It’s not every day that a new notebook processor appears, let alone that said processor is not from Intel or AMD. So we were eagerto get our hands on the new Toshiba Qosmio G55-Q802. It takes all the multimedia goodness we’ve come to expect from the Qosmio line and adds a unique Toshiba Quad Core HD co-processor to complement the primary Intel Core 2 Duo CPU. Mix in an Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT graphics, and you have a potent performer for multimedia and gaming. The Quad Core HD processor also enables Gesture Control, which lets you direct actions (such as starting or stopping multimedia playback) with hand movements, though this gee-whiz features a Version 1.0 implementation. And the lack of a Blu-ray optical drive, even as an option, is a huge letdown for a multimedia machine.
Put simply, we love almost everything about the industrial design of the G55-Q802. The lid is done in glossy tone-on-tone gray pinstripes, and the base is glossy black with chrome accents. Even the black keyboard has a glossy finish, which leads us to our one complaint: The keyboard deck and keys show fingerprints readily, enough to put anal-retentive types into a full-blown panic attack. But we love the white LEDs that illuminate the touchpad, the circular volume control, and the full contingent of multimedia controls above the Function-key row; they are much easier on the eyes (both literally and figuratively) than the blue LEDs that have become a staple among consumer electronics.
The 18.4-inch widescreen display provides enough room for a full-size number pad adjacent the keyboard. The chrome-finish mouse buttons (which also smudge easily) are generously oversized, though the pebble-finish touchpad could be larger to match the screen’s ample dimensions. As expected from a desktop replacement, the G55-Q802 is no bantamweight, but its 10.8-pound heft is in line with the likes of the HP HDX 18 and other big-screen luggables. You wouldn’t want to carry the G55-Q802 every day, but it’s manageable for moving from room to room or for taking on a weekend trip.
Ports and Connections
Toshiba has included all the ports you would expect on a multimedia-centric machine. The left side has a flip-down door to conceal the ExpressCard/54 slot, memory card reader, and USB and FireWire ports when not in use. On the right side are two more USB ports, a connector for the FM tuner antenna (on models equipped with that option), and headphone and mic jacks. Around the back is a VGA connector, a LAN jack, an eSATA port for connecting external drives, and an HDMI jack for connecting to an external monitor. Toshiba thoughtfully added its Sleep and Charge technology to the USB ports, which lets users recharge connected devices (such as phones and MP3 players) while the computer is off.
Display and Audio
The 18.4-inch screen is the G55-Q802’s central feature. The panel is one of the brightness we’ve seen, and the large size and wide aspect ratio offer enough space to have two application windows open side by side. The dimensions also deliver an immersive environment for games and movies. Text is crisp, and colors pop.
The screen is not without its flaws. HD purists will note that the LCD’s 1680 x 945 native resolution is not full 1080p. Also, the panel’s viewing angle performance shows flaws with very dark shades; in particular, black turns to gray if you are even a bit off-axis to the left or right. While this isn’t an issue with typical Windows applications, it was evident in DVD playback; dark areas in scenes of Pirates of the Caribbean exhibited a film-negative effect. So if you plan on using the G55-Q802 on the coffee table to share a movie with friends, make sure you’re in the screen’s sweet spot.
As with previous Qosmio models, Toshiba and partner Harman/Kardon deliver class-leading notebook audio. The sound system, comprising two up-firing speakers on the keyboard deck and a bottom-mounted subwoofer, delivers room-filling audio ideal for music, movies, and games; no headphones needed here, except perhaps to appease your housemates. And thanks to the wide placement of the speakers, the G55-Q802 manages stereo separation that’s usually lacking in notebooks.
Where’s the Blu-ray?
To hold all the multimedia files you’re likely to amass on the G55-Q802, Toshiba has included twin 250GB 5,400-rpm hard drives. The optical drive is a dual-layer DVD±R with labeling technology (Toshiba calls it LabelFlash), but there’s no provision for upgrading to a Blu-ray drive. We know that Toshiba threw in the towel on HD-DVD, which was a staple on previous Qosmio models, but to have no high-def optical option on such a multimedia-savvy machine is just plain silly. It also lacks a TV tuner.
The 1.3-megapixel webcam features resolution settings ranging from 160 x 120 to 1280 x 1024 in seven increments. Its image quality in bright light is excellent, with natural flesh tones and good motion reproduction. In dimmer situations, image quality is abysmal. The image has serious noise, and even when the subject was illuminated by an adjacent desk lamp with a 100-watt bulb, it looked like multi-colored pixels were snowing in darker areas of the image. The basic webcam utility lets you add frames and other illustrative effects, but it does not offer face-tracking or other advanced features.
Quad Core HD Processor Tested
Back in the early days of the personal computer, co-processors were a common add-on to give an underpowered CPU a boost. But as Moore’s Law proved itself, processors eventually outstripped the demands placed on them by typical software applications. Toshiba thinks the co-processor’s time has come again, even with a GPU handling the graphics’ heavy lifting for the CPU. Enter the Toshiba Quad Core HD Processor, a dedicated media processor, featuring its own 128MB of memory and four “Synergistic Processor Elements.” The extra processor handles H.264 and MPEG-2 encoding/decoding, DVD upconversion (for DVD video output via HDMI), and Toshiba’s Gesture Control features on the G55-Q802.
The most whizbang of those enhancements is Gesture Control, which lets you use hand movements to launch applications and control certain functions in certain apps. Key to the system is the G55-Q802’s built-in webcam, which tracks your movements. Upon close inspection, the feature needs more work.
For starters, there’s no documentation covering Gesture Control, except for a brief mention in the electronic user manual of the features and the apps it currently works with: Toshiba DVD Player, Windows Media Center, Microsoft PowerPoint, and Windows Media Player (more are promised, as Toshiba has made the SDK available to game developers and the like). The documentation contains no mention of how to enable it in those apps, nor a primer on which gestures do what. On our trials, we got it to work by first launching one of the supported apps, then by launching the Gesture Control utility from the Start menu.
Hold your outstretched arm toward the screen, and in a few seconds the camera locks on your hand so it can track it from there. But move your hand out of the frame, and when you want to use another gesture, you have to let the system lock onto your hand again. Tedious. Worse, the system recognized and responded to some of our gestures (such as Stop during DVD playback) but not others. So that meant half the time we were reaching for the keyboard or touchpad anyway.
The Quad Core HD Processor also enables DVD upconversion to 1080i resolution, which worked well on our tests. Our standard-def Pirates DVD had the typical soft-focus look when output to our 52-inch 1080p Sony TV; turning on the upconvert feature in the bundled Toshiba DVD Player applet resulted in a sharper picture. But our 1080p monitor revealed some conversion artifacts, most notably a shimmering effect noticeable in highlight areas and actors’ eyes. You can’t use two features that rely on the Quad Core HD Processor simultaneously; for example, you can’t enable upconversion and Gesture Control at the same time. Additionally, upconversion doesn’t work while the unit is on battery power.
Encoding Claims vs. Reality
We tested Toshiba’s claim of vastly improved times when encoding video to MPEG and H.264 formats. Contrary to what avid video editors might hope from the co-processor—that it speed the encoding of digital video files from their native format to another—its use right now is much more narrow. Using Ulead DVD MovieFactory (preloaded on the this system), the co-processor improves rendering performance when burning an MPEG-2 or H.264 file to a DVD format. That’s a fairly narrow usage model, though on our tests it did speed up a DVD burn from 3 minutes 50 seconds to 3 minutes flat.
The G55-Q802 is built upon a 2.0-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P7350 processor and a generous 4GB of RAM. That’s a good combination, but certainly faster CPUs are available that take advantage of Intel’s newer Centrino 2 technology. Still, the machine managed to deliver an above-average score (among desktop replacements) of 3,610 on PCMark Vantage (which measures Vista application performance). The G55-Q802 booted to Windows Vista Home Premium in a sluggish 1 minute and 23 seconds, but showed very good throughput of 17.1 MBps on the LAPTOP Transfer Test (copying a 4.97GB folder of mixed media).
The G55-Q802 showed barely any slowdown when multitasking. It took 5 minutes and 30 seconds to convert about 2 hours’ worth of music from the MP3 to AAC format in iTunes; that time increased by only 3 seconds when we performed the same encoding with a Windows Defender scan running in the background.
Most multimedia portables don’t necessarily excel at 3D gaming—there’s whole sub-class of machines for that—but the G55-Q802 breaks that mold, delivering good frame rates for a notebook in this price bracket. It delivered 78 frames per second (fps) playing F.E.A.R. on autodetect and the resolution at 1024 x 768—one of the best scores from a non-gaming system; with the settings at maximum, we saw a playable 39 fps. Our World of Warcraft trial yielded just shy of 60 fps at 1024 x 768.
On 3DMark06 (which tests DirectX 9 3D graphics, CPU, and 3D features) the G55-Q802 managed 4,468; on 3DMark03 (which tests DirectX 9 performance) it delivered 12,567. Both of those scores are more than 700 points below the desktop replacement average, and are well shy of the marks set by gaming-focused portables. By comparison, the HDX 18 performed better in PCMark Vantage (4,104), but worse in 3DMark06 (4,112).
Battery Life and Wireless
Battery life is surprisingly good given the power-hungry screen and components. The G55-Q802 lasted nearly four hours on the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi), about an hour longer than the desktop replacement average. On our wireless LAN tests, the machine’s 802.11b/g/n radio performed well, delivering 20.7 Mbps at 15 feet and 16.2 Mbps at 50 feet from our access point (and besting the averages by 1.9 and 0.9 Mbps, respectively). Additionally, the G55-Q802 comes with Bluetooth 2.1.
Toshiba includes a good assortment of software and utilities to augment the existing features (most notably Media Center) of the 32-bit or 64-bit Windows Vista Home Premium OS. There’s the aforementioned Toshiba DVD utility, as well as CyberLink PowerCinema for media playback. You also get Ulead DVD MovieFactory for quickly making video discs, memeo AutoBackup, and Microsoft Works 9.
Alas, far too much trialware and “special offers” junk up the system. We counted nearly two dozen icons on the desktop at startup. We can live with the 60-day trial of Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007, and maybe even put up with the trial for Norton 360 (which pesters you to run its setup every time you reboot, even if you have no intention of buying it). But the icons for Office Live, Shutterfly, PhotoWorks, NetZero, and others are just plain advertising.
On balance, the $1,549 Toshiba Qosmio G55-Q802 is a groundbreaking machine at a reasonable price. If you’re willing to splurge to get full HD and a Blu-ray player, the HP HDX 18 costs $600 more. However, the co-processor is an idea whose time may have come again—at least until Intel’s mobile quad-core processors hit the market—and Toshiba provides some useful power for video hounds.