Toshiba Tecra A4-S211
In terms of appearance, the thin-and-light Toshiba Tecra A4 may not be your dreamboat, but it's the safe date to the prom: fairly good-looking and friendly. Its low-key, matte-black case will blend right into the corporate world, and its performance makes it an adequate match for businesspeople who want a full-featured computer to take on the occasional business trip. Our review model, the A4-S211, is a fixed configuration, but Toshiba's customizable model, the A4-S111TD, can match the S211's specs at virtually the same price and provides the option to make a number of upgrades. You'll find more information on configuration options in CNET's Tecra A4 series review.
Measuring 14.2 inches wide, 10.6 inches deep, and 1.4 inches thick, the mostly black slab (with a pewter-color lid) opens to reveal a wide, 15.4-inch LCD with a 1,280x800 native resolution. In testing, the screen displayed digital photos and DVDs well, with good brightness, color, and sharpness. But text rendering wasn't so impressive: letters looked a bit soft in various point sizes (10, 12, and 14) and font styles, such as Arial and Times New Roman. Contrast was weak, as well. The letters could have been blacker, and the background in Microsoft Word was grayish, rather than white--even at the highest brightness setting. For an extra $50 on its configurable model, Toshiba offers a brighter screen option called TruBrite that might pump more glimmer into the panel.
The wide body of the Tecra A4 also accommodates a spacious keyboard. Its full-size keys provide a generous amount of vertical travel and a desktoplike degree of springiness; these aren't the soft little clickers you find on smaller laptops. The directional arrow keys (left/right, up/down) are fairly large, and the Home, PgUp, PgDn, End, and Delete keys are all full size. But if you frequently use keyboard shortcuts, the omission of a right-side Ctrl key may drive you mad--and force your left hand into strange contortions.
The sides of the Toshiba Tecra A4 are loaded with connection options, including three USB 2.0 ports and a four-pin FireWire port. It features both a 32-bit PC Card slot and the newly evolved ExpressCard slot, which will equip the PC for upgrades long after the older slot has become a mere appendix. The front of the system has a physical switch for turning on or off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, along with microphone and headphone jacks and a handy volume-control wheel. Finally, a panel on the front slides open to reveal a 4-in-1 card reader for the SD, SmartMedia, Memory Stick, and xD formats. Toshiba calls it a 5-in-1 reader, but that's only if you use Sony's adapter for its smaller Memory Stick Pro cards. We found this out the hard way when we inserted our Memory Stick Pro card sans adapter, only to have it swallowed by the machine (with some coaxing by our Labs technicians, it eventually coughed it up). While it lacks a slot for CompactFlash, PC Card adapters for that format are inexpensive. Stereo speakers mounted over the keyboard are not terribly loud, but they sound full, handling everything from deep bass to high treble without the tinny distortion of most notebook rigs.
Our Tecra A4 test unit included an Intel 802.11b/g Wi-Fi card; Toshiba offers an 802.11a/b/g model for $50. The bottom of the system also features a connector for Toshiba's $199 Advanced Port Replicator III, which provides additional ports, including a DVI port for connecting a high-end LCD desktop monitor for graphics work--but only if you choose a model with an ATI or Nvidia graphics card.
One limitation is the fixed optical drive: Whatever you buy with the notebook is what you will always have. Given that, we recommend an upgrade from the base-model CD-RW/DVD-ROM drive that came with our unit to either the single-layer or double-layer DVD burners that Toshiba offers.
Our Toshiba Tecra A4-S211 test unit, reasonably priced at $1,329 (as of June 2005), features a 1.6GHz Pentium M 730 processor; 512MB of 333MHz RAM; a sluggish, 4,200rpm hard drive with 60GB capacity; and an ATI Mobility Radeon X600 graphics card. In CNET Labs' mobile benchmarks, the Tecra A4 earned a respectable, but not stunning, performance score, coming in 4 percent slower than the Gateway M210X, which has the same processor, RAM, and hard drive speed. It should be noted, though, that the Gateway system is saddled with Intel's integrated graphics, which swipes a bit of main system memory to juggle its polygons, while the Tecra A4 includes a discrete graphics card with 64MB of dedicated memory. Still, the Tecra A4 put to shame a with a faster, 1.73GHz Pentium M processor and twice the RAM. (The Sony also had a 4,200rpm hard drive.)
Like performance, battery life was respectable, but not stupendous. In our benchmark test, the Toshiba Tecra A4 ran for 2 hours, 50 minutes. Its rival from Gateway came up just 2 minutes short of that, but the Sony VAIO VGN-FS570 held out for 3 hours, 38 minutes.