Back at the end of June I got an email from someone called Jenny at Toshiba who said as an established blogger they’d like to give me the chance to trail one of their Tecra A8 Notebooks for a week and would I be interested? Was there a catch I wondered? No. It seems all I had to do was promise to and write an honest, objective review of it and either give to them to post on the net or post it on my blog. I can do that I thought.
So, aside form some minor DHL issues in the collecting to the machine, it was painlessly delivered and collected from me, and I was left to do what I wanted to it.
So, the first thing I had to think about when writing up my thoughts about the Tecra was whether to just go with my gut and how it felt or to just review it in the context of the primary market that it is aimed at. After a bit of thought I decided that to be fair I had to try and cover both aspects. As you will see, I am not a professional PC reviewer. I am one of Andrew Keen’s dreaded ‘amateurs’ So, I am not going to present results of processor speed tests and such like. Anyway, what follows are my thoughts on the Tecra.
Look and Feel
The Tecra looks the business. Silver, Sleek and shiny, it says, come and play with me.
Its basic specks are: 2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 1GB DDR, 100GB, DVD±RW DL Combo, and a 15.4″ LCD/TFL screen (depending on version).
It is not the lightest machine around, but at around 2.7kg’s it is not the heaviest either (my old Mac G3 Laptop is 2kg), so it can still be carried around without too great a hardship.
It is pretty sturdy. Good strong hinges mean it should last a while and handle being man handled. It also comes with HDD Protection and can zap into HDD safe protection mode to protect the system’s hard disk drive against shocks and vibrations – although you need to set this right however or it kicks in every time you so much as breathe on the machine. The keyboard is also quite sturdy, and apparently is designed so you machine doesn’t die if you accidentally spill liquid on it.
Booted it up and let it go through the install of XP service pack 2, which it did quite briskly, and then connected to the internet and download Flock, so as the avoid dealing with IE (and IE6 at that). I should say here that dispatching the PC with some sort of manual would have been nice, as it does mean you spend some needless time finding out what some of the buttons on the machine do, and having to check the spec too.
This brings me to my big dislike and problem with the Tecra. Toshiba seem to have decided to waste some keyboard space by placing three function buttons on the left hand side of the keyboard (see Photo below) Here you’ll find: the on/off switch, the ‘Toshiba Assist ‘ button and what I discovered was a button you’d press to display the laptop screen on an external monitor / projector etc.
All are useful in their own way, but I really don’t like these being positioned here. In fact the whole keyboard layout is one of the least pleasurable computing experiences I think I have ever had. I have lost count of the amount of times I have accidentally hit the caps lock button – something I never do normally.
The natural at rest/hover position for your hands on a laptop, is usually the mouse pad. This is usually what determines where your hands are placed. Now this would be fine, on say a Toshiba Satellite Pro, as the keyboard stretches out on the left hand side to near the edge. Here, the you get an inch black band holding the aforementioned function keys – the external display button sitting just about where my hand naturally wants to go to hit shift. [I should add here that my Satellite Pro owning flatmate – who can actually type properly – agrees with my comments about the keyboard layout and the unbalance created by putting the three function buttons where they are].
To fit in the three function buttons, the left shift key/ control has had to be shrunk. The right one is in contrast larger than on the Satellite Pro, but as someone who always uses the left hand shift this is of little use to me.
I should, for the record, point out here that my complaint is not with the functionality of the buttons themselves, just the space they’re wasting. What’s more, if you wanted to use that space for function buttons, why not stcik 3 or 4 more in there?. Why do these need so much space???
I guess the main button is the ‘Toshiba Assist’ button. This is a nice fast way to set up wireless connections, and power management etc (I liked being able to get into manage these aspects of the machine’s set up a lot, but I like it just as much as a desktop icon).
The spacebar is also smaller than I like, but about the average for most laptops these days. The delete button is situated in the top right hand corner, as is usual for Toshiba, but is again, not something I personally like.
One of the things – aside from the docking station connector on the bottom of the laptop – that tells you this machine is primarily aimed at the corporate market is the fact that all, and I mean ALL, the ports are at the back of the machine. This isn’t very user friendly, and I would bet that even the average corporate user (if not the average Corporate IT security person) would have appreciated at least one USB port on the side somewhere. As it is, we get 3USB ports, at the back along with the power connector, which for some reason is slap bang in the middle of the back of the machine. Also here are your Ethernet/phone line jacks, and Monitor output port.
The front panel houses microphone and headphone jacks, the volume control dial, and the wireless connection on/off switch. I quite like these being here. Also here are several indicators for : SD card (slot on left hand side, along with a PCMCIA slot) status , HDD activity, and wireless connection status.
Taking it for a Spin
Well, I download a few staples, such as Flock, Abiword, and Microsoft Virtual Machine – Ubuntu set up just fine (and looks rather nice on the Tecra) – although didn’t have time to configure it for internet access etc. I took the Tecra on a short trip from London to Southampton. We connected very swiftly and easily to The Cloud’s wi-fi connection at Waterloo. The easiest wi-fi experience I have ever had on the move. I also took this trip’s opportunity to test the battery on a full charge. I got 2 hours 58 out of it [Toshiba claim closer to 4, but manufacturers claims for battery life to tend to be rather on the optimistic side, and I thought 3 hours was not too bad]. I did some note taking and watched a DVD. Screen resolution was good and picture nice and sharp.
Sound quality out of the built in speakers is as tinny as you’ll find on most laptops, but with headphones in, it’s pretty decent and if you were using this on a desktop, you’d probably plug in external speakers anyway.
Speaking of sound. This is without a shadow of a doubt the quietest computer, of any kind, I have ever used.
I had no real problem carrying the Tecra around, but my issues with the keyboard stopped it from b
eing an enjoyable as it might have otherwise been. But, as this is targeted as a desktop replacement for businesses and would therefore spend most of its time docked either at work or at home, my keyboard issues could be resolved. Most users would have external mouse and keyboard connected so negating the need to deal with the Tecra’s keyboard at all. From that point of view I would be more than happy to be given a Tetra to replace my desktop machine at work.
If you were looking for a home desktop replacement, the Tecra would need a much bigger hard drive at no extra cost, as the 100GB here wouldn’t be much use these days.
Would I buy one? Probably not. This is not a bad machine, but it is amazing how small things can effect how you feel about something. Without the three function strip there, I would probably be telling you all to get out and buy one, and how much I love its almost silent running; and maybe if you are a light user who is after a desktop replacement, this could do the job. Then again, if you were such a user you’d probably go for something a bit cheaper. The A8 T7200 retails for around £800+, so it is not a cheap option.
Then again, in a business context and up against Sony, Dell and Hewlett Packard’s similar priced offerings this might not look so much, especially if you were buying in bulk or doing a lease deal of some sort.
So, I guess what I am saying is that as a desktop replacement, it is not a bad little machine. The problem – for me, at least – is that as a laptop to take out and about it doesn’t work for me ergonomically, and whilst I would no doubt get used to the style and adjust, with so many other options available I am not sure the Tecra’s positives outweigh that negative for me.
Can I just say a big thanks to both Jenny and Lucy at Toshiba who were both very friendly and helpful. And thanks again for letting me have a play with your laptop. Also, if you ever need anyone to test drive the Portégé R500 – which looks more like my cup of tea – just drop me a line.