It’s been about three years now since the first netbook appeared. In the early days of these mini laptops’ popularity, we saw some interesting developments around the idea of a fast booting, small screen laptop, available to buy for just a couple of hundred pounds.
But after the first Asus EeePC netbook, the category quickly stagnated. Rather than build these baby notebooks with a little shockproof flash storage and a fast operating system, manufacturers from Dell, MSI, Samsung to Toshiba were lured into building them the way that Microsoft and Intel told them to make them: using Intel’s then-new low-power Atom processor, Windows XP Home, a 10in screen and paltry 1GB of RAM.
Looking back at the models we’ve tested since 2008, there has been effectively no innovation in the category. The only glimmer of a new consumer-focused improvement came with the union of underpowered Atom with a good graphics processor from nVidia, to make the Ion platform.
An example of the marriage was the short-lived Samsung N510 11in netbook. It disappeared when Intel updated its Atom chips to lock out nVidia from the netbook party.
Now it’s AMD that’s finally stepped up to the mark with a chipset that’s been designed for netbook-class laptops.
Like Intel’s recent Core-series processors, AMD’s solution is to combine the central-processing unit (CPU) and graphics-processing unit (GPU) into a single-chip solution that it’s calling an APU - an accelerated processing unit. This should bring some much-needed lift in system performance, along with more usable battery life from the single-chip solution processor.
NB550D the netbook
On the first circuit around the Toshiba NB550D-10G, there’s little to differentiate it from the usual Wintel netbook. Which is a shame, as this blueprint design means it still suffers from a low-resolution 1024 x 600 screen and a piddling 1GB of memory. It also comes with the cheapskate edition of Windows 7 Starter, which has been hobbled in various ways by Microsoft, presumably in order to encourage users to trade up to less restricted editions such as Home Premium.
(Missing features in Windows 7 Starter include the removal of all Microsoft games such as Minesweeper and Solitaire; useful apps like Snipping Tool; and a perverse restriction to use only Microsoft’s default wallpaper.)
Ports and sockets on the Toshiba NB550D-10G are near-standard netbook fare. On the left is DC power in, ethernet, an airvent, HDMI, USB 2.0, and mic in and headphone jacks. The digital video port here is the standout item.
To the right are two more USB 2.0 ports, while centre-front is an SD card slot. As you’d expect of a 10in-screen mini, there’s no built-in optical drive.
Corners have been cut on networking too, with the ethernet limited to old 100Mbps speeds, and the Wi-Fi card actually a ‘half-n’ adaptor rather than the full-speed 802.11n version.
The keyboard feels quite cheap and plasticky but is comfortable enough to type on – or at least, it is when you get used to the microscopic Tab key and shrunken Space bar, fighting for room with an odd-looking key for left-quote/pipe/tilde, and the near-useless AltGr key.
A glossy black bezel frames the even glarier shiny screen. We liked the dimple-textured wrist-rest area, even if it was sporting a pair of little speakers befitting the parcel shelf of a boyracer car.
Get past the strange look of these Harman Kardon speakers, though, and you’ll find about the best sound from any netbook on the market – a punch, dymanic sound that’s better than that heard from many full-size laptops.
Testing the Toshiba NB550D-10G wasn’t without its problems. As per our lab procedure, we installed a clean copy of Windows Vista 6.1, then tried to gauge battery life with BapCo MobileMark 2007 Productivity.
MobileMark is a twitchy suite of Windows programs that tends to fail at the slightest provocation, although in this case we managed to get the benchmark to run just a single time; for battery conditioning and consistency checking, we always run at least twice.
Nevertheless, in its single run, the Toshiba NB550D-10G lasted 493 mins – that’s around eight and a quarter hours. Now with its generous 61Wh battery, a decent runtime should not be so surprising for any netbook. But practically every netbook ever made uses an Intel Atom, a processor tuned for fuel economy, not for the kind of performance that turns common tasks into treacle.
Regrettably, the testbench gremlins bit into our real-world performance tests too. WorldBench 6 stopwatches scripted actions for ten different Windows programs, but on this Toshiba NB550D-10G we couldn’t get it to run more than seven of them, which meant its final score unavoidably plummeted, to an Atom-like 31 points. We ran out of time to establish the cause of these glitches.
The other half of the APU story is the graphics potential. With its 276MHz GPU clock and 80 Radeon cores, the AMC C50 dual-core processor proved quite capable of some light Windows games, and high-resolution video playback.
We couldn’t test the DirectX 11 potential with our usual Stalker: Call of Pripyat benchmark, as the game refused to load. But rendering with Microsoft’s DirectX 9 in the FEAR game, the Toshiba NB550D-10G could play at 20fps at Maximum detail settings, rising to 33fps at High and 39fps at Medium.
Video worked well on the Toshiba NB550D-10G, with smooth HD playback; and the overall feel of the netbook was snappier than a typical netbook. That counts for a lot in day-to-day usage of any PC.