There’s a certain irony about "netbooks". The computer industry has invented a new classification to finally give most of its customers what they had always wanted from mobile computers - an acceptable balance between weight, usefulness and price.
As Toshiba picks up plaudits for its new NB200 netbooks, with battery life of up to nine hours (review below), it’s worth asking whether it’s reasonable to expect anyone to carry anything much bigger or heavier for their learning or their work - because learners and teachers are now at the head of the queues for this technology.
New benchmarks for mobility are being set by the influx of netbooks that followed the launch of the groundbreaking first Asus Eee PC two years ago (schools ICT supplier RM promptly sold 60,000 of them). The Asus has been followed by other impressive netbooks from suppliers like Samsung, Acer, MSI and Lenovo (supplier to a massive schools project in Australia). And Toshiba appears to have finally produced appealing machines with enough battery life to last a full working day, an extremely important feature for schools.
Housed in a casing reminiscent of a former classic of mobile ICT that cost roughly five times the NB200’s price tag, the Fujitsu-Siemens LifeBook (pictured right together), Toshiba has managed to provide three of the essential requirements: a decent screen (10.1-inch, a glossy wide-screen); a near full-size keyboard with ‘lozenge’-type, short-press keys; long battery life (four hours for basic model and up to nine for the others).
The range is pretty straightforward. There are two types of housings - plain, tough plastic, or a more professional looking case with slightly corrugated finish on the lid, and a metallic keyboard. Key aspects are common to all models: for example screen, memory (1Gb, expandable to 2Gb) and hard disc (160Gb). The significant differences are faster processor speed and Bluetooth and 3G wireless (now attracting considerable interest for school/home use) at the upper end of the range. Prices go from £260 to £349 ex VAT (full specifications and prices here)
All the models have the professional build and finish that you expect from a brand like Toshiba. And apart from 'power users' - eg those who need extra processing for graphics, multimedia etc - most people will use them just like any other PC laptop. Except with this in your bag you will be much more relaxed and mobile than if you were carrying a fully featured laptop. People who also need to carry other technology, like cameras and digital recording devices, will feel somewhat liberated.
The models used for this review over a month were the "snow white" NB200-110 (£303.48) and a brown NB200-11L. The only significant difference between them was the Bluetooth capability on the former. For writing, communicating and web work (including handling and sizing photos) it punched well above its price. There simply were no problems - and it ran for a full eight hours with a wireless internet connection which means that it is capable of a full day's work without power, a first for this journalist.
Toshiba has also added some nice touches of its own, like technology to lock down the hard drive in the event of sudden movement. The way the USB is set up means that you can use the NB200 to recharge a device (MP3 player for example) while the computer is asleep. A range of utilities and other software comes with the machine, including Google's Picasa, Microsoft Works and a trial set-up of Office.
Any downsides? Not with the NB200 itself, although the trackpad could be a little smoother and sound reproduction beefier (headphone output fine though). The only irritations came from things beyond Toshiba's control - the software. Windows XP may not be as interruptive and demanding as Vista but it is a little jaded, although first impressions of Windows 7 indicate that this will provide a happy solution. And the marketing people at McAfee need to impress on their programmers the meaning of "intrusive" and "off-putting" - their anti-virus software could drive you mad.
But if you want a change from the Windows status quo there's always open source or the Mac OSX operating system. The latter option may challenge licensing arrangements but it's gaining in popularity as Apple sticks to its "we don't do low-cost" position. Mac OSX seems to work well on the 'Hacintosh' netbooks I've seen - but it's still too much like hard work for the technically challenged.
Open source, however, is becoming a much more attractive option. Ubuntu installed easily on the NB200, offering a choice of OS at start-up. It's quick, robust, secure, free of viruses and it's free. For an average user there doesn't seem to be anything you couldn't do with Ubuntu that you could on other platforms - even my G3 wireless dongle connected without complications.
Toshiba has come up with a compelling range with its NB200s in a very competitive marketplace and there wil be a lot of interest at its stand at the forthcoming BETT 2010 educational technology show in London's Olympia in January 2010. And you can only expect to see the range improve - maybe with slightly larger screens, jus as rivals are already producing - as manufacturers finally grasp, with encouragement from sales, that there is a big difference between portable and luggable.
Netbook computer Intel Atom Processor (1.66GHz), 1GB memory, 160Gb hard drive, 10.1-inch screen, wifi (802.11) b/g Mouse: Microsoft Windows XP Home Edition with Microsoft Works 8.5 and Office trial student edition, 0.3 megapixel webcam with external microphone and built-in speaker for video-conferencing, 3 USB ports(one of them "sleep & charge") 1 x external microphone,, video/projector output, SD card slot, sound in and out, Ethernet port, 1 year warranty, nine-hour battery life, weighs 1.3Kg (Bluetooth and 3G card capability available on higher-end models). List prices start at £260 plus VAT but shop around for internet deals.
Ratings (out of 5)
Fitness for purpose 4.5
Ease of use 4
Value for money 5
BETT 2010 - Toshiba stand number L30
Mike Herrity on buying netbooks for school or work
Coming: watch this space for Mike Herrity's forthcoming feature for BETT 2010 visitors on how to select a suitable netbook for school and work use. It will be based on Mike Herrity's experiences from the netbook procurement at his own school, Twynham School, in Dorset. Mike also manages a blog on his school's experiences in using Sharepoint as a learning platform and for parental reporting. The work is being supported in other schools too.