by Don Cung
editor’s note: Sometimes it’s refreshing to read a review from a “user” rather than a “reviewer” for comparison. Although we are able to write reviews based on much experience in comparing the advantages and disadvantages between different Tablet PC models, sometimes we can become a bit jaded. This review by user Don Cung, is excellently written and even includes benchmarks. For yet another take on the Toshiba Tecra M4, read on…
The Toshiba Tecra M4 is a very unique computer which I would describe as a jack of all trades. It’s thin, fairly light, pretty powerful, and moderately priced. It basically falls into the category of thin and light desktop replacements. However what sets it apart from the competition is a turnable screen and a stylus. That’s right, the Tecra M4 is also a Tablet PC which allows you to input notes and information through the stylus or even through speech with an integrated microphone array.
Toshiba Tecra M4 in Tablet Mode (view larger image)
Tecra M4 specs as reviewed:
Toshiba Tecra M4 front profile view, notebook mode (view larger image)
Reasons for Buying
I’m going to graduate school soon so I began looking for a new computer. My old laptop was outdated and could barely keep up with web browsing, and I was tired of lugging its weight (about 7.5 pounds). However since this was going to be my only computer I wanted something with a decent screen size, and good power for directx programming or an occasional game. Thus I began looking at thin and light desktop replacement notebooks. These were some of the notebooks I considered:
The laptop took 10 days to build, and then another 4 days to arrive from China. The free accessories arrived earlier since there was no building time. During this time I called customer service twice to inquire about my order status, and each time within 5 minutes I was able to talk to a customer service representative. Both times they seemed quite competent in helping me with my order and both spoke perfect english. Thus I feel quite comfortable in being able to contact customer support should I need it.
Design and build quality
This laptop sports a simple sleek look with a black base and silver screen. I find the designe quite elegant. It won’t draw too much attention at first, but when you twist back the screen it will probably turn a few heads. The chassis feels quite solid, and the only place I can find any flex is near the lower right corner of the keyboard near the arrow keys. There is absolutely no flex on the screen as I have been pushing on the back and have noticed no ripples whatsoever. Additionally there is a vibration sensor in the device that senses movement and stops the hard drive from spinning in order to prevent damage to the hard drive. My only concern with the design is with the rotation hinge since it has to support the screen. It seem solid enough, but I’m still somewhat worried about how well it can support the display as I’m used to conventional notebooks which support multiple hinges.
Buttons and Ports
I love the layout of the ports on this model as well. There are three usb ports, 2 of which are on the left side, and one of which is on the bottom right. This port is quite useful for plugging in a mouse, while the 2 on the left are perfect for me to plug in my dvdrw, and an external HD. There is also a firewire port on the left side as well so I have the option of using that for my dvdrw too. This notebook only has a SD card reader unlike others which I’ve seen which support 4-6 different kinds of flash cards. For me this is fine since my camera uses SD, but for others this could be a possible issue. There is also only one pcmcia slot, but since there is a gigabit ethernet built into the back it’s not really missed. On the front is an on/off switch for the wireless as well as the volume control along with headphone and microphone jack. The microphone jack isn’t really needed though since there are microphones built into the system of which I’ve located 2 (one in the front and one on the left side).
Toshiba Tecra M4 in notebook mode, right side (view larger image)
Toshiba Tecra M4 left side (view larger image)
Toshiba Tecra M4 under side (view larger image)
Toshiba Tecra M4 back side view (view larger image)
Keyboard, Touchpad, and Trackpoint
The keyboard feels quite nice with a good amount of springiness to the keys. I like how the windows key has been moved to the upper right as I rarely use it. However, there are a few things I’m uncomfortable with in the design. First off is that the tab key has been shrunk down to the size of a normal letter. Although still usable I’m used to the larger size of a normal tab key. The second is the tilda key normally located in the second row has been moved to the bottom and now takes the place of the newly moved windows key. I do like how the delete key is on the bottom right of the keyboard though as in my previous one is was in the top right corner, and harder to access. The M4 has both a tracking point and a touchpad as input devices, and both work very well though they are noticably shifted to the left. It takes a little getting used to the scroll bars for the touchpad and the different positioning, but overall I think it’s a better experience then my old laptop. The trackpoint and touchpad can both be configured from the control panel as well so it’s possible to disable scrolling. I’m not used to a trackpoint so I rarely use it. However it is a nice feature while playing games since movement is more joystick like then the touchpad which allows for faster movement. A second nub is included for the trackpoint replacing the rough feeling nub with a smoother one.
A look at the Toshiba Tecra M4 keyboard and touchpad (view larger image)
Tablet mode, tablet buttons, and stylus
Switching to the tablet is remarkably easy. You just turn the screen in the direction of the arrow indicated until you feel it snap into place. Then you flip the closing latch to the other side and close the screen snapping it into place. The screen will automatically rotate into portrait mode. In tablet mode there are a number of buttons made to increase the experience. On the right is a user configurable button which can be locked for opening up one note or other program which can be set from the control panel. On the display are three buttons which are useful for use in tablet mode. The first button opens up windows task manager as pressing ctr + alt + del is difficult to do without access to the keyboard. The second button is a rotate button which is able to change the picture on screen depending on how the tablet is currently being held. The last button is a sort of joystick which along with the pen allows for faster navigation. The pen is also very comfortable to hold and fits nicely in a slot next to the dvd drive when not in use. The only problems with the pen is that using the eraser requires me to push down a bit more than I would like, but that’s probably to prevent accidental loss of data.
The display on the M4 is beautiful. The native 1400 x 1050 resolution fits a lot onto the screen, and the maximum brightness is quite bright. For tablets there is no such thing as trubrite as all the screens are apparently glossy. I would have preferred a matte screen, but the necessity of a screen protector doesn’t make this an option. Thus like a trubrite/xbrite/truelife screen the Tecra M4 suffers from glare in bright light. It is also quite reflective when the power is turned off, but in normal operation it is fine. The viewing angles of the M4 aren’t very good. This is probably due in large part to the protective cover on the screen as I’ve heard the viewing angles can be improved with different brands of screen protectors. My screen in particular has both the stock protector and a Bstrong protector, and I did notice that before applying the Bstrong the viewing angles were a bit better. However even with the second protector the viewing angles do not really bother me except in tablet mode where I need to place a small book at one end for optimal viewing. That being said viewing the screen from angles up to about 60 degrees are still quite viewable, but are noticably less bright then from the center. The vertical viewing angles seem a bit better, but still are not as good as some other models I have looked at. Overall I’m happy with the display and don’t mind sacrificing the viewing angle for an extra layer of protection, but the low viewing angles might be a drawback to some.
There are two speakers in the M4 located right below the screen. In tablet mode they are covered up by the screen, and the sound is thus worse in tablet mode. In notebook mode the sound is quite good for a laptop. The sound can get fairly loud with the settings cranked up, but there is really no replacement for good speakers or head phones.
There are two options for Intel integrated wireless, and I chose B/G as I have no need for 802.11A. The tablet connects to my router without problem. I chose not to get bluetooth, but it is also available as an option. There is an infrared port on the left side, but I do not use that either.
Battery is one of the weaknesses of the M4. With max settings for the processor, the cooling, and the brightest level the battery will last about 2 hours 20 minutes which should be enough to finish a dvd. On the long life setting for use with normal workloads the battery should be able to get a little over 3 hours and maybe a bit longer with the wireless off. There is also an optional battery which can replace the DVD drive which can increase the battery life by another 2.5 hours. Since I did not choose this option I can’t really say for sure. I believe that the shorter battery life is due in a large part to powering the digitizer, which thus gives this notebook a somewhat shorter battery life than comparable notebooks.
Operating System and Software
The laptop comes with all of its software preinstalled, and ONLY preinstalled. In fact the only cd that it comes with is an AOL cd. This is made worse by having AOL preinstalled, and installed in sucha way that it is nearly impossible to remove without special programs. Windows XP Tablet Edition is good OS and has all the features of Windows XP Professional. As there is no choice for tablets it is included in the price. Other software packages that are included are: Microsoft Works and Microsoft One Note. McAfee antivirus is also installed as a 60 day trial as well as a 30 day trial for Microsoft Office Small Business Edition. Beyond that there are a number of other programs installed which I have difficulty identifying. Many of these programs are used to give the tablet stylus functionality, allow the screen to rotate, and provide functionality to many of the buttons. However among those programs there are a number which are unneeded such as AT&T internet services, AOL, and Zinio. With the great number of these things mixed in it becomes increasingly difficult to figure out what programs are necessary and what can be removed. My biggest gripe however is the lack of restore disks. Instead the user has to burn their own restore disks using a program included on the hard drive. The information for these disks is saved on a hidden partition on the hard drive which takes up valuable HD space especially since I opted for the smallest 40 GB drive. This is made worse by having installation files for the applications on the normal partition as well. The system restore then burns a ghost image of the system onto a dvd or 6 cdrs for you, not a copy of windows XP TE. 2 additional disks are burnt which include applications such as one note, works, MS Office SB, AOL, etc… Overall I’m unhappy with the preinstalled software as there is a number of things I do not want, but have difficulty removing as well as lack of nice physical disks to use in case something goes wrong.
Benchmarks and performance:
The performance on my tablet is awesome especially when you consider all of the processes and programs running in the backgroud. There are about 80 processes running at any given time, and since I don’t know which of these can be eliminated yet these performance numbers are pretty good.
Super Pi: I ran this benchmark to 2 million digits with the 80+ processes running including Windows firewall and McAfee virus scan with the full power settings and the laptop plugged in.
|Notebook||Time to Calculate Pi to 2 Million Digits|
|Toshiba Tecra M4 (1.86GHz Sonoma Pentium M)||1m 45s|
|Gateway 7426GX (AMD Athlon 3700+)||1m 39s|
|IBM ThinkPad T43 (1.86GHz Alviso Pentium M)||1m 45s|
|Fujitsu LifeBook N3510 (1.73 GHz Alviso Pentium M)||1m 48s|
|IBM ThinkPad T41 (1.6GHz Banias Pentium M)||2m 23s|
|Compaq R3000T (Celeron 2.8GHz)||3m 3s|
|Dell Inspiron 600m (1.6 GHz Dothan Pentium M)||2m 10s|
|Dell Inspiron 8600 (1.7GHz Banias Pentium M)||2m 28s|
PCMark04 Results (alongside IBM ThinkPad T43 1.86GHz Pentium M results)
|Futuremark PCMark04 Scores|
|IBM T43 (1.86GHz)||Toshiba Tecra M4 (1.86 GHz)|
|Multithreaded Test 1 / File Compression||3.33 MB/s||3.36 MB/s|
|Multithreaded Test 1 / File Encryption||27.19 MB/s||27.88 MB/s|
|Multithreaded Test 2 / File Decompression||23.4 MB/s||24.27 MB/s|
|Multithreaded Test 2 / Image Processing||10.88 MPixels/s||10.98 MPixels/s|
|Multithreaded Test 3 / Virus Scanning||1914.17 MB/s||1889.77 MB/s|
|Multithreaded Test 3 / Grammar Check||2.82 KB/s||2.94 KB/s|
|File Decryption||54.11 MB/s||55.26 MB/s|
|Audio Conversion||2496.87 KB/s||2537.37 KB/s|
|Web Page Rendering||5.27 Pages/s||5.57 Pages/s|
|DivX Video Compression||51.71 FPS||51.17 FPS|
|Physics Calculation and 3D||159.19 FPS||182.51 FPS|
|Graphics Memory – 64 Lines||868.44 FPS||1180.33 FPS|
If these benchmarks don’t mean anything to you I can tell you that the m4 makes a very decent gaming machine. I’ve been able to play Doom 3 with ultra high quality settings at 1280 x 1024 without any problems. I’ve heard that the new 77.72 forceware drivers can give better benchmark scores and better heat management, but I haven’t tried it as I’m still using Toshiba’s installed driver. I’ve also heard other people have had problems with their gpu overheating, but mine hasn’t sent me such a message yet.
Since getting my notebook I have not had to contact Toshiba again. However from my experiences before with regards to tracking my order I have found that their customer support has been very good.
The preinstalled software as well as the lack of recovery cds is probably my biggest complaint. Besides that everything seems pretty good. The left side of the keyboard can get fairly warm when playing games, but not too bad. The fan is also kind of loud, but still quieter than my old notebook. In long life mode the fan is either silent or never on.
This is a great notebook if you want a machine that can do practically anything. It can run all or nearly all of today’s most demanding games, and it can do what other notebooks can’t, act as a tablet. For someone looking for tablet functionality and not wanting to give up the power of a notebook the M4 can’t be beat.
Pricing and Availability