Toshiba Portege M200 Review and Tablet PC Overview (Part 2)

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Toshiba M200 Review — Part 2, by Perry Longinotti, Alberta Canada

Part 1 (M200 Overview, Build Quality, Ergonomics),  Part 2 (Performance, Gaming, Tablet PC Explanation, Conclusion)

How does the M200 perform?

Continuing on our discussion of the screen, the M200’s video system is powered by an Nvidia Geforce FX 5200Go. This is a decent, capable video controller for a laptop of this size. I have not been a huge fan of this part in the past as it has a reputation for being rather weak compared to solutions like the ATI RADEON 9600. I am an avid gamer, and like to play games from time to time even on a little machine like this. So I thought I would put it to the test. My opinion of the 5200Go improved as I ran it through an obstacle course of demanding games. Everyone needs a break when traveling on business, so I think games are a valid benchmark for any laptop.

I started with Doom 3 but was immediately disappointed by the fact that it ran insufferably slow. But I was ecstatic with the M200’s Half Life 2 performance. This game looks fantastic and runs great. Half Life 2 is a showcase game for Microsoft’s Direct X API — currently at version 9.1b. Microsoft uses Direct X to define the rendering capabilities (primarily as relates to games) of video cards.

Display settings adjustment panel (view larger image)

Half Life 2 on the Toshiba Portege M200 (view larger image)

Despite being a DX9 capable graphics chip, the 5200Go is really only suited to DX8 mode. It simply lacks the grunt power required to draw complex pixel shader effects. This means that in a game like Half Life 2, you will not see all the effects — but what you will see still looks amazing. Playing Half Life 2 on the M200 is a good enough experience to make anyone happy — especially when you consider its diminutive size, battery life and quiet fan. Half Life 2 runs best at 800*600 on the M200, with advanced video settings set a little bit higher than default (in particular you can max the Shader and Water Detail settings with no discernable performance hit). I did some benchmarking on a particularly intense portion of the game and found the average frame-rate to be 29 fps with the standard Toshiba video drivers.

I know, game playing is not what a machine like the M200 is targeted at. But the fact the M200 plays Half Life 2, the biggest and most demanding game of 2004, so well really speaks to the power that Toshiba have packed into this unit. Games are a great overall stress-test for any computer. Half Life 2 has amazing physics modeling. In addition to great use of rag doll’ physics, you can interact with everything in the environment. The physics calculations here are a quantum leap from anything seen in other PC games and the Pentium M processor handles everything that HL2 throws at it without a stutter.

Half Life 2 Screen shot as played on the Toshiba Portege M200 (view larger image)

Half Life 2 Screen shot as played on the Toshiba Portege M200 (view larger image)

I also tried the Need for Speed Underground 2 demo and the M200 handled that game without any trouble. Using the standard detail settings, I was able to play the game smoothly at 1280*1024. This is another game that looks fantastic and plays great.

In everyday use, the M200 feels every bit as fast as my 3.2 GHz P4 desktop. There have been many articles written on the relative strengths of the Pentium-M verses the Pentium 4 processor. Now that Intel itself is end-of-lifing’ the Pentium 4 I think that most of the debate on this topic can be laid to rest. If you don’t know already, the Pentium-M is faster than a Pentium 4 clock-for-clock. This means that a 1.6 GHz Pentium-M is faster than a 1.6 GHz Pentium 4. In fact, the same 1.6 GHz Pentium-M is often faster than a 2.6 GHz Pentium 4 at many common tasks.

Over-all system performance is also aided by the 7200 rpm hard drive that Toshiba has selected for the M200. A fast drive really helps make a laptop feel as responsive as a desktop. The M200 uses the king of laptop hard drives — the Hitachi Travelstar E7K60 and it is good to see Toshiba did not cut corners with the M200. Keep in mind that Toshiba also makes respectable hard drives, but they are not as fast as the Hitachi model in the M200. It shows Toshiba’s commitment to performance that they did not select a slightly slower, cheaper in-house hard drive.

Where the M200 really shines is in applications that can make use of the digitizer. Applications like Microsoft’s OneNote and Journal (both bundled with the M200) plus applications like Corel Painter IX and Alias Sketch Pro. The M200 is very responsive in these demanding applications. The precision of the pen and digitizer is also impressive. Some people are of the opinion that the higher resolution screen and digitizer make pen computing more accurate.

How does the Tablet’ work?

Toshiba Portege pen input (view larger image)

The M200 uses Wacom’s Penabled technology. For those who are not familiar with Wacom, they are the company that pioneered the drawing tablet. Their solution is used in the majority of Tablet PCs. Like the pens that come with Wacom’s stand-alone tablets, the M200 pen includes a sensitive tip, side button and eraser button. The pen is pressure sensitive, so when using virtual natural media like charcoal or oil paints this feature allows you to build up texture and perform smudging. I read the product description on Wacom’s website and apparently the Penabled pen supports up to 512 levels of sensitivity. The eraser head works as expected in applications that support it (not all do). I tried trial versions of Corel Painter IX and Alias Sketch software and both were very fun to use and worth looking into. I used Painter to create a draft’ of an oil painting I was thinking about creating. Oil paints are expensive, so if you do a lot of painting and happen to have a Tablet PC this is a nice way to draft’ a project before starting. The Alias product is bundled with some models of Motion’s Tablet PCs, so it would be nice to see Painter, Sketch or a similar application bundled with the Toshiba. For artists on a budget, try the free ArtRage application.

Using the Tablet PC as a sketching pad for art ideas is one use many don’t think of (view larger image)

ArtRage is a free sketching tool for the Tablet PC (view larger image)

The other input method that we need to discuss is the ability to speak to the computer and have it recognize your words and convert them into text in real time. This type of application has been referred to for a number of years as the next killer app in personal computers. IBM and Dragon come to mind as develops of these applications. I have seen their products on the shelves at various stores but have never tried them. My assumption was that people in need of PC accessibility drove consumer interest in this technology.  I have never had the opportunity to test the IBM or Dragon applications but I can now say that I have had a good experience using the Tablet PC implementation of speech recognition. Microsoft has employed a very user-friendly training method to teach your computer how to recognize your speech.

The M200’s implementation of speech recognition is slightly different than that of other Tablet PC’s.  It uses a three-microphone array to increase the accuracy of the speech recognition system.  This is another example of Toshiba going beyond the call of duty. My experience was very promising. I found this speech recognition implementation responsive, even when running on batteries, but the text did not always match my speech precisely. Accuracy increased if I spoke very slowly, but even then it was not 100% accurate. Speech recognition is a welcome addition to the PC. In fact, large parts of this review were completed using dictation directly to the M200. This is not a gimmick; with enough time I think that the Tablet’s speech recognition system could be configured to work very reliably. The next step in its evolution would be to make it even easier to set-up. Clearly Microsoft is making progress in this area and I imagine it will not be long before this technology is really useful for average computer users. The more people use this, the more feedback Microsoft will receive and hopefully that feedback will be used to improve the implementation of this technology.

Overall I would rate the slightly more conservative Microsoft pen input method as being superior to voice recognition for everyday computing — and particularly so given its relevance to creative professionals. The advantage of the pen-based input method is probably temporary. I can imagine that future improvements to the speech input method will make the Tablet PC a speech-based platform. That is, after all, the way most people are accustomed to communicating.  

Will I be the only one on my block with a Tablet?

There is no question that consumer take-up of this platform has been slow. The Tablet PC has existed now for about two years (although efforts at this type of device go much further back in PC history). For people that have tried Tablets this failure is a real mystery. There was a huge push for Tablet PCs when MS launched this platform a couple of years ago, but the marketing was terrible. I actually found myself less likely to buy a Tablet PC as they seemed to be targeted at people who spent all of their time in meetings, running around offices with Starbucks coffees getting absolutely nothing done. It was an image of the workplace that reeked of 1999. Actually Tablet PC advertising was beyond terrible as it utterly failed to illustrate the creativity a tool like the Tablet PC can unlock. Luckily for MS and its partners, this platform sells itself if buyers can get access to one. And there is the problem — this is still a fringe product.

Certainly, the terrible marketing and high initial prices did not help matters. But I don’t think anyone made the effort to show regular folks the advantages of this platform. Speaking to your computer and writing on its screen, are more natural methods of interaction than a keyboard. Slowly people are discovering this platform on their own — like me for example — and there really is no going back.

In some vertical markets such as Medicine and industries that require remote location fieldwork, the Tablet PC has gained a strong foothold. Perhaps people that use these devices at work will also look for suitable models for home use.

Tablet users that I have encountered remind me of Mac users (I used to be one of those). I mean this in the positive sense. There are a lot of Tablet community sites on the web and there is a seeming inexhaustible supply of people willing to teach you new tricks and help you solve problems. Another encouraging sign is the growing number of Tablet-centric applications that seem to be springing up each day. There is a lot of commercial and shareware software designed for the Tablet given the platform’s relatively young age. Microsoft released a Tablet PC SDK to encourage development and it seems to be working. Currently, this community has a nice grass-roots feel to it that is very welcoming.

Should I buy the M200?

Expressing an opinion on the Tablet PC platform is much easier than passing a verdict on the M200. The tablet concept is amazing. In my opinion it is inevitable that some day all laptops, and maybe all personal computers, will offer the same degree of input options as the Tablet PC does.

It successfully takes natural forms of human communication such as writing and speech and allows a user to interact with a computer using those input methods. These are the types of advancements that are long overdue for the computer.

If you told me before starting this review that I would soon consider selling my desktop to use a tablet PC exclusively, I would have called you nuts. After using the M200 for a few weeks, I am starting to consider that very possibility. With a port replicator and a nice big external hard drive or two I think the M200 offers enough power to satisfy all but the most hard-core gamer or system builder. But it isn’t quite perfect.

Toshiba deserves a lot of credit for attempting to add to Microsoft’s innovation in this market space. This is not a generic ODM Tablet PC, the Toshiba product development team really put some thought into this design. When you see this much thought put into a design you really want the company that made it to succeed.

Currently, this convenience and ease of use is an exclusive club.  Tablet PCs, and the M200 in particular, are not inexpensive. The M200, as part of the Portege line, is targeted at executives. It is a high-end model with a matching price tag. Currently Toshiba only offers the one Tablet PC model. In Canada, Toshiba sells a single M200 configuration for $3,099.99 ($2,600 USD), the street price is a slightly lower $2,899.99 ($2,450 USD). People shopping in this market are accustomed to paying a premium for quality, but they are understandably demanding.

A range of configuration options would address what I feel is the M200’s only significant flaw — its value proposition. Admittedly, this may be less of a concern in the United States than it is in Canada — where I am based.  American buyers are treated to a build to order option for the M200 if bought direct from Toshiba. The hardware I tested, with the exception of the faster hard drive and high cost screen, is essentially the same as the Toshiba M30 laptop. The M30 is much less expensive. I understand that the M200’s digitizer is expensive as is the slightly more elaborate case, but some important items are missing such as an optical drive and full compliment of ports.  The lack of an optical drive, and the less than perfect construction make the value proposition on the M200 a lot less clear than it would otherwise be. Toshiba is shooting themselves in the foot a bit with some sub-par QA.

A pioneering company such as Toshiba would be smart to make Tablet PCs available with a lower spec. Even the M200 if it were available with a Celeron-M, 12 inch XGA screen, Intel Extreme Graphics a smaller/slower HD and 256mb RAM would appeal to the average home user or student. I could see Toshiba selling a few of those at $999. At that price perhaps a squeaky case would not be such a big deal.

According to the following quote in a recent Microsoft Tablet PC press release, Toshiba may be planning to roll-out Tablet PC functionality across their laptop line.

“Tablet PC customers are no longer early adaptors but professionals from a range of sectors. Toshiba is leading the Tablet PC market in Canada and has strong traction in education, healthcare and other sectors. Our newest Tablet PC launching this month, the Portege M200, features integrated 802.11g wireless connectivity and comes packaged with Microsoft OneNote note-taking program, Windows XP Tablet PC 2005 Edition and Intel mobile processors. Our Tablet PCs are receiving such positive responses that we plan to integrate Tablet PC functionality into our corporate Tecra and Portege series of notebook computers.”

— Mini Saluja, Tablet PC product manager, Toshiba of Canada Limited.

I believe that much like the laptop computer, when commodity pricing hits the Tablet PC market we will see many consumers adopt the Tablet PC as their computing platform of choice.  Hopefully, machines like the new lower cost Averatec, Tablet will introduce people to the Tablet concept. But Toshiba, as the early leader in this space really should act fast to protect their lead.

For a lot of people (myself included) there will be no going back to a regular laptop after using a Tablet, and in particular the M200 if they can afford it. The M200 offers enough power to replace a desktop (unless your desktop is cutting-edge), regular laptop, and a good Wacom drawing tablet.

Sketching, writing, Photoshop work, virtual painting, outlining articles, keeping a digital scrapbook, concept drawings, brainstorming, visual communication, all of these tasks and more are possible with the M200. If you are a creative person then you really must investigate the M200. For anyone else out there that is looking for a good notebook with some very innovative features, you may want to keep the M200 in mind. It is a great performer, and is available in even faster configurations than our test unit.

If you have a computer or two in your household, or an IT department that can backup and restore your Tablet PC in the event of an emergency the lack of an optical drive may not bother you too much. Or, perhaps the prospect of adding a few hundred dollars to the M200’s purchase price in order to get an optical drive doesn’t bother you. For everyone else the cost/benefit scenario is a personal decision. Apart from the drive, Toshiba did not cut corners in component selection. Overall system performance reflects the excellent component choices.

This is an unfortunately lukewarm final conclusion for a computer with as much going for it as the M200. If this computer possessed better construction and an optical drive it would rate a perfect ten. 

Pros

  • Great performance (good component choices)
  • Excellent form-factor and good ergonomics
  • Toshiba 3-year warranty (and optional accident warranty)
  • Toshiba configuration utilities
  • Metal chassis
  • Microphone array
  • 1400*1050 screen resolution

Cons

  • No optical drive
  • Not grippy enough for carrying around
  • Flimsy access panels on the bottom of the unit, questionable build quality.
  • Toshiba optical drives extremely expensive

Part 1 (M200 Overview, Build Quality, Ergonomics),  Part 2 (Performance, Gaming, Tablet PC Explanation, Conclusion)


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