by Dustin Sklavos
OVERVIEW AND INTRODUCTION
Toshiba's M115-S3094 (view large image)
Toshiba's catchily named Satellite M115-S3094 is a mainstream notebook. The system as reviewed is priced at $749, and is configured as follows:
This is a retail model that was graciously sent to us by Toshiba for review.
Toshiba is actually one of my pet brands. My first and best laptop experiences were on Toshibas, so the opportunity to use one of their units is always a pleasant one and frankly, I'm a bit biased toward them.
I've heard claims that their build quality and customer service quality have declined over the years. While I can't say anything for the latter, I'm certainly consistently impressed by the former.
BUILD AND DESIGN
Toshiba employs the familiar gray and black motif that has become customary on modern notebooks. Whether or not the design appeals to you will be a matter of preference; on the one hand I respect the business-oriented look of the Toshiba, on the other I feel like their visual styling is a bit out of date.
Typical, mainstream Toshiba design (view large image)
In terms of build quality and heat dissipation, I'm fairly impressed, and this is the major benefit of the somewhat boxy design of the notebook. There is no flex to speak of anywhere in the body, and the whole design is marked by clean lines and order.
While the whole unit seems a bit on the thick side, the benefits lie in the components being less cramped. The unit has a well-placed single exhaust on the left side that expels warm air, and the unit at large feels remarkably cool. Also, despite the thickness of the machine, the slope on the surface helps eliminate a potentially uncomfortable lip (similar to the one on my old Gateway 7510GX), and the unit isn't too heavy.
Sturdy, smart design: hard wireless switch and an analog volume control (view large image)
One thing about the design I absolutely adore is Toshiba's commitment to hard switches. Specifically, instead of a toggle button, there's an authentic hard switch for enabling and disabling the wireless. And my absolute favorite: an analog volume control. Analog volume control has almost universally fallen out of favor - even my MP3 deck in my car doesn't have one - so I get giddy whenever I see one. It's very convenient to be able to control the audio outside of software; for example, when booting your notebook in a crowded hall, you may not want to alert EVERYONE to its presence.
All the benefits and drawbacks of a 14" screen (view large image)
The screen is a 14" glossy widescreen at 1280x800, or in lay terms, "standard issue." I've seen griping in reviews here and there about manufacturers not including higher resolution screens but honestly, at this size, this resolution really is just fine and I have no qualms with it.
The screen itself is a joy to use as good glossies typically are. While I've admittedly lost a bit of my admiration for glossy screens, I still think they're ideal on most notebooks and this Toshiba is no exception. Viewing angles seem to be a reoccurring problem for 14" screens (I know not why), and this one has similar problems although nowhere near as bad as, for example, as the screen on my ASUS A8Jm, which has HORRENDOUSLY bad viewing angles.
Hinges, however, are surprisingly sturdy with virtually no wobble, and the cover has minimal flex. If you elect to pick up this notebook, build quality certainly won't be an issue as I'm surprised at how well constructed the screen and its bezel are.
Does the screen itself stand out from the pack? No. But it doesn't inspire disappointment either, and is really quite pleasant to use. More than that, it doesn't wobble and is very comfortable to use.
Well-placed speakers (view large image)
No one's ever going to accuse notebook speakers of sounding good, but comparatively speaking, the ones Toshiba has outfitted the Satellite M115 with are surprisingly loud and with fairly decent fidelity. Bass is pitiful as to be expected, but the speakers offer more than passable sound quality all things considered.
Again, need I remind you? ANALOG VOLUME CONTROL. FOR THE WIN.
PROCESSOR AND PERFORMANCE
Before I get into benchmarks, I want to make two things abundantly clear:
That said, in casual use I found the system to be fairly snappy despite having so many processes running, so you can imagine how well it must perform without them. Intel's decision to make value-oriented Core Duo parts was a great idea.
Given that this unit uses a GMA 950, I don't have to tell you it's not a gaming machine and will never be mistaken for one. As a result, 3DMark tests aren't really worth running, since all they're going to do is remind you that you shouldn't be doing any serious gaming on this machine. That said, mild, casual gaming is certainly possible on it with older titles (Quake 3 or Unreal Tournament 1999) and Pop Cap games.
Below are comparison results for running the program Super Pi that forces the processor to calculate the number Pi to 2 million digits of accuracy:
|Toshiba Satellite M115 (1.60GHz Core Duo)||1m 28s|
|Lenovo ThinkPad T60 (2.0GHz Core Duo)||1m 18s|
|Dell Inspiron e1705 (2.0GHz Core 2 Duo)||1m 02s|
|Lenovo ThinkPad T60 (2.0GHz Core Duo)||1m 18s|
|Toshiba A100 (2.0GHz Core Duo)||1m 18s|
|Samsung X60 (1.66GHz Core Duo)||1m 29s|
|Sony VAIO FS680 (1.86GHz Pentium M)||1m 53s|
|IBM ThinkPad T43 (1.86GHz Pentium M)||1m 45s|
|HP dv5000z (2.0GHz Sempron 3300+)||2m 02s|
The SuperPI score is fairly impressive. Given the budget market for this notebook, this is a heck of a lot of power to be packing for the price, clocking in only 10s under a 2GHz T2500 Core Duo.
A 5400rpm notebook drive is pretty much par for the course these days, but is still pretty respectable here (view large image)
Interestingly, Toshiba has employed a Hitachi Travelstar in this notebook instead of one of their own hard drives. This isn't a bad thing; Toshiba drives are rarely actively sought out, as competitors tend to offer superior performance, but it's nonetheless a little unusual.
What is even more striking is how uneven the hard drive performance is, especially from such a strong middle-of-the-road contender as the Hitachi. Typically HD Tune only gets maybe one or two dips in transfer rate along a fairly consistent curve, but here it dips with alarming regularity. I'd be apt to attribute this to the vast number of processes running on the system that may be interfering with its operation.
That said, the overall benchmark scores are in line with drives of its caliber, and it enjoys the benefits of reduced CPU usage and Native Command Queueing through the Serial ATA interface.
|Toshiba Satellite M115 (1.60 GHz Core Duo)||4,114 PCMarks|
|Dell XPS M1210 (2.16 GHz Core Duo)||6,033 PCMarks|
|Lenovo V100 (2.00 GHz Core Duo)||4,665 PCMarks|
|Dell Inspiron XPS2 (2.0GHz Intel Pentium M)||4,082 PCMarks|
|Acer Aspire 5002 WLMi (AMD Turion 64 ML-30 1.6GHz)||2,392 PCmarks|
|Acer TravelMate 4400 (AMD Turion ML-30, 1.6GHz)||3,104 PCMarks|
|PortableOne SR2 (Intel Pentium M Dothan 735 1.7GHz)||3,274 PCMarks|
In striking distance of the T2300
The score of 4114 puts the Toshiba within striking distance of notebooks with an Intel Core Duo T2300, and I have no doubt that with a bit of optimization it could be brought even higher. Again, not an incredible score, but a good one all things considered.
I've found the unit to be perfectly respectable. Ignoring these synthetic benchmarks for a second, as I've said before, I think this computer offers incredible value in terms of performance for the price.
KEYBOARD AND TOUCHPAD
Good keyboard layout, but overall design is cramped in the extreme (view large image)
Someone at Toshiba hates your hands, and wishes to exact bitter vengeance against them. The one thing I've really railed against modern Toshiba notebooks for is the media bar on the left hand side. As a result, the keyboard is very cramped and I'm pretty sure the keys are smaller than standard issue. I started writing this review on the Toshiba and while admittedly my hands and wrists aren't in the best shape, I found myself cramping up terribly typing on it, no matter how many times and ways I adjusted my position. The media bar also places you at an awkward typing angle in relation to the screen (similar to how number pads on notebooks can).
What I do like about the keyboard - and this will be a point of contention, I've no doubt - is the layout. Toshiba has a layout that they employ sometimes (much more frequently on older Toshibas) that's in practice here, and I've always been fond of it. My typing style has since adjusted to the layout of each notebook I've had since my first one - a Toshiba - but once you adjust to this one, I suspect you'll find it very convenient and easy to use. It's one of those things that tempts me to seek out a Toshiba; keys wind up being their proper size and the keyboard as a whole becomes very functional. Now if the keyboard itself was properly sized on this unit...
The touchpad is also touch and go. I immensely prefer recessed touchpads like this one, which are far less prone to accidental bumps (like the one on my A8Jm has been receiving), and the buttons are for the most part comfortable to use. The pad itself is actually one of the better ones I've used, with a good, smooth texture and excellent sensitivity and response that makes me convinced other manufacturers just cheap out here. To wit: I have yet to use a bad Toshiba or Sony touchpad.
Unfortunately, the touchpad is just too small. I love the recess, but I keep hitting the edges. I don't miss the scrollbar (I'm sure people use them, but I always found their sensitivity too wonky and hated the real estate they occupied), but I really wish the touchpad was bigger. I have spindly, spidery fingers - no fat fingers by any stretch of the imagination - and for me to feel confined by it tells me it's definitely too small.
Still, the sensitivity and texture are excellent and with some adjustment, I found it to be a joy to use - I just had to limit myself a bit.
INPUT AND OUTPUT PORTS
VGA Port, S-Video Port, cooling vent, PCMCIA slot, 4-pin FireWire, and SD/Memory Stick slot (view large image)
Connectivity is standard for a notebook in the mainstream segment. While the absence of a DVI port might be a little disheartening, this notebook is also retailing for $749. If you can afford a monitor that can use a DVI port, consider spending up!
Putting the vent on the left side is a good idea, though. While I'm sure the southpaws out here won't be too thrilled with it, most of us do our mousing on the right side and appreciate the lack of hot air spewing out on our delicate little hands.
Kensington lock, AC port, battery, ethernet port (with blinkies!), 2x USB 2.0 ports (view large image)
The rear of the notebook is well organized as well. I've always been a fan of splitting USB ports up like this; cords and receivers for wireless mice and other peripherals can be plugged into the back, while flash drives can be plugged into...
2x USB 2.0, DVD-RAM, modem port (view large image)
...the right hand side. Again, convenience seems to be the name of the game with the port layout on this notebook by sticking the two USB ports near the front for easy access.
Indicator lights, hard wireless switch, mic jack, headphone jack, and an ANALOG volume control! (view large image)
Bag on me all you want for being excited about this, but as someone who likes listening to a lot of music and taking his laptop everywhere he goes, an analog volume control is a godsend. I think the hard wireless switch is also classy. While not necessarily preferable to a button, it's a hardware feature and allows you to boot the notebook with or without wireless enabled. It's a nice convenience feature.
Wireless range on the notebook was good but not exceptional, and I wonder if some of it is blunted by the boxy but well-constructed design of the machine. It uses the same wireless card as my own Asus A8Jm notebook (finding Intel's high-end 3945ABG wireless in a $749 notebook being impressive on its own), but its range is a bit lower than mine. I was able to find my home network at five bars, plus five other networks in the apartment complex I'm in. The Toshiba only found my network and two other close-by networks.
If you're considering buying this notebook for school, this might give you pause. While the school I'm attending has wireless absolutely everywhere (to wit, the only place I couldn't connect was on the eleventh floor of the tallest building on campus), the school I transferred from was very touch and go. Your mileage may vary and connectivity with Toshiba's notebook is still plenty, it's just not quite grasping the really far away lurkers.
I popped in my trusty copy of "Brotherhood of the Wolf" and set about killing the battery on the Toshiba. I was pleasantly surprised to discover the unit survived for a good two hours at full brightness playing the DVD before giving up the ghost.
In regular use it comfortably pumps out at least three hours of use, not too far removed from Toshiba's rated battery life.
OPERATING SYSTEM AND SOFTWARE
Toshiba's M115-S3094 comes with Windows XP Media Center Edition, which appears to have all but completely supplanted XP Home in the marketplace. It's a nice enough choice for a notebook with an S-Video port and DVD-RAM drive.
Also included are:
Lots of unwanted promotional software there -- but the low price had to come from somewhere. While inclusion of WinDVD and Works is nice, this thing comes out of the box bloated for bear, with a whopping FIFTEEN icons in the system tray and an unholy 72 processes running. Boot time is horrendous, and only 160MB of RAM is left available at boot - nowhere near enough to work with.
Another complaint is when I went to do the speaker test, I used what I consider to be one of the most danceable tunes ever, "Well Charged" by Spahn Ranch. The song has a strong high end and a strong low end, so I felt it would be a good test.
And indeed it was. After I wriggled my way through the Yahoo! Music Engine, software I'd never even heard of prior to doing this review. At this point, I'm going to explain ridiculous to you.
When you want to listen to a music file, you typically double-click it, it pops open your preferred media player, and it JUST WORKS.
When I wanted to listen to a music file on this unit, I double-clicked it. First I got a prompt from McAfee (my most hated of security software) asking if I wanted to allow this program access to the internet. Well of course I do, it came with the computer. Then I have to actually run through the setup of Yahoo! Music Engine. THEN it plays, but it has a longer setup you have to go through in the process. What the heck?
I've never heard a consumer get excited over all the software their computer comes bloated with, largely because they almost never use 90% of it. It's aggravating to have to clean it all off.
That said, for the price, this isn't a devastating or unfixable problem, and a bit of uninstalling and optimization out of the box can get it in fine stomping shape.
I can't rank too many complaints or praises largely because Toshiba's M115-S3094 hits its mark so perfectly. It does exactly what it's supposed to in the price bracket it's in, and even exceeds those expectations at some points. The keyboard, however, may be a dealbreaker for some users, so I highly suggest giving the unit a test run in the store before purchasing it (which is just good sense for notebook buying in general). It's a shame the keyboard and touchpad design is so middling, too, because they're the only sticking point I have with this notebook, whose build quality compares with units upwards of $500 more expensive than it, and whose specifications make it an absolutely killer deal for college students operating on the cheap as well as more casual users.
What makes this notebook even more desirable is probably the Christmas pricing floating around right now. I've seen it going for under $600 after rebates. So for under $600, you can have a dual core notebook with three hours of battery life, 512MB of RAM, an 80GB hard disk, a DVD-RAM drive that burns every writable format on the market except for the high-definition ones, loud speakers, and an analog volume control. If I wasn't already running a solid notebook I'd be hard pressed not to grab this one and run.
But if you're reading this review, chances are you're still in the position to take advantage of this steal. Try it out in the store and if you can type comfortably on the keyboard, I'd grab it and run.
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