Mar 26, 2010
It's hard to believe it's only been about 4 months since I did my last netbook review - so much has changed! It seems as though every vendor has upgraded their netbooks to the Intel Atom N450/470 "Pine View" chipset and significantly redesigned their line of netbooks. We've been tracking this very carefully, as we are within weeks of purchasing several hundred units, with more than 1000 to follow by summer (assuming the state releases the federal money we've been waiting on - but that's another story).

One of the biggest issues we are facing, at present, is the lack of availability of netbooks with solid state (memory-based) storage. This was an important feature for us, as you will you recall from my prior review, as we want as few moving parts as possible, since moving parts are the ones that fail most often, especially in an environment where there is a high likelihood that they will experience deceleration-trauma/cement poisoning/etc. (ie get dropped.) Vendors, however, face competitive pressures from a rapidly growing market and therefore find themselves competing on specifications, for which hard drives are an inexpensive way to drive up their numbers. As such, none of the vendors who once offered solid-state storage appear to be offering it now, which has forced us to rethink our strategy.

Past experience tells us that the thing that is most likely to fail in any computer, especially portable ones, is the hard drive. So, it will be extremely important that we be able to recover from hard drive failures quickly. As such, our strategy now is to keep a cache of pre-imaged hard drives available to swap in to a system in the event of failure. Hard drives are very inexpensive these days - 160G netbook drives are about $50 - so this shouldn't be a huge problem, and we expect that it won't significantly drive up our support costs.

Based on our past experience, we have looked specifically at three contenders (+1, when I can get my hands on one): Asus, HP, and Dell. Lenovo also looks promising, but I haven't been able to get a demo unit, so my experience has been limited to playing with them on a vendor show floor. I can say that, based on this review, it looks to be quite a solid contender in this space, so rest assured I will be in touch with my Lenovo rep to get a hold of one asap. (Finally received an eval unit. Read the review.)

Asus EeePC 1005

Asus was the originator of the netbook, with their first unit shipping in 2007 (Has it only been 3 years? Wow - we've come a long way!) Over the past year or so their anchor product has been the EeePC 1005, which is an excellent little netbook. Of the 10 inch contenders in the market, there is none that is so compact, save the EeePC 1008. The battery fits snugly within the outline of the netbook, yet is available with up to 9 cells, making the 1005 the clear winner when it comes to battery life. In fact, even the 6 cell models regularly trounce the competition, easily besting them by hours. The 1005 offers excellent Linux compatibility (which is important to us), solid construction, and they come in at a price point that is lower than the competition, which is also quite appealing. In fact, the recently released EeePC 1001 (which is essentially a "budget" 1005) comes in a just $269.

That said, there haven't been many significant changes to it recently, save the introduction of models with an upgraded Intel "PineView" chipset, so all the same issues mentioned in my prior review still apply. The 1001 looks quite appealing with its matte finish on the screen and case (ideal for school environments), but is only available with wireless G, which means that twice the wireless equipment will be required in dense environments. And remember that little issue with the hard drives? Taking these apart to replace the hard drive is neither quick nor pleasant. See the video below, plus further details here.

HP Mini 210/2102

As you will recall from last time, I didn't review HP's offerings for a number of reasons - a choice for which I received much flack from HP fans. I stand by my assessment of HP's past offerings, but since that time they have made some significant changes, introducing a whole new netbook line that is quite impressive. In fact, the HP Mini 210/2102 is my personal favorite of the three models tested. The keyboard is, in a word, awesome, and I love the size/performance of the clickpad, even though it has integrated buttons that require some getting used to. It is the thinnest and lightest of the 10 inch models tested, yet is incredibly sturdy and of excellent design. The Mini has edge-to-edge glass on the display, for example, which makes the whole unit look sleeker and adds an extra layer of protection from the poking fingers of 4th graders, and the entire bottom panel comes off without removing a single screw for easy upgrades. It also offers excellent battery life, great compatibility with Linux, and a case design that, while somewhat glossy, has a subtle pattern that serves to hide fingerprints quite well. In fact, you would think they read my past review because they even went so far as to ditch the Broadcom wireless adapter in favor of Atheros. All in all, it's an outstanding netbook for me.

That said, it is not without it's problems for classroom use. The edge-to-edge glass on the display adds a glare factor that is best described as "mirror-esque", which, in an environment rife with fluorescent lighting will be problematic. But the two biggest issues will be far more challenging to overcome: the construction of the battery and serviceability of the hard drive.

Battery: The battery on the HP Mini 210 is much like those on Acer, Toshiba, and the older Dell Mini 10v in that it pokes out the back of the unit (see below). This ordinarily wouldn't be a problem, except on the HP the clips that hold the battery in are entirely too small, and the locking clip on the left side isn't spring loaded and doesn't really lock, making it easy to accidentally flip it to unlocked with the brush of a fingertip. Since the battery causes the HP to sit up at a nice angle (see below), it also becomes a natural handle, which makes this accidental unlock extremely common (I've done it a dozen times myself this week alone.) Once the lock is released, the battery flexes causing a gap between the battery and the netbook, and creating strain at a variety of points, especially on the other, also too small clip. The extremely small size of these clips coupled with the lack of real locking I believe makes the battery extremely prone to breakage.

Serviceability: I was extraordinarily encouraged by the ease of opening the bottom of the HP - it actually opens without the removal of a single screw! Once under the panel, everything is exposed beautifully, and with the removal of just 3 screws, the keyboard pops right out (another part that is inexpensive and easy to replace.)

Upon closer examination, however, I was quick to discover that the hard drive, while immediately visible, is impossible to remove without disassembling the entire unit. After removing 15 screws and looking for ways to free the drive for about 20 minutes, I gave up.

See the video below for details. Update: turns out the both the video and I were wrong! There is a big label holding the hard drive in place, but nothing more, so the hard drive pops right out. I should have been more courageous up front with the innards of the HP. There is nothing holding the drive in, however, besides the sticky label, which leaves me a bit worried about durability. But the hard drive is quite easy to swap.

All in all, I really like the HP Mini.

Dell Mini 1012

The new Dell Mini 1012 is really something. On the one hand, it's quite durable and well built. On the other, it's got to be the most thuggish 10 inch netbook I've ever seen (see below).

In the hands it feels like a larger laptop, even though it has essentially the same specs as the other models listed above. The hinge on the screen is forward of the rear of the laptop, which is odd, especially since the trackpad looks a bit cramped at the bottom of the keyboard, and could have used the extra real estate. Of course, these are all aesthetic issues which are relatively irrelevant for our purposes.

Linux support is excellent on the Dell Mini 1012 - everything worked as expected, right down to the special keys. As I said above, the build quality is quite good - I have little doubt that this machine would survive multiple drops. The casing is much less fingerprint prone than prior models as well, thanks to the vast majority of it being white. Unlike prior Dell Minis, the battery on this model is contained within its (immense) borders and is extremely secure - so much so that it is actually difficult to remove. But the best thing about it is how easy it is to get into: just three screws and you have access to everything right under the keyboard (see below).

One more screw and the hard disk slides right out. Someone at Dell was thinking about serviceability, which will be particularly important to us in the future. Add to that some very aggressive pricing, and you have quite a nice little unit.

All that said, the Dell is far from perfect. Besides its behemoth like stature, the keyboard is my least favorite. It's mushy compared to the others. The trackpad is the same odd shape as the one on the prior Mini 10v (1011) - it's wider than it should be which can take some getting used to. They both work fine, they just aren't as "nice" as those on the other two models. Lastly, I was only able to test a wireless G model, as models with wireless N won't start shipping until April. Based on Dells reputation, I have no doubt that it will work fine with Linux (they already have a sku for a Linux model with wireless N). Update - received a model with Wireless N and, as expected, it works just fine. Standard Broadcom adapter.

Conclusion (for now)

For now, the best choice for my money looks to be the Dell Mini 1012. It's far from perfect, but when I think about the things that matter most to me, chief among them being avoiding breakage and time sinking support/service calls, the Dell has the others soundly beat. We'll see how the Lenovo stacks up when I get it in about a week, but it's looking like the Dell might just be the winner.


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  1. Was able to confirm this week with a large school district in Missouri that the weak battery clip is indeed a problem on the HP Minis. They said that a number of units are coming in with cracked bases caused by excessive strain at the battery when the clip is accidentally released. Unless the district has a particularly strong relationship with HP repairs and is prepared to deal with above average breakage, the HP probably isn't a good choice.

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