Once or twice per year, a friend or family member asks me to help them pick a notebook. Most of the folks I know just need a basic computer, and the reason they enlist me is that I love finding good deals on notebooks. This week I needed to find a good little Grandma computer. Having scanned the used sections of my favorite websites for deals I quickly determined that most people were stuck in 2005, asking way too much for notebooks that are much slower than current budget units.
So I hit the stores and found a pretty good assortment of dual core models in the $500-600 range from Acer, Dell, Compaq and Toshiba. The Toshiba Satellite A210-04F (A215 in the US) caught my eye:
- AMD Turion 64 X2 Mobile TL-60 (2.0GHz, 1MB Level 2 Cache)
- Microsoft Windows Vista Home Premium
- 1GB RAM – 2x512MB DDR2 (667 MHz)
- 200GB SATA HDD, 4200rpm
- Built-in DVD Super-Multi Double Layer Drive functions:
- 15.4″ Wide XGA TFT with TruBrite
- ATI Radeon X1200 GPU
- One Year International Warranty
According to Toshiba Canada’s website the MSRP is $949.00 but street price is much lower ($499-$549 on sale). US pricing is a little more expensive, but the A215 comes with a slightly larger and faster hard drive (250GB, 5400rpm) and 2GB of system memory.
Out of Box Experience
Toshiba’s box is all business. No fancy artwork or decals here, just an understated brown box. Inside the A210 is nestled in some cardboard inserts. Accessories (accessory brochure, manual and power adapter) are packed in cardboard and there is a minimum of plastics. A thin cloth wrapper protects the A210’s screen and lid (which is finished in Onyx Blue Metallic color). This is a refined and understated looking notebook.
- Dimensions: (WxDxH) 14.25 x 10.5 x 1.5 inches
- Weight: 2.72kg (6lbs)
It feels both smaller and lighter than the specs would suggest. The 75 Watt power supply adds 350 gm (3/4 lb) to the travel weight. The 4000mAh 6-cell battery fits snugly into the bottom of this particular A210 with a solid feeling locking mechanism.
Like most recent Satellites, the chassis construction bears a family resemblance to other models in Toshiba’s line. The A210 base feels solid in the hands and does a decent job resisting torsion flex. Also, while the stiff lid does a good job of protecting the LCD its bezel is a bit flimsy, particularly close to the web cam. When you first crack open the lid, a couple of pamphlets rest on the keyboard explaining how to register and also the recovery partition info.
First boot starts Toshiba’s recovery console and an automated install. This thirty minute procedure should have been completed at the factory and puts a bit of a damper on the out of box experience.
Specifications: Fast Enough for Grandma?
The TL-60 in the A210 is based on a 65nm SOI fabrication process and consumes a frugal 31 Watts during peak speed. It wasn’t too long ago that specs like these were reserved for higher end notebooks – last year’s Acer Ferrari 12″ notebook comes to mind. For Grandma’s purposes this power is more than enough. At this price, many notebooks ship with Intel Celeron-M CPUs and the A210’s dual core Turion is better. In fact AMD’s Turion X2 TL-60 is a pretty good rival for the low end Core 2 Duo processors, although it generally comes out short in terms of both computational power and energy conservation.
There is an irony here when you consider how long AMD worked against Intel’s MHz Myth back in the day when the Athlon 64 was a superior product to the Pentium 4. Now, AMD is forced to compete against Intel by clocking its CPU’s higher at any given price point.
A rather paltry (by today’s standards) 1 GB of DDR2 667 MHz in dual-channel mode (two 512 sticks) is installed in the A210. A single 1 GB ram module would be better, and would facilitate easy upgrade to 2 GB. Vista likes at least 2 GB of RAM.
The A210’s 200 GB Hard Drive provides a lot of storage but the drive’s 4200 RPM rotational speed is antiquated and offers only marginal input/output performance. The average trasfer rate on the drive was 29.4 MB/second, we like to see about 40-45 MB/second. Boot time is about 1 minute 40 seconds. The A210’s vacant second hard drive bay would be a great additional feature if the SATA connectors were not absent.
Optical storage comes in the form of a Super Multi DVD Burner. This is a dual layer DVD burner that accepts both -/+ media. It burns regular DVD-/+R discs at 8x, re-writable and dual layer discs at 4x, and DVD-RAM at 5x. This should cover most needs, but the drive is easily upgraded if necessary.
The AMD 690M chipset incorporates an ATI RADEON X1200 video processor with up to 319 MB of shared memory (in this case 128 MB). No, you won’t be playing Crysis with this notebook – for curiosity’s sake I tested it and got 13 fps at LOW settings and 800×600 resolution. For Facebook games and solitaires this setup will do nicely. Gaming aside, the X1200 does have some interesting features:
- Full DirectX 9.0 support
- Enhanced MPEG-2 hardware decode acceleration
- MPEG-4 decode support
- Hardware acceleration for WMV9 playback
- Integrated TV encoder from AMD Xilleon products with integrated ATI Avivo engine
- Dual independent displays
Video acceleration is important especially with affordable HD cams hitting the market. This particular implementation of the X1200 features S-Video and VGA output. No DVI or HDMI is present.
As I mentioned in the first impressions, the A210’s LCD panel features TruBright. This type screen coating is becoming a universal feature on consumer notebooks because it accentuates contrast. You really notice this when watching video although in bright areas with lots of sunlight the glare be distracting. I am hoping the the extra contrast helps, more than the glare harms. A 17″ screen might be a better choice for old eyes, but the A210’s low resolution 1280*700 15″ LCD should be OK. Vertical viewing angle is poor, horizontal is acceptable. There is light bleed and the screen looks washed out during DVD playback (although it looks fine within Windows).
A 1.3 Megapixel web cam with microphone sits above the LCD. It worked fine in Skype, but suffered from poor low light performance (like most low end or integrated web cams).
Wireless networking is handled the Atheros AR5006EX 802.11a/g chip. With the proliferation of 2.4 GHz 802.11b and g networks, it is nice that the A100 offers users the option to go with the less cluttered 5.0 GHz 802.11a standard. Antenna performance was excellent. A 56k modem jack and a 10/100 Ethernet port (powered by a Realtek RTL8101E PCI-E chip) round out the networking features.
Left side view. (view large image)
Realtek’s ALC268 soft audio solution handles sound output (including High Definition audio). The vast majority of notebooks use the host audio capabilities of their chipsets (in this case the AMD 690M). This is then output via a codec chip. What this means is that rather than having a dedicated hardware based mixer and signal processor (like Creative’s X-Fi or Audigy), the work is handled by the host (read CPU). There is nothing wrong with this approach and the powerful CPUs of the last few years have allayed any concerns people might have had about the CPU being tied up with audio tasks. In the A210, this soft audio is output through Realtek ALC268 codec chip. It supports 24bit resolution at 192 kHz sampling rate in stereo. Decent (loud) stereo speakers (not Harmon Kardon) and a headphone port handle audio output.
Front view. (view large image)
A 5-in-1 media card reader is included that supports SDHC Card, xD picture card, Memory Stick, Memory Stick Pro, Multi Media Card formats. A four pin firewire port is included for connecting that DV cam you have kicking about. Toshiba has outfitted the A210 with a single Express Card slot. Rounding out the input/output are four USB 2.0.
Right side view. (view large image)
A downgrade option would be a great idea especially on modest a notebook like this. No restore disks for the Vista Home Premium Operating System and Utilities are included. These days, when I find disks in a box it is quite a surprise. A 6GB restore partition resides on the HDD.
Bundled software includes the usual assortment and a minimal amount of uninstalling will get the notebook to an optimized state. Toshiba’s utility suite is generally worth keeping – some tools like the Zoom hotkey will be particularly beneficial to this notebook’s intended recipient.
- Toshiba ConfigFree
- Adobe Acrobat Reader
- TOSHIBA Disc Creator
- TOSHIBA DVD PLAYER
- Ulead DVD MovieFactory
- Norton Internet Security 2007 – 90 day trial
- Microsoft Office 2007 – 60 day trial
- Microsoft SQL Server 2005 (Someone at Toshiba has a sick sense of humor installing this on a 4200 rpm HDD)
Vista really chokes the A210. Perhaps because it meets all of Vista’s requirements, the A210 comes out of the box with all the bells and whistles turned on. That is a little much for 1GB of RAM to handle and the constant disk access really draws attention to the A210’s slow HDD. Using a program like vLiteshould bring performance to XP levels.
I was expecting the A210 to be thrashed by Intel’s current offerings, and that is pretty much what happened. SuperPicalculated to two million places in 1 minute 43 seconds. That is about 40% slower than the Intel T5450 which runs at 1.66GHz. If you can find an Intel based notebook with a Core 2 Duo CPU within $50 of the A210 then you should think long and hard before buying.
Another synthetic benchmark we use is PCMark 05. It tests overall performance by stressing most of a computer’s subsystems. In this test the A210 delivered a score of 2,979, not bad for a budget computer. In detail, the PCMark 05 score looked like this:
HDD — XP Startup
Physics and 3D
3D — Pixel Shader
Web Page Rendering
Graphics Memory — 64 Lines
HDD — General Usage
Multithreaded Test 1 / Audio Compression
Multithreaded Test 1 / Video Encoding
Multithreaded Test 2 / Text Edit
Multithreaded Test 2 / Image Decompression
Multithreaded Test 3 / File Compression
Multithreaded Test 3 / File Encryption
Multithreaded Test 3 / HDD — Virus Scan
Multithreaded Test 3 / Memory Latency — Random 16 MB
I found the A210’s bilingual keyboard spongy. Also, this keyboard has the dreaded non-standard Enter key that takes some getting used to. If you are picky about keyboards you should try the A210 out in a store.
The touchpad on the other hand was perfect right out of the box. No fancy features here, just a simple human interface device.
Along the top of the keyboard are CD/DVD control buttons: Play/Pause, Stop, Previous Track/Next track. I don’t know how much these will be used.
I expect this notebook will live most of its life tethered to a power cord, but battery life is still important. In a pure torture test, Battery Eater Progobbled up every last trace of power in the A210’s battery in just over 81 minutes.
Surfing and downloading patches I got a respectable 2:28 from the A210. Heat was not an issue under normal use. When powered by battery the A210 was quiet and cool.
In this price bracket the big players this year seem to be the Toshiba Satellite A210/A200, Dell Vostro 1000 and Acer Aspire 47xx and 55xx Gemstone series. All are good choices.
Where I see the Toshiba having an edge over the Vostro 1000 is in the buyer’s ability to walk into a store and touch/feel the notebook. Things like keyboard and design are very personal and hard to convey in a small web photograph. Aesthetically the Toshiba is better looking in my opinion. The Vostro can be bought with Windows XP – a vastly superior Operating System for PCs with modest specification like these. The Dell has a more orthodox keyboard layout – for a lot of people this alone could be the clincher. It also comes with a smaller 120GB HDD, but is spins faster.
Comparing the A210 to Acer’s Aspire, I again think the chassis is nicer on the Toshiba. The two Acer notebooks I found at this price both had Celeron CPUs – one was spec’ed with 512MB RAM and an 80GB HDD. So the Toshiba has an edge in terms of performance and specifications. Like the Dell, Acer uses a standard keyboard layout.
In the end, this review illustrates just how much computer can be had for a small price. Each year the bar is raised in the budget segment and in 2008 you have a pretty good chance of finding an excellent notebook for $500 or less.
- Price is good
- Specifications are good
- Build quality is good
- Clean-ish Windows install
- Toshiba value added software
- Squishy keyboard with some bizarre key placements and shapes
- Pokey slow HDD
- Vista is not the best choice for this segment
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