Toshiba Satellite Pro L20 review
A lot of laptop for the money, with reasonable performance and solid build quality. It still isn't enough to trump the current A-List incumbent, though
Adverts for alarmingly cheap notebooks are everywhere these days. And while it isn't yet true that notebooks are now outselling desktops, some of the prices we're seeing show that it really is war out there.
Toshiba's latest foray into the market, the Pro L20, is one of the cheapest we've seen. Coming in a variety of configurations, we found the lowest-specified model for just £392 exc VAT (from www.ebuyer.com, code: 98868).
The specification on this particular model is slightly higher, and certainly enough to last for two or three years. The most important component is the processor, a Celeron M 370. This is essentially Intel's budget version of the 'Dothan' Pentium M, running at 1.5GHz with 1MB of Level 2 cache. Possibly its biggest drawback compared to a Pentium M is the lack of SpeedStep support.
Unfortunately, it's made to look slightly slow in this configuration due to Toshiba including just 256MB of RAM; you should generally run one application at a time to prevent the system swapping to the hard disk and slowing to a crawl.
Toshiba doesn't use Intel's integrated graphics, instead opting for ATi's Radeon R200 Express. This still borrows 64MB of RAM from the system memory, and - despite the fact it's an ATi chip rather than Intel - isn't built for 3D performance. However, there's enough muscle to deal with the demands of Windows Vista when it arrives, as well as support for a second external monitor with a resolution of up to 2,048 x 1,536.
The screen itself is the biggest compromise in evidence. The resolution of 1,024 x 768 will feel basic to anyone used to more, although it does at least leave icons, text and web pages big enough to prevent eyestrain. In fact, many people will positively relish having this resolution on a 15in panel. More of an issue is the weak backlighting and narrow viewing angles, which give a definite sweet spot that rapidly drops away as you move off-centre.
But there's little else to hold you back. The keyboard, for example, is one of the best we've used on a budget machine. You'll need a firm touch to avoid missed keystrokes, but we had little trouble when touch-typing. Save for the function keys, everything is full-sized, with a dedicated cursor and page-navigation group, a Windows key and a comfortable action. We don't like the spongy touchpad mouse buttons, though, which need an inordinate amount of prodding.
In terms of portability, the 2.6kg weight will be a burden to the regular traveller, although we do appreciate the compact power-supply block, measuring just 104 x 45 x 22mm. For the occasional trip, the weight is bearable, even if the light-use battery life of less than two hours makes use away from the mains slightly nerve-wracking. Build quality is surprisingly sturdy; looking closely, the silver plastic finish teeters on the edge of cheap, but there's practically no flex, with the wristrests, lid and screen bezel all feeling remarkably robust.
We've no complaints over the rest of the design either. Port placement is sensible, with everything kept around the left-back corner to minimise cable clutter. On the side, two USB 2 ports are joined by a single Type II PC Card slot, audio in and out, plus a VGA D-SUB output. The back has a 10/100 Ethernet connection and 56K modem, plus an S-Video output and a third USB 2 port. Note the lack of serial, parallel and FireWire ports, as well as the absence of memory card readers.
The 40GB hard disk and DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive are equally basic, although it's worth bearing in mind that both are easily upgraded via the bottom of the chassis should they become limiting. That goes for many of the other components too, with a sensible level of access to the wireless card, CPU and RAM. The latter would be a good place to start, and there's a spare slot to augment the existing 256MB SODIMM. There are some other nice touches: four transport control buttons sit along the top row of the keyboard (although these sadly don't control volume) and there's a welcome wireless toggle on the front to control the onboard Atheros 802.11b/g WLAN module.