HP Mini 311 First Test Results: Is Ion Worth It?

It's here, and it could redefine netbooks. The HP Mini 311, with Nvidia’s Ion LE graphics chip inside, arrived in our offices today. But how good is it?

(Update: We now have a full review of the HP Mini 311 with many more benchmarks.)

For months you’ve been hearing that Ion will improve graphics performance on mini-notebooks and offer better HD video playback, but now we have some hard data. We’re in the process of testing the Mini 311 for our full review, and the first test results are in. Let’s compare Ion’s scores to those of the average netbook with Intel's graphics, as well as more expensive ultraportables powered by Intel's ULV processor.

We started with PCMark 05, which measures overall application performance in Windows XP. The Mini 311 notched a score of 1,917 on PCMark05, which is almost 500 points above the current netbook average of 1,423. The highest netbook score we’ve ever seen in that test is 1697 for the Dell latitude 2100. Once we get in Ion netbooks that run Windows 7, we'll do a direct comparison with ULV-based ultraportables using the PCMark Vantage benchmark.

The MIni 311 produced an even more impressive score in 3DMark06, which measures graphics performance: 1,386. That showing is over 1,200 points above the netbook average. The only netbook to beat this score was the ASUS N10Jc, and that had switchable Nvidia graphics. The only other system that comes close is 256 points away, the AMD-powered Gateway LT3103u.

Compared to ultraporable notebooks with Intel's integrate graphics, the Mini 311’s 3DMark06 score trounces the Intel GMA 4500 graphics inside the MSI X340 (643) and ASUS UL30 (760). The Mini 311 is 501 points better than the overall ultraportable average. In fact, this system has an almost identical 3DMark06 score to the latest MacBook Air.

So what about high-def video playback? We tested the mettle of the Mini 311 by outputting a 1080p iTunes trailer (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) via HDMI from the system to a 32-inch Samsung HDTV. The Ion-powered netbook held up well, delivering satisfactory detail and great color. We saw only some instances of motion blur, but the clip took 30 seconds to cue up. On the other hand, when we played the same 1080p clip on a Dell Mini Inspiron 10 with an HDMI port, the action stuttered so much that it looked like a slideshow.

Another area where Ion is supposed to shine is video editing. The typical netbook takes about a half hour to transcode a 114MB file from AVI to MPEG-4. Using vReveal, a program that can tap into Ion's graphics muscle, the HP Mini 311 converted the same file in 6 minutes and 14 seconds. That's approximately five times as fast. The average ultraportable notebook takes 14:16; so in this case Ion is more than twice as fast as ULV-based notebooks with Intel graphics.

So Ion vastly improves graphics performance and provides a boost to overall performance. But can Ion netbook handle gaming? We ran the Far Cry 2 benchmark on the Mini 311, something we don’t even bother to do on netbooks. With the resolution set to 1024 x 768, the machine averaged 12 frames per second. That’s 4 fps above the ultraportable average and well above the ULV dual-core ASUS UL30 and Aspire Timeline 3810T (5 and 3 fps respectively).  Unfortunately the benchmark wasn’t able to complete the test at the native resolution of 1366 x 768.

Now, 12 fps is far from stellar (frame rates in the high 20s and above is considered playable) but Ion should provide better performance in mainstream games like Spore and even Call of Duty 4. Stay tuned for full results.

Based on our early tests, the addition of Nvidia's Ion graphics processor to the Atom CPU in netbooks makes a big difference. In fact, this GPU could upend the category.  However, we're withholding judgment until we get the Mini 311's battery test results. Ion's performance gains won't be nearly as exciting if you have to make too big a sacrifice in endurance.