Less than two years ago, a tiny, obscurely-named Asus laptop arrived on the scene, and caused quite a stir. It was affordable, portable, and “good enough” to do most of the things people do with computers that cost several times as much. Of course, it wasn’t long until seemingly every PC manufacturer had at least one netbook in their lineup, many of them paying little attention to the areas that needed work – like the keyboard. For our latest showdown, we got our hands on four recent netbooks (including one that Sony refuse to call a netbook), and unlike our last showdown between the iPhone 3G, BlackBerry Bold and T-Mobile G1, found a clear winner.
Asus Eee S101H: 1.6GHz Atom N270 & Intel 945GSE
HP Mini 2140: 1.6Ghz Atom N270 & Intel 945GSE
Kogan Agora Pro: 1.6GHz Atom N270 & Intel 945GSE
Sony VAIO P: The model we used was a 1.6GHz Atom Z530 & Intel 945GSE, while the entry-level model uses a 1.33GHz Atom Z520.
The main difference between the N270 and the Z530 is that the latter uses a lower voltage, and runs cool enough to not require a fan.
Asus Eee S101H: 3 USB ports
HP Mini 2140: 2 USB ports, 1 ExpressCard/54 slot
Kogan Agora Pro: 3 USB ports
Sony VAIO P: 2 USB ports
The 54mm ExpressCard slot gives the Mini 2140 an edge here, allowing you to use a range of high-bandwidth, low-latency applications such as 3G modems, solid state drives, USB 2.0/FireWire/eSATA adapters, TV tuners, and sound cards.
Asus Eee S101H: 10″ 1024×600 (Matte)
HP Mini 2140: 10″ 1024×576 (Glossy)
Kogan Agora Pro: 10″ 1024×600 (Matte)
Sony VAIO P: 8″ 1600×768 (Glossy)
On resolution alone, the Sony wins – it’s a gorgeous screen with a staggering pixel density. When it comes to real-world usage, however, a couple of major issues arise. There’s just not enough grunt to view HD video content that makes good use of the resolution, and SD video that looks passable at 1024×600 on a 10-inch screen looks far worse at 1600×768 on an 8-inch screen.
Then there’s the fact that text can be excruciatingly small, and there’s no support for other ultrawide resolutions to help – your only other choice is 640×480. You can change the DPI of the operating system from the default 96 to a maximum of 144, but these settings don’t extend to the browser, where you’ll be spending most of your time – you’ll need to use the zoom in your browser to make the text readable. Of course, that leads to another issue – do you zoom text only and break page layouts, or zoom text and images and cause pixellated images?
But enough about the Vaio. The difference between the other machines are so minor that you’re just not going to notice unless you have the opportunity to line them up side by side. When I did exactly that, I found that the HP had an edge – it was noticeably brighter and the colors seemed more vivid (for lack of a videophile’s vocabulary).
The issue with the HP is the 1024×576 resolution, versus the usual 1024×600. If you don’t have experience using a netbook, 24 pixels might not sound like a massive difference – but you really need every last scrap of vertical resolution you can get on these things. Certain dialog boxes (I’m looking at you, Mozilla Thunderbird) and countless websites are already unfriendly to resolutions of 600 pixels high. There is an optional 1366 x 768 display upgrade for the Mini 2140 available for $25 which, to put it bluntly, you’d be crazy to skimp on.
Glossy vs Matte is entirely a personal preference issue. I find glossy easier to deal with in sunlight, and easier to keep clean, others find the exact opposite on both counts – so all I’ve done is told you which netbook uses what.
The Asus Eee S101H is plastic, but solid. The hinge opens smoothly and feels like it’s got legs.
The HP Mini 2140 has a tough aluminum shell and uses HP’s 3D DriveGuard drop/shock protection for the hard drive.
The Kogan Agora Pro might be the cheapest 10″ netbook in Australia, but the build quality is surprisingly good.
The Sony VAIO P is a little disappointing given the price, but we were using a pre-production model. Most concerning was the creaky feel of the hinge. Of the four machines, it is certainly the one you would not want to drop.
Our torture test consisted of a 720p movie trailer (for Transformers 2, if you must know) downloaded from Apple’s site and set to loop indefinitely, with power management disabled, and screen set to maximum brightness.
The VAIO P died first, after 2 hours and 2 minutes.
Shortly after was the Mini 2140, which died after 2 hours and 6 minutes.
Next was the S101H, which lasted 2 hours and 15 minutes.
The 6-cell battery of the Agora Pro managed to last 3 hours and 7 minutes.
Remember, these values represent a worst case scenario for battery life, which is a far more useful figure than the best case. None of the screens need to be run at full brightness to be usable, and you’re not going to be watching fullscreen 720p video on any of them unless you’re content with dropped frames. With power management enabled, screens at half brightness, and “normal” usage patterns, you’re likely to add another 50% to these figures.
Cost and Value
Asus S101H: US$675, AU$1099
HP Mini 2140: US$449, AU$799
Kogan Agora Pro: AU$539, not available in the US. (Kogan tells us they plan to launch in the US “in the next few months”)
Sony VAIO P: US$899, AU$1599
Of course, the Kogan wins on price alone – although it will be interesting to see if the same price point relative to the rest of the market can be achieved once Kogan launches in the US.
Asus Eee S101H: 802.11b/g/n
HP Mini 2140: 802.11a/b/g/n
Kogan Agora Pro: 802.11b/g
Sony VAIO P: 802.11b/g/n
The HP wins here for compatibility with every 802.11 standard out there. While you’re highly unlikely to encounter an 802.11a connection, it’s better to have something you don’t need than need something you don’t have.
Asus Eee S101H: Trackpad is nice and big. Mouse buttons are a little annoying. While there’s two physical buttons underneath, the cover is a single piece of plastic. More than a quarter of the width is dead space that won’t click either way.
HP Mini 2140: Trackpad is the weakest part of the entire machine. Left and right mouse buttons are on the left and right side of the trackpad, makes it next to impossible to use one handed. The buttons themselves have way too much give. The trackpad itself actually moves about while you’re moving horizontally. Seems to have accuracy issues – particularly moving the mouse diagonally.
Kogan Agora Pro: Trackpad is very nice, buttons are well placed, easy to operate and have a satisfying click to them. I had regular problems with hitting the trackpad when I was trying to hit the space bar. This does crop up occasionally with other netbooks like the Lenovo IdeaPad S10, but it was regular enough to become an issue that I needed to solve. TouchFreeze sorted it out.
Sony VAIO P: There’s no trackpad to be seen here – with Sony opting for a TrackPoint mouse, that you may have seen on ThinkPads and some (very) old PowerBooks. I found it to be quite usable and accurate with the pointer speed turned right down, however that leaves you doing a fair bit of waiting if you want to get from one side of the 1600 pixel wide screen to the other.
Asus Eee S101H: RAM, not HDD.
HP Mini 2140: RAM and HDD.
Kogan Agora Pro: RAM (although you won’t need to with 2GB on board) and HDD.
Sony VAIO P: None. The RAM is soldered in.
Asus Eee S101H: The layout is pretty good except for the classic mistake of an incorrectly placed right shift key, which means touch typists will be hitting up instead of the right shift until they’ve adjusted. There’s some give in certain places on the keyboard, namely the top right and space bar, but it’s not really noticeable while typing.
HP Mini 2140: The keyboard is amazing. The layout is the best I’ve seen on a 10-inch machine. The keys are massive, with full sized and correctly placed left and right shift keys, tilde in the correct place. Touch typists will be able to do their thing here without any adjustment period.
Kogan Agora Pro: The keyboard layout is one of the better I’ve seen. Everything is in the right place, and the shift keys are decently sized and correctly placed, although the small comma and period keys could be annoying for touch typists with big fingers. Unfortunately for Kogan, the layout isn’t everything – there’s massive amounts of give, and unlike the S101H, you can feel it while you’re typing – this is the “spongiest” keyboard I’ve ever typed on.
Sony VAIO P: The VAIO features a “MacBook-style” keyboard, the main issue being the tiny right shift key – however it is placed correctly, next to the forward slash which lessens the pain. I could type accurately very quickly, but I never grew to like the feel of the keyboard. I may be biased, as I don’t like the feel of the MacBook keyboards either.
Benchmarks (or lack thereof)
We could have done the benchmarks that we did for the Lenovo IdeaPad S10, however with different operating systems, different amounts of pre-installed crapware, and different amounts of RAM contributing to the final result, we decided against it. These machines are all plenty fast enough to do what you’ll be buying a machine like this for – web browsing, e-mail, and basic word processing.
And the winner is…
I really wanted to like the VAIO P. It was one of the most exciting announcements at CES this year, but in practice, the massive resolution actually detracted from the experience – and it just doesn’t feel like $899 worth of computer.
The S101H is a sleek looking device, but the effect is nullified once you open the lid. Even then, it’s still just an Atom-based netbook, and I don’t think it brings enough to the table to justify the premium.
The Agora Pro definitely wins on value for money, and while the layout of the keyboard is one of the better ones I’ve seen on a netbook, the spongey feel of the keyboard lets it down in a big way.
So I have to give it to the HP Mini 2140. The keyboard is the best I’ve used on a 10″ machine, and the aluminum shell and DriveGuard technology are features you’re not going to find in another netbook. With the optional 1366×768 screen, you’re looking at the closest thing available to a business laptop in the netbook form factor. It’s not the cheapest thing out there, but considering what Asus are charging for the S101H, with style being the only differentiator, it’s worth it.