Toshiba Satellite R25 Tablet PC Notebook Convertible Review (pics, specs)

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The Satellite R25 is Toshiba’s latest convertible Core Duo, high res, widescreen tablet PC. Its low price means it’s aimed at the general consumer market including students as well as artists that are looking for drawing on screen capabilities.  But is it time to “convert”?


Satellite R25 Specs as Purchased:

  • Intel Core Duo T2050 (1.6GHz, 533MHz FSB)
  • 1024MB (512MBx2) DDR2 ram at 533MHz
  • Intel GMA950
  • 100GB hard drive 5400RPM SATA
  • 14.1″ widescreen LCD TruBrite WXGA+ (1440×900)
  • Intel 3945ABG 802.11 a/b/g wireless card
  • DVD SuperMulti
  • Fingerprint reader
  • 6-cell battery
  • Windows XP Tablet edition 2005

I hate Toshiba

Until a few years Toshiba was a top of the line notebook manufacture and well above the market average . My old favored Satellite 1410 is still working as good as new after 3.5 years of intensive usage while 2003 models of Compaqs & Dells are dropping like flies . But then the corporate spirit took over, putting the branding in the center and the actual product and customer way back, so while everyone else started to improve their notebooks and service Toshiba moved to offering low spec notebooks.  To be honest Toshiba is doing what many other brands do as well, but in addition it has the most annoying marketing department ever.

Unlike my old Toshiba now the logo is facing away from the user, you say minor change, I say general attitude … (view larger image)

Reasons for Buying

Admittedly the right Tablet PC for me has yet to be made, I couldn’t find another model or brand that had what I’m looking for in a Tablet PC and I’ve been keeping my eyes on them for years.  But when the R25 came out I decided to take the plunge.  Why?  Here’s why:

  • $1,200 is not a bargain price for the above specs notebook, but it is for any half way decent tablet model you can buy today
  • The 14.1″ WXGA+ widescreen looked good on paper
  • The Wacom penabled digitizer is considered best in pen tracking and pressure sensitivity
  • Toshiba experience making Tablet PCs runs longer then many other companies

Buying Experience

After waiting for so long I didn’t want to take any chance and ordered it July 10th at Amazon.com (who was a launch partner for the R25) choosing 2 day shipping and expecting to get it soon.  But as other retailers were shipping the R25 Amazon still claimed the “item has not yet been released”, no matter how many times I pointed out that it is being sold everywhere, even on the Amazon site by a 3rd party retailer (CompUSA.com).

I was willing to get any reasonable answer from Amazon like “we didn’t receive stock” , “we ran out of stock”, even “we can’t find our stock” but Amazon still insisted it was not released. Only after 3 weeks after ordering the item did it appear to be “in stock” and I had to contact them again for the 4th time to get them moving the thing my way.

Packing and contents

This little cheap tablet comes in a little cheap box.  Admittedly the contents is what really counts but both boxes below carry 14″ notebooks and the old Satellite box to the left is bulletproofed in comparison .

They don’t make them like they used to … (view larger image)

Speaking of contents, there is very little inside, not a single cable or accessory to be found let alone a proper user manual.  One can argue that other companies (DELL for example) don’t include a paper manual either but DELL has one if not the best PDF user & service manuals I’ve ever seen while the Toshiba PDF user guide is a joke with sections on “how to use the touch pad” and confident inpiring advise such as “save your work often”, its more of a general software manual then a proper notebook guide.



A tablet , power supply , pen and recovery CD … and all that fits into just a small box (view larger image)

On the other hand the box, tablet and guide are filled with warnings, alerts and disclaimers all over the place.  Toshibas legal department is really working overtime, if only they had put that much attention into the tablet itself.

There should be a Tablet PC somewhere under all those warnings (view larger image)

Design & Build Quality

While considered a consumer Tablet PC convertible, the Satellite R25 looks just like Tecra M7 with the same mist gray and black “we mean business” color palette.  At 2.7 Kg and 4cm height it is slightly heavier and thicker then last years model, a bit disappointing as we all prefer notebooks to get thinner and lighter.

The Satellite R25 out of the box stands to the test (view larger image)

You heard me right … it’s as thick as a Dell Inspiron 9300 17″ DTR (view larger image)

There is no flex to the screen and the hinge feels very solid without being too stiff, it won’t wobble much when in an open position, however shake the tablet a bit when closed and you’ll hear creaking noises. Resting my hand on the screen in a tablet position also produced some creaking noise that made me uncomfortable. Applying pressure to the closed lid resulted is considerable movement, holding the tablet at only one side makes you feel like its going to break at any moment.  That said, one has to assume that after so many tablet models, Toshiba engineers probably know what they are doing with design build, at least I hope so.

Input and Output Ports

This tablet has all the basic ports: VGA & S-Video, 4 USB 2.0, i1394 firewire, Lan & modem, mic & headphone audio ports, 1 PCMCIA card slot, 5 in 1 bridge media adaptor and a Kensington lock.



Left : lock, vent, USB, i1394 ( firewire ), media card reader, pcmcia card slot (view larger image)



Front: status LEDs, wireless switch, headphone & mic, volume dial, lid latch (view larger image)

Right: Pen holder, DVD multi, USB (view larger image)



Back : power supply, modem, S-video, Lan, 2 USB, VGA out (view larger image)

The indicator LEDs are positioned poorly on the lower lip edge, making them unseen when in tablet mode. Unlike the old Toshiba 1410 soft glow in and fade out quality 2 color LEDs (below), the lights on the R25 mange to look cheap and too bright at the same time. The small holes make them hard to read, yet at some angles you get an annoying flare. As seen in the picture indicators look lit by the adjacent lit LEDs.



Above is the old 1410 lights and on the bottom the Satellite R25.  Looking better than they really are, much like Reuters photos whose picture do injustice to the truth (view larger image)

While the 4 USB ports are a fair amount for a 14″ tablet and the spread is very good, some of these ports don’t seem deep enough to accommodate the entire length of a USB plug. It might not be a big deal to some, but I’d feel better if the USB plugs would go all the way in.

Yes, this is as far as the USB slot goes in (view larger image)

CPU and Performance

Toshibas marketing touts the R25 as having “Desktop power”, that’s true only if your desktop is 5 years old . The Intel T2050 is the lowest cheapest CPU in the Core Duo range, however that shouldn’t be a problem unless you plan to run CPU intensive applications 100% of the time. Or simply overload it with junk like Toshiba did with no less then 85 processes running out of the box, not only slowing the notebook, but making boot time take a few good minutes. If I was paranoid I’d think it’s a marketing department plot to have you upgrade the CPU.

Once you pass the boot time the T2050 Duo Core capability means that multitasking is a breeze, letting you switch from one task to another without a delay and having CPU intensive programs running in the background without hindering foreground applications. While rated only at 1.6 GHz it managed 1m 36s in Super Pi out of the box, not bad if you compare it to the 2m 04s by a last year 1.6 GHz Intel Dothan. Reducing the number of processes running in the background shaved an extra 3 seconds of that time.

 Notebook Time to Calculate Pi to 2 Million Digits
Toshiba Satellite R25 (1.6GHz Core Duo T2050) 1m 36s
IBM ThinkPad T43 (1.86GHz Alviso Pentium M) 1m 45s
IBM ThinkPad T41 (1.6GHz Banias Pentium M) 2m 23s
Compaq R3000T (Celeron 2.8GHz) 3m 3s
Dell Inspiron 600m (1.6 GHz Dothan Pentium M) 2m 10s
Dell Inspiron 8600 (1.7GHz Banias Pentium M) 2m 28s

GPU and Gaming

Everyone should know by now that the Intel GMA950 is the lowest end of GPU available today, using the words Graphic Media & Accelerator was probably thought of by the same “creative” guys in Toshiba marketing department. However, this card consume very little power and doesn’t require active cooling which suits any tablet just fine.

While we can give up on 3D gaming (any 2D game should work just fine) this also means you won’t be able to enjoy upcoming Windows Vista aero glass features. On the other hand, by the looks of it, Vista is going to be just an overrated bloated flashy OS so I’d say it’s practicly an advantage!

Audio

Whenever marketing comes up with an extravagant name for a product you shouldn’t expect too much. Toshiba names their audio as SRS with SRS trusurround XT & SRS WOW, I guess the XT means not very loud and the WOW implies the lack any bass. If you plan on enjoying listening to audio getting a good set of headphones is recommended.



Just like any other average notebook speakers (view larger image)

Inclued are Realtek high definition audio drivers — as though it matters with such speakers . What does matter is that I had to keep them installed as it relies on software alone to drive sound forcing you to have a resource consuming process just to have audio.

The headphone & mic ports are located at the front which I consider a design flaw as when the Tablet PC is on your lap the plug might poke at your belly, next to them is the new Toshiba volume dial. Tilting left to right lowers and raises the volume while pressing it acts as a mute button. In comparison, the old Toshiba hardware dial was much quicker to set.

Keyboard and Touchpad

The R25 keyboard is the same Toshiba style keyboard from the 1410, including the annoying placement of the windows key at the top right, apparently Toshiba thinks we should all use two hands to perform shortcuts.  The keyboard is stiffer and less crisp than the old 1410, keyboard but on the bright side it has no flex and it is spill resistant.  It is also off center thanks to the useless media buttons on the left, that I keep hitting by accident when trying to find the small tab key.



Who cares about a touch pad on a tabletpc ? It’s off center too … (view larger image)

Unlike the 1410 media buttons, these are not accessible when the lid is closed, placing the ones in the R25 was probably done by the marketing to make it look like a multimedia capable consumer tablet, which it is NOT.





Why have a centered bigger keyboard when we can have these? … launch , play/pause , stop , next , previous (view larger image)

Display

Much of my buying decision was based on the display specification on paper. Described by Toshiba marketing as 14.1″ WXGA+ 1440 x 900 TruBrite, wide viewing angle it looked very promising indeed. The higher resolution is indeed a bonus for any graphics application at the cost of smaller than usual icon and font size. The promised TruBrite display has a bit of a glare like all coated screens yet it is anything but bright.  Rule of thumb says the smaller the screen the brighter it should look but this screen doesn’t look any brighter then a 17″ WXGA+ Inspiron I have, and Dell are not known for their screen quality.


The only bright thing about the display is the minimal light leakage and lack of dead pixels (view larger image)

The viewing angles are wide only in one direction , that is across the screen in landscape mode or if you will up and down in portrait. Since most of the time we are viewing the display centered that means that in a landscape mode you have to keep the display at a precise angle. Being a tablet it’s a major drawback. Following are two sample photos demonstrating the issue more clearly for those who didn’t get it or that believes Toshiba marketing.

Portrait mode wide angle the colors are fine, everything is clear (view larger image)

Same angle Landscape what was white turns gray, unreadable (view larger image)

But worst of all is the grain effect making any light solid color get a grainy colored texture like the one you get with high ISO settings in digital photography. In addition to distorting colors and making sort of an “animated sparkle” it is tiring and unpleasant to the eye, maybe it is also the cause for lack of brightness compared to regular screens. DVD viewing or any multimedia activity isn’t the tablets forte, although it is marketed as a consumer tablet and I can’t stress enough the importance of seeing this screen in person prior to purchase.

Unable to capture the grain effect using a digital camera , it is most noticeable over light colors (view larger image)

Tablet & Pen

Converting from notebook to a tablet is done by rotating the screen clockwise while flipping it over, a nice detail are 2 small windows near the hinge that let you know which direction the screen should be turned to in any position, clearly Toshiba has got an engineering department somewhere!


Go left dummy … no … the other left (view larger image)

Upon switching to tablet mode, the display itself will rotate to portrait mode automatically, it will also adjust itself to which position you hold the tablet at by holding the rotate button, which is very cool for about 5 seconds. The entire tablet screen itself will lock into the tablet main body by a flippable latch — but here is the problem:  the latch release trigger is very sensitive so when the tablet sits in your lap at landscape mode it is easily pressed by mistake making the tablet screen constantly pop open.  Marketing are probably going to name it “super light touch release” and sell it as a feature.


sensitive release trigger … sneeze to open (view larger image)

Like all Wacom tablets the display writing surface is at one level with the bezel meaning you can rest your hands comfortably, a good word to Toshiba in light of the fact that other brands still didn’t grasp this simple rule. Along the border are: sliding power button to avoid accidental powering off, customizable cross menu button (joystick), display rotation button, task manager (ctrl + alt + del) and 2 buttons for a web browser and email.  I wish Toshiba had gone further and added Wacom customizable buttons and touch strips. The problem with all tablets and applications is that there is nothing faster then a short cut key.


Power , cross menu , rotation , task manger , internet , mail … is that all ? (view larger image)

The pen is stored at the right side of the tablet body so it won’t get lost, getting it out requires a gentle push and then some pulling, this is an improvement considering users complained on pens dropping out of earlier models. However, this design means the side switch can’t protrude making it uneasy to be pressed.  In addition to the poor switch the pen is too slim and light to my liking, once I get the tablet to support other pens I’m going to buy a proper Wacom pen.


Pen, 5 nibs & nib extractor, veteran Wacom users use their teeth instead … the tough ones even swallow the used nibs (view larger image)

The pen tip isn’t ice skating across the tablet surface which is a good thing, but it’s still not a tactile pen on paper just yet. The tracking itself seems pretty decent with only short delays here and there — another good reason to get rid of any uncritical utility and processes hogging the system. It is recommended to calibrate the pen at a slight offset to the cursor so you’ll be able to see it at all time, for example if your right handed make the cursor to show slightly to the left and above the pen tip.

The preinstalled tablet driver doesn’t support pressure sensitivity so you will have to install a tablet PC driver from Wacom’s web site. According to Wacom it allows 256 levels of pressure, unfortunately it feels more like 5.  If you’ve ever used Wacom tablets, even 10 years old first generation, you’ll be very disappointed.  Since it’s the same technology Wacom claims the pens are interchangeable but in reality this doesn’t work and I’m working with Wacom support to solve those 2 issues.

The problem might be lying with the Wacom driver, since its the same technology I expected a similar Wacom driver if not better but the Wacom tablet pc driver is very basic lacking many options such as pen choosing, non linear settings, application specific settings, etc.


Any Wacom user will be disappointed with this very basic pen driver interface (view larger image)

Final words about tablet pc functionality — I have been using a Tablet for many years and only for drawing purposes. No matter how cool it looks, a mouse and keyboard are always easier and faster. I tried to use some of the XP tablet edition features but found them slow and frustrating, such as the handwriting recognition software that insists that a circle is any letter but an ‘O’.

Upgrade Options

The Memory is located under the keyboard which is usually seen only in very thin and light notebooks. The manual instructs that only an authorized technician is allowed to replace it so even if you upgrade it you’ll void your warranty.  The HD is more accessible however it is secured inside a shock protector with no instructions how to get it out.  Toshiba will be happy to assist you upgrading at a hefty price after and before your purchase. Prices for HD & memory customizable upgrades at Toshibadirect.com are double of what it would cost you to buy them and install them yourself in 5 minutes.


Only the HD and mini-pci card are user accessible and you are not allowed to upgarde them either (view larger image)

Wireless

The 802.11 a/b/g protocol should allow you to get internet connectivity anywhere you go. By now wireless is so common I don’t even bother with it, in fact I instantly shut it down for security risks ( true or false ) and power saving. Doing so will also allow you to terminate several resource hungry processes by both Intel and Toshiba.

Battery

Like promised the battery lasted for 3:50 hours with screen at 2/3 brightness, wireless off and almost no activity. My guess is that a bit of undervolting and some more tweaks and you’ll be able to squeeze some light activity into that time or at least a few extra minutes. If you need to spend the day on battery you can always get yourself a bay battery and double your unplugged time.

Power supply

The power supply is about the same size and design of the old one. Some other manufactures offer right angled plugs that help reduce stress of the cable and the notebook power socket. Experience shows that the weight of the cable pulls the plug down when the notebook is sitting at your lap. The constant stress distorts the power cable at the point where it bends sharply and might even break the power port, the distorted cable connections are now loose and the only solution is the change the entire PSU. A 90 degree angle plug would have been a good idea, especially for a Tablet PC that by nature is being held in mid air more often.


New PSU is slightly shorter then the old one (view larger image)


The cable weight pulling down the plu , to the right is how its going to look after a short while (view larger image)

Heat & Noise

Here’s where Toshiba vastly improved over the Tecra M4 which was said to be too hot and noisy. The tablet itself is quite cool with the CPU & HD hovering at 35C and 40C respectively.  The underside is mildly warm but there are some small exposed metal parts there that could give small stinging burns. The palm rest is gets warm at the touchpad area.

It’s important to note that in tablet mode the entire lower quarter from the power button to the finger reader gets even warmer which is very uncomfortable to the touch, right handed users planning to work in tablet portrait mode are in for a hot surprise.  I’m not sure about the source of the display surface heat as Wacom tablets don’t get warm and it doesn’t look CPU related, but in any case heat is one more reason to stay with lowest end CPU / GPU. I didn’t try to undervolt the CPU for the already low temperatures and lack of proper support of Core Duo to date.

Software

As remarked before, Toshiba loads the R25 with so much crap it makes Dells bloatware look like a safemode boot. It took me several hours to get rid of all the junk to bring the number of process running from 85 to 35, another option is to get a clean slipstreamed install of windows tablet pc edition, legally install it using the product key found on the case bottom and then add Toshibas specific utilities from the provided CD according to your needs.

Toshiba aiming to stretch the icon tray all the way to the START button … luckily its a widescreen (view larger image)

Among the useful Toshiba utilities are the rotation utility, power saver, tablet buttons, accelometer and HDD protector. Speaking of which every slight move of the tablet causes a popup message alerting that the heads were parked in a safe position, while you can turn the message off it still means the HD operation and performance are hit by this over sensitive setting — my suggestion is to use the lowest setting.

Security & the R25 vs. M7

For many years the Tecras stood as a faster, sturdier and more secure business notebooks compared to the Satellite line. But now both models overall and security specs are practically identical offering magnesium alloy casework, spill resistant keyboard, shock protected design including the HDD and even a fingerprint reader. The only major difference is a TPM module in the M7 and two customizable application launch buttons instead of media buttons.


Wow , shock protected design & fingerprint reader … my p**n collection is now safe (view larger image)

Toshibadirect.com has an R25 configuration matching the M7 with T2300 1.6Ghz instead of T2050 1.6Ghz for $1,775, that means $575 more for 667Mhz FSB instead of just 533Mhz. The M7 also offers the option for an Nvidia Quadro NVS110M GPU for an extra $100, it is a basic passive cooling workstation card, so don’t expect any 3D gaming performance or impressing rendering capabilities.

Customer Support

The R25 comes with a basic 1 year warranty. The lack of ANY email support or even contact form is a major drawback for me, apparently Toshiba marketing can spam me all they want with their useless promo newsletters but I’m not allowed to email them back. In a late tech support comparison conducted by Laptop magazine, Toshiba scored the lowest score of D minus. God help me should I need Toshiba’s assistance, but I will probably have to wait more than 45 minutes on Toshiba service lines just like everybody else.

Pros

  • For $1,200 you can write on the screen .

Cons

  • The Screen and pretty much anything else

Conclusion


If you were looking for a notebook and thought about the R25 for the added bonus of tablet functionality, skip it . There are much better alternatives at that price range even by Toshiba itself. The reason why Tablet PCs aren’t wide spread is probably because they are not up to par with regular notebooks, handwriting recognition is poor and digitizer performance is way behind a proper Wacom tablet.

However if you are an artist looking for a Tablet PC with the main purpose of drawing and writing on the screen the R25 is an option to consider (when the Wacom driver issue will be sorted out), if only for the lack of tablet selection in general and at that price range in particular. The R25 price tag is what makes it a better buy then the M7 or ANY other $2,000+ tablet because it means an easier trade-in when the next generation of tablet PCs will be released, hopefully soon.


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