The NB550D looks much like any other netbook, although that's an appellation that Toshiba probably wouldn't apply to this particular system. Unlike the vast majority of netbooks currently on the market, the NB550D eschews Intel's Atom platform for AMD's competing Fusion platform, similar to the Sony Vaio YB. Unlike the Sony, though, Toshiba's pricing for the NB550D puts it squarely in the sights of the cheaper set of Atom-powered netbooks. Does that make it a notebook? A netbook-style product? A notenetbook?
While its innards don't match up to the previous generation of netbooks, the style is undeniably still netbook-like. It's available in four colour variations; brown with dots, green with dots, orange with dots or blue with dots. The blue sample (technically the NB550D/00J PLL5FA-00J01S, but we're betting that's a name that only its mother uses) was the one we've tested, but having seen the range in the flesh, we've got to say that the blue and green are the standout choices. The blue, because it's perhaps the most sedate and ordinary of the designs (which many users may favour) and the green because it's undeniably lurid if that's what you like.
The NB550D has many of the high points and low points of the classic netbook design. You're not getting the full notebook keyboard experience, but Toshiba's design does at least stretch the keys out to the side of the netbook body, allowing for slightly larger keys and a more comfortable keyboard experience.
Toshiba equips the NB550D with a low power 1GHz AMD C-50 CPU, or as AMD would prefer it be called, an APU, because built into the CPU die is an integrated Radeon HD 6250 256MB GPU. Intel's been in the integrated graphics business for a good long time now, but AMD's take on the concept offers a greater graphics performance promise, although it'll eat into the general memory for an additional 118MB of shared memory when it needs to.
The C-50 aside, most of the NB550D's offerings are more from the pure netbook playbook, including a 10.1-inch 1024x600-pixel display screen, 250GB 5400rpm SATA hard drive, 802.11n Wi-Fi and 10/100 Ethernet and media card reader slot. Nice touches include three USB 2.0 ports, one of which supports sleep charging of external devices and an HDMI-out socket. Combined with the Radeon GPU, this gives the NB550D some genuine possibilities for high-definition video output, at least in theory.
There are two distinct problems with the NB550D's basic specifications and they both relate to memory. The on-board 1GB of memory is adequate but definitely shows its limitations when you've got multiple applications running. Nobody expects a netbook to fly through performance tasks, but it's pretty clear that upping the memory, even if only to 2GB as Sony did with the Vaio YB, would pay big performance dividends. Toshiba also pre-installs Windows 7 Starter Edition 32-bit, meaning that if you were to upgrade the memory, you'd be limited to just over 3GB of usable memory, a limitation the 64-bit version of Windows 7 doesn't have at all.
Speakers on notebooks are usually not worth specific mention, but in the NB550D's case, it looks as though whatever Toshiba saved on a lower memory specification went into dropping Harmon Kardon speakers on the front of the system. For a netbook, these sound great.
There's a common curse of many netbooks when it comes to PCMark05, and the NB550D was a full victim of this ailment. PCMark05 wouldn't run, despite many tweaks and patches and more than a moderate amount of cursing. Observationally, the NB550D performs well, but not at the level of a full notebook, something we'd put down to Toshiba's choice to only put 1GB of memory on-board. We're not sure if it's an upgradeable part, but any prospective buyer should at least think about it.
Graphics performance is meant to be a considerable part of Fusion's appeal, and here the NB550D didn't disappoint with a solid score of 1865 in 3DMark06. Again, that's slightly below the Vaio YB, but this is a cheaper system, and the difference between the two is less than the price gap might suggest. As a light graphics performance machine — and especially one if you wanted to play, say, World Of Warcraft on the go — the NB550D delivers.
All that graphics grunt left us wondering how well the NB550D's slender six-cell battery would perform. With all battery-saving measures disabled and screen brightness pumped up to full while playing back a video file full screen, it only managed to last three hours and 24 minutes, which isn't great in the netbook world.
The NB550D's power-saving measures include a low power "eco" mode, and engaging this gave us one of the more stark reminds that our battery life test really does present something of a worst-case scenario. With Eco mode enabled, the battery gave a further one hour and 43 minutes of video playback time for a much more respectable total of five hours and seven minutes. In significantly less formal testing, we were able to use the NB550D for writing and web surfing work through an entire work day without exhausting the battery.
From their conception, netbooks have been compromise devices. You're compromising on the amount of money that they take out of your wallet, and in return you get a compact work platform that's not about pure performance but should be adequate for basic tasks. The NB550D shakes that assumption up a little, given that it allows you to run more graphics-intensive applications, but again there's a small price to pay in terms of battery life. At the AU$499 price point, it's a significant challenge to the existing stock of Atom-based netbooks and a very worthy purchase option.