.66GHz Atom N455 and GMA 3150 -- run out of juice when tasked to power a Windows OS and larger displays. It's especially clear when you combine them with only 1GB of memory and a mild-performing 250GB Hitachi hard drive.
As shipped, the Mini 1103 garnered a score of 35 in PCWorld's WorldBench 6 test suite -- about average for its class. Subjectively, the amount of time the machine takes to launch apps or to produce windows and context menus is frustrating. Video up to 480p is watchable; 720p is not. However, tweaking the startup to remove unnecessary background applications and uninstalling the McAfee antivirus software had a large impact on this unit's performance: All of a sudden, 720p video became watchable and the overall feel went from aggravating to bearable.
Although the Mini 1103's sluggishness can be vexing, you certainly have time to wait for it: Our test unit with the standard six-cell, 55WHr battery ran for a whopping 7 hours, 14 minutes in our rundown test.
The connectivity and ports are more than adequate. The ethernet is 10/100, the wireless is single-band 2.4GHz 802.11n, and -- reflecting the unit's business focus -- Bluetooth is on board. You'll find three USB 2.0 ports, an SD Card slot, and a VGA port for driving external displays, too.
The Mini 1103 ships with Windows 7 Starter, and HP bundles both a trial version of Corel Office and Office 2010 Starter. The latter is not a trial in the traditional sense: You can continue to use these reduced-function versions of Excel and Word forever, though you'll have to suffer though ads displayed to the right of the document workspace. Also included is the ArcSoft Camera Suite for taking advantage of the 640 by 480 Webcam.
If you're looking for an affordable netbook that gives your business's staffers the minimum they need to survive on the road, the HP Mini 1103 provides just that: the minimum, albeit in a classy package. A thorough winnowing of nonessential software can improve the experience greatly.