Premium netbooks: Good value or oxymoron?

With smartphones becoming smarter and larger laptops becoming cheaper, are higher-cost netbooks worth a serious look? We look at four of them.

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HP Mini 2140

Hewlett-Packard Co. says it is targeting its Mini 2140 netbook at executives who don't want to carry a full-sized notebook on short trips. That enterprise focus is reinforced by the Mini 2140's brushed aluminum case, which makes it look like a miniature version of a larger corporate notebook. It also has a smattering of enterprise-like features, such as DriveGuard, which is a built-in accelerometer that automatically parks the head of the 160GB hard drive if it detects the device is falling.

The Mini 2140 comes with Windows XP, sports 1GB of RAM and a standard-issue Intel Atom N270 processor running at 1.6 GHz. It is nicely connective, supporting all flavors of Wi-Fi including 802.11a, which was deployed primarily in enterprises, as well as 802.11b/g/n. It has a couple of USB ports, an Ethernet plug-in, a port for an external VGA monitor, a built-in VGA Web cam and even an ExpressCard/54 port and Secure Disk slot for expansion cards.

Premium netbooks
HP Mini 2140

At roughly 6.5 in. deep and 10.3 in. wide, the Mini 2140 is more svelte than the other devices. But despite its small size, it is comparatively heavy, weighing in at 2.9 lb. with the standard three-cell battery.

Applications such as a Web browser and the included trial version of Microsoft Word seemed to load relatively quickly, and more objectively, the Mini 2140 had a respectable overall score of 198.3 in the PassMark Performance test.

However, despite the Mini 2140's decent performance -- for a netbook -- you'll likely want to use office-like applications only sparingly because of its unsatisfying keyboard. Like its predecessor, the HP Mini-Note 2133, the Mini 2140's keyboard boasts relatively large aluminum keys that are about 0.75 in. square. However, the key tops are flush with one another and not beveled, as is the case with virtually all other laptops and netbooks. Without this physical separation between keys, touch typing was frustrating. In particular, I found it easy to strike a second key accidentally, such as striking the "i" key when trying to press the adjacent "u" key.

The touch pad is generously sized and respond to the touch quite accurately, but the buttons are to the left and right of the pad instead of below, which took some time to get used to.

Even if you do use the Mini 2140 for extended tasks like word processing, you won't do so for long if you're not near a wall socket. I got only two hours of charge from the standard three-cell battery during the run-down test (which, admittedly, uses up battery power more quickly than typical use). That short battery life was somewhat offset by the device's so-called FastCharge feature, which recharged the battery to a 90% charge in about 90 minutes, as the company claimed. If battery life is a concern, HP offers a six-cell battery for an additional $30.

HP deserves credit for its environmental concern, switching from a standard LCD to a 10.1-in. backlit LED display, which the company says is mercury-free. I found the display to be gratifyingly bright, but text appeared more jagged than on other netbook displays, including devices such as the Samsung NC-10, which uses the same Mobile Intel 945GSE Express chip set.

The HP Mini 2140 is comparatively full-featured and, at $449, it's reasonably priced. But its keyboard, display and short battery life mean that it is best for only sporadic heavy-duty use while you are traveling. -- David Haskin

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