When Toshiba updated their premium netbook line with the mini NB305 at the beginning of the year, the venerable notebook maker impressed us once again, making the already excellent design even slimmer and more modern. But the $399 price tag kept budget-conscious consumers at bay. Enter the mini NB255 (N245), a sub-$300 model that's a bit of a throwback to the original NB205 series, but in many of the best ways. Unfortunately, when it comes to two of the most important aspects of a netbook--keyboard comfort and battery life--the NB255 shows its low-cost colors.
The mini NB255's closest analog is actually not the original NB205-N310, but the lower-priced NB205-N210 that came out later. Like that system, the NB255 only comes in a glossy Celestial Black finish, but there's a raised, swirling texture that extends from the lid to the deck. Though glossy, the lid doesn't attract fingerprints readily due to the texture, so it remains good-looking no matter how much you handle it.
The NB255 retains the NB205 series' somewhat boxy but elegant shape instead of the more tapered, streamlined look of the NB305. Another hold-over from the previous generation: a jutting battery. Yes, the NB255 has prominent junk in the trunk. We wish that Toshiba would put this protrusion to better use--perhaps to give the netbook a slightly forward tilt.
Under the hood you'll find mostly matte plastic except for the hinge cylinder, which remains glossy. The power button at the center doesn't glow when the netbook is on; the lights in the front edge are your only initial indication that the system is booting or waking up.
Keyboard and Touchpad
Like the NB205-N210, the NB255 doesn't have the more attractive metal, island-style keyboard found on the premium models. The flat, terraced keys are still comfortable to type on, providing springy feedback. We also appreciated the textured palm rest.
Our only quibble is with the size and placement of some keys. The bottom right edge of the keyboard is a bit of a mess, with PGUP, PGDN, Shift, and the arrow keys all shoved together inelegantly. The undersized Shift key won't make touch typists happy, but at least it's in the right place. The left edge and bottom keys are also undersized, with Fn, Alt, and the Windows key about half of their normal size to make room for the ~` key, which should be up on the number key row. Users who often execute keyboard shortcuts may find this as frustrating as we did.
Thankfully, the touchpad remains the same across all of Toshiba's netbooks. The smooth finish on the 3.1 x 1.6-inch surface makes it easy to navigate the desktop, and the two dedicated left and right mouse buttons are comfortable and easy to press.
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The NB255 stayed cool during testing and use. After playing a Hulu video at full screen for 15 minutes, the touchpad measured 91 degrees Fahrenheit, the space between the G and H just 87 degrees, and the middle of the underside 92 degrees--all below our acceptable heat threshold.
Display and Audio
Another element that remains unchanged across the NB series is the 10.1-inch, 1024 x 600-pixel LED-backlit display. The bright and glossy surface kicked back quite a few reflections when viewing content with dark backgrounds. An episode of Xena: Warrior Princess streamed from Netflix featured colorful, sharp visuals, but the horizontal viewing angles weren't as wide as we would've liked; moving left or right of center causes the screen to toss reflection back to you.
The NB255 has only one small speaker on the right side just underneath the front lip of the system. Not surprisingly, it didn't pump out very loud or stunning audio. Though we were impressed at the clarity of the bass we heard when listening to Superchick's "One Girl Revolution (Battle Mix)" and Aerosmith's "Eat the Rich," the overall audio quality proved tinny. When watching TV episodes on Hulu we had to hook up an external speaker, as volume there is generally low to begin with.
Ports and Webcam
Ports are just what we'd expect on a netbook: three USB, VGA, Ethernet, headphone, mic, and a memory card slot. Toshiba didn't include a Sleep-and-Charge port on this model, though at this price we didn't expect it.
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The NB255's webcam is not impressive, capturing indistinct images with muddy colors and a severe lack of sharpness. Even tweaking the advanced settings didn't help. While video chatting on Skype our friend found it hard to make out the details of our face and said the picture was quite dark. It reminded him of watching television in 1986 on his grandparent's old console TV.
Click to enlargeThe mini NB255 has a slightly more powerful Intel Atom processor than most other netbooks on the market, though it's coupled with just 1GB of RAM. The 1.67-GHz N455 CPU drove the netbook to a score of 1,393 in PCMark05, only around 30 points below the average (1,426) and slightly above the NB305 (1,383) and the $299 ASUS Eee PC 1001P (1,384), both of which have N450 processors. Predictably, the Geekbench score of 927 is also ahead of both systems (925 and 908, respectively), even if it's not by much in one case. This score also beats the netbook average (875), the Samsung N150 Plus (919), and the Acer Aspire One 532h (896), which also costs $299 (without the long-lasting battery).
The NB255 includes a 5,400-rpm, 160GB hard drive instead of the now ubiquitous 250GB. At least it's speedy, notching a score of 23.2 MBps in the LAPTOP Transfer Test, about 4 MBps above the average (18.1 MBps). It's a smidge faster than the mini NB305 (20.6 MBps), the Aspire One 532h (22.4 MBps), and the Eee PC 1001P (17.5 MBps). We were surprised that it took the netbook 72 seconds to boot into Windows 7 Starter Edition, as the average netbook does it in just 62 seconds. Anecdotally we found the netbook to be snappy as we surfed the web, wrote this review, played music, and watched video.
Our usual graphics benchmark, 3DMark06, wouldn't run on the NB255. In hands-on testing, the netbook performed similar to other systems with Intel's integrated graphics while playing video and games. We were able to watch a 720p trailer for The Discoverers in Windows Media Player, though a slight hitching was noticeable in scenes with languid motion. When streaming an episode of Knight Hunters: Eternity from Hulu, the hitching was even more pronounced when we expanded the video to full screen.
The netbook comes with WildTangent Games preloaded, so we fired up Chuzzle to test its casual gaming chops. We didn't notice any lag, and the simple graphics rendered well. Unfortunately, when we tried to play the Flash-based Pet Society on Facebook we found our creature's movement jerky and gameplay slow.
Battery and Wi-Fi
Click to enlargeThough it was a budget system, the year-old NB205-N210 still managed to blow us away in the battery life department (9:41). In this the NB255 doesn't follow its footsteps, lasting only 6 hours and 41 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test. Yes, that's still a good amount of battery life, but Toshiba was the company that set a new standard for longevity a year ago. The NB255 is just above the six-cell netbook average (6:35), but behind the Samsung N150 Plus (7:12), and the $299 ASUS Eee PC 1001P (8:40). This is particularly egregious since the battery juts out as much as it did on the original NB205.
At least users won't have to deal with slow Internet. The Atheros AR9285 802.11b/g/n radio delivered a strong throughput of 38.4 Mbps 15 feet from the router and 23.7 Mbps at 50 feet, well above the netbook average (23.7/18.2 Mbps). In this, the NB255 beats its nearest competition, from the N150 Plus (24.4/19.9 Mbps) to the Eee PC 1001P (20.3/19.3 Mbps).
Click to enlargeCharging the netbook to 100 percent took 4 hours and 2 minutes, and the system used an average of 30.3 watts during that time. The resulting LAPTOP Battery Efficiency Rating of 18.3 isn't very green, as it's higher (lower is better) than the category average (15.6) and most other netbooks in this class.
Software and Warranty
Aside from the standard trialware (60 days for Microsoft Office 2007, Norton Internet Security), the NB255 comes with Microsoft Works and Skype preinstalled. Additionally, Toshiba packs in a good number of its own apps, including ReelTime and Bulletin Board. ReelTime lets you scroll back in time to find previously opened documents and files, while Bulletin Board lets you place photos and notes on a black board in the middle of the screen, which we found more cute than useful. Users will also find Toshiba's PC Health Monitor and Media Controller, plus the aforementioned WildTangent Games Console.
The NB255 comes with a one-year international limited warranty and 24/7 toll-free phone support. To see how Toshiba fared in our annual Tech Support Showdown, click here.
Aside from our review configuration (NB255-N245), Toshiba offers three other options in the NB255 series. The $288 NB255-N240 has a three-cell battery; the $307 NB255-N250 adds a 250GB hard drive to the mix; the $299 NB255-N246 is exactly the same as our review unit, but doesn't come with Toshiba's PC Health Monitor.
As more and more netbook makers try to capture the interest of budget-conscious consumers with sub-$300 netbooks, there's a danger of making too many compromises, or doing so in the wrong areas. Toshiba's shorter battery life definitely takes some of the shine off of the mini NB255, though it excels in other areas. We like that the design and performance is at the top of the netbook curve. However, the ASUS Eee PC 1001P lasts over 2 hours longer on a charge and is just as aesthetically pleasing, all for the same price.