What kind of notebook can you get for less than $700? You won't get much, but for basic connectivity and office applications, you may get exactly what you need. Toshiba's 14.1-inch wide-screen Satellite M115-S1061 is a retail-only, fixed-configuration system that checks in at a wallet-friendly $699, and as with many retail systems, it's generally available for less than the official sticker price, depending on the whims of the retailers and their weekly pricing schemes and rebates. The outdated Celeron M CPU won't impress the neighbors, but for Web surfing or working on office documents and e-mail, it's perfectly acceptable. You'd get a slight performance boost and better battery life by going with the similarly priced Averatec 3360.
The Satellite M115-S1061 is a little too big to be considered a thin-and-light laptop, measuring 13.5 inches wide by 9.9 inches deep by 1.8 inches thick. Weighing only 5.2 pounds (5.9 with the AC adapter), however, it feels much lighter than you'd expect. By way of comparison, the Polywell PolyNote V512NC is about 1 inch wider and 1 inch deeper but weighs in at 7.7 pounds.
For a budget notebook, the M115-S1061 actually looks pretty sharp, with a slate gray body and a silver-and-black interior. The plasticky lid bends easily when pressed, so this system probably should be handled with some degree of care, but the hinges and the overall construction felt solid for a laptop in this price range.
A limited number of connections are included: four USB 2.0 ports, headphone and mic jacks, VGA and S-Video outs, and a PC Card slot. Missing connections that you may find useful include an ExpressCard slot and a FireWire port. A volume control wheel is a welcome extra, and several media control buttons run along the left side of the keyboard. While the keyboard is standard size, the touch pad is positively tiny, Networking connections include a 56Kbps modem, 10/100/1000 Gigabit Ethernet, and integrated 802.11a/b/g wireless.
The 14.1-inch wide-screen LCD features a native resolution of 1,280x800 and a glossy finish (Toshiba calls it TruBrite), better for viewing media than for working with office applications. Some find the glare distracting, especially when using a glossy screen in brightly lit surroundings. If you're planning to use the M115-S1061 for something like airplane-seat media viewing, Toshiba includes its Express Media Player, which plays DVDs and CDs without booting up the OS.
As a fixed-configuration retail system, the M115-S1061 sticks you with the basic components. In this case, the 512MB of RAM was what we'd expect in this price range, and the 80GB hard drive was acceptably large, even though it's of the slower 5,400rpm variety, not the desktop speed 7,200rpm, which we're seeing in more and more laptops, although, admittedly, not yet at the lower end of the price spectrum.
When you're looking at a notebook in this price range, components are likely to take a backseat to economy, and the Satellite M115-S1061 is no exception. The system's 1.6GHz Celeron M420 CPU is about as far down the processor chain as you can get these days. Despite the aging processor, the M115-S1061 compared favorably to some other budget laptops in CNET Labs' Multitasking test, beating both the Intel Core Solo-powered Fujitsu LifeBook Q2010, which features a slower 4,200rpm hard drive, and the HP Compaq Presario V5000T, which has a 1.46GHz Celeron M410 CPU. With a ATI Radeon Xpress 200M chip for graphics, this system won't let you do much gaming, although we tried out a few very basic casual 3D games and got acceptable performance. The similarly priced Averatec 3360 outperforms the M115-S1061 in both the iTunes encoding and Photoshop CS2 tests.
Battery life was weak; we got only 2 hours, 21 minutes of use out of the system. From a tiny ultraportable system, we'd expect limited battery life, but for a laptop as large as the M115-S1061 (and free of high-end power-draining parts), we expected better.
Toshiba backs the Satellite M115-S1061 with a typical one-year warranty with return-to-depot service and the company's toll-free tech support line is available 24/7. We were able to find an extended warranty that included an additional year of coverage for $134 --perhaps a bit pricey for those only spending $699 on a system. Toshiba's Web site is not as full service as the Dell or Gateway sites (no online chat, for example), but the available FAQs and drivers are at least easy to find when you search by model number.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)