the laptop market, searching for a good system that would fit my big needs and small budget. As a university student, I work on the computer a lot each day, yet I could not afford to part with too much money for this purchase. Translated, this means I was looking for a total desktop replacement at a budget price. The bad news is it took a couple of months to trudge through the options offered by various companies, pulling my hair every step of the way because of how hopeless it sometimes seemed. The good news is I finally found the Toshiba Satellite A40, which I happily bought from Future Shop in Canada (futureshop.ca), bundled together with a wireless 802.11b router.
The Toshiba A40 can come with various configurations, ranging from budget Celeron-chipped models starting at 2.4GHz, to absolutely lavish Mobile Pentium 4s with Hyperthreading topping out at 3.2GHz. For my part, I chose the relatively modest A40-VH3 configuration, which has the following specs:
-Celeron 2.7GHz processor (with 128K level 2 cache)
-512mb of DDR RAM (in 2 slots)
-40GB hard drive
-64mb Intel shared video memory
-15” TFT XGA screen (max resolution: 1024x768)
-DVD/CD-RW combo drive (8x DVD, 24x/10x/24x CD)
-Networking: -56Kbps modem
-802.11g wireless card
-Ports: -4 high speed USB 2.0 ports
-1 VGA port
-1 parallel port
-1 type II PC card slot
-security lock port
The system comes equipped with a mammoth 12-cell Li-Ion battery (more on this later), an AC adapter, and a nice leather “portfolio-style” carrying case, which is just big enough to fit the laptop (but cannot really accommodate any external items like power cords). Computer plus battery weigh about 7.7 lbs, so this is not the most portable machine out there. Still, as long as you’re not a frequent traveler, you should find it manageable. The total cost of the above system (including the wireless b router that was bundled with it) was Canadia Dollars $1500 (about $1100 in U.S. Dollars).
One of the nice things about the A40 series is the number of ways you can dress them up (or down) to suit your needs. It goes without saying that any changes to the above system will change its price. As you can see below, some of the options can easily take the system out of the budget category. Here is a list of other A40 hardware options:
-RAM: up to 2 GB
-Hard drive: 30, 60, 80 GB
-Screen: 14.1” XGA (1024x768), 15” SXGA (1400x1050)
-Optical drive: -DVD-ROM (8x DVD read, 24x CD read)
-DVD-R/-RW (8x DVD read, 24x CD read, 16x CD-R, 10x CD-RW, 1x DVD-R/-RW)
-DVD Multidrive (8x DVD read, 24x CD read, 16x CD-R, 8x CD-RW, 1x DVD-RW, 2x DVD-R)
-DVD±RW (8x DVD read, 24x CD read, 16x CD write, 10x CD-R, 2x DVD-R/-RW, 2.4x DVD+R/+RW)
-Ports: -IEEE1394 Firewire
-SD card reader
Externally, the computer looks stylish enough, if a little bulky. It measures 13.3 in. (w) x 11.7 in. (d), with a height of 1.8 in. at the back and 1.6 in. at the front. Its blue lid opens with a sideways-sliding latch. The underside, keyboard, and screen are all black. The area around the keyboard is silver. On the left side is the Ethernet jack, two of the USB ports, and the PC card slot. The right side has the optical drive, modem jack, wireless card on/off switch with indicator light, microphone and speaker jacks, and a speaker volume dial. On the front are 4 indicator lights for AC, battery, power, and hard drive status. At the back you will find the parallel and VGA ports, two more USB ports, the AC jack, a security lock port, and a couple of huge outlet vents that allow the hot air inside the machine to escape
Underneath, in the front end, is a large battery compartment. This does not have a lid, leaving a big gap if the battery is removed. However, this does not seem to make it uncomfortable to use the computer on your lap, since the centre of gravity (at the rear) keeps the front from pushing down too hard on your legs.. The underside also has 4 fixed pegs to elevate the computer from table surfaces. This helps the fan suck in more air, which in turn keeps the machine cooler.
The laptop feels durable, and seems to have been made with good materials that will not chip or scratch too easily. That said, the otherwise sturdy lid seems to bounce a bit on the sides when pushed down (in the closed position).
You might be surprised to learn that it was not hardware that sold me on this computer. In fact, I knew all along that I wanted something with the approximate hardware specs of the A40. So I considered models with similar specs and pricetags from Dell (Inspiron 1150) and Compaq (Presario 2197), among others. To be honest, the Compaq was not a serious consideration. Call it a prejudice, but, having bought a couple of Compaq desktops in the past, I promised myself to never repeat that mistake. There always seems to be some hidden downside to a Compaq, which you don’t discover until after you have bought it (perhaps I’ll expand on this in a future review). I was also not impressed with the long list of technical problems people reported about Compaq notebooks on the Internet.
This brings me to Dell, which is still a decent company, but has been having problems with some of its notebooks lately. For instance, I was turned off by the number of users complaining that the left side of their Inspiron 1150 keyboard was overheating. Moreover, for all Dell’s reputation for having good service, this comes at a cost. I was not willing to pay for a service upgrade, so it made little difference to me how good their service supposedly was. Finally, there are some hidden costs with Dell, beyond the shipping charge. For example, if you buy a computer and return it, they charge you an outrageous 15% restocking fee. All these things made me wary of buying Dell.
I settled on Toshiba for the following reasons:
1. The company (still) has a great reputation for build quality – probably second only to that of IBM – and it has a long history of building laptops.
2. The A40s have an excellent screen and keyboard. Never underestimate the importance of these two features, since you will use them every time you use the laptop!
The Toshiba A40’s 15” XGA TFT screen has a maximum resolution of 1024x768, which looks great, although the lower 640x480 setting displays text poorly. What I really like about the screen is its large size and brightness. It’s not bright enough to use outdoors, mind you, but then neither are most laptop screens. Another big plus is the fact that the user can adjust the refresh rate of this screen. This is something that I have not seen on many laptops... the argument sales people give you is that you don't need to adjust refresh rate on a TFT because the active pixels refresh themselves. One salesperson even had the nerve to tell me that NO laptop allows you to change the refresh rate. Don’t believe any of these stories. I have gotten headaches or dry, itchy eyes with other machines at low refresh rates, like, say the standard 60Hz refresh rate that you will find on many laptops. But I have my Toshiba set to 85Hz and it isn't causing me the least bit of irritation. This is important to me, because I have horrible eyesight, and tend to use the computer for long stretches.
Another nice feature is the computer’s dual display capability, which allows the user to extend the workspace by using an external monitor along with the laptop screen. In this case, the user can assign some programs to display on one screen, and others on the other screen.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The 86-key A40 keyboard is about as good as I have seen on a laptop. The keys are where they should be (ex. often you will find the Function key where the Control key should be; not so with this laptop). And Home/PgUp/PgDn/End/Ins/Del each have their own dedicated key; you don't have to hit Function to reach them. Toshiba has included both a Windows and a menu key, which short-cut savvy users will appreciate. I also like the spacing and feel of the keys. They are full-sized, and have the right amount of give to them.
One last thing I should mention about the keyboard is that there are 4 buttons to control your CDs/DVDs (play/pause, stop, back, forward), just under the screen. But from what I can tell, these only work with Windows Media Player (which I never use), so they are not useful for me. That said, I must concede that most users will probably like this feature.
The touchpad is ok, as far as touchpads go.... obviously a mouse is always better. It has a nice feature that allows you to scroll down a window if you slide your finger along the right edge of the touchpad, or scroll across a window by sliding your finger along the bottom edge of the touchpad. Toshiba also has some software on the computer that lets you program the corners of the pad to launch various programs. I found this to be a nuisance – programs would sometimes pop up if I accidentally touched the pad the wrong way – so I just uninstalled it.
I really like the Atheros 802.11g wireless card. Like other wireless cards, once turned on, it automatically searches for available wireless connections in the area. But some wireless cards may take several minutes to find connections, while others have problems staying online once they are connected. In contast, the A40’s wireless seems to work perfectly. It takes 15-25 seconds for it to find my home network connection, and, so far, it has not hanged up on me.
Hard disk and pre-installed software
Although spinning at only 4200 rpm, the hard disk performs reasonably well, given the computer’s fast 533 MHz bus speed. The hard disk is also barely audible, so about the only thing you hear when using the laptop is the fan. I like the fact that there were no partitions of the drive; often, manufacturers’ partitions are not the size I want, so I end up having to spend time repartitioning. Also, Toshiba had pre-set the drive to use the NTFS file system instead of FAT 32 – another good feature that saved me the trouble of having to make the change manually.
Prospective buyers should note, however, that there isn’t a wealth of software pre-installed on this machine – in fact, only about 3gb worth, all backed up on a single rescue disk (DVD). This is a positive thing for me, because I do not like to have a huge chunk of my hard drive filled with programs I will never use. Still, Toshiba should have included some basic programs like a word processor and Antivirus scanner (both of which are absent). The software they did pre-install includes Windows XP Home, various Toshiba utilities, and some CD/DVD burning software. The utilities are of varying degrees of usefulness; for example, they let you mess with touchpad and battery life settings, and there’s a cool little program that slows down the CD/DVD drive when you’re watching a movie so that it doesn’t make noise and disturb you… two thumbs up! Interestingly, Toshiba included voice recognition software, as well as a program that reads web pages out loud. To my surprise, this works really well. Nevertheless, I think most users would have preferred a basic desktop suite like Microsoft Works over these flashy little “toys”.
There were a couple of other annoying things with the software. One was that most programs had placed icons on the system tray, so that when I first turned the computer on, I was faced with a barrage of confusing little icons. My advice is to just get rid of the ones you don’t need (and ensure they’re no longer running), because they’re eating up your RAM needlessly. The other annoying thing was that the user manual included in the box is useless, except for really basic things (like how to turn the computer on or put a CD into the drive). The only explanation for the software was a 3 or 4 line blurb about what each program does.
Now let me get to overall system performance. First, I really felt no need to invest a couple of hundred dollars more on a Pentium 4. My desktop is a Celeron 1.1 GHz, and even that is ok for most things I do. So the Celeron 2.7 GHz processor is more than enough. There were a few graphics editing programs (like Blender) that my desktop couldn’t handle well due to its poor video card, but the 64mb shared video on my laptop has no difficulties with them. I’ve tried running some 3D games too (like Generals, Red Alert 2, Worms3D, and Ghost Recon), and they all run beautifully, without skips or delays. Bootup time is reasonably fast: the login screen appears within 30 seconds from the moment the machine is turned on, and it takes about another 10 seconds to login.
One negative I have seen in the performance category is that sometimes it takes a moment for shortcut menus to pop up when you right click. This usually doesn’t bother me, but that doesn’t mean I’m not somewhat disappointed on this point.
Obviously, if you really need all out power, you will want the Pentium 4 version of this machine, with as much memory and hard drive capacity as you can get. But I would recommend against investing too much in an A40, because even the top model A40 is still limited to the 64MB shared video memory, so the old adage about a chain being only as strong as its weakest link clearly applies here. For most people with even moderately high performance requirements, my configuration is fine. For a bit more umph, move up to a P4 2.8 GHz, with 1GB of RAM. But if you need more power than that, you might as well look into an entirely different line of computers.
Hooboy, this was the biggest surprise on this computer! When I bought it, I was counting on about 1.5 hours of life, because the store rated it at 2 hours, and I thought I was being smart by underestimating that figure (the way you would for most laptops). In fact, if I set the computer to the “long life” setting, I get 4 - 4.5 hours of life!! Unbelievable. Keep in mind that on the “long life” setting, there is a major decrease in processor performance, as the computer attempts to generate less heat. Consequently, this setting is only good for basic functions like word processing or surfing the Internet. Also keep in mind that playing a DVD movie or a powerful 3D game will eat up the battery faster, so you will probably get only a couple of hours of life in those scenarios.
In any case, this computer has excellent battery performance, so one may wonder how Toshiba managed that. The answer is very simple, actually: remember that huge 12-cell battery I mentioned earlier? Consider that many other laptops in this price range have 8-cell batteries, and you quickly realize how much bigger this 12-cell beast is. One downside with this battery is that it takes longer to charge (about 3.5 hours with the computer off). But I was happy to learn that the battery will last, on average, for approximately 500 charge/discharge cycles, which is almost double the 300 cycles that many other manufacturers’ batteries last. That difference is as good as money in your pocket, because it means you won’t have to replace the battery as often.
Note that one method of increasing battery life is to use the cooling fan more sparingly. For theA40, this means the machine will get pretty hot in battery mode (but not in AC mode), especially on the underside near the screen. This is not something to be too worried about, and is common among Celeron or Pentium 4 laptops. It does mean, however, that it may get a little uncomfortable if you rest it on your lap in battery mode for too long. Fortunately, there is very little heating of the top surface (such as the keyboard), so operation is still comfortable if you rest it on a table. The amount of fan usage in battery mode can, of course, be adjusted with the Toshiba utilities to suit the user’s preferences. So, you can have the machine remain as cool as it would if plugged in, but that will mean sacrificing a lot of battery life.
I should point out in passing that the speakers are not very good, as is typical of laptops. They do not handle bass well, and the volume has to be turned way up to get any sound out of them. This is alright for everyday use, but if it matters much to you, you will obviously want to invest in a pair of external speakers.
A40 laptops come with a standard 1 year limited warranty, and a 1 year international limited warranty. Toshiba also offers extended protection covering accidental damage. This extended coverage is more expensive than similar coverage from Dell, but, of course, this was not a problem for me because I did not intend to extend the warranty.
From what I have said about this laptop, it should be clear that I am thoroughly satisfied with it. Its powerful hardware, bright monitor, and well-designed keyboard make it an excellent choice for a desktop replacement. Meanwhile, its big battery helps it perform well on the road. While this computer is not suitable for a road warrior, it does serve well for the average home user who still wants to have a reasonable amount of mobility. This is also a great laptop for students, given its good balance of performance and price (although students will definitely not want to carry this to every lecture). Congratulations to Toshiba on a solid product.