Mini Notebooks: Can Something So Cute Be Useful?

Locations in this article:  San Diego, CA

Asus Eee PCNew mini-sized notebooks from Asus, HP, Acer, and others have been receiving a lot of attention lately, though it’s not really a new category.

The Toshiba Libretto and similar machines didn’t make much of an impact when they were introduced in the U.S. about a decade ago.

However, today, with wireless connectivity and the Internet, as well more affordable prices, these tiny notebooks have more appeal.

But can they help lighten the load for us frequent travelers?

The least expensive models, such as the ASUS Eee PC 2G Surf at $299, have 7-inch screens, use older and slower processors, have no hard drive and run Linux or Windows.

As you add more memory and or a built-in hard drive, their price quickly jumps up to $500 or more. From $500 to $1,000 you’ll find models with a Windows operating system, a better processor and more solid-state memory or a hard drive. But trying to run Vista on them can be frustrating. As a result, Microsoft announced it will offer a special version of XP for this category of notebooks.

I’ve been trying out a couple of models that fall into the upper end of this category.

Kohjinsha S37/Vye S37

Kohjinsha’s S37 is the best-selling mini-notebook brand in Japan, and available through in the United States as the Vye S37.

KohjinshaKohjinsha makes a line of well-equipped ultra-small notebooks that all convert to a tablet format with touch screen. They have hard drives, 7-or 8-inch displays and one model even has a built-in DVD drive. They are the smallest and most feature-laden of all the mini notebooks.

The S37, about $900, is the easiest of all to carry, slightly larger than a paperback book. It features a QWERTY keyboard, but its small pitch makes it hard to use for large amounts of writing or touch typing. It has an Intel 800 MHz processor, about half the speed of today’s full-featured notebooks, 2GB of memory and a 100GB hard drive. The battery lasted two hours, slightly above average for this category.

The S37 ran at a reasonable speed, even with Vista. I’ve been using it for editing and giving PowerPoint presentations, emailing, some two-finger note taking, using the Internet and backing up photos from a camera’s SD card. But its undersized keyboard was not suitable for extensive note-taking or writing lots of email.

HP Mini-Note 2133

The Mini-Note is 1.5 inches wider than the S37, just big enough to squeeze in a 17mm pitch keyboard (92 percent full-size). It has an 8.9-inch hi-res glossy display, and comes in a range of models priced from $450 to $750.

HP Mini NoteI tested the high-end version that has a VIA microprocessor, 1GB RAM and a 120GB HDD running Vista. The combination of the screen and keyboard makes the product an ideal note-taker as well as useful for most basic PC functions that don’t need much processing power.

However, it ran noticeably slower than the Kohjinsha. Hewlett-Packard informed me that it will now offer a no-cost “upgrade” to Windows XP at the time of purchase, which should improve its performance.

Battery life was 90 minutes, but the model I tested comes with a double capacity battery that adds some bulk, but provided nearly three hours of run time. While there’s a decent-size trackpad, the left and right buttons are on either side of the pad rather than beneath, which some might find awkward.

The HP looks much more expensive with its brushed metal finish and rounded corners.

It also is ruggedly built with strong hinges and a metal chassis.

Lenovo U110

Lenovo U110While the Lenovo is in a higher-end category, it’s one also aimed at students and weighs less than three pounds. The IdeaPad U110 at $1,899 has a slightly larger footprint than the HP, and is much more powerful. It has a full-size keyboard, an 11-inch wide display, 100GB HDD and a much faster Intel Core 2 duo processor running Vista.

I got only 1 hour and 15 minutes of life with the standard four-cell battery. Fortunately, it also ships with a seven-cell battery. It also comes with an external DVD drive. The U110 is available with a red or black lid covered with a scroll design, apparently trying to appeal to students.

Bottom line:

Among the three, I prefer the HP because of its sharp appearance, good keyboard and a relatively low cost. HP seems to have struck the perfect compromise between size, functionality and cost, as least for those that prefer a decent size keyboard. But order it with XP instead of Vista.

If you’re looking for a new notebook, also consider some of the full-size notebooks from HP, Dell and Lenovo. Their prices have been dropping, and you can usually find a well-equipped model for under $1,000. They have full-size keyboards and 15-inch screens, but weigh two to three pounds more than the ones reviewed here.

All of these machines compromise in some way on power, battery life or functionality. While they’re better than smartphones to connect and surf the Web and write email, I can’t recommend them as your only notebook computer. While they look cute, lightening your load by two pounds is not worth the sacrifices.

By Phil Baker, originally published in the San Diego Transcript. Check out Phil Baker’s blog at

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