by Fernando Milesi, United Kingdom
Introduction and Buying Experience
My goal here is to give a balanced review of the Toshiba Tecra A4 notebook computer. But how does one start a normal balanced review when, after almost two months of researching, asking, reading, and comparing the numerous options available, you finally get a laptop that’s different to what the maker told you that you were buying? And I am not talking about what someone at a home appliances store told me about a cheap no-brand computer, I am talking about what was published on the official Toshiba UK website for the brand-new business-oriented Toshiba Tecra A4 (PTA40E-01600VEN), that costs around 1,000 ($1,850).
There were three major spec items on the Toshiba website that did not correspond to what I actually got:
- Toshiba website said the A4 has a 15.4″ TFT WXGA TruBrite screen, the product I received was not a TruBrite enhanced screen.
- Toshiba website said the A4 has an ATI Mobility Radeon x300 PCI Express w/64MB, the product I received had X300 w/128MB.
- Toshiba website said the A4 has an ExpressCard slot, there is no ExpressCard slot on the A4.
My contact at Toshiba said these spec discrepancies were just a series of unfortunate communication mistakes, but were not intended to mislead or cheat anybody. If a company decides to market and sell something without having it or even knowing how it is going to be, or do not take care in providing enough specifications, then it is not just chance that is causing the mistakes. So I guess you can call it false advertising, by intention or by negligence. Retailers and providers direct you to the Toshiba website for detailed specifications, and you trust that this is the most complete, sure, and updated place to look for them. But Toshiba’s manual says “Consult your dealer […]. They are your best sources for current information and support”, so you may see that there is a paradox here, even when not considering that Toshiba also sells direct. When trying to get the true specs for the A4, I felt like a dog making circles trying to bite its tail.
Many of the most important errors in the specifications have been corrected or deleted on the website by now, but you can still find several mistakes and differences between PDF brochures, product specifications webpage, and stickers and manuals on the machine. The problem is that if you cannot trust what it is published on the Toshiba website, are you still prepared to pay a lot of money by ordering over the phone and believing blindly that some ‘Joe’ or ‘Rabindra’? (that may be trying to answer you by looking at Toshiba website… Oh, dear! Another paradox!). The people can be very helpful, as they have been with me, but there is not much that they can do to respond for this. In fact, you are not able to get written detailed product information from this model anywhere else than in that website even after you bought the laptop (not in the box, not in the manual, not in a pdf file, not in a single creased piece of paper) and even the general specs are sometimes contradictory or simply wrong. You will not tolerate the man in your local groceries store telling you that you are buying apples and putting oranges in your bag (intentionally or because he does not know what he sells), so I think that Toshiba UK should be taking much more care when selling stuff of more than a thousand pounds. Particularly (but not exclusively) when they are trying to keep a big brand name in a very competitive market of business-oriented technology products.
So I will try to make this review of the Tecra A4 as objective as I can (this decent machine does not deserve to be condemned a priori for this messy marketing), but I think you should be aware of this incident (more details below), both for reading my opinions under such a perspective, and to start wondering how prepared you are to invest your time or money, or both, in Toshiba.
Reasons for buying, options available, and purchase decision
The Tecra A4 was my first laptop purchase (although not the first I used), mainly because the prices of laptops always made me lean toward buying a desktop computer. I was looking for a well-built laptop that could last 3-5 years, as I don’t have the possibility of switching them every year or two; I am the kind that prefers to invest a bit more today and amortize it through the years, even when I was not able to spend much more than 1000. As my desktop is rather old (I built it in 1999) and there’s two people sharing it on a daily basis, I was interested in a desktop-replacement style notebook able to handle the same tasks as our main computer but not such a mammoth that we cannot travel with it. That meant buying a rather new laptop (so it will not be outdated too soon) with a big and clear screen (to use it many hours per day), lots of memory (or upgradeable for future software requirements), a CD burner, and a modest dedicated graphics card. And a very important point was the warranty and worldwide service and support for the notebook as I will be moving from the country of purchase to a place where companies are not so inclined to offer good (or any) support. I wanted to be sure that I didn’t get stuck with the option of paying a fortune for repair or having a fancy new toy for the kids if the laptop were to break.
After asking, reading and comparing, I soon convinced myself to look for a notebook with the following features:
- a Pentium M (sorry AMD to leave you for the first time ever, I cannot wait for your next move)
- a very good 15.4″ widescreen
- at least 512GB of RAM
- a 40GB hard disk
- business model series laptops for their generally better build quality, durability and warranties
- global support and service
- other added values (wireless, parallel port and expansion cards support, weight and battery life)
Options considered (apart from Toshiba’s Tecra A4) were the Toshiba Satellite Pro M30, the HP nx/nc lines (nx7010, nx 8220 and nc8230) and the Sony VAIO FS line (e.g., FS195VP). Dell, Acer, Fujitsu-Siemens and Samsung were all considered, and they all have suitable models, sometimes with better specs for the money, but they seem to lack the sort of ‘global support’ that I need (I swear that there is some more world outside of North America and the European community!). Of the other worldwide big companies, IBM does not offer wide and glossy screens, and I didn’t want to get into Apple; I suspect I wouldn’t have gotten much from them with my budget, though.
As Toshiba is linked with educational customers through the National Notebook Agreement in the United Kingdom(http://notebook.procureweb.ac.uk), I was able to get a price very similar to the list price but with an extended warranty (3-years international warranty instead of the standard 1-year). This bonus really made the difference in my decision. So finally I ordered the Toshiba Tecra A4 (PTA40E-01600VEN) through one of the providers of the University where I am (Getech: http://www.getech.co.uk). I added a Kingston 512MB RAM module to the pack, and paid 1070 (VAT and delivery included).
Oh, yes, the specifications! If you started reading from the beginning you are already aware that the specs are a complicated issue. My best guess is (an asterisk marking the conflicting points, with details in the appropriate section below):
- Pentium M 730 Centrino’/’Sonoma’ (1.6 GHz) Intel 915PM chipset Alviso’
- 512 MB DDR RAM (PC2700, 333Mhz) + an added Kingston 512 MB module (same specs)
- 60 GB Hard Disk (4200 RPM, 2.5″)
- 15.4″ TFT WXGA screen [NOT TRUBRITE] *
- ATI Mobility Radeon x300 PCI Express w/128MB [NOT 64MB] *
- 24x/24x/24x/8x CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo drive
- LAN (10/100/1000), modem (V.92) and Intel Wireless 802.11 b/g
- 3x USB 2.0, parallel port, video out (S-video), infrared (IrDA 1.1), i.LINK (IEEE1394), one PC Card slot (5mm Type II card), a multiple digital media card slot (for SD/MS/MS Pro/SM/MMC/xD memory cards) [NO EXPRESS CARD SUPPORT] *
- Stereo speakers
- Touchpad with two buttons
- 6-cell battery (marketed autonomy: 2:30h)
- Windows XP Pro SP2 / Microsoft OneNote / InterVideo WinDVD / RecordNow! Basic / Toshiba tools and utilities / Norton Internet Security 2004 (trial version for 90 days)
- 36 x 26.9 x 2.9–3.6 cm, around 3 kg (different versions on this, and I haven’t weighted it)
Packaging and box contents
The laptop arrived the day after purchase in a nice cardboard box protected by a plastic bag, looking secure enough. Inside, you get a first box with all the stuff, and below that box is the laptop itself, in another plastic bag and pressed within a piece of folded plastic and cardboard secured into the bottom of the box, so the laptop is not at risk of even moving a bit (a very similar packaging to what I have received from Amazon.co.uk). There was a thin sheet of a pink soft material between the keyboard and the screen. And there is also a plastic film attached to the top of the laptop that, if you tolerate it long enough, may save it from the first scratches.
I received this cardboard box inside a thick plastic bag. You can see that we are all anxiously waiting for the next football World Cup! (view larger image)
A nice, careful and safe packaging indeed (view larger image)
In the first small box you get a recovery DVD (if you need to return to the factory settings), the AC cord and the AC/DC adaptor, a modem cable with a plug adaptor, a quick start guide and a printed manual (you have a more complete manual in Adobe PDF format already installed with the OS), the warranty, and some other booklets about security or with multicoloured photographs of nice happy people enjoying their Toshiba laptops, trying to tempt you to buy accessories and services. There is no CD backup for the tools and utilities (you have the option to burn it yourself from an icon on your desktop) and no manual for each of those tools and utilities applications (you will have to find each one and try to learn their function from the help files, particularly if you are considering not to have all of them running in the background).
This is everything you get in the box (view larger image)
Design and build quality
Most of what you can see is plastic (or seems to be to the best of my knowledge) as you may expect for a machine priced in this range. But it is a nice sturdy plastic material that is very appropriate for a classic business style. Of course I cannot tell you right now if it was made to last, as Toshiba markets it, but it seems fairly solid and does not look ‘cheap’ or ‘gross’ at all. Even when this is strongly subjective, I find that the appearance and general design of this series is one of its good points.
The top of the display panel (the back of the screen) is that sort of silver-golden-greenish colour, like the one so popular in the inside of Acer Aspire laptops. You can flex it easily if you try, but it does not seem to be at risk for getting twisted under normal use or transport (when closed); try not to hit it with a hammer, though. The LCD is pretty solidly joined to the rest of the laptop. All the rest of the machine, except for some buttons, ports and labels, is grainy-matte black. Very sober indeed, so you’ll have to invest in a sporty car or a colourful motorbike if you are trying to show off.
A plain view from the top (view larger image)
On the underside the A4 has several connections for the optional docking station, one of them covered by two thin and curved plastic lids that open themselves when slighted pressed in the middle (so that you can just put the laptop on top of the docking station and it gets connected). Just beware when you pick up the laptop from a table, because I found myself picking it up and inserting my fingers exactly where the main port is; the connection does not seem to be at any risk because of this but I will not bet on those plastic lids or their springs. You also have the opening for the fan and another vent nearby that I imagine is for passive cooling (no info on those in the manual), the battery with two latches for locking and removing it, and some screws that you may need to remove if you want, for example, to add a memory module. The bottom part of the case (including its sides) looks exactly the same as the Satellite M45 in the USA.
Tecra A4 Underside (view larger image)
With 2.9–3.6 cm of range in height the A4 is not really a thin laptop, but it is not overly thick compared with most of the similar options that run from mid-range to desktop replacements (maybe just the Sony FS looks thinner). I guess that the light top over a black colour, the elevated corners at the front, and the large depth and width help to not make the A4 appear thick at a first glance. The corners are rounded, and long borders bevelled. Its size and weight are definitely more than what you expect for a thin-and-light, but less than a desktop-replacement style notebook.
Toshiba Tecra A4 front and the back sides (view larger image)
On the front side of the laptop there is a volume control, near a switch to turn on/off the wireless connection (with an LED to indicate the wireless on/off status). I find those two buttons very usefully located. You also have the two plugs for headphones and mic, the infrared receptor, a lid that you have to move to the left to open the multi-card-reader slot, with its LED light (more details on input & output options below), and four green/amber LEDs to indicate DC in, power status, battery status and hard disk activity.
On the back side, most of what you can see is the battery, with the connection for the AC cable and a Kensington-type hole (for fixing a security lock) on one side, and the modem, LAN and video-out jacks on the other.
Toshiba Tecra A4 right and left views (view larger image)
On the right side you have two of the three USB ports, the CD/DVD bay, and an i.LINK port. On the left you have a big opening for ventilation, the parallel port (something not very usual nowadays, but still needed) and external monitor ports, the remaining USB port, the PC Card slot, and that silly plastic cover blocking the empty hole where Express Card should be, but is not.
Opening the display: keyboard and touchpad
Once you open the display by moving a two-legged plastic latch, most of what you can see is black. You can also twist the plastic chassis if you try, but it does not seem at risk of breaking; treat it well, just in case. On the left you have the silver power button (whose surroundings shine green when on and show a very nice pulsating amber when in standby mode); below it there are two buttons on a panel on the left of the keyboard, that is displaced to the right of the centre of the laptop (a good design point of this is that it goes farther from the main heat source, see below). You can configure what these two buttons do, but by default one of them will switch quickly to a normal 4:3 screen resolution (1024×768) for presentations, and the other will open Toshiba Assist, a menu with some Toshiba tools, utilities and options for support. I wonder why they did not install more configurable hardware buttons there if they have all that available space (like they did for the Satellite M45 in the USA, with a very similar chassis), for such things as opening web or e-mail software (although you can configure the available two buttons to do this, you’d lose their original functions).
A general top view with the display opened (view larger image)
The keyboard is big and displaced to the right; the touchpad is standard. On the left, the panel with the silver and green/amber power button, with the just-two dedicated shortcut buttons below. On top, the big textured band from side to side to continue with the style of the holes for the stereo speakers
On top of the keyboard, next to the screen, you have a textured plastic band all along the width of the laptop, presumably just to continue with the design of the little holes that you need to make in the case in order to allow the sound of the two speakers, at its sides. It looks good, but I am sure that a lot of dirt will be collected there in the near future, and it does not seem easy to clean.
The keyboard is big and it feels alright, with little flex in the middle (I feel the keyboard is stronger than the one on the Toshiba Satellite Pro). Many people complain about the position of some keys on Toshiba’s keyboards (particularly the delete and insert keys, and the lack of a right Ctrl key), personally I think this is something I’ll simply get used to. Another difficult thing to get used to, but a normal thing in any laptop, is the overlayed number pad that you need to activate by locking it with the Fn key. The keystrokes feel OK (although I prefer the more bouncy & long one strokes of a desktop keyboard). The colour of the alternative key options (those that you access through the Fn key) is a bluish dark grey that I find rather difficult to see against the black keyboard under low-light conditions; a lighter grey would have been better. There are also green light indicators for Caps lock (on the key itself) and for when the keypad or the arrows alternative keystrokes are active (on a dark translucent bar between the main keyboard and the function keys)
A detail of the keyboard, with the overlaid number keypad and the dark colour used for the alternative functions of the keys, and the led indicating it has been locked (view larger image)
The touchpad is pretty standard, with a smooth dark surface, and the two buttons do not feel either too stiff or too soft. You have a lot of options associated with the touchpad running by default at startup (like scrolling through pages on its sides, or to select menus, folders or run programs when touching the corners); you may want to get rid of those that you will never need or use. I think I prefer a small mouse, anyway, but there is nothing bad with the touchpad.
Sound & Vision
The screen was one of the main problems regarding wrong information published on Toshiba’s UK website. The product specifications page said at least since February and up to mid-March 2005 (you were able to buy direct during all of that period but it was still not being shipped) that the display was 15.4″ WXGA Trubrite (1200×800). Trubrite means a glossy, shinier and more crisp (and expensive) kind of screen, as most companies have a similar option nowadays (under other fancy names like X-brite, X-black, SuperBright or ClearView), producing vivid colours as those from a CRT monitor (on the bad side, they tend to be more reflective than the traditional matte finish). The screen of the Tecra A4 is a good one, bright and crisp, but completely standard: “no Trubrite in the UK”, as a Toshiba contact confirmed to me after several questions and claims. I don’t know why or how they published the wrong information on their website, maybe it was a mistake or an afterthought, but as this was one of my main buying decisions I was very frustrated. Be aware that the availability of screens, and of almost everything else, varies wildly among countries, even when I suppose they are all made in China (unless those local/regional Toshiba websites are wrong on that too!).
The screen resolution is the basic WXGA (1280×800). Anyway, if not for the fact that I thought I was buying something different, the screen is fine, and I confirmed that I really like the wide form factor (8:5 instead of the ex-normal 4:3). It is very bright indeed: it has 8 levels of brightness and you can see it alright at level 4 and even less. At more than level 6 maybe it is too bright, producing “white ghosts” (or white reflexes) if you don’t adjust the position of the screen very well. The horizontal angle of view is much better than the vertical, but none of them are extraordinary. On the horizontal, you can see it OK up to when you cross the angle formed by the centre of the screen and the two corners of the laptop near to you (that’s almost 90 , but it means that you still have to be in front of the computer); beyond that, you start to lose the dark colours. On the vertical, is rather choosy, tending to those white reflexes.
The WXGA screen and the desktop at “factory setting” (please note that the photo is slightly blurred). The small white dots are just dust, also “out of the box” (view larger image)
“Side effects”: you will lose dark colours and they will become “reflective” soon after your eyes leave the front of the computer (compare the top left quarter of the bigger circle in the default desktop image against the view from the front above); it also tends to quickly produce white shades or “ghosts” depending on brightness and screen angle (view larger image)
To add to my feeling of frustration regarding the screen, I have one dead pixel, specifically it’s an always-blue pixel (blue when should be black or blue, white when should be white, red or green) at around 3 cm from the bottom right corner. This is even after the seller told me they would check for that when installing the extra memory module. “It is well within the standard set by the British Standards” was the expected and obvious answer. I know, I know: the market, the standards, the manufacturing process, the quality checks, the costs and all that sort of things, but I have started wondering how much is too much…
The sound out of this laptop is very good, on the better side of what I had expected in a business-oriented machine. Of course it is not a surround system and you won’t be able to organise a dance party around your laptop, but I think it is very good considering those tiny speakers. The audio is integrated, of course, and the chip is reported by the OS as SoundMAX Integrated Digital Audio.
The performance: processor, memory, video card and 3D benchmarking
This is an Intel Pentium M Sonoma/Alviso processor based system. Specifically it carries the Pentium M 730 (1.6 GHz) paired with an Intel 915PM chipset. The standard memory supplied is one module of 512 MB DDR RAM (PC2700, 333Mhz), but I have added another module (Kingston) to reach the 1GB that I expect to provide decent performance for a long time. Even though it is on the slow side of the processor speeds available in the Sonoma range, the Pentium M 730 feels very fast in the normal tasks I have tried until now, and the boot time is not a problem (without any tweaking, it takes around 30s for a full boot up until the user selection menu and 15s more to be ready to work, and not more than 15s to go into or to wake up from hibernation with a few windows open). Even when the processor/chipset tandem should have supported a whole set of the newest technologies, they are not available in the Tecra A4, so it does not make much sense to consider it a Sonoma-technology laptop (see conclusions, below). Newer CPU on Dothan-technology’ seems a more appropriate label for it.
I tested its number crunching abilities with the SuperPi benchmark (ftp://pi.super-computing.org/windows/super_pi.zip). It took almost 2 minutes (1:58) to calculate 2 million decimals under full power and with all the out of the box’ applications running in the background. And just 2 s less by rebooting without those applications running. As one of the cooling/power saving methods is to decrease the CPU speed (see below) I have also tried it at mid level (3, the lowest value in the variable-speed option under the default power saving setup when running in battery mode): it will take 3:18. You will really get bored using the absolute minimum option of processor speed (level 1 out of 6), taking 7:17 to calculate Pi to 2 million digits of accuracy.
The dedicated graphics card in this laptop is the ATI Mobility Radeon X300, with 128 MB RAM (in Toshiba’s UK website, up to the date I’m writing, it is still ill-reported as 64MB). It is the value solution of the new range of ATI’s cards for laptops, definitely not the gamer’s option. It is connected through the new 16x PCI Express slot (supported by the Sonoma chipset), although being a value graphics card this does not make any difference in performance against what you can get with a standard AGP configuration. I haven’t researched on it, but I know that it seems difficult to be able to upgrade these graphics cards, so if you are thinking on this, do check carefully before taking a decision.
I did some benchmarking on this system, with the free 3DMark03 (Build 3.6.0) and 3DMark05 (Build 1.2.0), under the standard settings [http://www.futuremark.com]. In every case I tested with the system as out of the box (e.g., with all the Toshiba utilities running in the back) and under a fresh boot with minimum applications. This usually increased the performance numbers by less than 1%, so I will just report the lower standard scores. The Direct3D and OpenGL options in ATI’s Control Panel have sliders between maximum performance, balanced (default), and high quality, so I give the values for all of them. You can see that you cannot get an important increase in performance through this setting. I haven’t tried any further tweaking to get the absolute maximum values.
max. performance: 2607
balanced (default): 2584
high quality: 1241
max. performance: 994
balanced (default): 986
high quality: 626
Hard disk, software and drives
The hard drive is of the slow 4200RPM kind, and there are no options here. It is a Fujitsu MHT2060AT 60GB HD (although not specified on the website, when you get the machine the stickers will let you know that it’s rotating at 4200 RPM), working at UDMA Mode 5 (UltraATA/100). HD Tune (v. 2.10, http://www.hdtune.com) reported a transfer rate average of 19.2MB/sec (with an absolute maximum of 24.3 MB/sec), an access time of 19.8 ms, a burst rate of 65.2 MB/sec with a CPU usage of about 3% (all values are averages after four runs). The temperature was usually between 30-35 C, even after benchmarking it. It has no errors either on the surface or reported by SMART.
The hard disk has only the main partition as a factory setting. With the software as it comes you are left with 50.2GB out of a total of 55.8GB (remember that the GB reported by Windows are based on binary and those by hardware manufacturers are decimal). You have 1.21 GB used in Windows’ and 488 MB in the i386′ folders, 647 MB already in Program files’ and 439 MB in the Tools CD (Toshiba utilities, of which you have to burn your own CD for back up, as it does not come in the box), with the virtual memory that in my case was reserving 1-2 GB. If in the future you need to save some space, you may want to delete the installation tools and reduce the amount taken by the virtual memory (if you have enough RAM). I will not review Windows XP Pro SP2 or the main applications provided, that you can find reviewed elsewhere (Microsoft OneNote / InterVideo WinDVD / RecordNow! Basic / 90 days trial version of Norton Internet Security 2004).
This is what you have on your hard disk when you start the machine for the first time. You can see the used space and the folders in the root, Program Files’ and ToolsCD’ (Toshiba applications and utilities). You may want to disallow the fast indexing service of the hard disk for a better performance (view larger image)
I am sure many people will hate the fact that Toshiba installs a lot of optional applications that will be running in the background, affecting in some way the performance of the computer. I personally think that it may be a pain having to remove them, but on the other side some apps may deserve a try to see if you find them useful. I would have desired a more detailed explanation of their purpose and characteristics (e.g., a dedicated chapter in the printed manual), and not having to search in each and every application’s on-line help and settings how to try to inactivate them. They should have deserved this treatment since they are sold by Toshiba as part of the product, or added value for your money.
You can see that your taskbar is a bit too populated by default, and there are more things running even when not shown there. Give each application a try (some can be useful) and uninstall those that you don’t want, or at least remove some of those icons! (view larger image)
The drive in this model is a CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo drive (TEAC DW-224E-A): it can read and write CD-Rs and CD-RWs at 24x (depending on the media specs), and read DVDs at 8x. It is a very noisy drive, much more than the old Ricoh combo drive that I have in my desktop PC. A loud optical drive on a laptop is annoying.. It would be impossible to see a film or hear music if not for the ‘Acoustic Silencer’, a software utility that lets you reduce a discs rotational speed. With this setting on (that you can enable/disable from your taskbar if you want to) the drive is very quiet and not a problem, but you will depend on it to be able to enjoy multimedia activities.
A side view of the Tecra A4 with the CD/DVD combo drive open (view larger image)
Heat, fans, power management and battery life
The machine does not get really hot (‘warm’ would be a better short description). On the keyboard area, you can feel where the main source of heat is because it gets warmer where you rest your left hand palm, but it is not disturbing at all. As I have already mentioned, a good point of the keyboard being displaced to the right of the laptop centre is that it gets a bit away from the main source of heat. I never use the laptop directly on my lap, but there is definitively some hot accumulating below the machine (that I suppose will bother you if you want to) because that is the main exit of heat from the CPU (you can see the fan from the bottom, and there is also another passive opening nearby). Most of the rest of the heat comes out through a big opening on the left side.
The fan is silent and it is usually not working all the time (of course this will depend on the particular task that you are involved with); when on, it switches between a low and a high speed, but even the latter is very tolerable (and almost mute compared with the noise of the CD/DVD drive!). You have the option on how much it runs by choosing your preferred method of cooling the system when needed, by tending to activate the fan, by reducing the speed (and performance) of the CPU, or by a combination of both.
The battery (PA3399U-1BAS/BRS) is a 6-cell Li-Ion, which is rather standard these days, but clearly not enough for this machine. Toshiba says it will give you up to 2:30h, so it is rather poor from the beginning, particularly considering that there is a Pentium M inside designed (and sold) with low energy consumption in mind. It is not the worst in the lot, as you may find that Sony’s FS line report just 2hours of battery life, but it is very bad against the up to 5h’ reported by HP for its nx7010 or by Acer for its Aspire 2023, and even worse than the cheaper (with some better specs) Toshiba Satellite Pro M30 (up to 3:20h).
Battery Eater Pro (http://www.mobilepc.ru/be/eng/), a benchmark to measure battery life under very intensive use (‘Classic test’), reported just 1:16 h with the screen at max. brightness (all power savings disabled). Even when that is in fact too bright, I was able to get only 5 more minutes under the same intensive use when I tested it with the brightness set at mid level (level 4 out of 8).
There is an available option of a 12-cell battery that you can buy to double its autonomy when not near an outlet, but you will have to add 98 + VAT, it will make the system 300g heavier, and it will be protruding from the back part of the laptop (increasing depth).
Input & Output
The other big disappointment when I received and checked this machine is that there is no Express Card support in it even though Toshiba published in the product specifications webpage that it did (this spec has been deleted from their website now, but you can still find the mistake in some vendor’s webpages). In fact, you even have the slot on the left side and the machine is marked as having it, but the slot is blocked by a neat and irritating piece of black plastic. If you are suggested to try to remove it (as I was by the seller after specifically asking about it) just do check twice that you are not going to break your machine: if it seems very hard then you probably shouldn’t do it, as there is nothing inside you may want to access. Toshiba said that, as with the Trubrite screen issue, there has been a series of unusual communication problems here too, leading to a regrettable and unintentional situation. Some of you may be already aware that a similar problem happened with other Toshiba notebook lines in a few countries (e.g., the M45 in the USA), so it seems to be a rather usual unusual problem. Express Cards are still not in the market, but they are predicted to displace PC Cards soon give their lower price to manufacture. This is also another of the Sonoma platform supported technologies that may have been implemented but is not.
You have a slot for a single PC Card (5mm, Type II card) under the failed Express Card one, and a multicard reader slot in the front to handle a whole range of different memory cards: SD Card, SmartMedia, Memory Stick, Memory Stick Pro, MultiMedia Card and xD-Picture Card (my digital camera uses the unsupported CompactFlash memory, obviously this is not my lucky millennium).
A good thing is the availability of a parallel port, so you will not have to buy an expensive Port Replicator (a docking station) if you still use a parallel printer or if you want to directly connect through a parallel cable to an old PC running Win95/98. On the contrary, there are no legacy serial or PS/2 ports available. There are three USB (2.0) ports, two vertical on the right side, near the back, and one horizontal in the middle of the left side. You also have a standard connection for an external monitor and S-video out.
You can connect to this laptop in several ways, through LAN (10/100/1000), modem (V.92), an infrared port (IrDA 1.1) or i.LINK (IEEE1394). Finally, you have support for wireless (802.11 b/g, although the sticker with the specs in the box says only 802.11 g: another error for my collection…), that you can switch on-off with the switch in the front (turning off will result in some power savings).
Conclusions and recommendations
On the (very) bad side, you cannot get detailed specifications of what you are buying before starting the laptop and seeing what Windows or some other dedicated program tells you. When you get the specs on Toshiba’s (UK) website, they may be wrong. This may mislead you, as it did with me, usually for the economic convenience of Toshiba. This hurts the brand-name in a way that will not disappear by providing some free accessories as compensation. I can understand that (although not agree with) some general-electronics shops don’t know the products they are selling; however this should not be tolerated from a big manufacturer/maker/brand as Toshiba.
The Tecra A4 (at least the available options in the UK) are not to be considered real Sonoma-tech laptops in the sense that they are made with the latest technology available. Yes, you have a Pentium M Sonoma’ CPU with the appropriate chipset, but no DDR2 RAM, no Express Card support, no Intel high definition audio, a value graphics card so no huge benefit from PCI Express support, no 802.11 a mode wireless, no Bluetooth, no enhanced screen, and top all this off with poor battery life! It seems to be a machine that could have been ready some time ago, and when the Sonoma/Alviso chipset option appeared Toshiba just shoved it inside. There were very bad strategic and marketing decisions there, and I am afraid some of them were taken even after selling an estimated configuration.
Having said that, there are some good points to the Tecra A4. The design, build and weight are generally good, and I am inclined to trust in their marketing point (even when this is really difficult now for me) that they are machines made to last. Only time will tell. The performance is good and you will be perfectly able to get your work done. The parallel port will allow you to deal with many of the still available printers, particularly if you plan to move to different offices and countries, without having to buy (and move) a docking station or some sort of port expansion. The other good point of having an expensive Pentium M inside is that the laptop is quiet and does not get really hot.
The best thing is the International Worldwide warranty, which very few have, showing the broad (and more realistic) concept of the world that Toshiba has. Buying through the NNA (for University students and staff in UK) I was able to get a 3 year extension for the same price as the standard 1 year, that was indeed what really made the difference to me (that extension will usually cost around 150). I haven’t researched into IBM or Apple, but I found that only the extremely business-oriented nc line of HP/Compaq offers something similar (but the HP nc8230, with a 3-year really worldwide warranty, great design and better specs costs almost double); the rest of the cheaper or similarly priced lines, even of big brand names, will only give you local or regional support.
Among the three available models in the UK at the moment, I would definitely not go for the more expensive one (PTA40E-01500UEN, same as reviewed but with PM 750 1.8GHz, 80GB hard disk and a DVD burner). It would mean putting even more money (aprox. 200 more) in a machine lacking some already available options in the market (with that extra money you will start to find better options in other series and brands). On the other side, you may want to consider saving some 200 and go for the cheapest one (PTA40E-01R00VEN, same as reviewed but with a Celeron M 370 1.5GHz and just 256MB RAM): you will get almost all of the good things of the Tecra A4 series and will not be losing much (just be sure to invest some of those savings in adding RAM, as I did).
Finally, let’s try a useful exercise: let’s forget about the specifics of my case, both my false expectations based on Toshiba ‘mistakes’ and the convenient discount on the international warranty extension buying as a University member. Would I recommend you to buy the Tecra A4 under normal conditions, already knowing what the true specs are? I’m sorry to say that I cannot provide you with a clear-cut short answer. On the one side, it does not contain as desirable specs as you might like, so you may feel frustrated buying a brand-new but non-inclusive of the latest and greatest component laptop. On the flip-side, it also lacks the high price tag being a business, well designed, well working and good looking laptop. So the A4 provides a mid-range laptop. You will have to compare and decide, with your budget in mind, if you want to save (from the specifications point of view, you will not lose much going for a Dothan-based laptop going on sale, like the HP nx7010 or Toshiba Satellite Pro M30), if you want to be nearer to the cutting-edge (there are more complete and updated laptops available with not so much money), or if you prefer the best of both worlds, in which case it does deserve to be considered a decent competitor among your options. But understand me right: you will not get every new feature with this design and quality for this price, so the moral is the usual one, i.e. you get what you pay for (but, as in my case, not always what you were told you were paying for). Just be aware that you may always want to go for an established vs. a brand-new not-yet-released model, because checking several times the official information does not always work, at least if it is branded “Toshiba”.
Pricing and Availability