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Toshiba Tecra M4

Toshiba adds a full-size machine to its Tablet PC convertible lineup
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)

Toshiba has the distinction of popularizing the Tablet PC convertible. True, it was Acer who initially received a lot of attention with its small convertible notebook, but once the Tablet PC was officially unveiled, Toshiba's larger and more businesslike Portege 3500 quickly took the lead. That original Portege was replaced by the Portege M200, which was recently replaced by the new Portege M400. Why is all this relevant? Because the Tecra M4 is a grown up version of the Portege M200. But let me explain.

I love the original Portege 3500 Tablet PC convertible and actually still use one as my main notebook computer. It was never entirely clear to me why Toshiba so quickly replaced the 3500 with the M200 as the two machines were very similar and the M200 didn't seem to offer any substantial improvements. For example, there still was no internal optical drive, and gone was one design detail that I always liked on the 3500: the visible placement of the active pen right alongside of the LCD screen.

However, the M200 had one very interesting feature that no one else had, one that could easily sway a purchase decision: it had a very high resolution 1400 x 1050 pixel display. That's almost twice as many pixels as the 1024 x 768 XGA standard prevalent in most Tablet PCs (and still a large percentage of notebooks) today. With that kind of resolution, there is just that much more real estate available on the display. More windows fit, more data, more information. With today's applications needing ever more real estate to shine, the M200's ultra-high-res display received a lot of attention.

There was just one problem: Those 1400 x 1050 pixels still only had a 12.1-inch screen to display on. Let's see what that means. A 12.1-inch display is 9.75 inches wide. With 1024 x 768 XGA resolution, this means 105 pixels per inch. That's already quite a bit more than the 72 pixels per inch that have been a display standard ever since the first Macintosh. The M200's screen, however, displays 144 pixels per inch, which means four times the old Mac's pixel density. This makes for extremely sharp images and text, but since Windows wasn't designed to scale to such high resolution, it also made for tiny text and quite a bit of playing around with icon, menu, scrollbar and other sizes. Even so, the M200's display definitely took some getting used to. And then there was still the matter of not having an internal optical drive, something that has become a virtual necessity.

A grown-up M200

Enter the Tecra M4. Put the M200 and the M4 side by side and you immediately see a substantial family resemblance. The M4 is a bigger, more grown up version of the M200. It has a 14.1 inch display with the same 1400 x 1050 resolution, but with more screen surface available, this translates into a much more reasonable 124 pixels per inch. This roughly splits the pixel density difference between a standard 1024 x 768 and the M200's 1400 x 1050 12.1-inch display. Which means you get the high resolution and the ability to display almost twice as much, but it's now eminently readable on the larger screen. The resolution per inch is still high, which means everything looks crisp and razor-sharp.

This, of course, is not the only advantage that comes with an overall larger computer. The Tecra M4 simply has more of everything. It does, of course, have an internal optical drive. It has two nicely sized speakers instead of just one. It has three instead of just two USB ports. If you want to display external video, you have your choice of a standard RGB VGA jack or an S-video out port. If you need FireWire, that's there as well. And for expansion and card-reading there is both a PC Card slot and a SD Card slot. The extra features continue on the keyboard. Instead of a Spartan touchpad with mouse buttons you get both an AccuPoint II pointing device and a TouchPad with primary and secondary control buttons. The TouchPad also has horizontal and vertical scroll areas. And that, of course, is all in addition to the pen, which all by itself would already be wonderful.

In other areas, the M4 follows Toshiba tradition. The wireless radio, for example, can be turned on and off with an actual physical switch. That surely beats the often well-hidden software switches that have on occasion frustrated us. Audio in/out jacks, likewise, are on the front where they belong.

The Vista factor

These days, if you buy a desktop or notebook computer that you intend to use for a few years, it should be compatible with Vista, Microsoft's next version of Windows. Vista has some pretty hefty hardware requirements that you can look up on the Microsoft website. The requirements aren't too specific. Microsoft recommends a "modern CPU," 512MB of RAM and, perhaps most importantly, a graphics processor that is DirectX 9 compatible and WDDM (Windows Display Driver Model) compatible. The Tecra's two available graphics subsystems (the NVIDIA GeForce Go 6200 and 6600) fall into that category and are therefore theoretically Vista-ready. However, Microsoft also specifies graphics memory and requires 128MB for resolutions above 1024 x 768, which the Tecra has. That means the 64MB GeForce Go 6200 won't be able to run Vista's fancy "Aero" 3D environment. This means that in order to be Vista-ready, one should order a Tecra M4 model equipped with at least 512MB of RAM and NVIDIA 6600 graphics. There is also the matter of having proper Vista drivers, and at this point we do not know what Vista drivers Toshiba will or will not release.

Processor and other choices

As far as the "modern CPU" goes, you can get the M4 with a variety of Pentium M processors (730/740/750760/770) with clock speeds between 1.6 and 2.13GHz. That should work. Our M4-S435 came with a 1.73GHz 740 chip, 512MB of RAM, but with 64MB Go 6200 graphics. As of this writing., Toshiba offers either the preconfigured S435 (ours), or the customizable M4-S115TD. Here you start with the basic model, then click off whatever extras you want. That should be whatever processor, disk and optical drive you need (or can afford); some extra memory; and definitely the $75 Graphics Controller upgrade to the 128MB Go 6600. That's the way to go if you see Vista in your future. As far as optical drives go, you have a choice of a basic CD-RW/DVD drive, and DVD SuperMulti drives that can write CDs, and also DVDs either single layer or double layer. Disk drives come in capacities between 40 and 100GB, and I you need 802.11a in addition to b/g, that comes in the form of the Intel PRO/Wireless that costs $20 extra.

Daily use

So those are the technical aspects of the Tecra M4. But what does it look and feel like, and what's it like in daily use? If you are used to a conventional (i.e. smaller) Tablet PC convertible, the M4 looks huge. It has a footprint of 12.9 x 11.4 inches and is about an inch and a half thick. It weighs between 6.2 and 6.4 pounds, depending on configuration. In actuality, that's really not very big and heavy by full-size notebook standards, and certainly not if you are used to notebooks with giant wide-screen displays. So it all depends on what you expect.

Tried and true Tablet PC convertible technology

From a Tablet PC design point of view, the Tecra M4 uses all the same technologies as almost all other Tablet PC convertibles. That includes the ubiquitous rotate-and-fold-flat display that lets you rotate the top part with the LCD by 180 degrees so that it faces the other way (may be useful for some presentations) and then folds down flat on top of the keyboard, turning the M4 into a big slate. Centered in the top of the display is a clip that secures the LCD part to the keyboard part of the computer whether the display faces up or down. This is basically a good and very clever solution and it works very well for those who don't use the pen when the M4 is used in notebook mode. If you do use the pen, the display flexes so much that tapping the pen only works if you steady the display with your other hand, not exactly an optical situation. This is not the M4's fault--it's affecting every other Tablet PC convertible that uses the swivel/rotate design. The only way around that would be a different design or some sort of steadying brackets. From what I can tell, most of those designs are patent-protected, thus robbing users of easy availability of designs that work best.

The Tecra M4's size means that it will probably be used as a tablet less often than smaller convertibles. Toshiba seems to have anticipated that and equipped the display with only a subset of the Tablet PC buttons and controls usually found for slate-mode use. There's just a very small 4-way control, a ESC/display rotation button, the Windows "security" button (which brings up the Task Manager), and the power switch.

Wacom digitizer

Like most Tablet PCs, the Tecra M4 uses a Wacom digitizer. That means the sleek pen doesn't need a battery, but it also means that you better not lose it. When you don't need it, put it into its garage on the left side of the computer. The Wacom digitizer works as well as it always does, and perhaps a bit better because Toshiba has so much experience with integrating it into its computers. Compared to the original Portege 3500 it has one big advantage: with a Wacom, you never want a screen bezel that is a physical barrier to the pen, at least not one that is close enough to the edge of the LCD so that you can't "overrun" the pen at least an eighth of an inch. That's because the digitizer tends to act a bit weird along the edges, and you have much better control over it if you can move the pen beyond the LCD perimeter. You can do that with the M4. A protective layer covers almost the entire area of the LCD case, and not just the LCD itself. Good thinking.

Hard drive protection

One thing that's good to have is the Toshiba hard drive protection. Whenever you move the computer abruptly, a window pops up informing you that the M4 has detected vibration and temporarily moved the hard drive head into a safe position. It's good to know, but also annoying. Fortunately, the pop-up can be disabled.

Toshiba quality

Almost every aspect of the M4 shows Toshiba's expertise and attention to quality and detail. The overall design is attractive and businesslike. The magnesium bottom is all matte-black, the top has a silver-metallic powder finish. I expect this machine to hold up to daily abuse as well as my old Toshiba Portege 3500.

A little noise and such

This being a rather powerful notebook computer, we didn't expect silence, ultra-cool running and great battery life, and Toshiba had to make some concessions. The fan comes on quite a lot, and it isn't one of the more quiet ones. The M4 warns up, though not as badly as some notebooks we've reviewed. The battery isn't very large. It packs 51 watt-hours (10.8V/4,700mAH) and is rated at up to three hours. If you need more and can do without the optical drive, a second battery fits into the "Slim SelectBay" and almost doubles battery life.

Sturdy, but not rugged

Despite the nice magnesium chassis, the accelerometer and shock protection and absorption, the M4 should not be considered a rugged or even semi-rugged computer. It is not sealed against solids and liquids either, as most rugged computers are. It can handle a 10G shock and 0.5G vibration, and it is generally sturdier than a standard plastic notebook. This is similar to the old Portege 3500 that has been my daily companion for over three years, and which has traveled all over the world. It never stopped working or took any damage, so we expect the M4 to be very reliable also.

Nice software bundle

In terms of software, Toshiba loaded a nice bundle of its own utilities and little apps to easily configure and manage the machine and keep it secure. There's also third party software such as Microsoft Work, Office OneNote, Zinio reader and WinDVD. And you get tempting 30-day trials of Franklin Covey Table Planner, Alias SketchBook, McAfee VirusScan, eTrust EZ Firewall and so on.

Amazingly affordable

What does it all cost? Not much, actually. The nicely equipped and pre-configured S435 model goes for US$1,699, and that includes a 3 year warranty. If you want to go a la carte, prices start at US$1,563.

If you always wanted a Tablet PC convertible from a premier notebook maker but found those 12.1 inch screen just a tad too small, the Tecra M4 is the answer. It is a formidable machine.

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--Conrad H. Blickenstorfer