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Toshiba Portege M400 review

Verdict

A powerful convertible laptop with features that business users will appreciate. Battery life is average, though, and it's a little too heavy for convenient tablet use

Review Date: 1 Jun 2005

Reviewed By: Dave Stevenson

Price when reviewed: (£1,328 inc VAT)

Overall Rating
5 stars out of 6

In spite of Microsoft's constant overtures to businesses and individual users alike, tablet PCs have yet to catch on in a big way. But the concept is appealing: a standard laptop that you can use in tablet mode is a useful thing to have if your work takes you to places without desks.

The Toshiba M400 is the first convertible tablet notebook we've seen to sport a Core Duo processor. And the 1.83GHz Core Duo CPU at the heart of it, backed by 512MB of RAM, powered it to a benchmark score of 0.90. The other specifications are respectable. The Western Digital hard disk has a capacity of 80GB, while the optical drive is a Matsushita model that will write to all formats of disc, including, usefully, DVD-RAM. Elsewhere, Intel's 3945 802.11a/b/g wireless card rounds off the Centrino specification, and Bluetooth is another plus. There's further removable storage next to the stylus in the shape of a memory card reader that handles SD, Memory Stick and xD formats.

As a laptop designed primarily for travelling business users, the M400 has some fitting built-in components. Drop the notebook and the built-in 3D accelerometer will detect the sudden movement and park the hard disk heads, preventing them from crashing into the platters and giving more chance of your data remaining intact, even if the machine as a whole doesn't survive the fall. There's also a TPM (Trusted Platform Module) chip built in. Arguably, the accompanying software isn't quite as intuitive as HP's TPM control software, but we had an encrypted folder set up in a little under ten minutes. The fingerprint reader adds a layer of user-friendly security, although its placement beneath the screen makes it awkward to use in notebook mode.

The rest of Toshiba's management software is a breeze to use, and we particularly appreciate the presentation button on the bezel, which automatically changes the resolution of the screen and outputs the signal to the D-SUB port on the back.

The screen is a relatively compact 12.1in display, but the resolution is high at 1,400 x 1,050. While working at a desk, this is an advantage, but once the laptop is further away, as it is in tablet mode, Windows dialog boxes become uncomfortably small and it's harder to activate buttons and icons with the stylus.

Converting the M400 to tablet mode is uncomplicated - just swivel the screen around, change the orientation of the catch that holds it shut and clip it to the base. The screen is a heavy assembly, though, and there's no way of fixing it when in laptop mode. While this isn't an issue on a desk, if you're in a moving vehicle the screen is prone to wobbling about on its hinge. The panel itself isn't dazzlingly bright and contrast is merely average. This is mainly due to the added touchscreen layer, which also gives the TFT a grainy, soft-focus look. Colour reproduction is good, though, and our test RGB colour ramps were displayed without banding or discolouration. It isn't superb, but it's easily good enough to use in a normally lit home or office.

The tablet mode itself is easy to use. The stylus is held securely in a spring-loaded holder on the right-hand side of the machine and, when released, there's enough friction to stop it launching itself down the side of your train seat. Once we'd calibrated the screen, we had no problem using it for note taking and, small icons aside, navigating through Windows.

Unfortunately, the M400 is heavy for a tablet - its 2.18kg is too much to hold in the crook of your arm for long. Battery life is less than superlative too. An intensive use time of two hours, 14 minutes and a light-use time of three hours, 57 minutes makes using the M400 a less attractive replacement for pencil and paper. Notably, the HP Compaq tc4200 boasts a superb light-use time of five hours, 32 minutes.

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