As a college student who studies the natural sciences, specifically physics and a former productive, but procrastinating high school student, I knew a Tablet PC would be perfect for me. The idea that I could have a fully-functional laptop with note-taking capability meant that I could remove the paper barriers I used to run into while studying in high school. I kept close to heart the idea that buying a Tablet could be a tad expensive, but I’d force myself to use it for all four years of undergraduate studies and I surely didn’t want to skimp on quality. After months of careful review hunting, trips to all of the computer stores within a 30 mile radius of my home and exhaustive pros & cons lists, I settled on the then new Toshiba M7 Tablet PC. Now four months into my studies I can conclusively say that, while not perfect, the M7 is a great buy. However I did customize my Tablet to suit my power needs.
Toshiba M7-ST4013 Specs
|CPU||Intel Core Duo T2500 (2.0 GHz, 667 MHz FSB)|
|Memory||2048 MB (2 GB) PC5300 DDR2 667 MHz SDRAM|
|LCD||14.1” WXGA+ Display (1440 x 900)|
|Graphics||NVIDIA Quadro NVS 110M (128 MB of dedicated memory)|
|Hard Drive||80GB 7200 rpm Serial ATA|
|Optical Drive||DVD SuperMulti (+/-R double layer): 24x CD, 8x DVD (single layer)|
|Internet||RJ-45 LAN, V92 modem|
|WiFi||Intel PRO/Wireless 3945ABG (802.11 a/b/g support)|
|Security||Fingerprint reader, Kensington lock port, Trusted Platform Module|
|Data Ports||IEEE-1394 (1), USB 2.0 (4), SD/MS/xD port, PCMCIA|
|Video Ports||S-Video out, VGA out|
|Audio Ports||Headphone out, Mic In|
|Battery||6-cell Li-Ion battery, 6-cell Li-Ion slice battery|
|Other||Bluetooth 2.0 + EDR, Toshiba Tablet PC Reserve Pen,|
Design and Build
Weighing in around 6 lbs. the M7 is probably not a good choice for someone hoping to arm-cradle a Tablet all day long. Although for a sitting student, the extra weight is acceptable considering the amazing power under the hood. Its size is not surprising given the weight at 13.7” (width) x 10.2” (depth) x 1.6” (height). Depending on how the M7 is used, you may feel it to be both amazingly sturdy as well as slightly flimsy. Being a new Tablet user, I was unhappy with the tiny bit of flex that can be felt when you have the convertible in Tablet mode. When it’s latched in place, there is some motion from the screen if you push on the top-right or top-left corner of the Tablet. At the same time, I was unhappy with the way that the AC jack on my M7 moves slightly when plugged in. In fact, Toshiba has assured me this is simply to prevent a broken port while I fear it may eventually wiggle itself loose. Luckily, the M7 does feel very strong when held in laptop mode with no jiggling parts and a latch that, renowned for its sensitivity, does keep the Tablet shut when it needs to be.
The biggest design oversight remains the dust-under-screen digitizer, which Toshiba has got so much flak over. After a careful inspection, I learned that dust likely gets into the Tablet from the top of the screen where a gap exists to allow motion of the bi-directional latch. Interestingly, I myself experience the dreaded “dust” problem, but was able to clean the inside of the screen myself by taking it to a Toshiba repair center and having them clean it out with some compressed air.
Overall, while I do focus on the negatives, the M7 is a very strong Tablet that definitely won’t break apart in your arms. The hinge that converts the Tablet to laptop mode is very solid, allowing one to hold the open laptop by just the screen. The M7 is very smooth and rigid unlike earlier Toshiba models I played with. The M7’s screen doesn’t jiggle even when I type on the keyboard.
A look around the M7
Front-left indicator lights – SD card, AC, power, battery 1 charging, battery 2 charging, hard drive access, WiFi
Bottom – shows hard drive, expansion port in middle (for slice battery), etc…
Top from rear – closed view showing sturdy and wide single hinge
Top from front – closed view showing latch in place
Battery compartment – notice the replacement pen tucked in under where the battery would be.
The M7 is blessed with a terrific WXGA+ screen that combines both high-resolution graphics with superb brightness. Furthermore, the screen is not one of those annoying glossy types, meaning that even in a classroom with halogen lights the M7 will not attract a blinding glow. As a left-handed person, I’ve found that holding the M7 in “Secondary Portrait” mode works best for me since the stylus comes out of the top, which I like more than reaching from below and the viewing angle problems inherent in laptops is minimized. M7 hopefuls will be glad to know that this Tablet is great for someone who wants a laptop to adjust to their computing habits instead of the other way around.
Even though I am a huge music fan, I got the M7 knowing its Tablet speakers would likely leave me wanting more. In fact, while the M7’s built in speakers are fine for listening to podcasts or website audio, the true audiophile will want to take advantage of external speakers. Thankfully, Toshiba made this easy with a front-placed headphone output as well as a nice volume rocker that mutes the speakers when pushed inward. Keep in mind the volume rocker is not a hardware potentiometer, but a software-driven control. Therefore you may experience a lag between moving the knob and getting a volume change to take place if the system is busy with other activity.
The keyboard is solidly built, but has a strange design. While I applaud Toshiba for the superb action and durability that is apparent when you push the keys, their decision to minimize the keyboard by placing two large shortcut keys to the left of the keyboard isn’t effective. Another strange placement is the “WINDOWS” key in the top-right instead of the traditional bottom left (a change which I have admittedly, grown accustomed to). The keyboard is also lacking a second CTRL key on the right side of the keyboard. Finally, I must praise the M7’s waterproof keyboard after a personal experience with an open water bottle. If you happen to spill liquid on the keyboard, shut down the computer as quickly as possible, turn the keyboard upside down on a towel and wait as long as possible for the liquid to drain. These steps allow the water to drip right out without getting into the circuitry of the machine, thus saving you an expensive motherboard repair.
The touchpad on the M7 is as expected, just your typical Tablet touchpad. I liked using it though because it has a great scrolling-zone on the right and bottom, but they are unlabeled and thus easy to forget about. The software that configures the pad is fantastic for those who, like me, often find themselves accidentally “clicking” the pad while typing on the computer.
The M7’s pen has a nice weight considering it is plastic, an easy to click “right-click” button, and an eraser on the other end for those little mistakes. The flexibility the pen provides is great, I often find myself alternating between flipping the pen over to erase and simply doing the erase ink-gesture in programs that support it. On the other hand Toshiba’s design team wasn’t thinking when it came to the replacement pen. For $19, I got a miniature version of the full-sized pen without an eraser that hides under the battery of the M7. What good does such a device do if I need to shut off my computer just to access it? Other than that, I am very happy with the input capability of the M7.
Tablet PC Buttons
In the course of using my M7, I have found the Tablet buttons to be both useful in layout as well as in the functions they perform. As a student who often switches between landscape and portrait mode in class, I find the M7’s orientation-switch button to be very responsive. It is also customizable, if you opt to keep the built-in accelerometer functionality, holding down the “change orientation” button will cause the screen to flip so that it is facing up for you, while uninstalling the Toshiba utility lets you flip through all four orientations on the fly (I prefer the latter). Otherwise everything is standard, the ALT+CTRL+DEL button on my system is rarely used and I’ve found two other buttons (previously for Toshiba Support and Projector selection) to be programmable (they now open OneNote and Windows Media Player, respectively).
Processor and System Performance Features
Though I knew of the Core 2 Duo lineup becoming available within a few months, I opted to jump the gun and get the M7 with the Core Duo line of processors from Intel. My T2500 does not disappoint and I get fantastic performance whether I am just web surfing or batch encoding lossless audio. I’ve also found myself very satisfied with Toshiba’s inclusion of Power Management software, which gives you great control over how fast the computer really needs to be. In a quiet class, I take the power down to a lower consumption preference while setting my preferences to “Full Power” when gaming or encoding audio. While on the topic, I want to add that the NVIDIA graphics card option really does add a lot of power for someone looking to play games. As a fan of Microsoft Flight Simulator X, I’ve been able to keep performance smooth all the way up to “Medium-high” presets in game, but this is all based on trial and error.
The Core Duo also shines when it comes to multitasking and as a power user, the ability to overload Firefox with 20 tabs, while playing music, using Skype, chatting on AOL Instant Messenger and writing a Microsoft Word document (phew…) is a godsend. Overall, I’m confident that a Tablet like this can be used for just about any application whether you just find yourself living in Windows Journal or playing with 3D components in Solidworks, which I have done the performance is sweet.
While Toshiba quotes the M7’s battery life at about 4 hours, this is far from my experience, but I’m sure they turned everything off and closed the lid. Running on my “normal mode,” I can get about 2 hours, 45 minutes out of my laptop before my meters start yelling at me to shut down or risk losing data. The optional Toshiba 6-cell slice battery, which I recommend for any student worried about not having time to charge between classes boosts the total time to around 6 hours of continuous work, but your mileage may vary. I recommend any new Tablet user put aside a few hours to simulate a day of work and make sure that you don’t find yourself scrambling for free wall outlets.
Heat and Noise
Contrary to what I have read from other reviews, the M7 has been surprisingly warm and noisy in my experience, though this may simply reflect on how much I push my machine by way of performance. Part of this may be due to the 7200 RPM hard drive I opted for (a slower hard drive creates less heat, though how much is debatable), but it’s always a good idea to ensure proper air flow for the M7. It is never so noisy that I find myself embarrassed. However, I do sometimes turn the power settings down a bit to silence the fan during small group discussions. For those worried about Exploding-Battery syndrome, you’ll be glad to know that in all my experience, the M7’s battery has never even gotten the slightest bit warm and I never worry about it overheating.
The M7 runs the gamut when it comes to the type and quantity of ports. In all, there are 4 USB 2.0 ports (one on the left, two in back, one on the right), 1 IEEE-1394 (FireWire) port, an SD/MS/xD card slot, PCMCIA, VGA out, S-Video out, headphone out, microphone in, LAN and modem port. From hearing of Tablets before, I worried I’d be tethered to USB hubs with the M7, but upon opening, I realized that no matter what kind of input/output I needed, the Toshiba probably had it onboard.
Front side – indicator lights, WiFi on/off, microphone, headphone out, mic in, volume rocker, latch release
Left side – Kensington lock port, vent, USB 2.0 port, IEEE-1394 port, SD/MS/xD card port, PCMCIA port
Back side – AC jack, 56K modem, S-Video out, LAN, 2 USB 2.0 ports, VGA out
Right side – stylus silo, CD/DVD drive, USB 2.0 port
Whether for a business professional or a student, I believe security to be vital for a laptop user. Not only is financial data important, so are years of notes and homework assignments. With this in mind, Toshiba did a great job designing a secure mobile platform. The M7 comes complete with a fingerprint reader that is great for logging into Windows in Tablet mode without having to tap out a password, Trusted Platform Module (a bit of hardware-level encryption that will soon have a bigger part in keeping information secure), as well as a standard, but surprisingly sturdy Kensington lock port that is made of metal unlike the light plastic ones from other manufacturers.
On the subject of the fingerprint reader, you’ll be happy to know that the M7’s is both responsive, easy to setup and nearly fool proof. In my months of daily use, I have had no false positives and only the occasional “Failed” reading. As with all readers, simply remember to properly swipe your finger and the software will take care of the rest.
Finally, pen enthusiasts should know that Toshiba does include a “sign with handwriting to log on” software tool, though I have decided not to use it due to the easier operation of a fingerprint reader. Again, such choices really do give you the option to choose how you want to use your Tablet.
The M7 comes complete with Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005 (XP Pro SP2 with Tablet PC functionality) as well as a full version of OneNote 2003. Upon turning on my system for the first time, I found myself upset with the sheer amount of bloatware that Toshiba opted to drop onto the consumer and decided to look elsewhere to begin my experience. As a disclaimer, let me say that I’ve always been a PC tweaker and so those new to Windows XP or who are not comfortable with the idea of getting into the Windows registry should probably not take my advice.
As a student with access to MSDN through my university, I downloaded two disks that collectively comprised Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005 (e.g. like OEM disks). I then used a freeware software client called nLite (www.nliteos.com) to slipstream these disks. This essentially meant that I created, from scratch, a Windows installation that would only put onto the system things I knew I would actually use for example, when was the last time you used the Briefcase functionality of Windows? After some trial and error, I got a configuration that worked for me, and then simply went onto Toshiba’s online driver listing and installed only the drivers that I found to be useful, while completely ignoring a few that I wouldn’t use. This entire process took basically a full day of back-and-forth and I wouldn’t recommend it to someone unless you really are after the highest performance you can get on your Tablet. In the end, I found that even after installing Office 2003, all my programs and configuring the laptop for everyday use, I had used up only 5 GB of hard disk space on my system.
Wanting to configure my system a little bit more, I delved into Toshiba’s utilities and realized that while sometimes not allowing functionality within the program, some small changes to configuration files mean you can truly juice the system for speed. In my case, I began with Toshiba’s Power Saver utility. Not liking the labels or multitude of power presets that came with the software, I found the “TPwrSetup.$$$” file under C:\Program Files\Toshiba\Power Saver. By deleting unused profiles, I was able to basically start from scratch and leave myself only power presets that I would actually use.
Overall, little things like this can be discovered just by identifying things you wish would be different (“Hm… if only I can remap the “Ins” button on the keyboard to be a second “Ctrl”) and then web crawling until you find a solution (“Oh… I can do that!”). The M7 truly shines in how open it is as a computer to allow you to do as much or as little as you want to create your own experience.
The M7 I had built through ToshibaDirect.com came with the Intel PRO wireless chipset and Bluetooth 2.0 with Enhanced Data Rate. In my time of use, I haven’t really pushed the Bluetooth beyond discovering that it does work with my cell phone, but I rarely need to sync anything. The WiFi, on the other hand, is something I use on a daily basis and I’m happy to say that both range and reliability are outstanding. For college students worrying about getting onto your school’s network, rest assured that the M7’s hardware is very capable of performing up to par.
Overall, while the Toshiba M7 has its share of positives and negatives, I think it is one of the top Tablets on the market today. It balances both unbelievable power with great Tablet PC functionality, as well as a design that owes itself to new users as well as tweak-obsessed power fans. In the end, while you may sometimes get frustrated with the laptop’s slight quality shortcomings, you will never regret purchasing such a strong and durable Tablet for any use.
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