by Perry Longinotti, Alberta Canada
Toshiba Portege M300 (view larger image)
A few weeks ago Toshiba announced their EasyGuard feature bundle. It seemed like a rather innocuous announcement and was a little vague on details, but I read it as, We are Toshiba, we practically invented the modern notebook industry and we are tired of other companies riding our coat tails and competing only by undercutting prices.' Right-on Toshiba!
My personal opinion is that in the face of increasing pressure from the Original Design Manufacturers (ODMs) that produce most of the notebooks on the market, the best course of action Toshiba is to lead through innovation. Make that R&D budget work for you. Sure, many people want a basic usable notebook and the ODM machines suffice -- heck, even Toshiba contracts out the assembly of some of their products. But not every consumer is obsessed with the race to zero. Some of us want or need great products. We seek well-engineered solutions to our computing challenges. After 20 years of making notebooks you can be sure that Toshiba has learned some things and that includes a pretty good idea of what the demanding user wants from their PC. It is time for them to start being more vocal about the intellectual property.
Toshiba seems to be rectifying the problem and is claiming that its new PC technologies will be exclusive to Toshiba for a period of time. This should give them a well-earned advantage - we all like to see the innovators succeed.
Toshiba M300 side-by-side with Sony PSP game device (view larger image)
One of the first models to be developed with this philosophy is the Toshiba PortegeM300. The latest addition to Toshiba's Portegeline of high-end laptops, the M300 is aimed directly at business users and in particular, frequent travelers. The M300 brings to the table features that while they are no longer brand new, are none-the-less cutting edge. For marketing purposes these features have been grouped together as the Toshiba EasyGuard Elements. In scope, they cover everything from physical attributes to security and configuration features.
I will elaborate on the specific technologies a bit more as the review unfolds, but to summarize EasyGuard consists of:
Toshiba Portege M300 Specs:
Out of Box Experience
Toshiba's notebooks are converging on a single design theme: silver top, black bottom. The lid and base are finished in metallic sliver finish that hides smudges and fingerprints well and the underside is black. It is a nice conservative look, but I preferred the single hinge clamshell design Toshiba used a couple of years ago. In my opinion it was more distinctive and appeared more durable -- but you can't please them all when it comes to aesthetics.
Construction and build quality are exactly what you would expect from an executive class notebook. It is clear that a lot of thought went into designing this machine. It isn't quite squeak and creak free and for this reason I still think that Toshiba can improve their fabrication process. T-Series ThinkPads, Apple PowerBooks and Fujitsu LifeBooks that I have handled feel just a bit more solid, but Toshiba is very close.
Toshiba has used a magnesium construction for the base of the PortegeM300. Magnesium is very light and can be quite rigid. To the touch, it feels as though the metal used for the base of the M300 is thicker than that used in the older PortegeM200 model. This results in a less flexible case, although as I mentioned earlier I would stop short of saying the M300 is flex free.
Toshiba M300 Lid (view larger image)
The lid and LCD screen frame are made of plastic. Metal would be nice, but it would also reduce WiFi range and that is a no-no for a laptop in this class. Lightly pressing on the lid when the M300 is closed reveals flexing. Many laptops have similarly flexible lids, but higher-end models from IBM, Apple, Fujitsu and even Toshiba do not. I don't like to see plastic flex on any laptop and would like to see Toshiba investigate better materials for their lids -- perhaps carbon fiber would be light enough and strong enough for this purpose.
While I did have a concern about the lid's construction the Toshiba Shock Protection Design mitigates it. The lid is designed to be smaller than the base of the M300. In the event of a drop, this design should protect the screen to some degree. Remember, the base is constructed of magnesium, which should be more impact resistant than plastic. Each corner of the M300 base is extended to create something similar to a crumple zone -- the idea being that extra material will prevent sensitive internal components from being crushed in the case of a fall. There are also a series of rubber grommets around the frame of the LCD that are meant to protect the LCD from impacts and forces that could cause it to crack. No, I did not test this feature.
In a direct comparison with other Portegemodels, I would rate the M300 as being comparable to both the sliver-like R100 and the M200 Tablet. If you have handled either, you will know what to expect from the M300.
Toshiba Portege M300 left side (view larger image)
Toshiba Portege M300 right side (view larger image)
Toshiba Portege M300 lid and back-side (view larger image)
Toshiba Portege M300 bottom (view larger image)
Hardware and Features
In terms of hardware, the M300 is quite good for an ultra-portable. Intel's Pentium-M 733 handles the 'thinking.' It is an ultra-low voltage (ULV) CPU that operates at 1.1 GHz and less when you need to conserve battery. Intel Speed Step technology when combined with the designed-for-mobility-from-the-ground-up Pentium-M really sets the benchmark in terms of clock speed throttling. It is a fully transparent power management scheme that does a great job of extending productivity away from DC power. A newer 1.2 GHz version of the ULV Pentium-M CPU was announced recently, but its omission is not a showstopper. The newer CPU uses the same bus speed, possesses the same amount of cache and adds only 100 MHz versus the M300's processor.
Overall system performance feels comparable to a 2.0 GHz P4M, in other words it is fine for business use. Office applications and various media players ran smooth. In my opinion ergonomics and battery life trump synthetic benchmarks when evaluating a machine like this.
When selecting the specifications for the M300 Toshiba did not use the newly released Intel Sonoma platform. It is perhaps telling that Intel decided not to call the Sonoma platform Centrino 2. When we have had a chance to review a Sonoma-based ultra thin I think the picture will become clearer, but for now I do not consider Sonoma's improvements to be must-have features in this class of notebook. Sonoma consists of a faster bus speed, dual channel DDR2 support, Serial ATA hard drives, Expresscard, and updated integrated graphics. For the M300's intended audience, it is not clear whether the new Sonoma technologies would add any tangible value, or boost productivity. When adding any new technology to a notebook in this class, the ultimate aim is to conserve energy.
Speaking of energy conservation and battery life, I found the M300 to manage 4-5 hours in mixed use with full brightness, lots of disk access and WiFi on all the time. Switching to an aggressive power saving profile stretches this to 6 hours. If you are putting the finishing touches on a PowerPoint, replying to a full inbox, or pounding away on a spreadsheet, you should get quite a bit of work done away from a power source with the M300. I think that it would make a pretty good choice for someone doing transcontinental trips.
Toshiba's Shock Protection Design makes an appearance here too -- the M300's power inverter features rubber wall to help protect it from impact. The inverter is a critical component of any notebook and regulates power. And lastly power brick is compact and easy to travel with.
Someone using an ultra thin, super compact and ultra low voltage notebook has different needs than a person who takes their laptop to LAN parties to play the latest games - that much is obvious. The M300 uses Intel's Extreme Graphics 2 integrated graphics solution that uses system memory for its frame buffer. I have friends at Intel, and I am sure their hearts were in the right place, but God bless them there is nothing at all extreme about this graphics solution! Intel Extreme Graphics 2 is a very good choice for a business laptop, and produces crisp and clear two-dimensional images but it will struggle with 3D. Keep in mind that when using a solution like Intel's Extreme Graphics 2, or any integrated graphics solution for that matter, you will lose 16-32 megabytes of system ram for the frame buffer and you should therefore spec the total system ram accordingly. If you want to play games with this laptop my advice would be to stick with two-dimensional games - or even better pick-up a Sony PSP or Nintendo DS and keep it in your laptop bag along with the M300.
Toshiba Portege M300 Screen (view larger image)
Viewing the LCD screen is easy on the eyes. Like other Toshiba business computers it forgoes flash for substance. You won't find any glare-friendly, headache-inducing, high-gloss finishes here. This is a screen that you can look at all day without developing sore eyes. It is not too bright, the contrast is just right, and the response rate is fast enough to allow you to enjoy watching DVDs without unpleasant and distracting ghosting.
The M300 uses common and inexpensive PC2700 DDR memory sticks. One ram slot is available for expansion, which is quite common for small notebooks like the M300. In this case it is occupied with a 256 MB stick of RAM (in addition to one non-accessible 256 MB stick). It would have been better if the slot was empty and the non-accessible stick was 512 MB in size.
The M300 ships with a hard drive featuring Toshiba's HDD Protection System. This system parks the read/write heads when it senses sudden movement (it has a built-in accelerometer) and is equipped with an airbag to physically protect the drive and your data. I am not sure if the accelerometer is built into the drive (for example the M200 Tablet PC has an accelerometer but no air bag), but the technology works. The moment the system senses a movement you will get a pop-up notice (you can turn off notification). Hard drives with built-in air bags exist in other high-end notebooks, but it is a welcome addition. The hard drive also benefits from Toshiba's Shock Protection Design with rubber impact grommets on each corner. Some thought has gone into making this a durable notebook.
Toshiba Portege M300 Hard Disk Drive protection utility (view larger image)
A big advantage that the M300 possesses over its ultra thin rivals is the presence of an optical drive. The optical drive in this case was a standard DVD/CDRW combo drive, the minimum that I would recommend at this level. It features the ability to set a quiet mode, which would be great during sleep time on long flights. A DVD-R is available and that would be my choice if buying the M300 if for no other reason that data backups. Toshiba bundles Sonic's authoring suite -- a nice treat and a step up from Drag n Drop CD or Easy CD Creator in my opinion. The handiest feature of this software is the ability to create full system recovery disks.
Wireless and Antenna
The Diversity Antenna, an EasyGuard element, offers built-in antennas for 2.4 GHz 802.11B/G, 2.4 GHz Bluetooth and 5 GHz 802.11A. The irony is that while the antenna itself is listed as a feature, this particular M300 lacks the necessary radios to support all of the antenna's supported wireless technologies. Despite the built in antennas, M300 uses Intel's 802.11B/G card. It would have been nice to see the new 802.11A/B/G card included to insure maximum connectivity wherever you are. WiFi performance was quite good. The M300 saw all the B/G networks in my neighborhood. Connection to my own secure WiFi network was also easy and trouble-free.
Bluetooth is optional but should be standard on this class of machine. From what I can tell, it seems to be a user installable upgrade. The convenience of Bluetooth for a traveler cannot be over-stated. Being able to easily connect to a cellular data network can come in really handy. Frankly it is hard to imagine members of the M300's intended audience not also possessing a phone with this technology. Fast infrared is included and is a good fallback option if nothing else is available.
Thankfully, the M300 comes with an assortment of user accessible slots (PCMCIA, Compact Flash, and SDIO). This can make traveling easier. It means that a number of exotic network adapters can be added in a pinch (GPRS, EDGE, EV-DO, and 1xRTT come to mind) and exchanging information between devices by using memory cards is easy. Sure, a USB drive accomplishes the same thing, but you never know when you might have to send a file when the only memory available is in a camera.
Ergonomics and Input
Ergonomically the M300 is good for such a compact notebook computer. I have reviewed laptops in the same class as this Toshiba that used non-standard keyboard layouts and this can be frustrating. Thankfully, Toshiba uses a common key layout with normal sized shift and enter keys and the function key was exactly where I expected it to be. Even though it is quite good, I was surprised by how much the keyboard flexes during typing. This may be a personal preference issue, but I prefer a keyboard with no flex. Power, Toshiba Assist, and presentation mode buttons are located along the left-hand side of the keyboard. If I were designing this notebook, I would place these buttons elsewhere to facilitate a slightly larger keyboard.
Toshiba Portege M300 Keyboard and Touchpad (view larger image)
EasyGuard touches even the keyboard on the M300. What if you hit some turbulence and your drink splashes on it? No problem, this Toshiba's keyboard was designed to be spill proof. According to Toshiba the M300 keyboard can survive having 30 cc of liquid poured onto it for long enough to turn the unit off to dry and/or clean it. Who among us has not consumed food or drink when working on their computer?
Occasionally I will receive laptops that require tweaking of the touch pad settings - this is to address everything form erratic pointer behavior to turning off some of the 'enhancements.' The M300 touch pad required no setup and I am happy to report it was gimmick-free. Some people may like using touch pad gestures for shortcuts but I find that they just get in the way. The touch pad buttons are tight and responsive.
Sound output is quite good for a notebook in this class. The stereo speakers are the best that I have heard on a 3.5-pound notebook. Despite their diminutive size they are loud and reproduce treble reasonably well. As you would expect from such small speakers, bass reproduction is a bit of a compromise. The M300 is perfectly suitable for DVD playback with or without headphones.
Security and Toshiba EasyGuard Utilities
This brings us to the next EasyGuard element: Toshiba ConfigFree I have traditionally been a big fan of the Toshiba software suite that accompanies their laptops, and I guess that I still am, but the newest version of Toshiba's ConfigFree software is a bit intrusive. This application is built using Macromedia's Authorware, so you get a rich graphical interface and lots of wizards or set-up doctors. In the past, ConfigFree would quietly monitor things such as wired and wireless network connections from Windows system tray. It would communicate to you if a problem arose through helpful taskbar pop-ups or through a cool screensaver that would illustrate nearby wireless networks and Bluetooth devices using a radar-like view. It still does both of these useful things but it now resides in both the taskbar and the lower right of your screen kind of the like the Drag n' Drop CD burning software that used to plague Toshiba notebooks. From what I can tell this application is growing a larger footprint without adding a lot of new functionality. By taking up a bit too many resources as it runs in the background, this utility may have outstayed its welcome. Personally, ConfigFree has helped me out of a jam or two so would leave it on.
If the thought of a full system tray and shared video memory on 512 MB notebook has you concerned about performance, remember that the extra software can be uninstalled. Given the M300's intended market IT departments may just skip these utilities altogether and give users a standardized install image.
Another Toshiba utility that fills out EasyGuard is the PC Diagnostic tool. It provides a quick summary of the notebook's specifications and configurations as well as a number of quick diagnostic tests. This is a nice tool for troubleshooting.
Trusted Platform Module
EasyGuard also features a hardware based security solution called the Trusted Platform Module (TPM). TPM uses an onboard chip (built onto the motherboard) in combination with a hardware-based key (USB dongle or SD Card) to authenticate users. Uses include file/folder encryption, secure email, secure websites and VPN, client or SecureID authentication. It is nice to see Toshiba supporting hardware based security features -- but it would be nice to see a biometric user authentication system (such as the ThinkPad T43's thumb scanner) rather than a USB dongle or SD Card key. This is especially true if you are already carrying around a proximity card and RSA key fob -- who wants to carry around another key?
Execute Disable Bit
Since we are on the topic of security, I should mention the M300's Execute Disable Bit (XD-Bit) feature. This is listed as part of the EasyGuard system, but this is common on Intel and AMD Athlon64 CPUs and support for this feature comes by way of Windows XP Service Pack 2. Therefore other Centrino based laptops will have this feature standard as well. Basically, XD-bit protects against buffer overflow exploits by marking certain areas of system memory for non-executable code.
Toshiba Portege M300 (left) and Toshiba Portege M200 Convertible Tablet (right) side-by-side (view larger image)
Business class travelers will love the M300 because it is in crowded travel environments that this notebook is particularly effective. Its long battery life, small size and low weight make it an ideal travel companion. EasyGuard protection, security and configuration elements provide ease of mind.
From personal experience, once you have traveled with a notebook like the M300 you will not want to go back to a 6-7 pound unit. Even with a couple of document folders the complete package of laptop, bag, power brick, and assorted printed materials will scarcely equal the weight of a standard sized 14-inch screen laptop. Not bad at all.
Maybe it is time for Toshiba to resurrect its classic television commercials that featured an absent minded business man panicking after realizing that he checked-in his Toshiba Satellite at the airport check-in counter along with his regular luggage or left it on the roof of a cab.
The M300 is a great business class laptop. It possesses an understated aesthetic that suggests quality without screaming out a brand message (glowing white apples come to mind). What I really like about the M300 line is its no-nonsense approach to business computing. EasyGuard technologies for the most part represent real value. Even without EasyGuard, the M300 would be worth a long look. But everything else being equal, I would rather have a notebook with these technologies -- particularly from a durability standpoint -- than one without.
Toshiba really knows how to focus on a segment and the M300 is another solid addition to the Portegeline up. It is compact, pleasingly portable, well-built, possessing a good spec and ready for business. This is a very solid, if not perfect, business notebook offering form Toshiba. It should be near the top of any IT manager's consideration list.
I will however add one caveat to my recommendation, order direct from Toshiba if you can so that you can take advantage of the build to order option. Built-in Bluetooth, A/B/G wireless and the DVD-R would be the items that I would add to the configuration.
Pricing and Availability
The Toshiba Portege M300 is currently available in Canada and Europe, it is unavailable in the U.S. at this time.
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