Netbooks are all the rage at the moment, with many of us attracted by their cute designs and budget-friendly price tags. Netbooks are smaller, more portable and therefore more practical than a ‘proper’ laptop, although you will have to sacrifice screen size and power – they tend to use lower power processors in order to maximise battery life and they don’t have an internal optical drive. Nonetheless, they are great for what they are chiefly intended for: light computer work such as browsing the Web, cloud computing (using online Web services such as Windows Live Mesh, Google Docs etc), checking e-mail, word processing, and updating blogs. What they aren’t up to is heavy video editing, photographic work or gaming.

HP’s Pavilion dv2 is an usual proposition. It’s not technically a netbook because it uses a 12.1-inch display (most use 7- to 10-inch screens), and it is powered by AMD’s brand new Athlon Neo processor, which is more powerful than Intel’s Atom but because it’s single-core it gets nailed by Intel’s Core 2 Duo processor found in fully-fledged machines like Lenovo’s awesome ThinkPad X Series. As a result, the Pavilion dv2 is more expensive and more powerful than most netbooks, but not as competent as a laptop. After playing with the machine for a few days, it certainly looks and feels like a netbook, so you should treat it as such.

The Pavilion dv2 is Windows Vista Home Premium (sorry, no XP option) machine designed to deliver great multimedia experiences while making a style statement. Weighing 1.8kg and measuring 292×240×237mm, the Pavilion dv2 is certainly portable and is one of the best looking netbooks I’ve seen. Available in either a glossy black or white finish, the machine sports a sturdy magnesium casing, 12.1-inch WXGA (1280×800) LED BrightView display that’s well-suited for watching 720p HD video content and a nearly full-size keyboard.

Once you’ve finished rubbing all your fingerprints away from the impossible-to-keep-clean finish, your eyes are instantly drawn to the mirrored touchpad and imprinted swirly design on the keyboard tray. The traditional tapered-key keyboard has been swapped for flatter, more closely spaced keys – similar to those found on Apple and Sony laptops. The keyboard is comfortable to use, but touch tying is difficult due to the close spacing of the keys. The touchpad is more annoying because there is a little drag on the finger, which makes moving the pointer slow unless you tweak speed settings. The mouse buttons are noisy too, a pet hate of mine.

The Pavilion dv2 provides a relatively rich entertainment capability while measuring just under 1-inch thick. Plus, discrete graphics and a good range of connectivity options make it easy to work and play on the go. Unlike lower cost netbooks which cut down on features to save costs, the Pavilion dv2 is kitted out with pretty much everything you could wish for. The Athlon Neo MV-40 processor and ATI Mobility Radeon HD3410 graphics chip ensure smooth playback of video files, and some very light 3D gaming should be feasible, but don’t expect to crank Crysis out of this thing.

There are actually three models in the Pavilion dv2 1000 series. HP sent me the mid-range dv2-1030ea (£599), which is probably the best of the bunch in terms of price/performance. It comes with an Athlon Neo MV-40 processor running at 1.6GHz, 2GB DDR2 800HMz system memory, ATI Mobility Radeon HD3410 graphics chip with 512MB discrete graphics, and a 320GB 5400rpm hard disk drive (SSD is an optional extra). By comparison, the entry-level dv2-1010ea (£499) comes with 1GB system memory, 160GB SATA hard disk drive, ATI Radeon X1250 and Windows Vista Home Basic, while the top-flight dv2-1035ea (£699) packs 4GB system memory and a 500GB hard disk drive. Externally, all models are the same. HP even bundles a matching external LightScribe SuperMulti 8X DVD±RW DL drive, which is essential.

Its glossy (and highly reflective) 12.1-inch screen is bright and crisp, but isn’t ideal for watching movies unless you’re crammed into a tiny economy aeroplane seat. Believe it or not this thing can (optionally) be configured with an external Blu-ray drive for playing high definition movies. An HDMI port is standard (along with analogue VGA), so you can even connect it to an HDTV to watch those Blu-ray discs on a more optimal setup. The Pavilion dv2 also has a fixed Web camera and microphone built into the lid for communicating with friends and family from afar, so most of the home use bases are well covered. Other connectivity options include 802.11b/g Wi-Fi (dedicated on/off switch), Bluetooth 2.1, 10/100 Ethernet, three USB 2.0 ports, headphone and microphone jacks, 5-in-1 card reader, and optional embedded 3G.

AMD Athlon Neo
What’s particularly special about the machine is that it is powered by AMD’s brand new Athlon Neo processor. Designed to be a more powerful middleweight CPU compared to Intel’s Atom – and sitting inbetween netbooks and fully-fledged desktops – the Athlon Neo was designed to be more powerful (and more power hungry) than Intel’s Atom but less powerful than a standard mobile CPU like AMD’s Turion X2.

Having said that, the clock of the processor is significantly lower than desktop and other mobile counterparts to reach a low TDP, at 15W maximum for a single core x86 CPU. The Athlon Neo processors are equipped with 512 KB of L2 cache and HyperTransport 1.0 running at 800MHz frequency. A typical AMD Athlon processor for desktop PCs measures about 63×80mm, with a die size on-board the package of about 120mm. The Neo package is 27×27mm, which is considerably more convenient for netbook component designers to implement. Remember, there isn’t yet a mass production market for netbook motherboards similar to that for desktops. By comparison, Intel’s Atom die size is 13×14mm, and has a total footprint of 182mm.

HP’s Pavilion dv2 is one of the coolest looking netbooks on the market, but it’s also a little bigger and more expensive thanks to the 12.1-inch display and AMD Athlon Neo processor. This obviously raises questions as to whether the machine should be treated as a netbook at all, or rather an ultraportable PC. Taking the Pavilion dv2 as either a netbook or budget ultraportable, it’s a very good machine that’s fast enough (it’s quicker than Atom-based netbooks) to run Windows Vista, HD video and less demanding games. The problem is that ultimately it delivers netbook-style single-core performance at mainstream prices. Another kick in the crotch is that the battery is only good for around 2.5 hours, so you’ll be tied to the hefty 90W AC adapter. Ultimately, treat the Pavilion dv2 as a large netbook for light duties and you’ll love it. Purchase it as a mobile workhorse and you’ll be disappointed.