by Perry Longinotti
Intel’s dominance of the notebook market the last few years has made reviewing a little less interesting. There are only so many ways to heap praise on Centrino. As we near the end of our wait for AMD’s long overdue response to Centrino, Intel has fired another salvo; Centrino 2. This Toshiba Satellite A300-02C is my first notebook using Intel’s latest bits and I am giddy like a school girl to test it out.
First the vital statistics (detailed descriptions further down):
- Intel Core 2 Duo P7350 2GHz CPU with 25 Watt TDP
- AMD RADEON HD 3650 with 512MB of DDR2 RAM
- 15.4″ WXGA High-Definition Display With 1280 x 800 Resolution
- 320GB SATA Hard Drive (5400 RPM)
- 4GB 800MHz DDR2 System Memory
- Super Multi 8X DVD±R/RW with Double Layer Support
Fancy notebooks get loud packaging; the A300-02C gets a conservative brown box. Inside the notebooks and accessories are packed in cardboard. There is still some plastic wrapping, but give Toshiba credit for using easily recycled materials where other vendors use foam. In the accessory box you will find a disappointing 4000mAh battery, manuals, and power adapter.
Build and Design
Every year or two Toshiba revises the look of its notebook chassis. The styling is consistenat across much of the line from 13″ to 17″ scren models. This year I think Toshiba got it right. Although it comes down to personal taste, the look of the new Satellites is easy on the eyes. Mercury Silver with 80’s style horizontal black line motif (reveresed when you lift the lid), these notebooks will pop out from the rest of the crowd on your local big box store shelf. Toshiba has not managed to create a gloss finish immune from fingerprints. PC makers will probably get a better results trying to figure out cold fusion.
Handling the A300-02C you will notice its sturdy construction. Like most notebooks these days, hinge tension works in place of an LCD latch mechanism. Mechanical hinge latches are not something that I miss as they were typically the first part to fail.
Its 15.4″ display is bright with good contrast and color saturation. I find the screen quite usable at the lowest brightness setting but most people will probably settle on 50%. The market has adopted 1280*800 for most 15″ panels. Text size and the amount of usable screen real estate is good. For example, there is room for one page (web or Word) with the Vista Sidebar still visible. Horizontal viewing angles are good as you would expect. Vertical angles were typical of all TN panels with inversion of colors past a certain point – but that’s what the hinge is for. Lavalsys Everest lists the display as an LP154WX5-TLA2 – which is an LG Philips I suspect.
A robust lid protects the LCD panel. Pressing fingers firmly against the back did not cause ripples in the LCD display. Above the display is a webcam and microphone.
At only 6.0 lb. even and just 1.5″ thick you won’t find carrying this unit around taxing. Width is 14.25″ and length is 10.” – not a thin and light but not a brick either. In my opinion something that can play games well and still be this portable is a very good thing.
The massive power adapter adds about 1.4 lbs to the travel weight. Yikes! I thought Montevina was going to use less power.
Keyboard and Touchpad
Like the rest of the notebook, the A300-02C’s keyboard is finish is glossy. It looks good but the keys are a little slippery. The keyboard is pretty good. The base flexes a bit but the long key travel makes this less of an issue. Key clicks are loud, but touch typists should be quite happy with the keyboard. On the right side of the keyboard you find dedicated Home, PgDn, PgUp, and End buttons. This keyboard takes very little getting used to (unlike the vile, tortuous keyboard on my Acer 6920). Above the keyboard and centered between sharp looking Harmon/Kardon speakers are media control buttons (exactly where they belong – Acer I am talking to you).
Toshiba’s touchpads often need a bit of twiddling to get them setup the way I like them (fast with a light touch). The A300-02C arrived and was perfect right out of the box. Unlike in past years, Toshiba has elected to keep the touchpad simple and uncluttered with chotchkas – a smart choice. Buttons are firm and rattle free but they make a strange bubble-wrap popping sound. It may get annoying if absolute silence is something you value but you can always enable tapping on the pad. There is no Apple-like two finger tapping or multitouch. The top of the pad glows white while the notebook is on.
Turn the A300-02C on and go watch a movie. It does not come ready to boot out of the box instead running through a Norton Ghost like setup routine. I timed this at 45 minutes. Checking performance monitor, the A300-02C uses about 1.09 GB of RAM after startup. That’s a lot.
The installation is relatively clear of junk. Toshiba’s utilities are present, but in some cases they are redundant with Windows offering the same functionality. There is no point having two programs that do the same thing running in memory – a good example being the Wi-Fi configuration.
A novelty is the Toshiba face recognition feature. A cynic might say that this is just a cheap way to add biometric authentication to a notebook without the added cost of a fingerprint reader. After all, even the most basic notebooks have an integrated webcam these days. I was not able to get this working but there are many reports of people using this successfully.
Toshiba also includes a voice recognition and command utility and it works incredibly well. This is a very good accessibility feature. You launch programs, perform tasks and navigate the web. It does a good job of isolating out background noise, but watch out if you have a talkative 5 year old in the room because the results can be pretty funny (or scary if you are working on anything important).
A Norton 360 three month trial is included too. This is a pretty resource intensive antivirus solution – I prefer the Windows firewall, defender, malicious code updates and a freebee like Avira. Norton is so 1980s (trust me I was there).
Lack of an included Vista disc is a disappointment. This notebook is not a $399 door crasher and Gateway provides a disc with less expensive models. Also, unlike Acer which has an obvious restore disc set maker that they bang you over the head with the A300-02C only has a desktop shortcut.
Catalyst Control Center was not present. This is AMD/ATI’s excellent software suite that enables access to the RADEON HD’s features. Such an omission warranted a correction so I installed the latest ATI driver suite – 8.8.
This is where things get interesting as Toshiba has outfitted the A300-02C with a full complement of Intel technologies earning it the Centrino 2 sticker. First let’s look at the CPU.
Toshiba uses Intel’s Core 2 Duo P7350 CPU. This is a Penryn-3M medium voltage chip. What does this mean?
- It’s made using 45 nm process making it smaller and cooler running.
- It has 3 MB of level two cache versus 2 MB in last year’s value processors.
- Benefiting from the Penryn architectural advancements makes it about 15% faster than last year’s Merom-based budget CPUs clock for clock.
- The latest front side bus speed of 1066 MHz and is classified as
- Medium voltage means that it consumes less power, improving battery life.
- Miserly power consumption produces less heat, about 25% less than last year (25 versus 35 Watt TDP).
Next up is the chipset, Intel’s PM45 (Cantiga) north bridge and ICH9-M south bridge. First the PM45; In addition to supporting the faster Front Side Bus speeds it also bring support for DDR3 which is both faster and uses lower voltage. Sadly, this was left off the A300-02C’s specifications. Although not relevant in this review, PM45 also adds AMD CrossfireX support. The ICH9-M is notable mostly for dropping parallel drive support. Gigabyte LAN and HD Audio were present in the last generation.
Ignoring the Montevina platform’s compatibility with DRR3 Toshiba equips the A00-02C with 4GB of DDR2 operating at 800MHz. Although fast compared to last year’s 667MHz standard, it is disappointing because other makers will be offering DDR3 at 1066MHz in similarly priced notebooks soon. DDR2 and DDR3 are not compatible due to power differences.
Fujitsu’s MHZ2320BH G1 320GB HDD has a spindle speed of 5400rpm, 8MB buffer and SATA-II 3.0Gb/s interface. It’s a bit of a surprise as Toshiba makes pretty good HDDs themselves. The Fujitsu is quite loud, making faint coffee brewing sounds that do not inspire confidence. Temperatures during normal use ranged from about 40-50 degrees Celsius. HD Tune performance was in-line with the ubiquitous Western Digital drives. Initially I feared that the Fujitsu was a bad choice but my concerns were unfounded.
A mysterious empty slot without connector of any sort suggests a version of the A300-02C with two HDDs may eventually come out. Sadly that connector was left off the mainboard so this unit won’t be getting a second drive.
Optical recording is robust and the Pioneer DVRD08A covers all but the most exotic formats (CD-R 24x, CD-RW 4x, DVD-R 8x, DVD-R DL 4x, DVD-RW 4x, DVD+R 8x, DVD+R DL 4x DVD+RW 4x, DVD-RAM 5x). An 8x dual-layer multi-DVD burner is exactly what you would expect at this price point although Blu-Ray is starting to pop-up. Lack of Lightscribe seems odd but does anyone really use it?
AMD/ATI’s RADEON HD 3650 video system is positioned squarely in the mid-range performance segment. This GPU is no match for the 8800/9800 chips in desktop replacement notebooks but it’s a great compromise for typical 15″ notebooks that delivers excellent gaming performance. Here are some of the salient points:
- 55nm fabrication process makes it smaller cooler running.
- Unified Superscalar architecture with 120 processing units.
- DirectX 10.1 and OpenGL 2.0 support – these are the newest graphics APIs.
- 512 MB of 128-bit DDR2 memory running at 1000MHz – this is better than 64bit value chips but not as good as 256 bit chips in gaming notebooks. Toshiba skipped the more desirable GDDR3/GDDR4 that this GPU supports.
- Avivo HD Video and Display architecture including HDCP HDTV output.
- PowerPlay 7.0 power management technology to reduce temps and power use.
What does this mean? Toshiba had an opportunity to distance itself from some of the other mid-range gaming capable notebooks from Dell, HP and Acer/Gateway and passed. The A300-02C is good, but short of its potential by 15-20% because of the type of RAM used (again). Peering into the A300-02C it appears that the GPU is mounted on an MXM-II module although it will take a great deal of work to shed enough of the chassis to actually be able to service this slot.
Enough tech talk, you probably want to know how it plays games right? First the synthetic results – the A300-02C scores 3883 points in 3DMark06. This is a middling score for notebooks using NVIDIA 8600m, 9500m or RADEON 2600 GPUs. 3DMark is easy to optimize for and does not really stress the stream processors as much as games do. It gives you a little incite regarding performance but not as much as games.
Both GRID and Call of Duty 4 were run at the A300-02C’s native LCD resolution 1280×800. Crysis was run at 1280×720. The rationale for showing ultra low and ultra high settings is to give you an idea of range as people seem to have different ideas concerning what constitutes a playable frame ate. For most people their preference will be somewhere between the two extremes.
GRID was almost playable fully maxed out with 4xFSAA. At the opposite end of the spectrum, game play was buttery smooth with everything set to low and 2xFSAA. Visuals are still pretty even at the lowest settings. This game’s engine is going to be used in Codemaster’s upcoming titles so it is good to know that the A300-02C can handle it.
Call of Duty 4 uses the popular Unreal Engine 3. Performance in this game should give you a good idea of how well the A300-02C will run other UE3 games such as Mass Effect and Gears of War. Like GRID, this game uses the DX9 graphics API and doesn’t require the RADEON HD 3650’s DX10.1 support. It is still a demanding game as the chart illustrates.
Finally, Crysis continues to torture GPUs. The poor frame rate at ultra high settings should be no surprise to anyone familiar with this game and its requirements. It is very playable at low settings and like the other two games it still looks good with the effects dialed all the way down.
As you can see, these results won’t topple the mighty Gateway P-7811FX from its perch but they are pretty good for a 15.4″ notebook. And for about 50% less than an Alienware m15x base configuration you will get the same performance. You will also note that there no big differences in performance between the RADEON HD 3650 and last year’s 2600 or NVIDIA 8600 GT. The current batch of GPUs is really just more of the same with a few extra bullet points tacked on by AMD and NVIDIA’s marketing teams.
Ports and Features
Ports on the A300-02C are as follows; three USB 2.0, mini Firewire, S-Video, VGA, HDMI, USB 2.0/eSATA, microphone, headphone, Ethernet and modem. A memory card slot accepts SD/MMC/MS and xD flash formats. An Expresscard type 54 slot is available too. The inclusion of S-Video and Firewire is a nice touch and the dual USB 2.0/eSATA plug is very cool – retro and futuristic at once.
A quick note about the HDMI on the A300-02C, it supports HDMI control. This means that if the notebook is connected to a TV that supports this protocol you will be able to turn the A300-02C on/off using the TV control. For folks that like Vista’s excellent built in Media Center this feature is a nice addition.
Heat and Noise
Heat is not a problem on the A300-02C. It has a robust cooling system that combined with Intel’s Speed Step and ATI’s PowerPlay 7 keeps temperatures in check. Maximum temperature after running benchmarks was recorded on the left side vent hole at 55 degress Celsius/131 degrees Fahrenheit. This notebook is not quite as cool playing games as the Gateway M-6864FX (50C/122F max temp). Fan noise is bearable and the cooling system tends to kick in early to keep temperatures in check.
The included power unit is rated for just 4000 mAh and 10.8 Volts. Turning down LCD brightness and Wi-Fi reduces power consumption but our expectations should be low. Like the CPU and chipset, the video system throttles-down to reduce power consumption – in this case speeds drop to 110 MHz for the GPU and 800 MHz for memory (from 600 and 1000 respectively).
Battery life was low for a Centrino notebook. A trend I have noticed recently is that less than three hours on a charge is common. Perhaps the battery shortage is causing PC makers to use smaller cells to keep costs down. In this case I was was not able to complete Star Wars Return of the Jedi getting only 83 minutes into the movie from a full charge. Settings were at 50% brightness and ‘Balanced’ power mode. Gaming on battery power was possible for 62 minutes with 50% brightness and ‘Performance’ power setting. Simply reading websites and watching three short You Tube videos on the ‘Power Saver’ profile resulted in 105 minutes of battery life – this is extremely poor as 150 minutes is the bare minimum acceptable.
Wireless performance of the new Intel 5100 A/G/N card is good – very much like its predecessor. There is no problem finding networks on both 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands but when connecting to 802.11n on 5GHz it is hard to maintain a 100% connection (60-90Mb connections are more common than 300 Mb). The 5100 card in the A300-02C is not accessible and unlike many notebooks competing with the A300-02C I imagine that there is no extra slot for future expansion.
Speakers and Audio
Audio performance is excellent. These speakers are worth every bit of the brand labeling on them. Bass – often terrible on notebooks – is terrific, easily eclipsing the Acer 6920’s TUBA ‘sub woofer.’ When playing Call of Duty gun shots and explosions sounding satisfyingly boomy compared to what I am used to. During the battery tests I used Star Wars Episode VI and the John Williams score was loud and clear competing with the room’s TV for decibel supremacy. I can’t think of any other time that this is happened while reviewing a notebook. Likewise, HDMI output of audio is excellent.
One of Toshiba’s traits that always puzzles me is that they always stop short of making the unequivocally killer product. Last year they delivered the X200 – arguably the first mainstream gaming notebook – with its two 8700m GPUs that came up short against the cheaper and much faster Gateway P-6831FX. It’s my perception that as good as their notebooks are; they tend to the more conservative end of the excite-o-meter.
The A300-02C doesn’t deviate from this pattern. It is not cheap – $1,000 is a far cry from entry level in 2008. A brand name isn’t enough to justify a premium anymore – therefore I think it was a mistake not to spec DDR3 system memory and GDDR3 video memory. I understand that it takes balance and compromise to deliver a competitive product but performance features are omitted here that would distance this notebook from its competitors and more importantly last year’s models that are being marked down right now.
A similarly performing Gateway can be had for $100-250 less using last year’s CPU (T5750) and GPU (RADEON HD 2600) and some lucky folks are walking out of Best Buy with clearance models at half the price of the A300-02C and about 90-95% of the performance.
In addition to the performance features left off, important portability features like a larger capacity battery are also missing. If this notebook is not targeted to gamers on the run, then it should at least include a proper battery. Poor battery life is only excusable when performance is very strong.
Like so many of the Toshiba notebooks I have reviewed, the A300-02C is good. Still, it’s not the fastest, sleekest or best value notebook you will find.
- Portable gaming performance in a small package
- Solid construction
- Small battery and poor stamina
- Monetvina 2 does not show the expected gains in this configuration
- DDR2 800 system memory instead of DDR3 1066
- DDR2 1000 video memory instead of GDDR3 or GDDR4
- User serviceability compromised
- No access to MXM-II
- No access to CPU
- No access to Intel 5100
- Empty drive slot with SATA connector removed
- A little over-priced, easier to recommend at $800-850
My Verdict: Avoid, unless a good sale price brings this down into the range where it belongs.