Katherine Boehret

Netbooks That Are Easier on the Eye

Like clockwork, retailers were ready for Microsoft Corp.’s (MSFT) Windows 7 release last week with new desktops, laptops and netbooks, those inexpensive, smaller laptops that have become popular in the past year. Included in this selection of netbooks are some that improved the poor screen resolutions that have plagued these tiny PCs.

Screen resolution isn’t the same as the size of the screen itself. Rather, it is related to the number of pixels—or distinct dots—on a display, and an indication of how much material can be seen on the screen without scrolling. A higher-resolution screen allows you to see more of a Web page, spreadsheet or list of emails than a lower-resolution screen, even if both are the same physical size.

Because higher-resolution screens cost more, most netbooks come with low-resolution screens to keep prices down. But poor resolution combined with a small netbook screen results in frustrating visuals, like Web pages that display just a small portion of their contents, forcing you to scroll down or horizontally to see the rest of the page.

This week, I tested two Windows 7 netbooks with unusually high-res screens: Hewlett-Packard Co.’s (HPQ) HP Mini 311 with an 11.6-inch screen and a resolution of 1,366-by-768 pixels, and Nokia Corp.’s (NOK) Booklet 3G with a 10.1-inch screen and a resolution of 1,280-by-720-pixels. Both these small computers display the bulk of most Web pages without any scrolling necessary—a big relief on a netbook.

Though high-resolution screens make these netbooks easier on the eyes than others, I still had trouble adjusting to their shrunken features. I liked typing on the HP Mini’s generous keyboard, which H-P says is 92 percent of full size. But its touchpad buttons felt stiff and uncomfortably located at the edge of the computer. The Nokia Booklet had the opposite problem: Its touchpad and buttons worked fine, but its tiny keys made me feel like I was typing on a kiddie computer.

MOSSBERG_nokia

Nokia’s Booklet 3G has a long battery life and sleek design.

Nokia is a bit more of a newsmaker here, because when the Booklet 3G (nokiausa.com) comes out in mid-November, it will be the first foray by the Finnish mobile-device company into the laptop space. Best Buy (BBY) began taking advance orders for them this week. It costs $300 if purchased with AT&T Inc.’s (T) two-year Data Connect plan, which costs $60 a month for five gigabytes of data and allows users to toggle back and forth between two kinds of wireless connections, cellular 3G and Wi-Fi. If purchased without the AT&T plan, the Booklet 3G costs $600—a lot for a netbook—including only Windows 7 Starter, the low-end version of the new OS, and one gigabyte of memory.

The thing most people will notice right away about Nokia’s netbook is that it seems to take its design cues directly from Apple Inc. (AAPL) Like the MacBook Pro, the Nokia Booklet 3G is made from a single piece of aluminum, and its keyboard is made of black Chiclet-style keys. Its edges are rounded and smooth. I used one with a glossy black lid, but it will also come in shades of ice white or azure blue.

Nokia boasts that this netbook’s battery will last for 12 hours; after running it through a harsh test with its screen cranked up to the brightest setting, Wi-Fi on, music playing on a continuous loop and all power-saving features turned off, it ran for almost eight hours straight. This means that under normal circumstances, the battery might last for a remarkable 10 hours.

The Booklet 3G that I used differs from Nokia’s final release version in a few ways: Mine wasn’t loaded with AT&T’s Connection Manager software, which enables switching between Wi-Fi and 3G; it lacked the Nokia Social Hub software, which the company says allows users to track social-media feeds and text messages; and the GPS wasn’t yet connected to the U.S. map data server. My Booklet 3G included Ovi Suite, a Nokia-designed software program to bridge the connection between some Nokia smartphones and the Booklet 3G, like iTunes for the iPhone or BlackBerry’s Desktop Manager. But the software I had wasn’t the final version.

Unlike Nokia, H-P is no stranger to netbooks, having released nine of its Mini models in the past year. The HP Mini 311 (hp.com/go/mini) costs $400 when purchased with Windows XP and costs an additional $50 when loaded with Windows 7 Home Premium. The Mini that I tested costs $474 because it also had two gigabytes of memory rather than one gigabyte.

The H-P model is a little bigger all around compared with the Nokia, with an inch-larger screen; it weighs 3.22 pounds compared with 2.76 pounds for the Nokia. Both felt relatively thin and light, and I carried them home together from my office with ease. The HP Mini 311 had H-P’s subtle Black Swirl pattern on its lid—a faint pattern of silver swirls noticeable only at certain angles. It also comes in White Swirl.

I ran the same battery test on the HP as I did with the Nokia, and it lasted four hours and 15 minutes, giving it roughly six hours of juice under normal circumstances. H-P estimates that the Mini 311′s battery will last for six hours and 25 minutes.

I didn’t run into any problems while installing and using several programs on each of these netbooks, including Windows Live Essentials, Mozilla’s Firefox browser, Picasa 3, TweetDeck, Adobe (ADBE) Reader and iTunes. The HP Mini felt more responsive and, in fact, loaded some programs a little faster, but it had twice the memory.

Both netbooks have slots for memory cards, HDMI ports for connecting to HD screens and three USB ports. And they come with built-in Web cams, a common feature on netbooks.

A cold start on both the Mini 311 and Booklet 3G required roughly the same amount of time: one minute and eight seconds for the H-P, and a minute and 12 seconds for the Nokia. But restarting was a different story. While playing a song in iTunes, running three Web pages in Firefox and using TweetDeck, I selected Restart. The HP Mini 311 took a minute and 20 seconds while the Nokia took nearly two minutes.

Even without the AT&T discount, the Nokia Booklet 3G’s extra-long battery life and sleek design will be worth the extra money for some people—just beware its tiny keyboard. The HP Mini 311 is a good all-around netbook with a comfortable keyboard for typing. No one will be disappointed by the terrific screen resolutions.

-Edited by Walter S. Mossberg

Write to Katherine Boehret at mossbergsolution@wsj.com


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