Compared to big-box stores such as Best Buy, Wal-Mart hasn't isn't exactly well known for its comprehensive laptop selection. But recently, that's been starting to change. First, the retail giant made waves last month when it began selling a $298 Compaq laptop. Now, it's making another statement with the Toshiba Satellite L355 (S7915)--a bare-bones, but surprisingly capable 17-inch notebook that can be had for a dirt-cheap $348. A few design letdowns aside (such as an absent webcam), the performance is good for a sub-$400 system, and is sufficient for people who just want to check their e-mail, surf the Web, watch movies, and do some word processing. Moreover, you'd be hard pressed to find a budget notebook that gives you better specs and performance punch for your dollar.
Although Toshiba has gone to great lengths to modernize its design over the past year, adding slick finishes, Harman Kardon speakers, and USB ports that charge gadgets even while a notebook is asleep, the L355 is a basic-looking system. It combines a matte, fingerprint-resistant lid and keyboard deck with a matte black keyboard.
In addition to the color scheme, the complete lack of frills and features gives away the L355's budget price tag. There's no webcam, and the space above the keyboard is devoid of any launch keys or multimedia controls; there's a thin, unused panel that houses such buttons on more expensive configurations of this system.
Measuring 15.6 x 11.4 x 1.6 inches and weighing 7 pounds, the L355 is not unreasonably heavy for a notebook this size; in fact, it feels lighter than you might think when you pick it up. We found it easy to shuttle from room to room, which is about how far you're likely to transport it.
Keyboard and Touchpad
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Click to enlargeThe keyboard on the L355 has a full number pad along the right hand side, as you'd expect in a 17-inch notebook. The keys' matte finish felt comfortable underneath our fingers, and we appreciated their large size. The keyboard's panel felt sturdy, even if it was a bit noisy. On the Ten Thumbs Typing Tutor test (www.tenthumbstypingtutor.com), we were able to type at 86 words per minute, which is close to our all-time high of 88 wpm.
The 1.8 x 3.0-inch touchpad was plenty large, and has low friction, making it easy to drag the cursor across the screen. While the buttons are a tad noisy, they're easy to press, although their shallow pitch is surprising given their size.
Display and Sound
The bright, 17-inch widescreen display has a glossy finish that makes colors pop, but limits viewing angles. When we watched an episode of Mad Men on DVD, the picture looked crisp and vibrant head on, but as soon as we dipped the lid forward the screen appeared washed out; when we tried watching from the side (as if we were part of a group crowded around the screen), the contrast was too low.
Although the 1440 x 900 resolution is low compared to other desktop replacements, it was still high enough to make our standard-def DVD look sharp. Once buffered, an HD program on Hulu ran smoothly, and showed lots of detail.
The speakers, located on either side of the strip above the keyboard, produced loud sound when we streamed songs on Slacker, but our air conditioner easily drowned out dialog in a movie. As for the quality, tracks by Oasis and Beck sounded minimally tinny. In a nod to older notebooks, the L355 has a volume wheel on the front edge, as opposed to individual buttons.
Ports and (Lack of) Webcam
One of the few disappointing things about the L355 is that this pre-configured version doesn't have a built-in webcam. Although we're sure some customers can easily live without one, even comparably priced netbooks have webcams these days.
The L355's array of ports are equally simple: Three USB 2.0 ports, VGA (but no HDMI) output, and an Ethernet jack. On the front side is a Wi-Fi switch and headphone and mic ports. On the right side is an 8X DVD drive (you can use it to play back and watch DVDs, as well as burn in a variety of formats), and on the left is an ExpressCard 34/54 slot. The L355 lacks a memory card reader which is a minor annoyance considering its ubiquity on other notebooks.
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So how well does the L355's dated 2.2-GHz Intel Celeron 900 processor and 3GB of RAM perform? That depends, somewhat, on what machines you compare it to, but the short answer is: The performance is more than acceptable considering its rock-bottom price, and more powerful than 15-inch ULV notebooks, which are thinner and more expensive, but run on weaker Core Solo processors.
The L355's PCMark Vantage score of 2,035, for instance, is almost half the desktop replacement category average (3,789), but is nearly twice what the $548 Acer Timeline 5810T, a 15.6-inch ULV system, scored (1,368).
Not surprisingly, the L355's multitasking performance wasn't impressive. When we had four open tabs in Google Chrome, reading blogs and scrolling through our Twitter feed, the machine always paused a second before switching between tabs. However, we were able to download and install Google Earth while enjoying smooth DVD playback at full screen.
While its overall performance is relatively good, the L355's 250GB, 5,400-rpm hard drive is slow: it transferred a 4.97GB mixed media folder at a rate of 13.4 MBps, while the average desktop replacement's speed is 22.6 MBps. However, the machine booted in 54 seconds, which is somewhat fast for a Vista notebook. It should be noted, though, that the L355 comes with Windows Vista Home Basic, and not the Premium version found in most notebooks.
For evidence that the L355's Celeron processor isn't ideal for intense multimedia, however, look no further than our transcoding test: the notebook took 12 minutes and 33 seconds to save a 5:05 MPEG-4 clip to the AVI format using Handbrake, whereas the average laptop this size does completes this task in less than half the time (5:02).
The L355's integrated Intel GMA 4500M graphics scored 772 on 3DMark06, which is paltry when you compare it to other desktop replacements (including many a gaming rig), which notch 6,164 on average. Then again, this machine is still punchier than what you'd get with a ULV notebook: the Aspire Timeline 5810T, for instance, scored 574.
As expected, the L355 choked on graphically demanding games: with the native resolution, it barely budged in Far Cry 2, squeaking out 2 frames per second; that number rose slightly to 4 fps when we lowered the resolution to 1024 x 768.
The graphics even stuttered slightly in Google Earth. Our trips from San Francisco to Orlando to New York City felt slightly jerky, and each time it took a few seconds for the detailed maps and, when applicable, 3D buildings to load. The graphics card's limitations were most obvious not when we traveled the globe, but when we zoomed in on our current location; even though we weren't changing locations, the screen briefly lost focus and had to reload the finely drawn maps as it gave us a closer view.
Battery and Wi-Fi
The L355's six-cell battery lasted 2 hours and 33 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test, which is right in line for a desktop replacement; these machines are so heavy you're not likely to unplug or travel with them anyway.
The 802.11b/g radio delivered strong throughput of 18.2 Mbps at 15 feet, but this number dropped to a more modest 14.4 Mbps at 50 feet. The average desktop replacement's Wi-Fi range is a bit stronger: 19.7 Mbps and 16.3 Mbps at 15 and 50 feet, respectively.
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For a desktop replacement machine, the L355 is fairly green. The model received a Gold rating of 22 (out of 27) from EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool). Also, the L355 was fairly efficient when recharging: It took 1 hour and 54 minutes to fully recharge, which is fast for a desktop replacement (the ASUS G51Vx, a gaming rig, took 2:22 minutes to fully recharge). Meanwhile, the L355 used an average of 57.9 watts while charging (the total came to 6,600.6). Using this information, we derived the LAPTOP Battery Efficiency Rating (dividing the total wattage by the battery life in minutes), which came to 43.1. That's about 10 watts per minute more than the desktop replacement average, and slightly less than the Toshiba Satellite A355 (44.9 watts per minute).
Configurations and the Competition
Although this preconfigured version of the L355 is available exclusively at Wal-Mart, other configurations of the L355 are available through online retailers. For example, the L355-S7902 ($649) features a 2.16-GHz Intel Pentium Core T3400 processor, 3GB of RAM, and a 250GB hard drive.
So how does this $348 system stack up against budget desktop replacements made by other vendors? Right now no one else is even close. The $499 Dell Inspiron 17, for instance, has a 2.0 GHz Pentium CPU, 2GB of RAM, a 160GB hard drive, a 802.11g radio, and Intel's integrated X4500HD graphics card. The $599 HP G70t, similarly, has 1GB of RAM, a 160GB hard drive, a wireless-G radio, and a webcam. However, it starts with a Core 2 Duo CPU (not that we think this will make up for the not-so-winning combination of Vista and 1GB of memory).
Software and Warranty
The L355's bundle of software includes Google Picasa 2, Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer, a 25-use trial of Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007, Microsoft Works, a 60-day trial of Symantec Norton 360, and a shortcut to a free download of QuickBooks Financial Center.
The L355 has a standard one-year warranty, including 24/7, toll-free customer service. To see how Toshiba fared in our annual tech support showdown, click here.
The Toshiba L355 (S7915) isn't sexy, and we wish it had a webcam, but at $348 this notebook offers good-enough performance for people with simple computing needs who also want a big screen. Given the fact that Toshiba offers better specs for about $250 less than the competition, we don't expect supplies of this desktop replacement system to last very long.