Toshiba NB100: say no to this netbook


Toshiba is often considered the Totoya of the laptop world churning out millions of models ranging from affordable to super-affluent with a largely consistent sense of quality and innovation. Alas the NB100 strikes us more as an East German Trabbi as if the Toyota boffins decided to create a third-rate car specifically for Jeremy Clarkson to mercilessly tear apart on Top Gear. That might be a great lark but if you buy an NB100 the joke’s on you.

Why are we so down on the NB100? What did it ever do to us to earn such ire? The short of it is that this could have been a brilliant netbook if only Toshiba had put some more effort into it. A lot more effort truth to tell.

The NB100 is perhaps the most pedestrian of all the netbooks we’ve seen to date

The blueprint is bog standard ‘netbook 101’: an Atom N270 processor 1GB of RAM a 120GB hard drive (one of Toshiba’s own mid-range 2.5 inch 5400rpm models) loaded with Windows XP Home. Three USB ports 802.11g Wi-Fi Bluetooth webcam memory card reader yadda yadda yadda.

This should make it easier to craft an outstanding netbook because the common floorplan lets you focus on bringing your own strengths to the package and nail those aspects your competitors miss. This should have made Toshiba work harder to differentiate their very first netbook from the rest.

So you can understand our frustration when the NB100 comes off looking like a disappointingly cheap and hurried ‘me too’ exercise.

Design and usability

The design is worse than just starkly utilitarian – it’s old fashioned like something found in a time capsule buried beneath Toshiba HQ. With its chunky chassis black plastic panelling and silver plastic trim around the edges the NB100 is an unwelcome blast from the past which shrieks “Hello 1980s!” and takes us back to the era when laptops could never be more than boring business tools.


The squared-off angles black-and-chrome plastic panelwork and even the shape of the keys makes the NB100 seem like something found in a Toshiba time capsule rather than a netbook circa 2008

That’s a huge disappointment compared to the stylish Toshiba notebooks we’re seeing of late. The NB100’s only concession to this is the glossy lid coated in shiny black and generously flecked with sapphire blue. However we’re worried this would scratch very easily especially since Toshiba doesn’t even include a slip case or sleeve to protect the netbook between sessions.

Things get no better when you lift that lid. The keyboard is the worst of any netbook in this 8.9 inch form factor mainly because the keys themselves are so small that you’d swear they belong to a 7 inch netbook. In fact their shape reminds us once again of how laptops used to be a long time back: each key stands quite tall and is then cambered at the top so that the actual surface area or ‘strike area’ of the key is much smaller than it need be. This is not a patch on the superior keyboards of Dell’s Inspiron Mini series or HP’s 2133 or Mini 1000 which have flatter and broader keys with a larger strike area.


The too-small keys and trackpad plus the long trackpad buttons all conspire against the NB100 in the usability stakes

The keys also have a very sharp but oddly shallow action. The layout’s not all bad but while you may appreciate the amply-sized arrow keys and full row of function keys the small Enter and Right Shift keys may drive you barmy. We found the keypad was most usable when we struck the keys from almost directly above rather than the usual angle and even then it demanded a cautiously deliberate and precise action.

We also felt the trackpad to be undersized. And while the length of the buttons is smart with the left or primary button being longer than the less-used right button they’re both too slim and too close to the front of the chassis. You almost need to press them with your fingernail.


One aspect of the design which we can saulte is the positionining of the status lights beneath the trackpad where they remain always visible

A small strip of status indicator LEDs sits just beneath the trackpad and thus in plain sight making it easy to know what the NB100 is up to while the front-facing speaker and mic ports also make sense.

The 1024 x 600 screen uses one of Toshiba’s ‘TruBrite’ panels with a glossy high-contrast finish. This makes for crisp and vibrant images when there’s not too much light around but is otherwise prone to excessive glare.

Battery life

Battery life is sub-par considering that Toshiba has opted for a four-cell battery (rated at 29Whr) rather than the almost mandatory three-cell battery.

With 11g WiFi running the screen brightness at 66% and the volume wound all the way up the NB100 managed only 148 minutes – just shy of 2.5 hours – playing a handful of DiVX videos. Two and half hours is closer to what you’d expect from a three-cell battery – by way of comparison Dell’s Inspiron Mini 9 (which is also fitted with a four-cell 32Whr battery) managed just over three hours under the exact same test.

Based on our tests we can’t see any way for the NB100 to get within cooee of Toshiba’s claim of four hours between refills unless you ran without wireless at zero screen brightness and rarely touched the keyboard. We’d suggest a bit over three hours but certainly less than 3.5 would be feasible under more conventional and less disk-intensive usage and with shorter bursts of wireless activity. At least the underside of the notebook remained only lukewarm during our run-down tests.

A mixed bag

All up we found only a few truly noteworthy features on the NB100. Toshiba deserves a tip of the hat for sensibly locating some ports on the rear of the NB100 rather than the sides. The VGA port sits at the far right to one side of the extended battery booty allowing plenty of room for the VGA connector and shroud. Ethernet and AC sockets which you could imagine often being used at the same time are grouped together on the left.

The VGA Ethernet and AC ports are all thoughtfully located at the rear of the NB100 either side of the netbook’s four-cell battery booty

It’s also nice to see an easy access panel for those who want to upgrade the NB100’s factory-fitted 1GB of RAM to the maximum 2GB which the Atom chipset can support.

The memory hatch on the NB100’s underside is a win for the screwdriver set

Yet while Toshiba’s specs promised the USB 2.0 ports could charge connected devices even while the netbook is turned off (as long as it remains connected to AC of course) this failed to charge an iPod.

We were also mystifed by the selection of third-party software loaded onto the NB100. We understand why like many mainstream vendors Toshiba offers trial security software (a 90 day subscription to Norton Internet Security 2008) along with its own Wi-Fi and Bluetooth utilities.

Yet why does a netbook without an optical drive come with Toshiba’s DVD player software or its assortments of CD and DVD authoring software? And do we really need a 30-day trial version of Office 2007?

We can’t escape the feeling that Toshiba simply took its standard Windows XP image for consumer notebooks and chucked in the NB100’s hardware drivers – perhaps another sign of Toshiba’s rush to get a netbook any netbook onto the market. And we remain totally baffled by the presence of Microsoft’s SQL Server 2005 console in amongst all this!

Summary

Even with Toshiba’s $100 rebate on the $699 sticker (a deal which runs out on November 21) we can’t recommend the NB100 to anyone. if you want an 8.9 inch netbook with a hard drive you’ll find Acer’s Aspire One or MSI’s Wind U90 to be better in most respects and cheaper if you shop round – dealers are heavily discounting the Aspire One’s $699 rrp (even after Acer’s $69 rebate) and you can easily land the U90 for $100-150 under its official $649 tag.

Considering Toshiba’s experience with notebooks especially with the original Libretto mini-notes the NB100 could have – should have – been much better. Indeed we can’t escape the feeling it was rushed out the door just to ensure Toshiba had a netbook in the line-up.

Maybe there’s something much better under development back at Toshiba HQ. We hope so because the NB100 is not a netbook deserving of the Toshiba badge.