Test Drive: Toshiba Satellite 5105

By Eric Grevstad

The Toshiba Satellite 5105 is a showpiece for how portable technology has improved in the past two years, and how far notebooks have come toward replacing even high-performance, game-maven desktop PCs – sizzling speed, ample storage, big screen, fast graphics, sterling sound, reasonable price. It also shows how one portable technology has become a ball and chain, or exception to the otherwise dazzling string of advances – at barely 90 minutes, battery life is the weakest link.

But if you’re not booking any transcontinental flights or planning to watch Titanic on DVD, the Satellite (formally model 5105-S607) is a dynamic desktop replacement. Though a bit on the bulky and heavy side, it’s not a bicep-buster like some of its peers – at 7.3 pounds, it’s lighter than many laptops with comparably spacious 15-inch screens. And though it’s no longer a bargain in this age of functional $1,400 notebooks, its $2,399 price includes almost every luxury you can imagine:

A perky 1.7GHz of Intel’s most up-to-date mobile Pentium 4 power? Half a gigabyte of DDR memory? A combo DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive and hefty 40GB hard disk? Not only a full 15 (diagonal) inches of bright and beautiful active-matrix LCD, but a class-leading 1,600 by 1,200 resolution, driven by Nvidia’s fastest mobile graphics accelerator – the GeForce4 440 Go with its own 32MB of DDR? Both SmartMedia and Secure Digital card slots to nab your digital-camera images? Both USB and FireWire ports to connect cameras and camcorders? Stereo speakers with a subwoofer instead of the usual tinny laptop audio?

Check, check, yep, got it, you guessed it. Frankly, the only frill we can think of that isn’t standard is 802.11b wireless networking, which Toshiba saves for its more office-oriented notebooks, though both 56Kbps modem and 10/100Mbps Ethernet ports are present (and a software stack for future Bluetooth peripherals is preinstalled). Perhaps the company was trying to save something to justify the two PC Card slots.

Oh yes, and the 5105 has the fanciest touchpad ever. We’ll get to that in a minute.

At 11.6 by 13 by 1.8 inches (closed), the Satellite is too big for some briefcases’ laptop-PC compartments, or to use comfortably in a coach-class airline seat; its travel weight climbs from 7.4 to 8.9 pounds if you also pack its AC adapter and external USB floppy drive.

But it’s a handsome machine, with a stylish wedge shape and glossy blue case that drew several comments and compliments. Not only are there chrome play/pause, stop/eject, and next/previous track buttons on the front edge that let you listen to audio CDs even if the computer’s switched off, they’re accompanied by a tiny backlit LCD that shows track information and a battery gauge – or a digital clock or scrolling message of your choice, not to mention “Welcome” and “See you” at startup and shutdown. (Alas, you can’t see the mini LCD with the computer in your lap.)

There’s also an infrared port on the front edge, with two PC Card slots, SmartMedia and SD flash card slots, the VGA monitor port, and one USB port on the left side. Two more USB ports – there is no parallel port – are at the rear, alongside the modem, Ethernet, and IEEE 1394 FireWire ports and video/audio line-out and -in jacks. The right side holds the 8/4/32X Matsushita UJDA720 DVD/CD-RW combo drive, a microphone jack, and a headphone jack that doubles as an S/PDIF digital audio output.

We already mentioned the Satellite 5105’s Achilles’ heel: its lithium-ion battery lasted 1 hour and 35 minutes for productivity work sessions with relatively modest hard disk and DVD/CD-RW usage, and well short of an hour and a half when we cranked up the screen brightness and indulged in audio playing and movie-watching. At least the latter let us enjoy the Harmon/Kardon speakers and bottom-mounted subwoofer, which can’t compete with a dedicated desktop setup but deliver surprisingly impressive sound, with much more depth and fidelity than most laptops’ miniscule, tinny speakers.

To its credit, Toshiba supplies an impressive array of power-saving options, bypassing Windows’ Control Panel’s own power settings for a custom utility that lets you create, customize, and press a function key to switch among detailed combinations of screen brightness, CPU speed, and display and hard-disk time-outs. Other preinstalled software ranges from Windows XP Home Edition to the out-of-date Lotus SmartSuite and first-rate InterVideo WinDVD.

Probably the biggest power drain isn’t the 1.7GHz mobile Pentium 4 CPU but the big, high-resolution screen, which looks a lot better than many competitors when you turn the backlight down from its maximum – we happily did most of our work on the fourth or fifth of the eight brightness settings, and even the next-to-darkest was perfectly legible.

And in everyday use, the 15-inch flat panel was as crisp as we could want – though oddly, even in 32-bit color mode, we saw some occasional blockiness instead of smooth color gradients (mostly in digital images showing the sky). We also think its 1,600 by 1,200-pixel resolution is almost too much of a good thing: The screen’s certainly large enough to accommodate more than its 14.1-inch siblings’ usual 1,024 by 768, but the 1,600 by 1,200 setting makes for decidedly tiny icons and menu text. The graphics controller did a fair job of scaling lower resolutions (like 1,280 by 1,024) to full screen size, but as with all LCDs this yielded slightly jagged text or fuzzy edges.

The Satellite’s keyboard proved perfectly comfortable, once we adjusted to the Bonneville-Salt-Flats-size palm rest dictated by the oversized LCD; typing feel was fine, although we grumbled over one layout choice – the Insert and (far more important) Delete key, not placed on the upper right as usual but sandwiched to the right of the space bar. Two programmable buttons above the function keys launch Internet Explorer and a console of the Toshiba configuration utilities by default, and the Caps Lock key has a helpful, glowing LED.

One of the coolest, cutest 5105 features is the Synaptics CPad touchpad, which works like most notebooks’ touchpads but also incorporates a backlit, 240 by 160-pixel monochrome LCD. Normally this screen shows the minimize, maximize, and smooth-scrolling tap zones familiar from other touchpads (and configurable with the familiar Synaptics driver), but press a small button between the left and right mouse buttons and the CPad becomes a mini-application launcher, turning into a touch-sensitive calculator, numeric keypad, stylus-scribble or signature-capture scratch pad, or menu of your favorite Windows application icons. It’s half a gimmick, half genuinely neat – miles more convenient than plowing through the Accessories menu to launch Windows’ Calculator, though we weren’t crazy about the background “wallpaper” bitmaps available for the diminutive display.

We expected the combination of 1.7GHz mobile Pentium 4 power and Nvidia’s GeForce4 Go 440 to deliver spreadsheet-blasting speed and gameworthy graphics, and we weren’t disappointed: The Satellite posted MadOnion.com PCMark 2002 scores of 4,075 (CPU), 3,981 (memory), and 554 (hard disk), which is right in the ballpark with 1.6GHz to 1.8GHz Pentium 4 and Athlon XP desktops we’ve tested. Power freaks will subtract a few points because, at 512MB of DDR, the Satellite is already maxed out – you can’t expand system memory to 768MB, 1GB, or more.

And while most notebooks struggle to field a minimal 30 frames per second in the classic Quake III Arena (Normal 640 by 480) benchmark, the Satellite screamed to 183 fps (with a sizzling 141 fps in High Quality 1,024 by 768 mode, and even a highly respectable 69 fps in High Quality 1,600 by 1,200).

The Satellite is pretty much a match for a Pentium 4/1.8 desktop with a GeForce3 Ti 200 – not a world record holder, but an eminently playable, powerful solution. We were mildly disappointed that the GeForce4 Go, unlike even the mild-mannered S3 integrated graphics of a recent eMachines economy desktop, couldn’t complete the DirectX 8.1 pixel-shading and environment-bump-mapping torture tests of MadOnion.com’s 3DMark 2001 SE Pro, but it still managed a speedy overall score of 4,934 at 1,024 by 768.

In short, the Toshiba has more than enough speed, gorgeous graphics, and great sound to stand alongside all but the utmost desktop PCs, and (although its all-in-one design lacks the flexibility of modular, swappable systems) it’s not as hernia-prone as most no-holds-barred notebooks – although you’ll probably want to pack a spare battery. You knew you could get a nice notebook for under $2,000 nowadays, but did you know you could truly ditch your desktop for $2,399?

Pros: Big screen, speedy performance; great sound and graphics; complete set of ports; nice design touches; two extra LCDs (front edge and touchpad).

Cons: Size relatively bulky; battery life relatively poor.

Reprinted from hardwarecentral.com.

Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.

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