From its distinctive start-up chimes, working with the Toshiba Portege A100 is a fresh experience. It's light and bright, with an excellent screen, and certainly gives Apple's iBook a run for its money. The comparisons are inevitable due to the A100's cool, white finish - a milky white lid and white keyboard and touchpad set against silver metal-effect surround. And visitors to Toshiba's stand at the BETT educational technology show in January were suitably impressed with this debutante - finally, a PC laptop that oozed classy design.
With a 12.1-inch screen and weighing just 2.14kg (4.7lbs), the A100, says Toshiba, has been designed with education in mind. It is truly portable and there is no compromise on power as the Centrino (1.4GHz) processor is quick and powerful enough for most reasonable tasks and delivers an impressive four hours' battery life. Although this is reduced to just over two hours when connected to a wireless network, the A100 has a switch to turn off wireless networking and save battery life. It has plenty of capacity on its 40Gb hard disk and 256Mb of memory and comes loaded with the Windows XP Professional operating system.
Connectivity is impressive. For network connection you have Ethernet, WiFi and a modem. Unlike other Porteges, there is neither infrared nor Bluetooth, although you can have the latter via a special card that fits into the Secure Disc (SD) slot. The SD slot is next to a pair of PC card slots on the left-hand side, useful facilities for bringing in digital media on a variety of storage cards. On the right-hand side is a now-standard DVD playerCD burner (future-proofers will be looking for the facility to burn DVDs too) while on the back are four USB ports, a firewire port, essential for digital video, and composite-video and video-out ports for connection to other monitors and TVs.
The keyboard is well laid out and comfortable to use. There are also dedicated keys for email, browser and the Toshiba Console, software that allows you to configure the machine to your optimum set-up (it includes ConfigFree to help you get over internet connection problems). It's good to see, too, that Toshiba has dropped the awkward-to-use keyboard "mini-joystick" alternative to the mouse for a surprisingly tactile and responsive touch-pad. And this machine also retains the rotary volume control for easy control - handy to avoid annoying friends and workmates.
Any downsides? The absence of infrared and bluetooth capability might irritate some mobile phone and handheld computer users, but they are a small minority and can use connection cables or buy a bluetooth card. Some critics have suggested that the white casing will stain, but we didn't find this.
So how does the A100 measure up to its equivalent, Apple's 12-inch G4? Well you certainly get immeasurably more software capability out of the box with your Apple, and at a better all-in price. But this household's iBook experience, unusually for Apple, has been strictly OhDearBook. It came with an unusable touchpad and had to be returned. Within a month the hard disk died, and Apple Support felt it was acceptable to expect a new user to reformat the hard disk and reinstall all the software. Sorry, not acceptable. And when this didn't work the iBook went back again, only it took Apple's couriers five days to find the TES offices.
While Toshiba did not score well for support in the national survey conducted by the Becta last year (www.ictadvice.org.uk performance), it came first for reliability and second for overall satisfaction (Sony was first).
The Portege A100 is a well-designed laptop with plenty of capability and connectivity. For this there is a price premium, however, and the A100 is just the right side of a grand at pound;949. However, the more Toshiba can shave off the price, the more attractive it will be to the educational world.
Features: Centrino processor (1.4GHz); 256Mb of memory; 40Gb hard disc; 12.1TFT screen; DVDCD-RW drive; Ethernet and WiFi network capability; Secure Disc and 2 PC card slots; 4 USB (2) and 1 firewire ports; video-out; Windows XP Pro.
As an introductory offer, Toshiba is offering purchasers a selection of three free Dorling Kindersley software titles.
Price: pound;949 (ex VAT)
Tel: 08709 200200
Fitness for purpose *****
Ease of use *****
Value for money ****