We'd be the first to gripe about HP's aesthetics in the consumer space, but for some reason the Mini 1000 just works. Perhaps it's the small form factor that leaves little room for the gaudy and yet a whole bunch of room for a great keyboard, screen and halfway-decent touchpad. The lid of the netbook has a fancy shiny pattern worked into it, which is subtle enough to be tasteful, and the chrome speaker grill in the hinge isn't bad at all. There's an edge-to-edge glass-ish surface in front of the screen, which is probably about 0.75 MacBooks on the glare-o-meter.
The overall build is pure quality, and we can't emphasize enough how important it is for a computer, especially a small, super-portable computer, not to feel like a toy in your hands. This puppy weighs 2.4 pounds in the 10.2-inch configuration, and hardly flexes a millimeter, with a solid screen, hinge and body. It's only slightly less than one inch thick, which is bested handily by the Eee PC S101, but the shrunk-to-fit 16:10 form factor means that "clutch" moniker is more than just marketing speak, it's a whole new way to carry your laptop, and we find it to be plenty small.
The LED-backlit screen is disappointingly low resolution, but is quite bright and plenty vibrant -- a lot better than it looks in our pictures, trust us. The standard battery is a three-cell, but HP will be offering a six-cell in January. 3G should be available in December.
For expansion there's a removable HP Mini Mobile Drive in the SSD versions of the Mini 1000, which is a straightforward USB drive, but disappears completely when you slide it into its designated slot, flush with the machine. Also, intriguingly HP plans to offer an optional "HD video decode accelerator mini-card." We're not exactly sure what that entails, but it sounds fun.
The OS starts up at a respectable pace, and once you've booted you're faced with a home screen that's actually preloaded your primary apps to save you the trouble. Web Browser (Firefox) shows you a few favorites and a search bar, Email (Thunderbird) shows you your recent messages, and Music and Photo apps just sit there looking pretty. There's a nice big app switcher "dock" of sorts across the bottom, and from anywhere in the OS you can tap the "Windows Key" to jump back to the home screen.
There's a fundamental shift here from the file browser and window manager-first approach of most desktop operating systems, but unlike some instant-on operating systems that really do limit you to pre-loaded applications and stripped down functionality, most everything's still here. You can file manage to your heart's content, install programs from Ubuntu's extensive repository, run pre-loaded apps like Open Office, and we're sure someone will manage to make this switchable to Ubuntu's traditional desktop view before long. Unfortunately, HP's not open sourcing any of its MIE interface, which is a little sad seeing how much the company has obviously benefited from existing open source work.
That also brings us to our biggest "mistrust" of the interface, if you will. Everything's sort of buried under this layer of HP. In some cases that's a good thing, and makes the netbook more of an internet-connected, rich media appliance -- like a modern day smartphone with the power and convenience of a full computer operating system. Where that could be a bad thing is in the case of shoddy, irreplaceable apps that are inextricably integrated into the system and get in the way of us enjoying the computer how we'd like to. In short, we're expecting quite a few Engadget-types out there to chafe under HP's rule and install their own preferred flavor of Linux, perhaps running Ubuntu's netbook interface on top, but for a good majority of users, MIE is all they'll need, and we'd say it's delivering Linux in one of the most user-friendly packages yet.
Overall we're very impressed with HP's new offering. While ASUS is busy charging $699 for its "designed" version of a netbook, HP is delivering a beautiful computer with a "thin enough" chassis at a really aggressive price point -- though you can certainly go Vivienne Tam nutso if you'd like. We, being the nerds we are, will always want more power than Microsoft and Intel are allowing / providing currently, but these netbook things are finally reaching the point of maturity to bring the category out of its pimply gimmick phase and into the "recommend to people we don't dislike" phase. MIE is just gravy, but certainly shows a lot of promise.