The brightest spot for Windows PC makers in this awful economy has been the relatively new category of small, light, minimalist and cheap laptops called netbooks.
But there are some significant compromises for consumers who rely on netbooks, which typically sell for between $300 and $500, have screens of 8” or 10,” and weigh under three pounds.
Because their screens are not only small, but also tend to offer low resolution, they can’t show as much of a Web page, or document, as a normal laptop screen, so a lot of scrolling is required. Many have cramped, flimsy-feeling keyboards, and undersized touchpads with small, stiff buttons. And many have lousy battery life.
I’ve been testing a new netbook from Toshiba, the last major Windows brand to join the category in the U.S., but a company with long experience in making diminutive, albeit far costlier, laptops. And this new $400 Toshiba, inelegantly called the NB205-N310, stands out for solving some of these common netbook problems, including offering the best netbook keyboard I’ve tested.
The Toshiba shares most of the characteristics of competing netbooks. It has a 10” screen; uses the low-power Intel (INTC) Atom processor; sports a 160-gigabyte hard disk; and has a built-in Webcam. Like almost all netbooks, it runs the aging but familiar Windows XP Home operating system. Its one gigabyte of memory is sub-par for a standard laptop, but generous for a netbook. It has a decent complement of ports and connectors, including three USB ports, one of which can charge accessories like cellphones even while the PC is in sleep mode.
While not the smallest or lightest competitor on the shelf, the new Toshiba’s overall dimensions qualify it as a true netbook: it weighs 2.9 pounds, and is 10.4 inches wide, 7.6 inches deep, and an inch thick at its thinnest point. It fits nicely on the tray in a coach plane seat, and comes in a variety of colors.
But this machine breaks from the pack in several areas. First, it has by far the best keyboard I’ve seen in a netbook. The keyboard design resembles that on Apple’s (AAPL) MacBook Pro laptops —big, raised keys with lots of room in between, and good vertical movement. The space bar, and the “Enter” and “Backspace” keys are wide, and there are even dedicated “Page Up” and “Page Down” keys.
My only major gripe with this keyboard was a baffling decision to shrink the Tab key, which is heavily used to navigate forms on Web pages, to less than half the size of a normal letter key. It is so small I kept hitting the adjacent “Q” key until I got used to it. But, otherwise, this is a great netbook keyboard.
The company offers a model of the NB205 with a flat keyboard for $50 less, but I think the extra $50 is worth it.
The Toshiba’s second big plus is its touchpad and buttons. The pad itself is much roomier and easier to use than on any other netbook I’ve tested, a crucial benefit given that its typical low-resolution netbook screen, while bright and crisp, forces you to scroll a lot. (There’s a button that can zoom out, but I found it clumsy to use.) And the twin buttons, in stark contrast to those on many netbooks, are large and very responsive.
The Toshiba NB205-N310
The third big plus on this new netbook is battery life, which I found to be outstanding. This model comes standard with one of those protruding, six-cell batteries, though it doesn’t stick out as far as some I’ve seen. Toshiba claims you can get up to an impressive nine hours and five minutes of life between charges. (There’s a $330 model with a battery Toshiba claims lasts just 3.5 hours.)
In my standard battery test, where I turn off all power-saving features, crank up the screen to full brightness, leave on the Wi-Fi, and play music continuously, the Toshiba NB205-N310 lasted a whopping six hours and 32 minutes. That means you would likely top eight hours, and maybe approach Toshiba’s claim, in a more normal usage pattern.
The machine properly handled a variety of common programs I tested, including Microsoft Office (MSFT), Firefox, iTunes, Picasa and the TweetDeck program for using Twitter.
But there were some drawbacks. One was performance. Streaming of Web videos stuttered a bit more often than I would have liked. Wi-Fi speed was noticeably less than what I get on a standard Windows laptop.
Startup and reboot speeds were very slow. With one Word document open, two Web sites open in Firefox and iTunes playing a song, it took the Toshiba over two minutes to reboot, compared to about a minute and a half on my last-generation Acer Aspire One netbook running the same things. Starting up cold also took about 30 seconds longer than on the Acer.
This may be because Toshiba has loaded the machine with software many people won’t use, including the Skype communications program and a networking utility that duplicates some of Windows’ built-in functions. Also, the speakers are feeble, even for a netbook.
Still, Toshiba has advanced the netbook category in key respects.