Netbooks for the Traveling Photographer: take two
[NOTE: while much of this is still true, I have now replaced the HP Mini 311 with a CULV based Acer Aspire Timeline 1810TZ. To see why, read Atom + ION: empty promise?]
Just over a year ago I wrote a piece on my Point & Shoot Landscape Blog called Netbooks for Traveling Photographers. It is among the most popular posts I have ever written, and is still getting regular hits a year later. It is still worth a read if you are new to the subject of Netbooks, and have specific questions on how they manage a photographic work-flow.
Until a week ago I was still using the Acer Aspire One 250 that is described in that article. I have processed more than 2000 thousand images, primarily in Lightroom, on that little Netbook in the past year. I have had no reason to regret my choice and I still highly recommend a Netbook to any photographer who spends much time on the road. It is hard to match the simple portability, and they are certainly powerful enough from all but the most demanding tasks. And, there is nothing quite like a Netbook for ease of doing all the daily stuff you need a computer for. Load up a browser (I use Chrome for preference), subscribe to a Google account, and you can do email, calendar, news feeds, Twitter, FaceBook, etc. etc. With a copy of ThinkFree or Open office (or even the real MicroSoft Office), you can even tweak the occasional PowerPoint for work…or run numbers in Excel: all on a machine that requires very little effort to carry. I have made two trips to Europe in the past year without my work laptop: just carried my Blackberry and my Netbook and I was good to go.
Within the past five months, however, I have gotten more heavily into HD video, and, while you can edit HD on a conventional Atom powered Netbook like the Aspire One, no one would claim that it is an enjoyable experience.
About that same time, the first announcements of a new class of Thin and Light laptops, some not much bigger than your average Netbook, began to appear. The smallest of the Thin and Lights are 11.6-12.1 inch screen machines with a screen resolution of 1366×768 (16/9 wide screen, HD video format), and are powered by the new CULV processors from Intel (Consumer Ultra-Low Voltage). The CULV processors come in various shades of single and dual core, and are based on the more powerful processors used in real laptops. They are several times as powerful as the Atom processors used in Netbooks, but due to low voltage circuits, get just as good battery life. They are paired with the more capable Intel integrated GM4500 graphics as well.
Also, about that time the first ION based Netbooks began to be announced: primarily in the form of the HP Mini 311. This Netbook combines an 11.6 inch, 1366×768 screen with the same Atom processor found in the majority of Netbooks, but uses the NVIDA ION graphics processor instead of the usual Intel integrated GM950 graphics. Since graphic performance, especially the ability to render complex 3D graphics and video streams, is one area where Netbooks are noticeably deficient, the ION platform, at least on paper, offers the promise of real improvement. For one thing, today’s graphics rich OSs should be a lot happier on an ION based machine.
Couple that with the Adobe announcement of an upgraded Flash plugin which specifically takes advantage of the graphics acceleration offered by the ION and GM4500 graphics processors, and we are beginning to see some new possibilities opening for Netbook sized laptops.
As important as HD video was to my deliberations as I read the first reviews of the new machines, one of the major reasons I was looking was screen resolution. After a year of living with the 1024×600 10 inch screen on the Aspire One, I was beginning to feel just a little cramped. 1366×768? I could imagine how Lightroom would look on a screen that big (big being relative…I was determined to say as close to the Netbook form factor as possible: I really value the portablilty!)
Suffice it to say that I did my research and opted for the HP Mini 311 with ION Graphics. For one thing, while more expensive than a conventional 10 inch Atom powered Netbook, it was still less expensive than the dual core CULV machines. For another, reviewers rated the ION graphics performance significantly higher than the GM4500, and the new Flash beta is optimized for ION at a slightly higher level than it is for the Intel chipset.
And, perhaps as important in the end, the HP was available when I was ready to buy and the dual core Aspire 1810T (my other strong contender) was not. On such little things the tides of decision turn…at least, it seems, my decisions!
So far the HP Mini 311 has met all my expectations. It is not too much larger than my Aspire One. It still fits in the same over the shoulder backpack I used for the Aspire. The extra screen real-estate makes a huge difference in viewing images and working in Lightroom (not to mention Powerpoint and Excel). With 3 Gigs of memory installed, it runs both Lightroom and PhotoShop Elements at the same time…flicking back and forth between them instantly. And it runs both programs faster than the Aspire One ever managed. The speed increase in noticeable and welcome in Lightroom, on every operation, but especially on complex actions like the graduated filter effects…but it is totally amazing on PhSElements, turning a real sluggard, which crashed way too often, into a working proposition for the first time in my experience on a Netbook. This has significantly changed my post-processing work flow already, making it possible for me to use PhotoShop Elements as my external editor while running Lightroom: for those times I need to apply layers, local edits, or use, for instance, the Correct Camera Distortion filter (see Distortion City…and how to cure it! on P&S Landscapes). Slick.
With the Atom processor, HD video editing is still a challenge, but along with the new computer I discovered a new video editor: Corel Video Studio 12, which does the trick of creating low resolution stand in files for HD video as you import it into a project, so your editing is done quickly and easily, and then the edits are applied to the original HD files when the final project is burned to disk. Corel runs just fine on the HP Mini 311.
The 311 even runs HULU desktop…something it should not, by the specs, do. And, with the new Adobe Flash 10.1 beta installed, it does really well on HD video from YouTube or other streaming sites. Windows Media Player handles raw MP4 video straight from the camera with ease. Impressive. Watching an HD video on a 1366×768 16/9 ratio screen is, in fact, a real pleasure.
I should mention that the HP Mini 311 I bought came with Windows 7 Home Premium. It provided my first experience of Windows 7, and while I will never be a real fan of Windows, it is the best implementation I have seen yet, and seems well suited to the Atom/ION platform. It is notably faster in almost every operation than Windows XP, at least on the 311, and many of the rough edges of XP seem to have been well and intelligently smoothed. Every program I rely on has, so far, run at least as well under 7 as it did under XP, and maybe even a bit better.
It is still Windows, of course.
I will have to wait for more extensive reviews of the newer CULV machines to see my somewhat impulsive buy was, in the end, for the best…but I am very impressed with the HP Mini 311. In another year there will undoubtedly be CULV machines with more powerful graphics processors. Combine the CPU power and a dedicated graphics accelerator and you would have a Netbook sized machine to rival almost any laptop on the market. We will see. Nothing is forever, but for now my HP Mini is pretty much this photographers dream of the mobile image processing station!
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