In all the fuss over Ultrabooks and increasingly cheap tablets, it’s easy to forget that netbooks were once the flavour of the month. In fact, it almost feels like they have dropped so far off the radar that nobody is making them anymore. But netbooks continue to develop, and there remain plenty of reasons why you might want one. They still offer cheap portable Windows (or Linux) computing, and one of the companies still taking the format seriously is Toshiba. The NB510 we have here shows some of the reasons why netbooks make sense for certain types of user.
As with previous Toshiba netbooks, the NB510 comes in a variety of configurations and colours. The chassis can be specified in black, blue or red, although the entry-level model is only available in black. Prices range from £229 to £306, with the cheapest model incorporating a smaller four-hour battery whilst the others have more than twice the endurance, being rated at nine hours. We had the middle NB510-10D model, which comes in red and costs £249.
You don’t buy a netbook for its performance, although this area has improved since the format’s inception. The NB510 comes with the 1.6GHz Intel Atom N2600. This is the most recent Cedarview generation, which is a dual-core model with Intel Hyper-Threading, so each physical core presents itself as two virtual ones for improved multi-threaded performance. But there’s no Turbo Boost available to give individual cores extra clock cycles when required.
The Atom architecture is also much less sophisticated than the Intel Core i-series, with far less performance at the same clock speed. On the other hand, where an ultra-low voltage Core i-series draws 17W, the N2600 requires just 3.5W, for dramatically improved battery life.
The Intel Atom N2600 also supplies the graphics, in the shape of an Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 3600 integrated GPU. This is a different design to the HD 3000 and 4000 graphics in the Core i-series processors, being based on the PowerVR line, and isn’t anywhere near as powerful. It does support DirectX 10.1 and OpenGL 3, so can provide very modest 3D acceleration when required. However, it uses system memory, and as the NB510 only offers 1GB as standard the graphics can only provide 250MB. However, the NB510 can be upgraded to 2GB, which gives the graphics a much more healthy 762MB. We’re surprised netbooks haven’t moved to 2GB as standard, now that other notebooks are generally supplied with 4GB or more.
Storage is a little more generous, however. A solid state disk would be slightly out of keeping for the low cost nature of a netbook, but the 320GB Hitachi Travelstar Z5K320 hard disk is decently sized, and likely to be more than enough for a netbook’s duties. There’s an SDXC-compatible memory card slot on the front of the machine, but of course no optical drive, which is universally absent from netbooks.
One area where the best netbooks do punch above their weight is general usability, and Toshiba’s NB510 is top of the heap in this respect. The keyboard is well proportioned, with a clearly defined action. It’s not significantly smaller than the keyboard on a regular notebook, and extremely comfortable for extended periods of typing. The touchpad is a little small, as usual for most netbooks, but it’s responsive enough, with decently sized buttons that overlap the front edge of the notebook.
However, the screen hits the usual problem with the netbook format, namely lack of vertical resolution. The 10.1in TruBrite display only offers 1,024 x 600 pixels, which can cause problems with some software dialogs and web pages that are designed for a minimum of 800 pixels vertically. It’s also a little shiny, although not as reflective as some. The brightness and decent contrast mean viewing angles are still reasonable. There’s a webcam at the top for videoconferencing, but it only offers VGA resolution.
The NB510 is pretty well endowed for ports, though. The USB ports are 2.0 standard only, rather than the faster 3.0 variety, but there are three of them, one on the left and two on the right. The right-hand side is also home to a full-sized HDMI port and VGA, plus a LAN port, although this is only Fast Ethernet, not Gigabit. There’s also a combo headphone and microphone jack on this side.
Not surprisingly, the Intel Atom N2600 doesn’t offer a lot of grunt. The score of 0.41 in the rendering portion of Maxon Cinebench is way behind even the ultra-low voltage Intel Core i-series processors. But it’s adequate for everyday office and web activities. The NB510 also had no problems playing high-definition video files in our testing. As we predicted from the graphics chipset specification, though, 3D performance is very mediocre. The score of 415 in 3DMark06 is way behind even Ultrabooks sporting Intel HD 3000 graphics, implying that you won’t want to consider much more than Freecell on the NB510, although this is par for the course with netbooks. Also par for the course is good battery life, but here Toshiba has been particularly generous. The NB510 managed a whopping 291 minutes in our gruelling battery test, which stresses the processor at 100 per cent for a worst-case scenario. This gives it a good chance of living up to Toshiba’s claims of nine hours of less intensive usage. The 48Wh battery is removable, too, so you could bring a second for even greater time away from the power socket.
The netbook may have lost its lustre, but if your computing needs do match the limitations of the genre, it’s still a valid choice. Toshiba’s NB510 showcases close to the best that the format has to offer, particularly in the mid-range 10D version we were testing here. At under £250, this is cheap computing in a mobile form, with battery life that will last you a long working day or entire transatlantic flight, even one to the West Coast. So if you can live with the low screen resolution and lack of 3D graphics abilities, this is a great value netbook with an excellent keyboard. There are cheaper netbooks, but not with the quality the NB510 has to offer.
Manufacturer and Product
1.6GHz Intel Atom N2600
1GB DDR3 SDRAM
Intel GMA 3600
320GB Hitachi Travelstar Z5K320
10.1in TFT with 1,024 x 600 pixels
802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 3.0, LAN
HDMI, VGA, 3 x USB 2.0, SD card reader, headphone / microphone combo
Width x Depth x Height
261.6 x 187 x 34.7mm
1 year collect and return