by Giuseppe Naylor, Louisiana USA
When I was first approached by NotebookReview.com about reviewing the Toshiba Tecra A3, one of the first notebooks based on the new Alviso chipsets and Pentium Ms to go with them, I was looking forward to telling everyone how much better the new chipsets were over the older, archaic 400 MHz FSB chipsets. Unfortunately, I will not be able to do so with this particular system, as the computer itself is hobbled by its supporting hardware.
Toshiba Tecra A3 (view larger image)
Toshiba Tecra A3 Specs
First, let me explain what this "Alviso" business means to you. The past Pentium Ms, both Banias and Dothan, have been praised as a wonderful portable CPU, built from the ground-up as a portable CPU. In many respects, this remains the truth. There have been limitations, though, to the system. It is based largely on the P6 architecture, which was the basis of the Pentium Pro (for those of you who can remember that far back), and therefore has a few limitations. One of these limitations has been the 400MHz FSB, which has been mainly a motherboard limitation. This limits the amount of information that flows between the CPU and the rest of the system. While Pentium 4s (NetBurst) have been throttled to a 1066MHz FSB (as it turns out, it is necessary to make up for the 31 stage pipeline), Pentium Ms have languished at nearly a quarter of the speed. The Alviso chipset (officially, the Mobile Intel 915GM Express) makes up for this deficiency.
The chipset also includes a different integrated graphics controller. Integrated graphics will do for day-to-day operations and standard word processing and office tasks, but still does not compare to the power of a dedicated GPU, even a weak one, when playing games.
The MI 915GM Express also gives the Pentium M access to the PCI Express platform, the newest graphics and supporting hardware technology. Graphics-wise, the system will replace the AGP slot, providing faster speeds and two-way communications with future graphics cards. 1x slots will eventually replace the ubiquitous PCI slots one day in the near future. Unfortunately, this system does not make use of this new technology, and only provides Intel's newest shared architecture, which will be discussed further into this article.
Finally, the Pentium M has been given a faster FSB speed to match the chipset's abilities at 533MHz. This particular system has a 730 with a speed of 1.6Ghz. The architecture is the same as the 725, with its 2MB of L2 cache.
Upon opening the system, you will notice that this system is not designed to be a revolution in external design. Except for the top cover of the display and the touchpad buttons, which are silver, the entire system is black. The impression Toshiba seems to be sending is "This is all business." This idea is well conveyed in the button-up look.
Toshiba Tecra A3 front view (view larger image)
There are three small buttons above the keyboard. These are reminiscent of IBM business machines. The first and largest button is the power button, which is framed in a matrix green. The second is the "Toshiba Assist" button, which brings you to a pop-up screen that is able to set connectivity, allows for optimization, and gives an option for fixing a system, similar to the blue button on IBM systems. The third button is called the "Presentation" button for external monitors and digital projectors.
The port placement is laid out very well, with all three USB ports (2.0) placed on the front-right edge of the computer. In terms of actual use, they are placed relatively close together, and one will probably not be able to place more than 2 devices into the ports without running out of space. Other ports include a S-video out port, PC Card, Firewire (i-Link) port, and standard audio out-in jacks. Only the VGA port and 10/100 and modem outlets are placed on the rear of the machine, making most external device connections very easy reach and access.
Toshiba Tecra A3 Right Side View
In keeping with the businessman's ideal, there are two legacy ports almost never seen in modern notebooks. There is a parallel port for connecting to older printers, and a serial port. There is not much that still uses a serial port, but it is there in case you need it. There is even an IR port for your older PDAs or other similar devices that came before the bluetooth era (which this machine also has).
Toshiba Tecra A3 Left Side View
The battery is located in the rear of the machine, and can be easily removed for replacement or changing. It is a 6-cell, so the traveling man will want to purchase a spare for long travel times. This also leaves the possibility of a larger battery that juts out from the back for improved battery longevity.
Toshiba Tecra A3 Back View
The speakers are located above the keyboard, and the speaker screen stretches across the width of the notebook, even though the speakers themselves are only about 1.5" in diameter. It is not an offensive look, but it seems redundant and unnecessary, especially in a business machine.
Left side of Toshiba Tecra A3 with drive open (view larger image)
The keyboard feel is poor for a business system. Some of the buttons need to be pressed relatively firmly, while others are overly sensitive. The layout is relatively standard and spaced well for touch-typists, but the delete button is in a strange position next to the space key. The buttons carry a very light plastic feel to them, the space button is relatively unresponsive, and the sound when depressed is not very firm. While this might be a picky subject to some, others, especially those who use their systems in a business environment, will immediately have IBM-envy when it comes to the keyboard.
Toshiba Tecra A3 Keyboard (view larger image)
Finally, the system weight puts it just into the thin and light category at a published 6 pounds. Effective travel weight, though, will be around the 7 pound range. It is not as heavy as a mainstream or DTR, but it is also not the lightest system you can purchase. Remember also that, as a general rule of thumb, light means money. For most on top of the lap uses, this machine will satisfy.
The list of internal hardware features that are available are impressive in some ways, and quite unimpressive in others.
For example, this system includes the newest CPU and chipset available in the current notebook market, the aforementioned Alviso and Intel Pentium M 730. This is an improvement over the previous generation, although how much of one remains a contentious point.
At the same time, the system is saddled with a 4200 RPM hard drive with only 40GB of space, and 256 MB of RAM. The RAM is especially badly thought out, as the shared video memory utilizes up to 128MB of system RAM for graphics acceleration, leaving only 128MB of RAM for system functions. As Windows XP uses 128MB as a minimum, expect to use a lot of virtual memory, only slowed by the 4200RPM speed. These two major deficiencies do show on applications, as we will discuss later. As a rule, purchasing this system should include about an extra $50-$100 for another stick of memory to place into the vacant slot, easily accessible from the bottom of the notebook. If this machine can be configured with 512MB of RAM, you should do so without hesitation.
A look at the Tecra A3 internals and RAM (view larger image)
There is a wireless turn-off switch in the front. It is not controlled by the function keys, a welcome departure from some other manufacturers. The wireless card is of the Intel 2200 b/g variety, and is fully integrated. An orange light indicates that the card is on.
Toshiba touts zero wireless configuration. By default, though, the wireless card is turned off upon shipping. This is common among manufacturers, but most first time users do not know this. Remember to turn it on before proceeding with your setup.
The tray-feed DVD/CD-RW is located on the right side of the notebook, and is relatively standard in terms of speeds-24x for CD writes, rewrites, and reads, and 8x for DVD reads. It reacts quickly when the open button is pushed, but the spring to close the tray is somewhat tight. It probably loosens over time, but, brand new, you will have to push relatively strongly. This is not the best idea when you are trying to balance it on your lap.
Finally, the display is nothing less than fantastic for a notebook of this price. It is bright and clear, belying its max 1024x768 resolution. The display is so bright that it can give you a sun tan if you are not careful! All letters are clear, and all information on the display is excellently created and displayed in high or true color. The display is one of, if not THE, best features of this notebook.
All Microsoft Windows machines are basically the same upon first startup, which configuration options, etc. We will therefore skip this part, and start from the first fully configured startup as a reference.
This notebook runs Windows XP Professional. From a business point of view, this is the best operating system available (sorry Linux/Mac fans). It automatically configures to multiple networks and allows for greater security features, although SP2 has brought Home pretty much up to spec in this regard. This version of XP is preloaded with SP2 as well. For those business users that have apps that do not run properly on SP2, you might want to keep those old install disks and go back to XP Pro SP1.
This system also comes with Microsoft OneNote. For taking notes, there is no better program. Originally designed for users with Tablets, it does well for taking notes during business meetings, or just jotting down notes that come to mind while doing something else.
Unfortunately, after adding XP Pro, there is only a 60 day trial version of Microsoft Office 2003 Small Business, which includes PowerPoint, Publisher, Word, Outlook, and Excel. This is not just a Toshiba issue. Most OEMs only include the trial version. It costs upwards of $300 to get the full version, so this cost-saving measure is well thought out. The software itself is very good, and, if you start using it, you will end up wanting to buy it. It is much more stable than OpenOffice/StarOffice, and is integrated very well into the OS (of course, it's Microsoft). Unless you need Publisher, I would recommend purchasing the student/teacher edition if you wanted to continue running Office. It runs around $150. If you already have a license for Office SB, then you can enter it into the activation screen.
Toshiba utilizes a recovery partition. It allows for only 30GB of hard drive space for your apps and storage, but also keeps the user from having to carry around the recovery disk. Toshiba also allows users to create backup disks, either CD or DVD. As this notebook does not have a DVD writer, this is not an option in this case. Also included in this system is a PC Diagnostic tool, connectivity tools, hardware configuration software and others included in Toshiba Assist. This is an excellent addition to this system, and gives IBM's Rescue and Recovery a run for its money.
All of the other usual suspects are here in terms of software. WMP 10, Internet Explorer, and Norton AV 2005 (three month trial) are all here. There is also a gaggle of unnecessary functions, such as multiple signups for internet services (AOL, AT&T), links to buy stuff from Toshiba, and (shudder) Napster. Napster is even integrated into WMP 10. Most users will want to erase most of this before continuing.
Now we come to the crux of the matter-how does the system function. Boot times are relatively quick, at about 35-45 seconds, depending on installed applications. When booted, however, you see a problem with the way Toshiba configures there machines.
A quick look into the Windows Task Manager shows 63 processes running when booted. This is a huge number for a fresh configuration, as most other systems run only 25-35 processes. The quick launch screen is cluttered with redundant apps. Windows wireless connection icons are mixed with Toshiba connection icons. There are two icons for the touchpad. The modem icon is omni-present, even though most users will rarely even use the modem. The graphics driver also appears on the quick launch menu, even though most users will find it unnecessary. Unfortunately, this is a foreshadowing of things to come.
The large number of running processes, coupled with the slow hard drive and low amount of RAM, slows opening apps to a crawl. Microsoft Word takes 15+ seconds to open. Internet Explorer is equally as slow in opening. WMP 10 takes up to one minute to open. Most of these issues can be attributed to the slow hard drive and the RAM.
Multitasking is another area where this system does not excel. Pentium Ms have never been known as a multitasking device, and this notebook does not dispel this notion. Compared to other PM computers, this notebook does multitask slightly quicker, but the differences will be negligible to most users.
Once applications are open, however, they tend to run relatively smoothly. Most simple tasks will run with little or no problems, and having an Excel, Word, and Explorer window open at the same time will not cause major slowdowns. Opening more graphics-intensive software, however, will cause switching back and forth between programs to bog down the system, and the new window will be slow to activate.
Below are some numbers on how long it took the Tecra A3 to calculate Pi to 2 Million digits of precision, in the NotebookReview.com forums we have a thread in which everyone is invited to download the program "Super Pi" that enables you to run this calculation and benchmark how well your processor performs relative to others.
The Tecra A3 turns in nice performance calculating Pi to 2 million digits thanks to its Intel Pentium M 1.6GHz processor (view larger image)
|Notebook||Time to Calculate Pi to 2 Million Digits|
|Toshiba Tecra A3 (1.6GHz Alviso Pentium M)||1m 57s|
|Dell Inspiron 700m (1.6GHz Dothan Pentium M)||2m 10s|
|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|
With the Pentium M, it is all about power with decent battery life. The A3 does provide a good battery life at between 3 and 4 hours, but still does not match the span of champs like the HP Compaq nc6000. It is still better battery life than you will find with most mainstreams, however, and better than DTRs, even those equipped with the same CPU. This is a place where the slow hard drive actually helps the battery performance, as slower spinning drives utilize less energy.
The A3 also tends to get warmer than most other machines in its class. While there is no danger of overheating, the bottom does get hot to the touch after a few hours of use. The fans are a pleasant surprise, however, as they make very little noise, and are barely noticeable when they do switch on.
Gaming and Graphics
The A3 is not made to play games, nor is it geared for any extensive graphics applications. With older games, however, there are no problems. Shogun -- Total War plays very well on the system, as well as 1602 and Homeworld. If you are looking to play FarCry, Rome-Total War, or Half Life 2 on this system, think again. Half Life 2 would not even install, and FarCry ran at an average of 10 frames per second.
The newest Intel Graphics controller is about equivalent to an older ATI Mobility Radeon 7500 with a lot more available memory. It can allot up to 128MB of system RAM to the graphics subsystem. This helps to cover up some of the weaknesses of the actual controller itself.
Movies play quite smoothly on the DVD/CD-RW drive. Toshiba has installed its acoustic silencing system, so the drive itself is very quiet...nothing like the whir of other drives you might be used to. InterVideo 5 comes preinstalled, and is the preeminent decoder available at this time. If you do plan on playing movies on your trip, you might want to bring along headphones, as the speakers are very tinny and do not have nearly any bass.
We must base the evaluation of this notebook on others in its price range of about $1100. HP sells its new ze2000 series for the same price with the older Pentium M 725, but with double the RAM. Dell sells their Inspiron 600m for $50 more with double the RAM and a modular bay, but only with XP Home, and does NOT include a wireless card at this price. Including one costs $39.00.
When we look at this comparison, the A3 does not look that bad at all. You get the new chipset and CPU, and you can always upgrade the memory and hard drive. It is not so easy to replace a motherboard and CPU, if at all possible. At the price charged, other manufacturers do not give you the same possibilities as the Toshiba A3 does.
If you are looking for a relatively light, inexpensive, and business-oriented notebook with very good battery life, then the A3-S611 should be at the top of your list. For business people, this is an ideal secondary or travel system, with a no-nonsense appearance and approach. Just remember to save some money for another hard drive and more RAM. And have your fingers ready to delete a lot of unnecessary software.
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