Review: Toshiba's Transformable

I have never considered myself a big car kind of guy. If anything, I often laugh at the person sitting behind the wheel of a Lincoln Town Car or Cadillac. My dad drove bugs, as in Volkswagen Beetles, through the snow-covered back woods of Maine. I've been driving small cars since I got my license--at 25. Point: A 1988 Toyota Corolla sits in my driveway, which as much as anything is testimony to just how little regular working reporters are paid. (Don't quit your McDonald's job just yet to take up writing for a living.)

But Toshiba has given me a taste of the big car world, by way of the company's innovative new Satellite 1955-S801 portable, and it's much sweeter than I imagined.


Now you would think a Japanese computer manufacturer would follow the make-things-as-small-as-you-can trend. But no, Toshiba has bucked the approach big time by building what arguably must be the largest and heaviest notebook sold by any manufacturer. They say size doesn't matter? It sure as hell does with notebooks. Smaller is usually better, but Toshiba sees a market in building a big--as in really huge--notebook. The company may have caught onto something. Bigger may be better for notebooks, after all.

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It ain't heavy, it's my notebook

This thing weighs a whooping 9.6 pounds, so it's not exactly that lug-around-the-world kind of computer. (Of course, if you're a 98-pound weakling geek and frequent flier, well, this might be the ticket to bulking up on the run.) For comparison, many 15-inch notebooks weigh at 6.5 pounds or less. Sizewise, you got big measurements: 13.6 inches by 12.9 inches by 2.2 inches. (Just think George Foreman Grill, for perspective.)

There's no question that a 9.6-pound notebook isn't for everyone. Frequent travelers looking for quick computing on the road won't appreciate the Satellite's size, weight or power. They're sure to curse those features --"#%@$%! notebook"--and file workman compensation claims for work-related arm and back injuries. But for those people demanding desktop performance and a computer they occasionally can move around the office or lug on a trip, the 1955-S801--or a portable like it--could be the perfect choice. In fact, with the Satellite's weight and heft comes the truest desktop replacement portable sold by any computer manufacturer. Many businesses may find this appealing.

All too common scenario: The corporate technology manager spends extra and gets portables for the staff. This increases their flexibility and lets them take work home (studies show companies get an extra 20-percent productivity out of employees this way). But then, most everyone on staff asks for an external monitor, keyboard and mouse to hook up to the notebook. "Duh, what's the point of having portables if you have to attach all these peripherals to them?" So now the technology manager has to spring for docking stations, too, and any peripherals not already on hand. Does this picture appear familiar?

The 1955-S801 solves this problem. The display is a whooping 16 inches, which offers slightly more viewable area than the standard 17-inch CRT, or tube, monitor. The keyboard is wireless and detachable (yeah, it really is); for good measure, there's a wireless optical mouse too. Suddenly, this behemoth is a fully-functional desktop replacement. The user can push the system back for comfortable viewing and then pop out the wireless keyboard to use, say, on his or her lap. The wireless mouse simplifies things more. So the technology manager no longer needs to provide those extras, buy expensive docking stations or worry about the help-desk support headaches associated with attaching or unhooking all those peripherals. Better still, the user doesn't have to fiddle with cables. Oh, did I mention the new Satellite uses a desktop processor for speedier performance?

The portable's specs (OK, luggable) are certainly impressive: 2.2GHz Pentium 4 (desktop) processor, 16-inch SXGA display, 512MB of SDRAM expandable to 1GB, 40GB hard drive, CD-RW/DVD combo drive, 32MB DDR SDRAM nVidia GeForce 440 Go graphics accelerator, integrated 10/100 networking, 56kbps modem and FireWire, three USB ports and Windows XP Home.

In terms of the total package, the Satellite 1955-S801 really is a Cadillac notebook. The keyboard has excellent touch and feel; the keys are response to the touch and are pleasing to the fingers. The display is just outstanding. It's the brightest, crispest screen I have seen on any notebook. This contrasts starkly against Gateway's Solo 600XL, also a worthy desktop-replacement notebook. The Solo's display appears dim by comparison.

But I would have expected 64MB of video memory, like to Solo 600, to support that big 16-inch display. Because of that oversight and other factors, maximum resolution is only 1280 x 1040, although the graphics chip is capable of up to 2048 x 1536 resolution with an external monitor. That's the same as Apple's PowerBook G4 800, a sleeker desktop replacement for the Macintosh market. The PowerBook G4 looks tiny compared to the 1955-S801, and, at 5.4 pounds, is a great deal more portable. But in terms of performance and overall usability, the Satellite outclasses the PowerBook in almost every way.

The 1955-S801's wireless optical mouse is larger than I like, but, damn, is it responsive. The mouse glides across the desk smoothly in a way I haven't seen from Apple, Logitech or Microsoft tethered optical mice. In fact, an Apple mouse tends to drag over time, even if the pads are cleaned frequently. But, like other wireless mice, the Satellite's mouse uses two AA batteries. That adds extra weight and means frequent Costco trips to store up on cases of batteries. Toshiba claims about 48 hours of continuous use per set of batteries. That worked out about right in my testing. The mouse does turn off when left idle for a few minutes to conserve the batteries; the user can put the mouse to sleep manually, too.

The built-in speakers, which are placed at the back of the unit and above the notebook's base, produce fairly rich sound. The integrated audio chip, the Avance AC97 also pumped out music with gusto through the 200-watt Altec Lansing 621 speakers and subwoofer I attached to the 1955-S801.

Driving in style

Unquestionably, the new Satellite handles more like a sportster than a Town Car. (OK, this is where I'm supposed to throw in the convertible joke, since the notebook converts into a pseudo-desktop. Satisfied?) In casual testing against two desktop PCs, Sony's Vaio MXS20 and the Gateway 700XL, the 1955-S801 delivered equal or better performance. My Sony test model had a 2GHz Pentium 4 processor and the Gateway a 2.2GHz chip. In that sense, while big for a portable, the new Satellite is a small package compared to a desktop PC--and a welcome one at that. Compared to the Solo 600XL, the 1.8GHz mobile Pentium 4 processor couldn't match the performance of the Satellite's 2.2GHz desktop processor. (Keep in mind that other factors, such as design of the motherboard or speed of hard disk also greatly impact performance.)

All the 1955-S801's power comes at a very attractive price, too. Toshiba lists the 1955-S801 for $2,499 and the S802--identical but with Windows XP Professional--for $2,579. That's a lot of portable for the price. When I first reviewed the Solo 600XL, Gateway sold the unit for $2,588. The company later raised the price several times, selling the high-end notebook for as much as $2,899. Right now, Gateway is asking $2,699. The Solo 600XL is a pound lighter than the Satellite, packs twice the video memory and comes with integrated 802.11b wireless networking.

As much as I like Apple's PowerBook G4--a winner for desktop performance in a lightweight notebook--the Satellite packs in much more value. Apple's portable weighs in heavy on price: $3,199. Toshiba's luggable is more middleweight at $2,499. Even adding the cost for enabling wireless networking and the Altec Lansing speakers I added to the system, the Satellite still costs about $450 less the PowerBook G4.

To my surprise, the 1955-S801 does not come with 802.11b wireless, which is used to connect to an office or home network at speeds up to 11mbps (megabits per second) over the air. But the computer is fully 802.11b--or Wi-Fi--ready. I would have known this if I had inspected the unit more carefully. I asked Toshiba to send me a wireless networking PC Card, but received a MiniPCI card instead to insert inside the notebook. A PC Card, which would have its own built-in antenna, would slip into the notebook's PCMCIA slot. The MiniPCI card meant the 1955-S801 already had an antenna built into the case, but where would I install the thing?

Now most companies try to hold reviewers' hands, offering too much documentation or assistance. Looks like Toshiba just assumed that as an old hand doing this kind of thing I could figure out where to install the MiniPCI card by myself. Or maybe someone forgot the card's installation documentation--because there wasn't any. The notebook's manual offered no help, nor did Toshiba's online documentation. So I unscrewed all covers on the bottom of the portable for accessing memory, hard drive and other components. But I couldn't find what I wanted. Then I thought about the keyboard. The thing is removable, right? Sure enough, under the keyboard there was one final hatch, leading to the slot to attach the wireless networking card.

Once I got the card installed, Windows XP easily and automatically installed everything needed to connect up to my home-office wireless network. Toshiba even added an extra detail for the process. On the front of the Satellite there is a switch to turn on wireless networking. That's a nifty security precaution for when people have to tether up to a local area network and don't want to manually disable wireless networking using the Windows XP Control Panel. Still, it would have been nice for Toshiba to fully enable 802.11b wireless as part of the base price. I couldn't find that add-in card on Toshiba's Webs site, but computer dealer CDW sells the unit for $179.37.

One thing I didn't find while poking inside the notebook's innards was excess heat. I was prepared for a few burns. Desktop processors produce much more heat than do their mobile counterparts. But Toshiba has done an excellent job cooling the processor, with vents placed on the left side and bottom of the chassis. In fact, I rarely heard the fan running, making the 1955-S801 unusually quiet for a portable and near silent compared to the majority of desktops, which run fairly loud fans. In fact, the Toshiba's fan turned on much less often than did the Gateway 600XL's.

Still, that desktop processor draws a lot more power than would its mobile counterpart. So the Satellite runs down the battery much quicker than, say, Gateway's Solo 600. If you do travel, don't plan on watching much more than a 2-hour DVD on batteries, if that.

The software bundle, which is fairly attractive, comes with something you don't see on a notebook everyday: Lotus SmartSuite. Including this productivity instead of Microsoft Office probably shaves a couple hundred bucks off the cost. Sony has been taking a similar approach, but with Corel WordPerfect 10.

More transformers to come

I'll be the first to admit that the 1955-S801 is no crowd pleaser. Road warriors might ogle over the power but not the heft. But for those people looking for desktop power in a smaller-than-desktop package that also is portable, the new Satellite has much to offer. Maybe it's best to think of the 1955-S801 as the first notebook in a series of transformables coming from a variety of manufacturers.

About a year and half ago, Compaq Computer came to town to show off prototypes of notebooks that morphed into desktop PCs. In most cases, the main body of the notebook would flip over to make a stand to support the monitor. Like the 1955-S801, the prototypes featured wireless keyboards, but Compaq had opted for a removable, wireless track pad instead of a mouse. Unfortunately, Compaq scrapped the project, as the company struggled to aright its listing bottom line and later chose to be acquired by Hewlett-Packard. IBM has a bunch of notebook-to-desktop prototypes, too, sitting in the company's research lab down in a Raleigh, N.C. But Big Blue has no clear plans to bring the portables to market, or so my sources tell me. Toshiba beat both companies, in what could be a shift to transformable notebooks. You can be sure the new HP and Sony, which has a 16.1-inch portable, are taking note of the Satellite 1955-S801.

Transformables clearly have a future. With more manufacturers putting desktop processors in notebooks, the only appeal big PCs have over portables is price. Notebook designs are increasingly more attractive than desktops and, with the growing popularity of 802.11b wireless networking, portables just make more sense. C'mon, who wouldn't want to duck out to the Starbucks to work on that PowerPoint presentation and connect over wireless to the corporate network to check e-mail? As more coffee shops, hotels and airports install 802.11b wireless networks, this scenario will become more common.

Undoubtedly, cunning notebook designs that meet the needs of road warriors and office chair warmers will make a lot of sense to businesses or consumers. Of course, the designs will need to be less Arnold Schwarzenegger and more Reese Witherspoon. For now, Toshiba has introduced a good first effort that could lead to smaller designs in the future. It should be noted that PC manufacturers will start selling transformables of another type come Nov. 7, when the first Tablet PC models reach store shelves. Early Tablet PCs will be notebooks that transform into a tablet upon which the user can input data by writing with a stylus on the screen. Expect prices to be only a few hundred bucks more than standard notebooks.

Joe Wilcox has been covering technology since 1994 and now spends his days writing about Microsoft for CNET News.com. Joe can be found online at joewilcox.com.

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