I finally made the plunge and bought a netbook, a Toshiba NB205. I had been wanting one since the Asus Eee PC 2G Surf was announced. I kept waiting for better battery life, better keyboard, better screens, and finally decided I’d buy either the Asus Eee PC 1005HA or the Toshiba NB205 because of reviews in Laptop Magazine.
The extensive review in Laptop Magazine practically gushed about the Toshiba, giving the Toshiba 4.5 stars, .5 more than any review that I had seen for a netbook, but the magazine was also was quite fond of the 1005HA, which it gave 4 stars, a rating many netbooks had achieved there. And the Asus 1005HA had some features I really wanted more, like wireless-N, a better webcam, slightly better battery life, and not having a weird battery butt hanging out. However, the Toshiba got rave comments from an Amazon customer reviewer who owned a Macbook Pro and claimed the Toshiba was the first netbook that had Apple-like build quality – that swayed me a good bit. Plus everyone said the touch typing on the Toshiba was fantastic, and I had always found typing on any the netbooks I had used so far as being yucky at best. Typing on the Toshiba is surprisingly great, at least for me.
I highly recommend using the netbook you are thinking about buying at a store before you purchase one. Don’t just order one from Amazon, sight unseen. Sales are staggering for netbooks, and I think a lot of people aren’t ready for this new computer size.
The whole concept of a netbook is a compromise. I paid $399 for my netbook. When people hear they can get a laptop for $399 they think its a bargain they can’t pass up. Buyer beware, netbooks use an Intel Atom processor that is far slower than your standard Centrino. They use smaller and cheaper components. 10” screens are tiny, and the keyboards are very different.
Too many people I’ve met wanted a netbook because they are cheaper than a laptop. Netbooks represent a functional design to meet specialized tasks. Don’t go by price. Buy one because you want to carry a computer to more places than you do now. Or because you want a small form factor for a specialized reason. I bought mine because I want to make it into a multimedia ebook to use in my La-Z-Boy. A guy on Amazon said he bought one because he was afraid to take his expensive MacBook Pro on trips, but wasn’t afraid to risk a $400 machine.
Think of a netbook as a device that fits between an iPhone and laptop in finding a purpose for existence. Smart phones allow users to take the Internet everywhere, but at a cost $70-$100 per month, and limiting their users to seeing the web on a 3.5” screen and typing with one finger. A netbook requires no monthly fee, but getting the Internet means mooching Wi-Fi connections or buying a broadband subscription, but you get to see the web through a 10” window and type with all your fingers. Netbooks originally came with 7” screens and tiny keyboards, but it was soon realized those dimensions were not practical unless you were a child with tiny fingers.
Unpacking and Setting Up
I bought my Toshiba at Office Depot, and they tried to pass off an opened machine as unopened, so I had to take it back and get an unopened box. That annoyed me, but the actual experience of opening a new NB205 was very nice. I was up and running very quickly. Boot-up was fast. There wasn’t much crapware on the machine, just a 30-day trial of Norton Internet Security 2009 and Microsoft Works with a bunch of custom Toshiba utilities for improving netbook living. There were a handful of promotional short cuts on the desktop that I immediately deleted.
Netbooks don’t have CD/DVD drives for installing software, so anything you want needs to come from USB or over the net. A very useful utility for owners of netbooks is a ISO image mounter, that allows you to treat an .iso image file like it was a CD/DVD drive. I got a free program called Virtual CloneDrive from Slysoft. This allowed me to install programs from work on my machine. I downloaded the .iso file, clicked on it, and I had a virtual H: drive to install the program. Very cool.
Like most computers I set up at work, wired connections are a snap, but wireless ones are annoying. The Toshiba comes with the wireless and Bluetooth turned off. I quickly spotted the FN + F8 key combination that would turn it on, but many people will miss that. The Toshiba comes with damn little documentation. Mostly a warranty and little pamphlet about Safety and Comfort. Plus the standard Quick Start Guide. It does not come with an install CD/DVD, but it does have a hidden partition to reinstall itself and provisions to make your own install DVD. But you’ll need a USB DVD burner.
On the Quick Start Guide they tell you to launch the User’s Guide on the computer. It’s an Acrobat file. Although the little NB205 screen is very nice and bright, I sent the User’s Guide to my desktop so I could read it on a 22” monitor. The manual is okay, but like most, they have to have all kinds of wordy warnings, and exceptions depending on which country you are living in. It’s hard to zero in on just the stuff you need to know immediately.
Computer makers should put out two manuals – one that their lawyers would approve, and a second, that readers will like. Better yet, put out a training video, or put a link to the web, and offer a better multimedia experience.
[Update: At work, on a .11b network I'm getting 4.85 Mbps downloads, so the problem discussed below is a conflict with my home wireless-N router. I'm leaving the original content below to be illustrative of the kinds of problems people face with new computers. I'll post further updates when I find the fix to my home network problem.]
[Update 2: I contacted Toshiba's 1-800 tech support, but got little help. The guy tried, but it's obvious that the Atheros wireless doesn't like my Linksys router and he had no previous problem reports to help him. The support guy was all to ready to get rid of me and showed no real interest in helping me solve my problem. Bad sign. I could take the Toshiba back, but I hate taking things back. I really like the keyboard on this dingus. My next step is to contact Linksys. I've already checked and there is no firmware upgrade to try. The wireless works well enough for web browsing, just not good enough for streaming videos. Since the Toshiba's wireless uploads plenty fast, I'm wonder if the problem is in the download encyrption routines. To test that would require taking all my other wireless devices off encyrption and that would be a pain. So for now I'm going to take my chances hoping an update will show up that fixes things. Like I said, the Toshiba works fine with other routers. Another wireless problem has shown up, though. Neither Moblin or Ubuntu Netbook Remix will recognize my wireless card. That's not uncommon for Linux distros, but it makes me wonder how common Atheros is used.]
I’ve been spending hours trying to find a way to make the wireless work correctly. This is a bad first experience bump in the road. I don’t know if it’s Toshiba’s fault, or something with my Linksys Router. But my other wireless devices work fine. I hope it’s just a miscommunication setting.
Laptop Magazine reported that the Toshiba NB205 got faster than average transfer speeds with the built-in wireless connection, getting 21.30 Mbps download speeds at 10 feet from the router. At ten feet from my router I’m getting .4 – .7 Mbps downloading speeds, which is significantly wrong. I average around 2.2 Mbps upload speeds, which is great, but bizarre since upload speed are usually a fraction of downloading speeds.
Like most laptops today, the Toshiba came with wireless software that tries to wrestle control from Windows to manage the wireless connection. The NB205 ships with Atheros, which does have a nice little utility to give back control to Windows. Under Windows my download speed sucks, under Atheros, I can’t even make a connection, even though both systems tell me I have an excellent wireless connection.
Using a wired connection I can go to http://www.speedtest.net and achieve 22 Mbps download speeds. Switching to wireless and I get .5 usually. Where’s the problem? So far I haven’t figured this out myself, and I may have to wait till after the holidays to contact Toshiba. Carrying around my netbook in the house I can use the net, but it’s very slow, and unsuitable for streaming video, a feature many netbook users like. I did check Hulu and YouTube under the wired connection, and the videos look great on the Toshiba’s little screen.
Laptop Magazine reported the NB205 got 8 hours and 33 minutes of battery life on their tests. I used my machine over over 4 hours today and had 55% left on the battery meter, so that seems to pan out. Not only that, the screen shows nice brightness with the power connector pulled. I hate laptops that go all dim just to save battery life.
The reason why I wanted either the 1005HA or NB205 is because they got between 8-9 hours of useful battery life. You can carry your machine around all day and not need to bring the power brick and cord.
LED LCD Screen
The LED backlit screen is lovely. Bright and sharp. I got TweakUI and removed the Recycle Bin from my desktop and set my taskbar to auto hide, so my desktop is completely clear of all icons and menus. I always install Webshots, a desktop photo gallery program. I want my desktop to be my art gallery, not an ugly collection of icons.
If you pay Webshots a $19.99 annual fee, you can download unlimited photos from their archives and get wide screen crops. I don’t know what Webshots does to the battery life, but I like seeing a slideshow of great nature photos for ten minutes now and then. Having the outdoors as part of my indoor life is restful and contemplative. People who come to my office at work often get mesmerized by my Webshot slideshows. I’m used to visitors not looking at me when they are talking to me, but looking over my shoulder to my image gallery. Some photos are dazzling.
I’ve set up Dell Mini netbooks that had higher resolution than the Toshiba, but the fonts are just too tiny. 1024 by 600 is a decent size, and the Toshiba’s desktop doesn’t looked squashed or stretched like I’ve seen on some netbook screen settings. It’s a perfect little XP window. I’ve very happy with the screen.
Keyboard and Track Pad
The keyboard is excellent for touch typing. I like the island style keys, because the design does feel right. Often on other keyboards I hit two keys at once, but not on this one.
The track pad also feels good, and has multi-touch features. I keep doing something wrong though, with my fingering, because I keep causing the browser window go back a page. That’s annoying, but probably my fault for unintentionally giving it the wrong command.
Plans for the Toshiba NB205 Netbook
I don’t want my little netbook to be a pint-size version of my desktop computer. I want to find apps that take advantage of it’s size and on-the-go potential. Take for instance Safari on the iPhone and iPod touch. It’s very cool to have a browser that works so well on a 3.5” screen, but in reality I never use Safari to browse the web on my iPod touch. But I don’t consider that a failure. What Apple developers have done is bypass the browser with custom apps.
There are web pages that sense Safari on the iPhone and show a cut-down web page for better viewing. And that’s great. Instead I prefer a custom app for each task I routinely need.
For example, instead of using Safari to browse the web for movies and show times, I use an app called Now Playing. It looks great on the 3.5” screen. When I launch it, I’m shown a list of nearby theaters. I pick one and I’m shown a list of movies playing at the theater with show times and Rotten Tomato ratings. If I select a movie I’m given a paragraph about the movie and buttons to a video of the trailer, reviews and links to several web sites that offer more reviews. I can even add the movie to my Netflix queue or send the movie times as an email.
In other words, several sites I’d normally browse to research going out to a movie, are combined into one app and formatted perfectly for the 3.5” screen. What I want to find for the netbook is an app that does the same thing formatted for the 10” screen. See the distinction. Understand why I don’t want my netbook to be a tiny desktop?
Now I might have to get away from Windows to achieve this goal. Jolicloud and Moblin are two alternative operating systems that make a button menu system like on the iPhone for netbook computers. But that’s just the start. They also need to reformat the web applications so they are designed to be perfect on a 10” screen. Right now they just call up desktop applications and browser applications for regular computers.
For example, most people who create magazines and newsletters to be distributed in acrobat reader, format them for 8.5 x 11 inch paper. On rare occasions, I’v seen magazines formatted for acrobat to fit a full size computer screen. This makes a stunning difference. I wished I had a link to illustrate this. iPhone apps are great because developers format for their screen. Web apps on desktop computers often look odd because they were designed for the developer’s monitor and not yours. How often have you gone to a web page with teeny tiny fonts and an extremely busy layout. I bet it looks wonderful on the developer’s 24” Macintosh display.
I don’t know if developers will develop applications specific to 10” netbook displays, but I’m hoping. Although I have Office 2007 running on my little machine, and it’s very usable, it’s not pleasurable to use. Now I might be able to put Word in full screen mode and be happy, but I’d rather have a word processor designed for a 10” screen.
I did downloaded Microsoft Reader and eReader to see how they looked on the Toshiba. They are okay for reading ebooks on the 10” screen, especially eReader, because that program can be configured for a two page layout that makes the screen look like I’m reading from an open book. I’ll have to explore more later, especially my old account at Fictionwise.com. I’ve been trying to find a comfortable and practical ebook reader for years and years. I have to admit the Kindle was very close.
I’ll return to the subject of the NB205 in the future, as I find more applications and tasks suited for what I want. It’s a very nice little mini laptop. I’ll need to buy a purse or some kind of messenger bag to carry my netbook. It can’t be an on-the-go computer if I don’t take it everywhere I go.
JWH – 7/4/9