If the netbook is to survive it'll need diversity and evolution in its arsenal. Toshiba's NB550D features AMD's C-50 Fusion CPU, and that's where things start to get interesting...
Toshiba last week launched two new netbooks, the NB500 and the NB550D. Of the pair, the NB500 is your more run-of-the-mill offering, with a 1.66GHz Intel Atom N455 processor, 10.1in 1,024 x 600 display, 250GB hard drive and Windows 7 Starter Edition. At $399 it's an affordable little unit, but not exactly a revolutionary device in itself, nor a netbook to set geeks' tongues wagging.
What caught our eye rather was its big brother, the NB550D, which Toshiba boldly markets as the "ultimate entertainment netbook". (Or, on second thoughts, perhaps that's not so bold. After all, netbooks are hardly the first device one thinks of for entertainment usage, so in such company being the "ultimate" might not be too much of a stretch.)
In any case, what tech justifies the NB550D's claims? Well, for starters it's that rare beast: a netbook which doesn't include an Intel Atom processor. Under the hood the NB550D packs the new dual-core AMD C-50 Fusion CPU, which incorporates a Radeon HD 6250M GPU.
This will significantly ramp up HD playback performance on the unit, which is important, as the NB550D also includes HDMI out to connect to larger displays at full 1080p, and not using the unit's own LCD display in such an instance will be a boon to the Toshiba-estimated 8-hour battery life (that figure's based on general usage).
Plus, it's the world's first netbook with Harman/Kardon speakers, so you can expect a little more grunt in music and movie playback (it might be best practice to just stick to headphones when you're on the train of course).
In terms of gaming performance, it helps to bear in mind that this is still a netbook. Anthony Geronimo, Consumer Product Marketing Manager, Toshiba Information Systems Division (ISD), told APC that Toshiba is not positioning the NB550D (with its 10.1in 1,024 x 600 resolution display) as a "gaming box", but conceded that the Fusion graphics engine will indeed support some 3D gaming (just don't expect Crysis on maximum detail etc.).
So what's the rationale for an "entertainment netbook"? Geronimo says: "For me, this is the device that comes on family holidays. We can watch movies from the device, or plug it into the TV when we're there - and use it as a [media] hub. But also with the Harman/Kardon speakers it literally can be my backyard BBQ stereo system. So I've got all my music loaded, and I can just play all the content directly off there."
Wrapping up the package is a 6-cell battery, Dolby Advanced Audio to bolster audio playback, and some neat features to enable charging and audio speaker use when the NB500D is powered down or asleep, plus a choice of five different colours. It's a shame Toshiba only provides 1GB of RAM out of the box, but you do have the option of upgrading to 2GB after purchase.
All in all, at $499 - only $100 more than the NB500 - we know which one we'd be buying. With all the fuss being made over tablets these days as the killer go-anywhere content-consumption devices, it's nice to see some beefy innovation taking place in the netbook market. Don't write these little guys off just yet.