It's a little depressing sometimes to think how little progress has been made at the low end of the netbook market. Atom has gone dual-core and can now just about handle 720P video, but the value of this is limited as you still get a sub-HD screen and VGA output. That aside, it will still struggle with any kind of intensive workload. Essentially, if you're unwilling to spend £400 and upwards for the likes of the Asus Eee PC 1215N, specifications and performance on your average netbook are unlikely to be a big step up from the Acer Aspire One D150 we reviewed two years ago.
Toshiba's new NB520 is unfortunately no exception, with its 1.5GHz, dual core Intel Atom N550 backed by the usual 1GB of DDR3 RAM, a 250GB, 5,400rpm hard drive and pathetic Intel integrated GMA 3150 graphics. Windows 7 Starter is running the show on a 10.1in, 1,024 x 600 screen with a non-HD webcam built-in, though Wi-Fi N and Bluetooth are at least invited to the party.
For physical connectivity we have an equally disappointing line-up, with the usual three USB 2.0 ports (one of which offers Sleep & Charge), Ethernet for networking and analogue VGA for video, with 3.5mm headphone and microphone jacks for audio. A memory card reader discreetly hidden away at the front supports SDHC but not the newer SDXC standard, unlike Asus' netbooks. Despite the lack of HDMI being due to chipset limitations, we're also dismayed by the absence of USB 3.0. It's a good thing, then, that this netbook is likely to make you forget all about its weedy specs and connections the moment you clamp eyes on it.
Ever since Toshiba's original NB200, the company has been at the forefront of netbook design. The NB500-series refines this already attractive DNA further, tucking in the older model's protruding battery and making the keyboard truly edge-to-edge. The finish and colour combinations have also received an overhaul and, as we saw in our NB500 NB520 and NB550D preview, it will be available in red, blue and green in addition to the brown model we have in for review.
Even with the netbook closed, it immediately sets itself apart from the crowd with a lovely, dimpled soft-touch finish on its lid. This is not only more rugged and fingerprint-resistant than the regular glossy abominations, but also makes it far nicer to hold and gives you a better grip.
The bronze brown of our model's lid complements the black inside and base rather nicely, and is enhanced by the touchpad buttons and narrow speaker grille surrounds in a matching colour. The rest of the netbook is finished in a mixture of glossy and matt black plastic, while the palm-rests sport the same soft, dimpled texture as the lid.
Build quality is solid throughout, with only a slight bit of flex on the lid. In fact, the only non-rugged netbooks we can remember feeling as solid are the Samsung N310 and, more recently, the Lenovo ThinkPad X100e. Essentially, the NB520 feels and looks more premium than its basic specifications and sub-£300 price would suggest.