Toshiba NB520 review
PREVIEW: Toshiba calls its upcoming NB520 "a netbook for music lovers", and it boasts some neat tricks to back that up. The speaker grilles either side of the touchpad lay its media credentials bare for all to see: they show off their Harman/Kardon branding, and support Dolby Advanced Audio technology to theoretically boost the usual tinny netbook sound quality.
Usually at this point we'd say, "don't expect miracles", but with 2W from each channel we're actually very impressed with their capabilities. They have a fair amount of bass, only distorting slightly at high volumes, and sound quality far beyond anything we've heard from a netbook - think more along the lines of a pair of built-in monitor speakers and you'll have an idea of how loud and full they are.
And they're not just for playing audio from the netbook itself. The NB520 offers Toshiba's Sleep and Music - enable it in the dedicated utility, plug an MP3 player into the 3.5mm line-in port and you can output music via the speakers, even when the netbook itself is switched off. With a powered USB port for topping up your gadgets directly from the battery too, the NB520 is quite a flexible companion for your travels.
Netbooks are ideal for travelling, but some are better than others. The NB520 weighs a reasonable 1.26kg, but the real headline figure is the battery life: with a six-cell battery underneath, the NB520 eased to a very impressive 10hrs 6mins in our light-use test. That's with an idle desktop and Wi-Fi disabled; in general use - particularly with those speakers blaring out - you can expect less, but certainly a full working day.
The keyboard stretches the full width of the base, but has a few shrunken keys, with the cursor keys and PgUp and PgDn impeding Enter and right-Shift slightly. Still, key travel is just right, and the 39mm thickness at the rear puts the whole thing on an incline that's just right for comfort. The touchpad is perfectly usable, while the mouse buttons are thankfully separate and click nicely.
Performance is largely as expected. It packs Intel's dual-core 1.5GHz Atom N550 and 1GB of DDR3, which pushed the Toshiba to a lightweight 0.36 in our application benchmarks. There's no doubt the second core makes a noticeable difference to general responsiveness, but adding an extra gigabyte of memory should always be considered a priority with netbooks. The NB520 comes with Windows 7 Starter, which we've found to be well suited to the power of the Atom.
All hits so far, but the Toshiba NB520 does have a few misses. We're not totally convinced by the design. Whether you choose our brown finish, or opt for green, blue or black, it has a bit of a dull look to it - functional rather than fun. The power button sits inexplicably beneath the screen in the centre of the hinge, and it's thin and fiddly to push. And the dimpled finish of the wrist rest spreads to the touchpad, which gives it quite a rough feel.
The bezel around the 10.1in screen is a good inch wide at the top, presumably due to the extra chassis space required by the speakers. With the usual 1,024 x 600 resolution, its colours are fine and the backlight is even, but the maximum brightness is disappointing and it's reflective. Vertical viewing angles aren't that wide, so we'd call it a usable rather than high-quality display.
And then there's the question of price, on which Toshiba is remaining noncommittal right now. Given the Harman/Kardon involvement and the effort put into giving it a unique look, we're not expecting the NB520 to be among the bargains of the netbook world - if it comes in much higher than £300 it's hard to see it flying off the shelves. If Toshiba prices it sensibly, however, this little audio-focused netbook could carve out a niche in a very crowded market.