I’m typing this review on a Toshiba NB300 Netbook, which sports an Intel Atom N280 (1.66Ghz) CPU, 10.1" 1024×600 screen, 250GB hard drive, and sells for around £290 in the UK. The NB305 is similar, slightly more expensive but available in different finishes such as brown and silver; my NB300 is all-black, with a smart but easily smeared polished top.
One of the main attractions of this machine is is long battery life. Up to 11 hours is claimed, though with typical use and wi-fi on 7 or 8 hours is more realistic. It’s still impressive, and ideal for things like long flights or note-taking at conferences where laptop power is often not available.
I am a fan of small, light machines, especially when the price is modest. Having said that, you may find you need to spend some money to get it configured as you want. It comes with 1GB of RAM and Windows 7 Starter Edition. Although Windows 7 will run OK in 1GB, you can bump it up to 2GB for £30 or so; unfortunately there is only one slot so you have to discard what is already installed.
I fitted the 2GB RAM, plugged in, switched on. The initial experience was fairly dismal, not because of the hardware, but thanks to an excessive amount of third-party software competing for attention. I’ve written this up in detail. Microsoft and its OEM partners will not come close to Apple’s usability until they crack this problem; and the signs are not good.
Software upgrade issues
The other big question is whether you can live with Windows 7 Starter Edition and without Microsoft Office. Feature-wise I am OK with the Starter Windows on a netbook, except for one thing: you cannot join a Windows domain. The solution is either to wipe and reinstall Windows, using the version you want, or to do what I did and use the built-in Anytime Upgrade with a key for Windows 7 Professional. You can also use Anytime Upgrade online, though as far as I can tell you then have to upgrade twice, once to Home Premium and then again to Professional.
Office is another problem. The netbook comes with trial versions of Office 2007 Home and Student, and separately PowerPoint 2007; I am not sure why PowerPoint is separate since it is also part of Home and Student, but I suppose you might want only PowerPoint. Home and Student is not licensed for business use.
All this is worth mentioning since if you need business editions of Windows and Office it could end up costing more than the Netbook itself, unless you have some sort of subscription or site license deal that covers it. That seems unreasonable – OpenOffice looks tempting.
Another option is Linux; I have not tried that yet but intend to.
Pros and cons
With that out of the way, how is the machine? There’s plenty to like, especially at this modest price. I’ve been used to a full-size laptop, and the light weight and long battery life of this one is a delight in comparison. It’s great to sit down at a conference and not worry about whether there is mains power nearby. The screen is bright and readable, especially on mains power, and very acceptable on battery. Performance in general is better than I had expected, despite a relatively weak score in the Windows Index:
The machine has been fine for email, internet and Office, which is the bulk of my usage. It would also be fine for presentations; there is a VGA port. Overall it feels like a small laptop, unlike the early Eee PC machines, for example, which were fun but underpowered. Three USB 2.0 ports is generous; and a smart feature called USB Sleep and Charge lets you charge devices even when the machine is turned off.
I did run into a few snags.
First, the 600-pixel screen height can be a problem. For example, the preferences dialog for Adobe Reader, which is bundled, does not fit, so you cannot click the OK button. Fortunately pressing Enter saves the preferences, but it might not have done.
Second, there is no Bluetooth on my NB300, though maybe some models have it. I did not realise this, partly because the specifications state that the Toshiba Bluetooth stack is included. Maybe it is; but without the hardware it is no use.
Third, the webcam is poor quality. No big deal; but personally I’d have given up the webcam in favour of Bluetooth. That said, even a fuzzy image might make a big difference to a video call using Skype or Live Messenger, so I understand why it is there.
Fourth, the sound is weak, despite the presence of two separate speakers. These are located underneath the netbook, which may be part of the problem. It matters little to me; you can plug in an external speaker or headphones if you want. There is also a microphone input.
Fifth, I’ve had a few niggles with the software. The number of Toshiba utilities is excessive, and they don’t always work properly. For example, pressing Fn is meant to activate a utility called Flash Cards that lets you perform actions such as turning off the wireless for flight mode. It works some of the time, but after a while pressing Fn does nothing. I’ve also had a Windows blue screen crash shortly after resuming from sleep. That is the only crash I have experienced so far.
Sixth, the machine gets fairly hot on the underside after extended use, even on battery, but especially on mains power.
My view in general is that smaller is better, and I would rather take this little netbook out and about than a full-sized laptop. It is very capable, seems well made, and the battery life is excellent. If you can live with the limitations mentioned above, I recommend it.