The right way to design a netbook
Review What is it with Toshiba's designers? Their first netbook, the NB100, was a boxy, angular affair that looked like it had appeared out of a rip in time from 1995. Undoubtedly stung by such criticism, Toshiba's design team have gifted the company's follow up, the NB200, with a much sexier design... only to go and spoil it with a naff colour scheme.
Toshiba's NB200: a much better, slimmer design than its predecessor
Indeed, it's telling that the publicity picture provided by Toshiba are chiefly of the bottom-of-the-line "cosmic black" NB200, not the top-of-the-range "snow white" version - the NB200-110 - we have in front of us here.
The top-end NB200 appeals because it comes with Intel's N280 Atom processor, which consumes the same amount of power as the more commonplace N270, but is 60MHz faster and operates over a 667MHz frontside bus rather than a 533MHz one. We like the N280, and it's our preferred netbook processor.
The NB200 provides the standard 1GB of 800MHz DDR 2 memory, a 160GB hard drive, 802.11b/g Wi-Fi and all the customary ports: three USB 2.0 connectors, 10/100Mb/s Ethernet, 3.5mm audio I/O, VGA and an SDHC memory card slot. The two top-end models have Bluetooth 2.1+EDR built in, the other three don't.
The screen's a bright and (very) glossy 10.1in, 1024 x 600 job with a 0.3Mp webcam in the bezel. The display is driven by the Intel GMA 950 graphics core embedded in the netbook's chipset. A run of 3DMark06 yielded a score of 90 - poor by notebook standards, but a little higher than most netbooks we've looked at.
Standard netbook hardware, though
We'll talk about the bundled software later, but from a hardware standpoint, the NB200 range's internals match or exceed most of Toshiba's rivals.
That leaves the NB200's design as one of the key differentiators, and here Toshiba has done a very good job indeed. The NB200 is pleasingly modern, with curves in all the right places and, crucially, a slimline styling - it's 25.4mm thick at the front, rising to 32.3mm at the back; the extra is its rear feet - that immediately sets it apart from so many, more chunky netbooks.
Tweak your system settings to minimise power usage
The low-end NB200-10G comes with a three-cell battery that sits flush with the casing. The NB200-110 we tested comes with a six-cell, 63Wh power pack that extends beyond the back of the laptop. Even so, it doesn't feel like it was chucked on at the last minute, as a fair few six-cell laptop batteries - yes, Acer, we're thinking of you - do. It looks like it's part of the machine, and it doesn't lift the back up way above the reach of the netbook's own feet, as is the case with the Dell Mini 10v, for (an extreme) example
The six-cell battery adds weight, of course: the NB200-110 weighs 1.33kg to the NB200-10G's 1.18kg, but what's 150g among friends, especially given the extra runtime the bigger power pack provides?
And, boy, does it provide runtime. We ran our customary video playback test - loop a standard definition video full-screen, with the screen's brightness up full and Wi-Fi on - and the NB200 ran for six hours 12 minutes. That's the second best time we've recorded - better even than the mighty Asus Eee PC 1000HE.
Turn down some of the processor and other power saving settings Toshiba provides, turn down the display's backlight and turn off the wireless radios, and you should be able to eke out the battery's charge for a good three hours beyond that, if not more.
Video Playback Battery Test Results
Battery life in minutes
Longer bars are better
The base of the machine provides the customary access hatch for the memory - one Dimm slot, filled - and a separate panel the covers the Wi-Fi card and the 2.5in Sata hard drive, though it's held down with a pair of very small gauge torx screws. Upgraders should have no trouble replacing these key components if they wish.
Size-wise, the NB200-110 is 263mm wide, a dimension determined by the keyboard rather than the screen. Like Asus' new Eee PC 1008HA, the NB200 has widely spaced, calculator-style keys, each of which has a decent travel and a smooth action. There's almost no flex to the keyboard itself. This is a very good netbook keyboard and one that correctly positions the Ctrl key is to the left of the Fn key.
The NB200 has a decent keyboard and a nice, big touchpad
Toshiba has fitted the NB200 with an Alps-made touchpad that, at 78.5 x 40.5mm, is one of the biggest netbook touchpads we've seen. It comes with software to fully customise its operation. In addition to the usual scroll areas on the bottom and right edges, you can set the corners to operate as single-tap buttons, and the top edge of the pad can be used with your web browser for page flipping. The touchpad app provides a host of choices you can apply if you want corners, scroll areas and so on to do something different - or even just turn all this off and enjoy a big touchpad that, for once, means you can leave your mouse at home.
The two buttons are placed below the touchpad, right at the front of the netbook, and they have a nice, soft action that provides sufficient physical feedback to tell you you've clicked on something but doesn't make you feel you need to push with all your might. Press both buttons at once, and the touchpad pops into autoscroll mode. Again, you can turn this off if you don't like it.
The only flaw is the slightly slow, jerky response we noticed, as if the touchpad is dozing off when it's left alone. Fully awake, it works just fine, but every time you start using it there are moments when your finger is moving but the cursor is not. This could get irritating over time. We didn't experience this when we used a mouse, so it's clearly a touchpad issue.
All the NB200 variants come with Windows XP and, as we say, a stack of Toshiba utilities. Among them is an app that warns you every time you so much as gently nudge the NB200 that the machine has consequently had to park the hard drive heads for their protection. Thankfully, you can turn the warning off, but it's nice to know there are accelerometers present watching out for sudden drops and knocks - common occurrences with netbooks, even though this level of disk protection is not.
Adjust the touchpad's many options
Toshiba Power Saver takes over from Windows' own power tools to give you a good degree of device power management, including the CPU, while ConfigFree provides network mapping and diagnostics. There are utilities for formatting SD cards; taking photos and videos using the webcam; and - most useful of all, we suspect - charging USB-connected devices even when the laptop's sleeping.
The NB200-110 performed well, its N280 processor pushing it toward the top of the processor table, and its 667MHz frontside bus and 800MHz doing likewise in our memory test. Don't forget though, that some NB200 models have the slower, N270 CPU and a 533MHz FSB, and will score less well as a result.
Longer bars are better
Longer bars are better
Longer bars are better
The NB200 fared less well in the hard drive test, being beaten not only by many rivals, but also but its predecessor, the NB100.
The Linux Experience
The NB200 comes with Windows XP pre-loaded, but when we'd done our testing, we installed Ubuntu 9.04 instead. Out of the box, Wi-Fi didn't work, but downloading. the Jaunty backports module after a full update and then installed the Wicd network manager solved that. The SD card slot work immediately, as did the webcam.
The only issue we had was sound: neither the speakers nor the headphone socket produced a jot of noise no matter which sound system - Alsa, OSS or the variations - we selected
But now we have to address the NB200-110's styling. We love the laptop's design, but hate the look. The glossy bezel replicates the lid's diagonal stripe pattern. On the lid it's matte and textured; the bezel alternates white and silver glossy stripes. The NB200's hinge section is shiny chrome-look plastic, while the lower half, the keyboard, the touchpad and buttons, and the base are all composed in silver-sprayed plastic.
The nice black version looks way better than the others...
Frankly, it looks tacky, and only the NB200's good industrial design saves it. If the lid was in silver too, it might work - as it is, it's not consumer sexy or business sharp. You can have a "satin brown" lid which looks very slightly better. Fortunately, the basic black does work, and that would be our choice. But here's the thing: Toshiba doesn't give you a choice. If you want black, you can't have the N280 CPU and/or Bluetooth. If you want the N280 but don't need Bluetooth, your only choice is the brown model. At least there are two black versions, one with the six-cell battery, one with the three-cell job.
Prices range from £319 to £369 - Toshiba is aiming the NB200 more at business buyers than regular consumers. The Bluetoothless NB200-11H is only £2 cheaper than the models with the wireless standard. The six-cell black model - the NB200-11L - comes in at £332, and that would be the version we'd choose.
...but the ugly brown one has a better spec
Toshiba's second attempt at a netbook is a stunning success... almost. The design's superb, the build quality good and the specs decent too. Only the above-par pricing - though you do get a better-than-average software bundle - and the awful colour schemes applied to the higher-end models let the side down. Toshiba: ditch the silver and chrome and you'll have a real winner on your hands. ®
More Netbook Reviews...
Dell Inspiron Mini 10v
Acer Aspire One D250
Asus Eee PC 1008HA Seashell