When Toshiba announced its first netbooks last month, it said that it had waited to start selling inexpensive little notebooks in the U.S. until it felt like it could do them justice. I’ve just spent time using the Mini NB205–which Toshiba likes to call a mini-notebook rather than a netbook–and found that it’s indeed one of the most highly-evolved netbooks to appear to date. There’s nothing spectacularly new or different about its design or specs, but it’s a pleasing machine that doesn’t feel compromised 0r chintzy, and there are multiple areas in which Toshiba erred on the side of doing things right rather than doing them cheap.
The Mini NB205-N312BL I reviewed lists for $399.99 and sports the components and features you’d expect to find in a current $400 netbook: a 10.1-inch screen with 1024-by-600 resolution and LED backlighting, a 166-MHz Intel Atom N280 CPU, 1GB of RAM, a 5400rpm 160GB hard drive, 802.11G Wi-Fi, Ethernet, Bluetooth, three USB ports, an SD slot, VGA output, a Webcam, and a six-cell battery. And oh yeah, it runs Windows XP Home SP3.
The $399.99 version of the Mini is available in blue, brown, pink and white; all versions have two-tone cases and a bit of texture to the plastic on the lid. They’re among the slickest-looking netbooks at their price point. (There’s also a $349.99 version with a black case, a more basic keyboard, and no Bluetooth; I’d spring for the extra $50 for the top-of-the-line version.)
Here’s what the blue Mini I tested looked like:
The Mini weighs 2.93 pounds and is a reasonably trim 1″ thick, but -the six-cell battery extends from the back of the case and adds a bit of bulk, as seen in the second photo above. It’s not the world’s most aesthetically-pleasing design (and Toshiba doesn’t even sell a version of the Mini in the U.S. with a smaller three-cell battery), but it’s a common one, and it does provide the netbook with a sort of a handle to grab onto as you tote it around.
The single best thing about the Mini is its keyboard, the most impressive netbook one I’ve used to date. (Other netbooks with outstanding keyboards include Samsung models such as the N110 and Asus’s EeePC 1000HE.) Toshiba’s keyboard comes as close to full size as you can cram into a 10.1″ netbook, it’s got the comfy, MacBook-like “Chiclet” design, and there’s no ridge around the edge of the case to interfere with your hands as you type. The touchpad is nice and large too, with buttons right where they should be below the pad, rather than to the left and right. I did miss the MacBook-style two-finger scrolling offered by the EeePC 1000HE, though.
Toshiba didn’t resort to any of the minor but annoying cost-cutting measures that are common with netbooks: The caps-lock key has a light to indicate when it’s on, and there are a full complement of status lights on the front side of the case for features such as the Wi-Fi. The hard drive has a sensor to prevent damage from drops, and the USB ports offer Sleep-and-Charge, which lets you charge up your phone and other devices even if the computer’s turned off. In other words, it feels like a Toshiba notebook that happens to be small, lightweight, and inexpensive. Along with some of HP’s Mini models, it’s also one of the few netbooks to receive the Epeat Gold rating for its environmental qualities.
When you write about netbooks you’re supposed to wring your hands about their less-than-supercharged performance and point out all the things you’re not going to want to do on them, such as play 3D games and watch DVD movies. As usual, I think that netbooks can perform perfectly acceptably, as long as you use ’em for the the tasks that they’re designed to handle–which include a high percentage of the things that most people want to do with a computer. I didn’t perform formal benchmarking on the Mini, but I ran applications such as Office 2010, Paint.net, and Google Chrome and never felt that it was unacceptably slow, and YouTube videos played just fine. (Laptop Magazine’s extensive speed benchmarks for the NB205 show it performing respectably in most respects compared to other netbooks, although its bootup time of 85 seconds is slow.) If you buy the Mini, I’d recommend upgrading the RAM to 2GB so you can run more applications at one time without getting bogged down; upgrading is easy, since you can get at the system’s memory slot by removing one screw on the case’s underside.
Toshiba quotes a battery life for the Mini of “up to 9.08 hours.” When I used it to do real work, staying online more or less continuously via Wi-Fi or Verizon EvDO, I got 5.5 to 6.5 hours on a charge–about what I’d expect given Toshiba’s figure, the six-cell capacity, and the fact that the way I use notebooks never gets me battery life anywhere near vendor estimates. Laptop Magazine ran its battery benchmark on the NB205 and got nine hours and 24 minutes of life–even better than Toshiba’s estimate, and pretty spectacular for a laptop of any type.
I’d love to see Toshiba release a competitor to HP’s seriously upscale Mini 5101, a business-class netbook with a higher-resolution screen, an aluminum case, and options like sold-state storage. But the NB205 I reviewed is an impressive netbook debut for Toshiba–one that looks good in every important respect compared to the competitive set priced around $400. Right now, it’s among the models which I’ll mention first when people ask me, as they often do these days, “Which netbook should I buy?”