by Kevin Giberson
The first thing I did after receiving the Toshiba Tecra A8 review notebook from Toshiba was check the A8’s online price and availability. A quick search revealed four distinct configurations (custom configuration is not an option), with prices ranging from around $700 to just over $1200 at reputable online dealers. The cheapest option, model A8-EZ8311, contains an Intel Celeron M processor, 512MB RAM, a 60GB hard drive and a CDRW/DVD optical drive, while the model I received is the deluxe version of the A8, the A8-EZ8314, which features an Intel Core Duo CPU and 1GB RAM, along with a bigger hard drive and a full-featured optical drive. The most striking thing about the A8, in all its configurations, is the abundance of security and protection features, such as a fingerprint reader, a spill-resistant keyboard and shock absorption characteristics. These notebook enhancements, though not altogether surprising given the business orientation of the Tecra line, seem quite generous in view of the pricing of the A8.
Toshiba Tecra A8 Specs:
Toshiba Tecra A8 15.4" screen notebook (view large image)
I was initially surprised, and very pleased, to find that the A8 includes a pointing stick, along with the standard touchpad. I also liked the conventional look, which is mostly silver, though the LCD bezel and keyboard are black (as all keyboards should be). I did notice, however, that all 3 USB ports are at the rear of the notebook, which can be somewhat inconvenient. Overall, the A8 is rather close to my own notebook, a Dell Precision M65, in terms of size, weight and appearance, so it almost felt like I was dealing with the M65’s sibling: some noticeable differences, yes, especially the lower 1280 x 800 resolution of the A8, but similar enough to be part of the same lineage. But I guess there are only so many things to be done with a 15.4” notebook, aside from maybe giving it an odd-colored keyboard, which makes little sense anyway. All of that said, I find the A8 to be an attractive, functional-looking machine.
Design and Build
Toshiba Tecra A8 lid (view large image)
The A8 strikes me as well made and sturdy. I say this without qualification, meaning I see no significant differences in build quality between the A8 and the workstation-class M65 I normally use, but I also say it with the A8’s price in mind. The overall design and build are quite impressive when cost is considered.
Front view of Tecra A8 (view large image)
Left side view of Tecra A8 (view large image)
Right side view of Tecra A8 (view large image)
Back view of Tecra A8 (view large image)
Tecra A8 WXGA TruBrite screen (view large image)
The WXGA TruBrite glossy screen, with a resolution of 1280x800, is excellent: very bright and crisp, with no dead pixels and virtually no light leakage. Although my preference in a 15.4” notebook is WSXGA, the A8’s screen is nice enough to make me overlook the additional scrolling required at the lower resolution. And, of course, if a notebook manufacturer is going to offer only one resolution, WXGA is really the only way to go. While it’s possible to adjust to a lower resolution LCD, most people will complain loudly when presented with text that they consider too tiny. One final note about the screen: the lower-end configurations of the A8 come with a matte LCD, rather than the TruBrite panel of this review model.
Straight on look at screen (view large image)
Screen view from above (view large image)
Given the A8’s target audience and orientation, it’s no surprise that graphics processing is supplied by the ubiquitous Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950 GPU, which does exactly what it’s supposed to do, meaning office and multimedia work, but falls short when it comes to graphics-intensive applications such as gaming and video editing.
Much like the video, the built-in sound performs well enough. The speakers are about as loud and clear as those of any notebook I’ve listened to, but as always, an audio-rich movie or music experience requires headphones or external speakers. There is a handy volume-adjustment wheel on the front of the A8.
Processor and Performance
The CPU, an Intel Core Duo T2400, is a fine performer, as has been well documented by now. Also, with a full gigabyte of RAM, this A8 never showed any lag at all. I’ve always been impressed with the Core Duo, and though it might be nice, from a performance standpoint, to get a Core 2 Duo notebook, I would guess that the regular old Core Duo is still more than adequate enough for the needs of most people, at least when talking about general productivity and multimedia use.
Interestingly, the A8 took exactly the same time as the recently reviewed Toshiba Tecra M6 to calculate pi to 2 million digits of accuracy, using Super Pi. This, despite the M6’s use of the slower (1.66 GHz) T2300E:
|Notebook||Time to Calculate Pi to 2 Million Digits|
|Toshiba Tecra A8 (1.83GHz Intel T2400)||1m 18s|
|HP dv6000z (1.8GHz Turion64 X2 TL-56)||1m 54s|
|Compaq V3000T(1.6GHz Core Duo)||1m 26s|
|Dell Inspiron e1505 (2.00 GHz Core 2 Duo)||1m 02s|
|Toshiba A100(2.0GHz Core Duo)||1m 18s|
|Acer Aspire 5102WLMi(1.6GHz Turion64 X2 TL-50||2m 22s|
|Gateway E-100M(1.2GHz Core Solo ULV)||2m 02s|
|Dell Inspiron 600m (1.6 GHz Dothan Pentium M)||2m 10s|
|HP dv5000z(2.0GHz Sempron 3300+)||2m 02s|
The 3DMark05 graphics benchmark score proves yet again that if you want to game, you’ll need to look for something besides the GMA 950 GPU:
|Notebook||3D Mark 05 Results|
|Toshiba Tecra A8 (1.83 GHz Intel T2400, Intel GMA 950)||543 3D Marks|
|Dell Inspiron e1705 (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400)||1,791 3D Marks|
|Acer TravelMate 8204WLMi (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1600 256MB)||4,236 3DMarks|
|Alienware Aurora M-7700(AMD Dual Core FX-60, ATI X1600 256MB)||7,078 3D Marks|
|Lenovo ThinkPad T60 (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400 128MB)||2,092 3D Marks|
|Asus V6Va (2.13 GHz Pentium M, ATI x700 128 MB)||2,530 3D Marks|
|Fujitsu n6410 (1.66 GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400 128MB)||2,273 3DMarks|
|HP Pavilion dv4000 (1.86 GHz Pentium M, ATI X700 128MB)||2,536 3D Marks|
|Dell XPS M1210 (2.16 GHz Core Duo, nVidia Go 7400 256MB)||2,090 3D Marks|
Another synthetic benchmark we use is Futuremark's PCMark 05. This is a good general measure of system performance. The Tecra A8 achieved a score of 3,038.
|Toshiba Tecra A8 (1.83 GHz Intel T2400, Intel GMA 950)||3,038 PCMarks|
|Fujitsu N6410 (1.66GHz Core Duo)||3,487 PCMarks|
|Alienware M7700 (AMD Athlon FX-60)||5,597 PCMarks|
|Sony Vaio SZ-110B in Speed Mode (Using Nvidia GeForce Go 7400)||3,637 PCMarks|
|Panasonic ToughBook T4 (Intel 1.20GHz LV)||1,390 PCMarks|
|Asus V6J (1.86GHz Core Duo T2400)||3,646 PCMarks|
|Sony VAIO FE590 (1.83GHz Core Duo)||3,427 PCMarks|
Details for the PCMark05 results are below:
|HDD – XP Startup||5.8 MB/s|
|Physics and 3D||73.6 FPS|
|Transparent Windows||132.6 Windows/s|
|3D – Pixel Shader||13.09 FPS|
|Web Page Rendering||2.61 Pages/s|
|File Decryption||45.49 MB/s|
|Graphics Memory – 64 Lines||477.98 FPS|
|HDD – General Usage||3.74 MB/s|
|Multithreaded Test 1 / Audio Compression||1854.65 KB/s|
|Multithreaded Test 1 / Video Encoding||277.4 KB/s|
|Multithreaded Test 2 / Text Edit||96.71 Pages/s|
|Multithreaded Test 2 / Image Decompression||21.6 Mpixels/s|
|Multithreaded Test 3 / File Compression||4.03 MB/s|
|Multithreaded Test 3 / File Encryption||22.98 MB/s|
|Multithreaded Test 3 / HDD – Virus Scan||42.79 MB/s|
|Multithreaded Test 3 / Memory Latency – Random 16 MB||7.32 Maccesses/s|
Hard drive performance, using HD Tune as the measure, was as follows:
My experience with the A8 as a whole has been remarkably positive, but input devices were something of a mixed bag. On the one hand, the inclusion of a fingerprint reader and a pointing stick in a very well appointed, inexpensive machine is a very pleasant surprise. Moreover, the keyboard is comfortable and usable, with good overall feel, travel and responsiveness. On the other hand, there are a couple of design eccentricities that I could never really get used to or understand, though I suspect more time with the A8 would have resulted in all the necessary adjustments.
Keyboard and touchpad view (view large image)
The first problem I had was related to the pointing stick. Although there are slight variations in pointing sticks offered by different manufacturers, the stick itself worked like a charm and I used it extensively. But I just couldn’t get used to the location of the stick’s “right” button, which was not a right button at all, but a smaller version of the curved main button, positioned below the main button and embedded in the touchpad. As long as I just used the stick and the “left” button, which in this case was the top button, everything was great and usage was very pleasant and comfortable. But as soon as I needed to right click, to view the properties of a file, say, I found myself groping. Of course, none of this even matters if you use the touchpad instead of the stick, if you’ve never been corrupted by the beauty and utility of an IBM/Lenovo TrackPoint. The touchpad itself is on the smallish side for a 15.4” notebook, and the button embedded at its top may bother some, but I found it eminently usable when I did use it. Were I to keep the A8, I imagine I would continue with the pointing stick and force myself to adjust to the “right” button, but I think the touchpad would work fine too.
As I said, the keyboard offered a very pleasant typing experience. However, I did find myself wishing that the layout conformed better to what I’m used to. There were a couple of little oddities that bothered me: 1) the Windows key is at the far upper right-hand corner of the keyboard, to the right of the function keys; 2) the left-hand non-alphanumeric keys (e.g., Caps Lock, Tab and Shift) are narrower than usual; and 3) The keyboard itself is off center, in relation to the base of the notebook. Given that the A8 is a good-sized 15.4” notebook, the culprit behind all of these issues would seem to be the function-button panel to the left of the keyboard. The power button is also at the top of this panel, though it seems it could have gone just about anywhere. One of the two dedicated function buttons placed on the panel launches Toshiba Assist, which provides a number of system utilities, while the other button switches the display mode for use with a projector or external display. My unshakeable opinion is that this left-hand panel and its dedicated buttons are not worth the keyboard oddities that seem to have resulted. Can you get used to the half-size Tab key, the nearly banished Windows key and the off-center keyboard? Yes, probably. I don’t imagine it would take me too long to adjust. On the other hand, if you’re regularly switching between the A8 and a desktop with a standard keyboard, you may find yourself groping for certain keys. Sure, you can always use another keyboard with the A8, but I do find this design decision utterly baffling.
The 6-cell battery lasted for two hours and fifteen minutes, with wireless enabled and the LCD at its brightest setting. I was using the A8 continuously during this time, and made no effort to maximize battery life. A more battery-friendly user should get considerably more time before having to plug back in.
Under side view and a look at the battery (view large image)
Heat and Noise
Heat and noise were never a problem. The A8 stayed cool and quiet the whole time I had it. Occasionally I noticed the fan coming on, but it never seemed to run for very long. What was especially striking was that the entire bottom of the machine stayed cool. Other notebooks, I’ve noticed, often have a tendency to get warm in certain spots, on either the left or the right bottom, depending on the location of certain components. The palm rests can also be an area of concern. The A8, however, had no heat issues whatsoever.
The Intel PRO/Wireless 3945 worked flawlessly.
Service and Support
The Tecra A8 comes with a one-year warranty but various enhancements, including accident protection, are available.
Although the A8 came with quite a bit more junk software than some other business-class machines I’ve used, everything I actually wanted to use worked just fine, and XP Pro ran well too. I have no insight into the subtle interplay of notebook pricing and third-party advertising, but I suppose if unwanted software serves to lower a notebook’s cost, it’s a small price to pay.
When looking at computers, and notebooks particularly, my mind immediately, habitually begins processing two distinct bits of information: price and configuration. Upon receiving the A8 and looking at the online prices, those two pieces of information resulted in the almost reflex conclusion that the Tecra A8 is a stellar deal: a full-featured notebook, with XP Pro installed, a fingerprint reader, Trusted Platform Module (TPM) hardware-based encryption, and a pointing stick, all for somewhere between $900 and $1250 or so, depending on the exact configuration. (Personally, I wouldn’t be interested in the Celeron M model, though it may make sense for some people.) If you can live without a DVD burner, one of the lower-priced machines makes a lot of sense, but even if you do opt for the deluxe optical drive, the price is excellent, given all of the above. During nearly two weeks of regular use, I have seen nothing that would cause me to revise my initial reaction that the A8 offers exceptional value. The outstanding features of the A8, along with its overall quality and performance, certainly mitigate my criticisms concerning input device placement and design.
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