Saturday, 13 August 2011

Why I love the HP / Compaq Mini 311

A couple of years ago if you had of told me I would have a glorified netbook as my secondary PC I would of just laughed at you. The first wave of n230 7” atom PC’s seemed so useless for anything real world. The screen was too small, and it ground to a halt if you showed it anything more complicated than 2+2=4. It seemed like a combination that was just not thought through. Surely there was a happy medium somewhere between the 15.6” monsters and their 7” tiny brethren.
And so just past Christmas 2009 I decided that I would start looking for a new ultraportable, but one that would be usable for more than just basic office work. By this point netbooks had mainly evolved up to 10” atom N270’s which while a step forward was still not enough. The main problems with them were the resolution, keyboard and mouse. 1024x600 is simply not enough to run windows in comfortably. You spend your whole life scrolling up and down and applications often didn’t fully fit into the screen. On top of that the keyboards and trackpads were squeezed into the chassis and I struggled to find one that was comfortable enough to use day to day.
On the other end of the scale there were the Sony ultraportables. They were small and powerful but with a £1000+ price tag there was no way I’d be affording one of them anytime soon, and I needed it in the next few weeks. One thing that caught my eye however was that Asus had produced a few 11.6” netbooks with 1366x768 screens. The screen resolution sounded too good to be true but unfortunately they were paired with 1.33GHz Atom CPU’s. So I endeavoured to find an 11.6” laptop with a little more under the lid.
I’d read a little about the Nvidia Ion chipset on sites like Anandtech, but never really considered owning something with one in. Then, I came across the Mini 311. I thought my birthday and Christmas had come at once. Here was a machine that had the same 11.6” 1366x768 display of the Asus’, but also had a 1.6GHz Atom N270, Ion LE chipset, 160GB HDD, 1GB of DDR3, Wifi, 6 Cell etc etc. It sounded like a brilliant base for a good little ultraportable, especially running a nice lightweight OS like Windows XP. I’m not a fool however, I knew well and good that the N270 is a single core with hyperthreading, and that hyperthreading is nothing like having two cores. On top of that 1GB of Ram wasn’t going to hold me over for long so I went into it knowing that I would be performing some upgrades at some point during my laptop’s lifetime.
£300 later, I had ordered a Mini 311 direct from HP and before I knew it, it had arrived on the doorstep. I unboxed it with a strong sense of awe. In the flesh it was such a pretty machine! The white lights contrasted brilliantly with the silver and black casing and even the font of the keys was pleasing to the eye. I powered her up and she was swiftly into the OEM Windows XP installation. I was pleasantly surprised with the pace of the machine. It was able to swiftly browse the web, while playing back some H264 video in Media Player Classic (which leveraged all 16 of it’s graphics cores) and there wasn’t any significant slowdown. If anything I did find in heavier sessions that I would be limited by the HDD access speed (which was 5400rpm), RAM, (of which 128Mb was allocated off to the Ion chip) and the CPU speed of apps that weren’t GPU accelerated.
So I used the machine for a few months and started getting to grips with it. The screen was and still is brilliant. The vertical viewing angles left a little bit to be desired but the pixel pitch more than made up for it. The keyboard was well sized and nice to use and the mouse although not perfect, was more than usable. Battery llife was also not bad, heavily browsing the web I’d get ~3hrs from the 55wH battery, 5 hours when working on documents, offline, low brightness. I did find that for some tasks the 1.6GHz single core really wasn’t up to heavy CPU only loads. Extracting zip files for example, was a task that simply took more time than on a desktop quad core so I resolved to start upgrading the machine to get the absolute most from it.
I started by ordering a stick of Crucial 2GB DDR3 1333MHz and buying a Hitachi 320GB 7200RPM HDD. The combination gave a healthy boost to the overall system performance, and the amount of Graphics Ram increased itself to 256MB. Thanks to these upgrades many older games became easily playable, however the restricted CPU horsepower continued to limit many titles.
It was at about this point I discovered the MyHPMini forums. This was just a bunch of owners of various models of HP netbooks and among them there was a subforum for 311 owners. Many of these members, like me, realised the potential of the machine and it seemed a large number of quite technically minded people had purchased Mini 311’s and more importantly, joined the forums.
When I found the site there were a few active projects looking at getting more from the 311. First was the ION LE –> ION conversion mod. Basically all this did was flash the GPU BIOS to allow DX10 effects to be used on the Mini’s GPU. Still to this day I haven’t used this mod and my reasons are thus. The conversion doesn’t actually give you any extra performance. People seem to think it does, but I see no way it can. It doesn’t raise clock speeds or increase the shader or ROP count so there’s definitely no hardware improvement’s to be found. As well as this, DX10 as an API did little to improve performance in games. It was generally used to add complicated effects on top of DX9 games, and only in the latest range of titles. As awesome as it is, the 311 was never built to play the latest titles at anything near the top graphical settings. As such the added DX10 effects netted me no gain and as someone said a long time ago, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”
The next notable mod was a project some guys were doing to enable some mild software overclocking for the CPU’s powering our Mini 311’s. Their stock Frequency was either 1.60GHz or 1.66GHz and they were hoping to get that frequency up a bit. I got stuck into the thread and before we knew it we had a usable mod. It revolved around using the Asrock OC tool which, as you can guess from the name, is designed to overclock Asrock motherboards. Now obviously, our HP didn’t have an Asrock motherboard, but Asrock did produce an Ion Motherboard which the tool was compatible with. A bit of technical modding to some .ini files later, we had a usable tool that could adjust the base clock of the CPU.
The stock base clock of the N270 is 133Mhz. This is then translated to the CPU clockspeed through a 12x multiplier (6x when Idle) to give a full clockspeed of 1600Mhz. The RAM speed is also derived from the base clock with the default being 1333Mhz or 8x the base clock. Using the Asrock tool I was able to push the CPU to nearly 2.0Ghz without my additional 2GB stick and to just over 1.8GHz with my additional RAM. The machine didn’t appear to be running into a CPU boundary, but more a RAM speed one. With the base clock overclocked past about 150MHz my 2GB stick would start erroring, and I wasn’t able to adjust the timings or memory ratio because the machine came with an OEM’d HP BIOS which had been gutted of all of the great Nvidia performance BIOS options present in their original ION chipset Bios.
So with my 1.8GHz overclock I got an appreciable increase in CPU performance, which helped out in any and all situations where I was CPU limited. I had heard that people using Liquid Nitrogen on ITX Atom boards had managed to get theirs up to 2.2GHz so I felt that to get a good 1.8GHz wasn’t bad. I also decided to break out a few GPU overclocking tools and see which worked the best with the Ion chip. In most games I was CPU limited but for the GPU limited ones I decided to see how much more I could eek out of my little Ion chip. It’s stock clocks are 450 core, Memory tied to the CPU memory speeds, and 900MHz shader cores. I tried rivatuner but it wouldn’t recognise the chipset, Nvidia System tools on the other hand recognised it no problem and was happy to play with the clock speeds. I got them up to a happy stable 525MHz Core and 1200MHz Shaders, which was a healthy boost to my little 16 cores.
I found that the combination gave me a great little boost in Games like KOTOR, and meant I could enable a few more pretty graphics options and the CPU clock increase gave a nice little performance boost across the whole OS. However, I knew I needed more from the CPU and what I needed was to be able to get the RAM multiplier down a notch. In the meantime I decided to stick with what I had and create profiles on my Windows XP Desktop. My performance profile raised the Max 3D clocks to the 525/1200 speeds and power save brought the 3D clocks down to 2D speeds.
It was around this time I decided to give Windows 7 a go. I had got some spare Windows 7 Pro Licenses at home and decided to chuck one on a separate partition. I split the HDD in three, Win XP, Win 7 and Data/Media, and then delved into the Install. By default the Mini 311 comes with AHCI enabled, which means XP reinstalls are “fun” to say the least (I’ve since created a custom install disk in case I ever need to wipe a 311). Windows 7 installs on the other hand are no problem as it plays nicely with AHCI, so I chucked the 32* disk in my external optical drive and before I knew it I had a nice shiny clean OS.
I found the initial Win 7 Performance to be ok, the OS was generally thrashing the HDD and CPU for quite a while after the install, so I took to disabling the Indexing service and the like. I also found that AVG with Win 7 really compromised the system performance, as did MS Security Essentials. I figured out that it was the Real Time scanning that was the real problem (it was adding minutes to the boot time) I’ve since settled on ESET Smart Security, which has a very small footprint and in my experience Is the best package for keeping a machine squeaky clean.
I also experimented (almost jokingly) with Virtualisation. I tried running Ubuntu 10 in VirtualBox but even the install took a month of Sundays. The lack of VT-x combined with the general lack of grunt means I reckon I’ll be holding off on Virtualisation until I get a majorly more meaty mobile machine. I also abandoned iTunes on Windows 7 as it was just getting to the point where the app was getting so heavy that it was compromising multitasking! I switched over to WinAmp which uses minimal resources while doing the same job and it’s not a problem at all.
Back on the OS front, I left my games installed in XP and set Windows 7 up as a “working” OS. I set up Office 2007 and got my Chrome Browser synced in etc etc. I found the performance generally fine (things could get sluggish if I was running more than one “heavy” app) but once I’d got the right apps sorted the OS was generally responsive.
It was at about this point I came across a mod being worked on by “Icelord” on the HPMini forums to reopen all the advanced Nvidia Performance options of the BIOS. It was no mean feat, but before I knew it there was the final BIOS file ready for flashing. Now many people can go their entire lives never having to flash a BIOS, and that’s good, because doing so results in the production of more grey hairs than taking a cat to the vets. On top of that having to flash IN WINDOWS is generally considered one of the worst ideas ever dreamt up in the history of mankind. But here I was about to flash a handwritten BIOS into my laptop in windows. There is no reset; get this wrong and you have a DEAD laptop on your hands. The only way back would be a new motherboard, or possibly soldering a new BIOS chip on if you’re very good with a soldering iron, neither of which is ideal. So I stopped every unnecessary running process, took a deep breath, and started the flash.
I sat there watching a small bar moving across the screen, knowing that if something went wrong, and that bar stopped, I had killed my Mini 311. It didn’t stop. It said the flash had completed successfully. But would she restart? Was this the last time my machine would ever be alive and in an OS? I clicked restart. The screen went black. I waited for an eternity. Where was the boot logo? Where was my BIOS? After a few very tense moments, the screen flashed back to life and I had my new custom BIOS ready to dive into. F10. I’m in. Phew! The first few pages were the same as before but then there was the lovely “advanced” menu. Options and options and options, but crucially, The RAM Ratio was adjustable, and even unlinkable! But I didn’t want to dive in completely headfirst, because the CMOS chip in the 311 had no reset. You get the settings wrong, and you have a dead machine! This custom BIOS was turning out to be rather fraught with danger!
So I began researching the best settings to go for to get the most out of my machine. And eventually I picked my point and went for it. I chose an FSB of 185. Yep. 37% faster than stock, keeping the CPU multiplier at 12x resulting in a clock speed of 2,220MHz, while dropping the ram down to 932Mhz at 7-7-7-18 2T timings. Noice. But would it work? I had to feed the FSB into the BIOS as a quad pumped frequency, which in basically meant multiplying the value I wanted by four. But I then also had to give that value in terms of an integer + a variable. I gave it as 512+228 and the Ram ratio of 10:4. I also bumped the VRAM up from 256Mb to 512MB, just in case. I then pushed the enter key, and F10. Save and Exit BIOS. The screen went black, again I was torn up inside, what was I doing? Would this kill it? Would this be the end of my machine? The screen was black... No life? No? Had I really done it? The screen flickered on. She posted. My Mini was alive, just. The POST had been very slow, and I was worried she was going to conk out on me. But she didn’t. My amazing little machine booted straight into Windows 7. The OS loaded nice and swiftly, and I fired up CPU-Z. The settings had taken. I had a 2.22GHz Atom N270. Awesome. I fired up Prime95 to check for stability and sure enough she seemed solid. I left the machine attached to the mains for a few hours to check she was stable and also checked the new idle clock of 1.11GHz was stable (which it was, even without liquid nitrogen!). I’d done it. YAY!
I booted round into XP to get some game on. I also had my Asrock Tuner to see if there was any headroom left in the machine (There wasn’t). I then reconfigured my GPU profiles which had broken because Nvidia System Tools covers all the bus speeds on the system and my new FSB didn’t match the one in the profile. And so I fired up some games, and my god they liked the extra clockspeed. It really made a difference, and when recombined with my GPU overclock, My little Mini absolutely flew.
A few months later (while perusing ebay) I made another discovery. A company called laptop-powerup were exporting 3rd Party batteries from China and these weren’t just any batteries. The Stock model is a 55WH 6 Cell Battery, manufactured by HP. I’d seen lots of cheap third party 44WH batteries made in China which obviously would have lost you 20% of your battery capacity. But this wasn’t one of those batteries. This was not a 6 cell. This was a 9 cell, 78WH battery. That’s an extra 42% capacity. Hell Yeah! Needless to say I bought one, and £40 and a few weeks later, I was the proud owner of one of the first Mini 311 9 Cell batteries in Britain. She fitted cleanly into the body of the machine, and her extra cells sat in a protrusion that lifted the base of the machine off a flat surface, which as someone pointed out, would be good for cooling. I took some pics and posted them up to the MyHPMini forum. I was inundated for information on battery life etc. So I began to test, and I really did get at least an extra 42% from it. That resulted in an Idle time approaching 9 hours, a web browsing time of around 5 hours and a gaming time of around 3 hours. Noice.
And to be honest that was it. That is pretty much all the successful improvements I’ve made to my Mini, and to be honest I don’t think I could have asked for a better base to work from. My 1.6GHz, 1GB, 160GB, 128MB ION, Win XP machine has become a 2.22GHz, 3GB, 320GB 7200RPM, 512MB ION OC, Win7&XP Dual Boot Machine. What a transformation.
I’ve considered various other upgrades over the time I’ve had my Mini. I’ve looked into fitting a Mini PCI-E SSD into the slot underneath, but have yet to find a one that is both cost effective and compatible. The Idea would be I would have my Main HDD (for Media and some apps) and have my Mini SSD for my Win 7 OS. Unfortunately most Mini PCI-E SSD’s aren’t really Mini PCI-E. They use the connector, but electrically they’re SATA. Thing is my Mini PCI-E is definitely not electrically SATA, and there’s some debate on the forums as to whether they’re electrically USB or real PCI-E. In recent months Supertalent have released a new range of real PCI-E SSD’s, but they’re prohibitively expensive, and the higher performance model isn’t out in the UK yet. Hopefully if the price falls and someone can confirm compatibility then it could be an upgrade for the future.
I also considered getting a WWAN chip for the laptop to get some internal mobile internet going, but I’ve since got my Mifi going nicely. This way I can have various devices hooked up to my 3 Mobile internet contract. The internal modem would be a pain to fit as well as I’d also have to buy some more aerials and route them up through the screen, which would involve taking the screen apart, which is something I’d prefer to avoid on pain of death. I’ve also considered adding Wireless N but have wanted to do so without removing Bluetooth. I use Bluetooth for a Razer Pro¦Click Black mouse which is great for gaming so I can’t really remove that but having 150Mb/s of wireless bandwidth would be mighty fine useful for chucking data between machines. I have a Buffalo Wireless N Router which is great for my phone but I’ve yet to find a half height Mini PCI-E Wifi n + Bluetooth card. Other options for adding Bluetooth separately have also proved expensive or just downright impractical.
Ultimately the Mini 311 has been the best machine I could have ever wished for. One of the things that has always frustrated my about Notebooks is their relative “un-upgrabable-ness”, But the 311 has broken that mould. This machine is so different to the machine it started out as it’s amazing. On the surface it appears like any other Mini 311 but as soon as you power it on it’s apparent this one is something special.
One day however, I will have to get a new laptop. But there is no way that my next machine will be as amazingly flexible as my 311 has been. I’m currently considering a Sony Vaio SA. It’s a different kind of machine to be honest. Whereas the Mini was always meant to compliment my Desktop machine the Sony will be looking to do alot of the work that my Desktop currently does, including Virtualisation, and some, but not high end gaming. When I’m done upgrading it, it’ll be a 2.7GHz (3.4GHz Turbo) i7 Dual Core, 8GB DDR3, 256GB Sandforce SSD, Radeon 6630M 1GB GPU, Win 7 HP 64* all in a 1.8Kg 13” chassis with a 1600x900 display and a sheet battery that brings total life in stamina mode up to 14Hrs. This is going to be almost a desktop replacement machine, but it’ll cost around £1400. Gulp. I can’t really afford it, but after the year I’ve had I really think I could do with something absolutely awesome. I’m looking tentatively at what options I’ve got in terms of desktop upgrades. To be honest my machine isn’t struggling with any current titles, especially thanks to the free GTX 480 that I won, so I’m really struggling to justify dropping £££’s on mega upgrades. I think I’ll wait for Ivy Bridge + GTX 600 series. And If I have the money, then I’ll pull the trigger on some upgrades. But I won’t have the money, so I’ll probably have this spec for a good few years to come.
To summarise, the Mini 311 is a shining star in what is generally a very dull notebook sector. It’s the perfect form factor, and absolutely amazing for an enthusiast. It’s also very humbling to go back to having one core of an old architecture, it really make you appreciate having our modern quad and six core CPU’s that we take for granted today. I’ve recently managed to get Burnout Paradise running really smoothly under WinXP, with all my overclocks enabled, Temps hit 90C but it just plays and plays (battery life suffers somewhat though). So anyway as Guns n’ Roses say, “Take me down to the Paradise City!”

1 comment:

  1. Although I know barely anything about the actual workings of computers, I found this to be an excellent read - you really ought to offer an upgrade service... I, for one would love my Mini to perform like this! Yours sincerely, Richard.