We're really into the new influx of inexpensive CULV-based laptops that's arrived with Windows 7, and just like the ASUS UL80Vt, we knew we had to check out the starts-at-$599 HP dm3t the second we saw the first leak. In many ways, it's the perfect throw-it-in-a-bag-and-go portable on paper, with a sleek and rigid case design, a 1.3GHz Intel SU7300 Core 2 Duo processor, and a 13.3-inch screen, but there's a big difference between loving a machine's spec sheets and reviews and loving it in real life, so we spent a couple days playing with a spec'd-up $819 model -- read on for our impressions.
Gallery | 12 Photos
HP dm3t unboxing and hands-on
Externally, the dm3 is a beautiful machine at first glance. It's very similar to the dv2, which we were also quite fond of, but the Intel processor inside doesn't run nearly as hot as the dv2's AMD chip, so there's no insane fan noise, and temperatures stay fairly low -- it gets warm, sure, but it's not anything like the dv2's nuclear-meltdown heat levels.
Port selection is pretty generous: round the left side you'll find Ethernet, VGA, HDMI, two USB, an SD card slot, and 3.5mm headphone and line-in jacks, and there's two more USB on the right along with the power switch and a WiFi / Bluetooth radio toggle. The battery fits flush into a compartment on the bottom, so any extended packs you might get will tilt things up.
Structurally we've got to hand it to HP -- we've felt quite a few thin-and-lights flex in our hands as we've picked them up, but the dm3 is remarkably solid -- it's hard to even bend or twist with two hands at opposite corners. As you might expect, that means the chiclet-style keyboard is equally solid, and we had no major complaints as we typed this review on it -- sure, there's a slight gummy feeling to each keypress, but you'd have to be a major keyboard snob (like us) to really notice or care about it, and we'd bet most people will be thrilled with it.
That said, we're equally certain that most people will find the trackpad to be a terrible abomination. Just like the dv2 and most other recent consumer HP laptops, the dm3's trackpad is covered in a ridiculous nasty chrome finish that makes tracking and dragging frustratingly slow and inaccurate. It's seriously one of the worst trackpads we've ever used -- and to top it off, the buttons are insanely stiff and placed too high, meaning you constantly try and click the lower rim of the case instead of the buttons themselves. It's just bad news overall -- we actually thought about taking some sandpaper to the trackpad surface to try and make it a little better.
Up top the 13.3-inch 1280 x 800 display is, well, pretty awful. Not only is it relatively dim, but it suffers from some abysmal vertical viewing angles -- we found ourselves constantly adjusting the screen tilt to compensate for washed out colors and poor contrast. We have no idea why display quality is always the first casualty of lower prices, but that's just how it goes, and the dm3t doesn't buck this unfortunate trend.
Software and performance
It's sort of interesting that we've all gotten used to how good Windows 7 is in its pure, factory-fresh state, when Microsoft is upfront in saying that most people will first experience 7 preloaded on a new machine -- complete with vendor modifications and additions. So it was actually kind of a shock to use WIndows 7 as installed by HP on the dm3t, since you have to deal with a lot of extra sluggish junk, like endless Norton pop-ups, a pushy, semi-automated HP software updater that will default to installing all updates without confirmation if you so much as breathe on it, and HP's MediaSmart toolbar and software, which just seems like a waste of time. After a while we were longing for our pristine install of 7 Home Premium -- we'd recommend dm3t buyers reinstall and clean house before settling in.
All that said, the dm3t was a more than capable performer when we finally got to work, and we never experienced any meaningful slowdowns or choppiness while we went about our business -- editing documents and photos, browsing, watching videos. We even managed to play that new 1080p YouTube clip, which is pretty impressive for a machine of this size. (Watching HD video on such a mediocre display was pretty sad, though. Thank god for HDMI out, right?) If you're a gamer you're going to want to spring for the optional $50 NVIDIA GeForce G 105M card -- the Intel integrated GMA4500MHD graphics in our tester couldn't really handle anything more than light duty, as you'd expect.
Battery life was pretty terrific -- Intel's CULV chips sip juice, and we got a fairly consistent nine hours or so of general usage on a charge. We're sure that would have gone down if we'd been really pushing the system, but if you're just generally using a computer to do computer stuff, the dm3t should last you a solid day. Hard to complain about that.
Man, we really wanted to fall in love with the dm3t. It's small, sexy, and about as well-built as any other PC laptop we've seen in a while, and the spec list is solid, if not spectacular. But it's hard to fall in love with any laptop that has both a substandard display and a terrible trackpad -- the two parts of a machine you spend the most time interacting with. It's particularly frustrating because they're such obvious and glaring flaws in an otherwise excellent machine, and we simply have no idea how or why HP decided to ship the dm3t without fixing them. Now, where's that sandpaper?