Toshiba's new NB550D netbook looks almost identical to the company's older NB520 model, but don't be fooled by its appearance -- under the bonnet, there's a whole new engine at work. Whereas the NB520 relied on a dual-core Intel Atom processor, the NB550D uses one of AMD's new C-50 chips. Available for around £280 online, does this 10.1-inch netbook represent the dawn of the Atom-killing age?
Copper or boy in blue
The NB550D is available in two colours: copper and blue. The copper model is called the NB550D-109 and the blue model is the NB550D-10G.
We found our review sample's copper colouring quite fetching, but the overall design of the netbook left us with mixed feelings. We love the soft-to-the-touch, rubberised finish on the lid, for example, but the matte black plastic employed elsewhere is pretty underwhelming.
Measuring 262 by 36 by 190mm, and weighing 1.3kg, the NB550D isn't the slimmest or lightest netbook on the market, but it does feel like it's built to last.
Like the NB520, this model has two fairly large Harman Kardon speakers embedded in the wrist rest, behind small metal grilles. These speakers aren't exactly hi-fi quality, but they do produce much louder sound, with more body, than pretty much any other netbook speakers we've encountered. In fact, they're better than many laptop speakers. We can see them being really useful if you like to use your computer to watch movies, but don't always want to have to slap on a pair of headphones.
This screen has a resolution of 1,024x600 pixels, rather than the 1,366x768 pixels you get on some higher-end displays. The display is relatively bright and, although it has a glossy coating, it's not massively reflective, so you can use it indoors under bright overhead lights without too much bother. Nevertheless, the horizontal viewing angles aren't great, as colours go very dark when you sit at an angle to the screen. Overall, though it's not a bad display.
The keyboards on netbooks are always a compromise due to the limited amount of space available. However, Toshiba has done a reasonably good job here. Although the keys initially feel like they rattle too much under your fingers, you soon get used to this and start to appreciate their intelligent layout and springy, responsive action.
Toshiba hasn't skimped on ports either. Along with the usual three USB ports, there's an HDMI output that makes it easy to connect the NB550D up to a high-definition TV. This is because HDMI carries audio and video over the same lead.
One of the USB ports is also enabled for 'sleep and charge', so, even when the netbook is turned off, the port can be used to charge devices like smart phones and digital cameras. The NB550D also offers support for Ethernet and Wi-Fi, as well as Bluetooth 3.0.
Guts and glory
As with pretty much all netbooks, this model runs Windows 7 Starter. It also has just 1GB of RAM. Unusually, however, it uses AMD's C-50 chip instead of an Intel Atom processor.
The C-50 is a dual-core chip that AMD describes as an 'accelerated processing unit'. That's because it combines the CPU, memory controller and Radeon HD 6250 graphics core onto a single die.
The CPU lacks hyper-threading capability and is clocked at 1GHz, as opposed to the 1.5GHz of Intel's dual-core Atom N550. Nevertheless, the NB550D still performed better than Toshiba's Atom-N550-equipped NB520. In the PCMark05 benchmark test, it clocked up a score of 1,885, compared to the NB520's result of 1,667.
The chip is even better when it comes to graphics performance. It managed to rack up a result of 1,885 in 3DMark06, blowing away the NB520's score of 146. You won't be able to use this netbook for playing really complex games, but you will be able to use it for some lighter 3D gaming. The chip's video decoding prowess is impressive too -- it's able to easily handle 1080p video on YouTube.
Unfortunately, the extra graphics grunt seems to have a cost in terms of shorter battery life. Although the NB520 lasted for 5 hours in the Battery Eater Classic test, the NB550D topped out at 4 hours and 7 minutes. That's still very good battery life for a dual-core netbook, though, especially as this test is extremely intensive and you're likely to get much longer life under real-world usage conditions.
Overall, the Toshiba NB550D is one of the better netbooks currently on the market, thanks largely to its C-50 processor and Harman Kardon speakers. We just wish its exterior looked more appealing.
Edited by Charles Kloet