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TOSHIBA NB305-N310: GREAT MACHINE, BUT CAN YOU TRUST IT?
on January 30, 2010
I regretfully gave the Toshiba NB305-N310 three stars after thorough research and intense hands-on evaluation. For the hardware alone, it clearly deserves five stars. But I was generous in only deducting two stars for the software and its nefarious intent.
If you are capable of, and have the time for, a complete reinstall of Windows or Linux and reinstallation of some number of the thirty-seven drivers and utility files from the Toshiba Website, then you will have a five-star netbook.
If you are not, then this netbook, like so many others, will not really be your friend. Or else it will be like a bad friend who spies on you, monitors you, deceives you, and leaves your home wide open while housesitting.
My reasons and criteria for finally selecting this netbook will undoubtedly be different than those of others. But I assure you, I have considered even those elements which did not concern me as well as issues and reviews concerning the other NB305 models that I did not purchase: The NB305-N410 in White, Blue, and Brown.
I will review the Toshiba NB305-N310 while at the same time describing the differences between it and the NB305-N410 models (which are simply different colors).
In advance, I will say that the essential differences between the NB305-N310 and the NB305-N410 are, respectively:
Keyboard Type: Flat Squares --- OR --- Embedded Buttons
Hard Disk Size: 160 GB --- OR --- 250 GB
Lid Texture: Shiny and smooth --- OR --- matte
Color Choices: Black --- OR --- Brown, Blue, or White
Operating System: Windows XP SP 3 --- OR --- Windows 7 Starter Edition
Initial Price at Amazon: $349 --- OR --- $399
A lot of netbooks brag about full keyboards, yet the PageUp, PageDown, Home, and End keys are still embedded under the four Arrow keys and require also holding down the "Fn" key to use them. This has been a main sticking point for me.
A few netbooks, like the Samsungs, only embed the Home and End keys and give the other two their own physical keys. The Samsung NC20, though, also provides independent keys for all four functions. It also has a nice 1280 pixel wide screen and a satisfactory battery life. But for me, its 12" size would have failed my personal requirement of getting a netbook that was smaller than my existing 12" laptops.
But note that the NB305 comes with two distinct keyboards.
This N310 comes with one type. While the three colors of the N410, like the NB200 Series that is the predecessor of this NB300 Series, come with a different type.
There is some confusion in the nomenclature in the specs, in the early reviews, and even in my own understanding.
Some say the N410 has a chiclet keyboard. Others say, "No, the N310 has the chiclet keyboard. The N410 has a 'piano' keyboard." In the end, they may both be chiclet varieties, but they are quite different.
So let me describe them to you in layperson's terms.
The N310's keys are flat, black, plastic squares with white characters. They attach to the base as on a normal keyboard, by sitting on unseen stems. All you see are the flat, square keys and a narrow space around each side, exposing the tray beneath. They are like keys on a normal keyboard except that they are mostly flat and level with the palm rests and are not like little towers rising up from the base.
The keys on the N410, on the other hand, are smaller, leaving much more room around them. And they rise up through holes in the open netbook's surface much like buttons on a home or cell phone.
Some claim that the extra space around each key makes it more difficult to accidentally press adjacent keys while typing. Sure, but only because it is also harder to hit the key you are actually aiming for.
I found both keyboards acceptable, Even feeling that the N410 was a bit cooler looking, but concluded, like some of the reviewers of the N410, that it was a bit unresponsive, quirky, and slow for doing a lot of typing.
For me, this was the biggest reason for getting the N310 instead of the more expensive N410, despite its having a smaller hard drive.
Let it also go without saying that, for both keyboards, there are no ergonomic issues about size and comfortability. As netbooks go, they are among the very best keyboards out there. I highly recommend both types, at least in Toshiba's implementation of them.
The NB200 Series predecessor began life with a flush battery that unfortunately didn't provide much battery life. Toshiba tried to rectify things by including one that stuck embarrassingly out of the back and defeated the whole purpose of such a portable device.
Be thoroughly assured that the battery on the NB300 Series no longer sticks out of the back. Though it does have a slight downward curved protrusion under the laptop such that it raises the back of the laptop, but in a totally useful and acceptable manner.
I'm getting between 9 and 10 hours and I have the display at its brightest and most other power-saving features unused. So with some parsimony, you can probably get the advertised 11.08 hours. Very nice.
But this does include my having disabled services, deleted and uninstalled programs, and cleaned up a lot of clutter and startup programs.
I am a bit surprised that Toshiba did not upgrade the resolution on the NB300 Series but stayed instead with the 1024X600.
For portable writing and Internet research, it is more than satisfactory. Besides, the brightness and quality is otherwise superb, and the lower resolution adds to the battery life.
It has not proved to be much of a problem, at all. I keep reminding myself that it wasn't long ago that the 1024 pixel width was considered spacious. Of course the height does not match the height from those days: 600 instead of 768.
If resolution is a major issue, though, consider the aforementioned Samsung NC20 with a nice standard 1280x800, or the Acer line which pioneered the 1366 resolution.
MOUSE TRACKPAD AND BUTTONS
Like everyone seems to agree, the trackpad is huge for a netbook. It is almost twice as wide as the one on my XPS M1330 laptop. It provides for multitouch for you people who like to pinch things. And the buttons are large, front-sloping, and very nice to press.
I haven't bought the 2 GB upgrade yet. I need to do some more research. Toshiba, Amazon, and retail store salespeople are all recommending the 667 GHz. But some reviewers mention that 800 GHz will also work and provides a better experience. So I'm waiting to confirm.
But, you know what, everything's been totally cool like this for now. Just an occasional slight drag on some videos which I'm sure will disappear with 2 GB.
The hard drives were 160 GB and 250 GB respectively. No big deal. It will just make things a little more cramped when I repartition and place Linux Mint alongside Windows XP, as I do on all PCs.
The N310 only comes in black. The N410 comes in brown, blue, or white. Its lid is matted and does not attract fingerprints. The N310's lid is a shiny black with a faint diagonal pattern on it. It does attract fingerprints. But if you minimize how recklessly you touch it and wipe them off as they occur you won't face the kinds of apocalypses other netbook users complain of.
The inside of the N310 is a pleasant matte black aluminum around the screen and around the keyboard and on the palm rests and trackpad buttons. The inside of the N410 is silver aluminum, while the frame around the display matches the exterior color.
The netbook sits about 10.5" x 7.5", the height varies from 1.5" at the back to 0.5" at the front. And, of course, 3.5" in the middle (just kidding).
The weight is advertised at 2.6 pounds. And I'll take their word on it, but it seems heavier than my 4.5-pound XPS M1330 laptop. But what do I know? I gained twenty pounds and didn't know it until I stood on a scale.
Unlike a couple of reviewers of the N410, I have not found the unit to get hot at all. And the air vent on the N310 is on the side. Though one reviewer said the N410's vents were underneath, I am not certain about that.
Across the palm rest, between the trackpad and the first row of keys is a half-circle dip that runs like a trench across the width of the keyboard. It is handy to rest your fingertips in when your are using the mouse.
It also has nicely-gripping rubber feet.
Three USB ports (one can charge cell phones, etc),SDHC Card Reader, 10/100 Ethernet, Wireless B, G, and N, Video Out, Mic and Headphone ports, speakers under the front corners, and a WebCam with its own Mic.
The AC adapter is small and manageable, if you need to bring it along. and its two-piece cord is of sufficient length.
SOFTWARE - OPERATING SYSTEM
As I said earlier, the N310 comes with Windows XP Service Pack 3 while the N410 comes with Windows 7 Starter Edition.
Operating system was, along with battery life, small size, and keyboard, a high priority. I did not wish to get any netbook with Windows Vista or Windows 7, unless I knew I could reinstall it with Windows XP.
I'm sure I could have put XP on the N410 after the fact since it comes on the N310 and all these NB300 Series models have identical processors, motherboards, and video cards. But the keyboard finally clinched it for the N310 and luckily, that was the one that had XP.
During the Vista period, most netbooks still came with XP. Now, with the emergence of Windows 7, what few gains in performance that newer netbooks have achieved have been squandered by Windows 7's resource demands and Vista-like performance and essence. XP is still the smarter choice for a netbook.
Windows XP came on a single 700 MB CD. Windows 7 requires not just a DVD, but a Dual Layer one, twelve times the size of a CD.
And if that were not enough, you only get the so-called Starter Edition. Imagine, for the first time, an operating system that only allows three programs to be open at a time and doesn't allow cosmetic or other user changes.
Had I decided to get the N410, I would have immediately reinstalled Windows XP Pro onto it, anyway, and dual-booted it with my favorite Linux, Linux Mint.
SOFTWARE - OTHER
Following closely behind the Windows 7 Starter Edition disappointment is the sheer excess of installed Toshiba and third party applications and the outright offensive levels of tracking and spying they have been designed for.
The junk includes cluttering trial versions of Microsoft Office 2007 and Norton Internet Security, Microsoft Works, all the many violations committed by Adobe, like Flash and the Reader, and all the offenses by Sun Microsystems' popular Java.
I am still wading through the thirty-seven drivers and utilities that Toshiba, themselves, installs, most of which are running at startup and further draining resources.
But, clutter and resource drains aside, the even bigger problem with the software Toshiba foists on their customers is that it is pernicious in its efforts to spy on, track, and monitor you.
Adobe and Java both install BHOs in Internet Explorer.
Toshiba's tfbPinger is a shameless spying service that has been made almost impossible to remove, located in multiple places so, like a virus, it can recreate itself after attempts to remove it. It is constantly trying to connect to somewhere. It's not my job to find out where, just to put an end to it.
Toshiba also welcomes and installs a set of games from Wild Tangent. In the earlier days of Windows 98 and 2000, theirs was one of the most difficult "viruses" to remove from client's computers. Though, this time, they were, surprisingly, better-behaved during removal than some of the other Toshiba applications and services. I guess they've gone legit.
Even the Webcam lights up occasionally, as if taking a picture of me, then tries to connect to the Internet. I guess I should be flattered. But I'm not. Now I know how Robert Pattinson and Elijah Wood feel. I wish.
And Update programs from all the unwanted software are constantly trying to "check for updates."
There is also a folder in the root with a name like DC6986B7885R807F36D7845CDF that is almost impossible to enter, modify, or delete (it appears to be the repository where the uninstalled Windows resides, since Toshiba does not provide you with reinstallation CDs or DVDs).
And of course, the nefarious Google Toolbar is preinstalled without even asking to accept any license terms.
Certainly no new machine enters our offices or attaches through our network that has not been first stripped down to its bare essentials, repartitioned and reformatted, and then reinstalled with known software and applications.
Whichever model you buy, get the drivers from the Website and reinstall a pure copy of your preferred Windows or Linux.
But if you, instead, intend to work the mess, start by installing a bidirectional firewall that will block all the constant attempts by Toshiba and the other software to secretly contact unknown Websites, to do surreptitious updates, and to turn your computer into a wide-open server (Java in particular).
Then, slowly unravel the mess by uninstalling software, disabling dangerous services, and removing programs from the startup folders and registry (especially the update programs that are always running).
If you don't intend to secure it, but just to put it to use in your daily life, then your privacy will be an illusion and you will have actually spent money to enslave yourself in some yet unknown manner.
I have, as I said, deducted a mere two stars for either the evil agenda behind the type of software installed or the trouble required to remove or replace it. Both are unacceptable, but, obviously, we have entered that age, in the convergence of politics and technology, where the computer makers like Toshiba and others probably collect additional income from the designated third-party spying entities, and who knows exactly who else, in order to install those parties' tracking and spying applications and be done with it.
So there you have it. A Japanese company gladly complying nefariously with entities in the US against our better interests and to our ultimate detriment.
If you've got reinstallation software that you trust, and you don't mind taking the time, then this is a great netbook. If not, I don't know what to tell you. And I don't know how possible such independence and autonomy will be in the future.
Windows XP, the last Microsoft operating system that, with some time and effort, can be made safe and secure from cyber criminals and from institutions that should know better. After that, we're all on our own.
With increased DRM, unfair licensing terms, and the continuation of Product Activation, I, for one, have moved most of my machines to Linux. Linux Mint in particular. It runs great dual-booting on all my newer laptops and even on my older desktops.
It is the antithesis of the trend to use our technology, more and more often, as a tool of enslavement and disrespect. It may be the only hope, despite the wonderful advances in hardware, for the future of free and unfettered computing.