By Jon Fortt
April 8, 2008
The HP Mini laptop is aimed at the education market, but it could appeal to road warriors as well. Image: HP

Pick up HP’s new $500 mini-laptop, and the first thing you notice is the aluminum casing. Though the thing weighs only about 2.5 pounds, what’s striking is how its sleek skin makes it feel solid and professional – not at all what you’d expect from a budget PC.

I’m in a suite at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco getting a first look at Hewlett-Packard’s

latest machine, which the company hopes will help it steal share from Dell

and Apple

in the education market. (Each of the three companies has just under 20 percent of the worldwide market.) HP’s development team, I’m told, consulted educators as they designed the 2133 Mini-Note, and as I turn the laptop over in my hands that comes through in little details.

With the laptop open, the screen sits very low, so that students won’t be able to hide behind it and avoid the teacher. The keyboard is spill-proof for up to an ounce of liquid. The standard version comes with built-in WiFi, an ExpressCard slot, and an accelerometer on higher-end versions that stops the hard drive from spinning if the machine is dropped.

“You’re putting this in probably one of the toughest environments, which is 5-18 year olds’ hands,” says Robert Baker, HP’s manager of product marketing. “You’ve got to build this thing for durability.”

Fair enough. But what’s also immediately evident in the 2133 Mini-Note (which HP will soon call simply “the HP Mini”) is that its charms will extend far beyond the schoolyard. That same low profile that teachers crave makes it perfect for business travel; it would be usable on a plane even if the person in front of you reclines. Even on the entry-level Linux version (a Windows version is also available), the Firefox browser allows access to free programs like Google

Docs, which could substitute for Microsoft

Office in a pinch. HP says the battery lasts for 2.5 hours, or 5 hours with an extended battery. It’s a lot like the diminutive ASUS EeePC, which has inspired a following among road warriors, only the HP Mini looks like a business tool, not a plastic toy.

To me, it seems the main question is whether HP will take full advantage of the sales opportunity it has with this machine. Yes, it’s great for the education customers whose needs shaped its design; but school districts are notoriously hesitant to spend money in tough times like these. Also worth noting: The entry-level Mini uses a VIA processor instead of the standard fare from Intel

or Advanced Micro Devices

, runs Linux rather than Windows, and uses 4 gigabytes of flash memory for storage rather than the hard drive on higher-end versions. Early adopters will appreciate these moves as smart ways to make computing more efficient and affordable, but some schools will be afraid to stray so far from the standard Windows laptop experience.

The key to HP’s success with the Mini might be getting it into retail environments where customers can touch it, test drive it, and see that it performs as advertised. If HP does that, it might sell as many to the briefcase crowd as it sells to the backpack crowd.

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