Review: Hewlett-Packard Mini 5101 Netbook

By Gerry Blackwell

September 21, 2009

The HP Mini 5101 is an impressive little machine, even if Wi-Fi is not its strongest suit. It’s by no means a desktop replacement, but that’s not what netbooks are meant to be.

Hewlett-Packard Mini 5101 netbook

Price: about $400
Pros: Bigger screen than many netbooks, excellent keyboard design, hard drive, under 3lbs.
Cons: Under-powered for compute-intensive tasks, no optical drive, only fair Wi-Fi performance

Netbooks have come a long way, baby.

Hewlett-Packard’s $400 Mini 5101, designed for road warriors, is a good case in point. It boasts grown-up features, including a built-in Wi-Fi 802.11n-draft adapter that delivered adequate if not stellar performance. Yet it’s still reasonably tiny.

The 5101 has a 10.1-inch (diagonal) display, not the 7-inch screen of some early netbook models.

The QWERTY part of the keyboard—from the Caps Lock key on the left to the Enter key on the right—measures a hair under ten inches, about 87% of the size of our desktop keyboard.

Keyboards on 7-inch-screen models really don’t permit efficient touch typing. This one does.

The 5101 has a hard drive, albeit only 160GB—but it’s more than just flash memory. And it also has a full 1GB of 533 MHz DDR SDRAM.

The processor is one of the ubiquitous Intel Atoms (the N280). But with a clock speed of 1.66 GHz (512 KB L2 cache, 533 MHz FSB) it can easily handle low-end to mid-range computing tasks—Web browsing, word processing, spreadsheets, etc.

The 5101 comes with a built-in Broadcom 802.11 a/b/g/Draft n Wi-Fi adapter—so dual (2.4 and 5 GHz) radios—plus a Gigabit Ethernet port, and Bluetooth 2.0.

The three USB 2.0 ports and external VGA monitor port, along with standard  headphone/line-out and microphone-in jacks, puts the 5101 ahead of many netbooks. And the built-in 2.0 megapixel Webcam makes it the complete netbook for road warriors.

HP literature says the 5101 runs Windows XP Home. The model we tested shipped with XP Home, but bore a sticker for Vista Basic. We’re not sure what this means. Based on the smaller system requirements for Windows 7, the 5101 should be able to run the new Windows too.

The only thing missing: an optical drive.

Despite the grown-up features, the 5101 retains its ultra-portable credentials. Dimensions: 10.30 x 7.09 x 0.91 inches. Weight: 2.64 lbs.

Great screen

For many users, the most critical components in a netbook are the screen and keyboard. The smallest netbooks make touch typing difficult or impossible and long computing sessions can cause considerable eye strain.

Sticking a bigger screen on a netbook reduces the eye strain problem—while, of course, increasing overall dimension and weight. The 5101’s LED-backlit 1024 x 600-pixel screen coupled with the Mobile Intel graphics system delivers an impressively bright, sharp, and high-contrast image.

A bigger screen, while making more room for the keyboard, doesn’t necessarily fix the keyboard problem, but HP has done a nice job designing this one.

Even better keyboardwifi.5101.image_sm.jpg

The keys are chiclet style—square and low to the top surface—which looks elegant but often does not make for a great feel for a touch typist.

These keys are well-spaced, however, and have a roughened surface so fingers don’t slide off. Backspace, Enter, and right Shift keys—often truncated on smaller keyboards to save space—are a good size here.

Result: we could type almost as fast on the 5101 as on our desktop keyboard and with few if any mistrokes due to size, spacing, or position of keys.

The 5101 does not have a dual-core processor, so it does not have the power of mid-range to high-end conventional laptops built in the last few years. It won’t run multiple concurrent programs as efficiently as more powerful machines. And it will run very slowly when completing some tasks.

Processing power

We tried to open a 500MB project file created using Microsoft Photo Story, a program that allows you to create movies from still pictures with music, titles, and transition and pan-and-zoom effects—a fairly processor-intensive operation.

It took several minutes to open the file in Photo Story. On a dual-core machine (Dell XPS 1330) it took a little over a minute. Then it took the 5101 several more minutes to generate a video from the project file. Again, it took less time on the dual-core machine.

The resulting video did play flawlessly on the 5101, however.

And with the tasks most users will want to perform on this type of computer, the 5101’s processor is perfectly adequate.

With less intensive operations, even when running a couple of programs at the same time—word processing while watching streaming video in another window, for example—the 5101 had no difficulty.

It was also able to play streaming video from the Web in supposedly HD resolution.

Wi-Fi: not so great

Wi-Fi functionality, however, was only fair.

We tested raw throughput by measuring time to copy a large file (about 500MB) from a network hard drive to the 5101 over a 2.4GHz 802.11n wireless network. We compared the results to throughput with the Dell XPS 1330, which has a built-in Intel 802.11n (2.4GHz) adapter.

Although the 5101’s adapter reported higher network speeds than the Dell computer— never a very reliable measure of actual speed—throughput was significantly lower in most tests.

With both machines about 18 feet from the router, with one plaster wall between, the Dell computer reported a network speed of 130 megabits per second (Mbps) and moved the file in 64 seconds (actual throughput of a little under 60 Mbps).

The 5101 reported network speeds from 160 to 270 Mbps, but took almost three times as long—183 seconds—to move the file. Actual throughput: about 20 Mbps.

It’s not clear if this was due to the 5101’s slower CPU not being able to process the incoming bits fast enough or an inferior wireless radio—or a combination of the two.

In a room where we typically have poor wireless coverage—less than 30 feet from the router, but with a couple of walls in the way and probable interference from a nearby neighboring Wi-Fi network—the Dell computer reported the same 130 Mbps network speed and copied the file in 64 seconds again. The 5101 reported 108 to 160 Mbps, but took 232 seconds this time.

The 5101 fared better in tests where the two computers were further from the router and with brick walls in between. At about 30 feet, the Dell computer was still faster, but not by as much. At 70 feet, both, predictably, were very slow, but the 5101 was faster.

The 5101 also measured faster download times—by about 2 Mbps—in Internet speed tests conducted at Speedtest.net, using a server 50 miles away. The somewhat surprising results from this test—which transmits relatively small, so easy-to-process files—suggests the result from the file-copy test was due more to a slow processor.

Bottom line

The HP Mini 5101 is an impressive little machine, even if Wi-Fi is not its strongest suit. It’s by no means a desktop replacement, but that’s not what netbooks are meant to be.

If you’re mobile much of the time and find yourself trying to use a BlackBerry or similar for tasks that really require a bigger screen and proper keyboard, this class of netbook is a great alternative to traditional small-and-lights. And this one in particular, has much to recommend it: very good and good-sized screen, excellent keyboard design, processing power adequate for most mobile tasks, and fair Wi-Fi functionality.

Gerry Blackwell is a veteran technology journalist and frequent contributor to Wi-Fi Planet. To stay up-to-date with new reviews, follow Wi-Fi Planet on Twitter @WiFiPlanet.



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