Netbook Review: Toshiba Mini NB305

You’ve heard the gossip: Apple’s iPad tablet is selling like wildfire, and netbooks are suddenly an endangered species. Judging from Toshiba‘s state-of-the-art sample, the truth is a little more complicated. Netbooks still have plenty of productivity and convenience to offer … but they’d better stop handicapping themselves.

The Toshiba Mini NB305-N440BL ($380) re-raises the question implicit since the category’s inception: What’s good enough when optimizing for weight, size and price, trading off for performance?

At 8 inches by 10 inches by 1 inch, the NB305 isn’t quite the smallest netbook I’ve tried lately — the HP Mini 5102 is slightly closer to 7 inches deep — but its long battery life and compact AC adapter make the 2.6-pound Toshiba an easy carry.

Unfortunately, like several other netbooks I’ve tried over the past year, the NB305 came handicapped — or, to be blunt, crippled unnecessarily — by having only one gigabyte of RAM. If there’s one low-cost way to pep up PCs, RAM is it, but under-$400 netbooks seem stuck at the same 1GB they had two years ago. (An “accessories” page on Toshiba’s Web site lists a 2GB Kingston DDR3 module for $52.) To add insult to injury, its operating system is the “Starter” edition of 32-bit Windows 7.

Given these constraints, performance was surprisingly adequate most of the time. But it would have been nice to see what the Mini could do without being gratuitously hobbled.

No Hardware Surprises

This Toshiba netbook has an Intel Atom N455 1.66GHz processor and Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 3150 integrated graphics. The hard drive is a 250GB, 5,400-rpm unit.

The display is a 10.1-inch TruBright LED-backlit widescreen with 1,024 by 600 resolution, and audio consists of the usual stereo speakers, mono microphone jack, and stereo headphone jack. The display only opens about 135 degrees, nowhere near enough to lie flat. (And it’s not the fault of the battery being in the way, unlike some smaller portables.)

The video quality, as tested with movie trailers and some YouTube and Hulu, is good, even surprisingly good. The audio quality is OK — not great, and the volume doesn’t go that high. For close-up video watching or music to surf by, it’s good enough, though. I did a quick video call with Skype; the video quality in the roughly 2-inch display window was fair, but the sound quality and volume were disappointing.

The battery is a 48Wh six-cell lithium-ion pack. Toshiba claims battery life up to eight and three-quarters hours, presumably with settings tweaked to optimize runtime. I consistently got six hours or more, doing word processing and Web browsing, including letting Pandora provide background music. On the other hand, the default settings aren’t good about shifting from sleep to hibernate — when I closed the machine while on and left it alone for a few days, the battery was nearly drained when I reopened it.

The keyboard is small enough that Home, End, Insert, and Delete keys have been put in the top row, right — if you’re used to other, larger keyboards, your fingers will probably hunt in the wrong place. The keys are flat, not beveled, and are — for me — a little small. They’re not quite the dread “chiclet” size, but slightly larger keys with less empty space in between might make them more usable.

Other hardware features include a webcam and mic built into the LCD bezel and 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi. Ports ‘n’ slots include one USB 2.0 with “sleep and charge” (meaning it can power devices while the system is in sleep/standby mode) and two regular USB 2.0 ports, plus Ethernet and VGA ports and an SD card slot.

The chassis is solid metal, helping the unit feel solid indeed. The top has a nice textured finish that doesn’t show fingerprints.

The NB305 also includes a “hard drive impact sensor.” I’ve seen other machines that have motion and shock sensing for disk-damage prevention, but this is the first one I’ve run into that pops up on-screen alerts regarding disk vibration, putting the hard drive into park mode. In some apps, I was able to keep typing for a bit, but other programs appeared to stop working momentarily. What the pop-up doesn’t indicate is when the drive is unparked again. I can’t tell if this feature is doing a good job of protecting the machine or being an unnecessary nuisance; it does help make the case that portable computers should have SSDs instead of hard drives.

On the software side, the Toshiba comes with Windows 7 Starter Edition, which lacks a number of “real” Win 7’s useful tools such as Snipping Tool (great for quick screen grabs) or Sticky Notes. Searches from the Start Menu often seemed very slow. The NB305’s software bundle includes a slew of Toshiba utilities, trials of Microsoft Office 2007 and Norton Internet Security 2010, Windows Live Essentials and the WildTangent game console.

Alas, Poky Performance

Individual applications ran well enough on the NB305 — Internet Explorer often took remarkably long to retrieve and render a URL, but since Google Chrome didn’t have the same problem, I’ll blame that on Microsoft. But multitasking was sluggish, and app-switching often took too long.

Win 7’s CPU- and memory-use-gauge gadget tells the story. Even with no apps running except Windows Task Manager, memory usage doesn’t fall below 55 percent — a bad place to start. With IE (including a Pandora radio session), Word, and one other small app running, RAM usage runs between 75 and 85 percent, with CPU in the 40-to-60 range. Add some download/install activity, such as TweetDeck, and both CPU and RAM run up into the low 90s.

Like many notebooks, this isn’t a machine for the impulse-impatient. If I shut the top and then quickly reopen it, the machine thinks I’ve still told it to go to sleep, and spends nearly a minute doing so. When I reopen the top and push the power button, Windows takes 10 to 20 seconds to wake up and resume where it was.

I wouldn’t buy this machine for myself; if nothing else, the keys are a little too small and have the wrong feel for the amount of typing I do. And the performance is too sluggish — I can’t help feeling that the 1GB of RAM that was sufficient when netbooks came with Windows XP is inadequate with Windows 7, Starter version or no. Good video playback and battery life are the strongest positives I have to report.

There’s plenty of competition for potential netbook buyers’ bucks nowadays — everything from smartphones to tablets to more full-powered (and admittedly more expensive) ultraportable notebooks. With 2GB of memory, the NB305 might deliver a significantly better experience.

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