Not all business users need to travel with their notebooks. Maybe you want a powerful laptop at your desk with a fairly large screen and prefer to use a netbook, iPad, or smart phone on the road instead. And maybe you want that primary PC to offer screaming performance--without breaking the bank. Enter Toshiba's Tecra A11, which combines a superfast Core i7 processor with discrete Nvidia graphics for a reasonable price. While this 15.6-inch system is somewhat plain to look at, it also boasts security and IT features that will protect your investment and your data. Just be sure to keep an outlet close.
Editors' Note: While the A11 comes preinstalled with Windows XP Professional, Toshiba packages Windows 7 Professional with the system, which we installed prior to running our benchmark tests. Also, portions of this review were taken from our earlier review of the Toshiba Tecra A11 (S3510).
The A11's matte black lid is dimpled with a handsome pattern that doesn't show fingerprints, and it continues on the deck; the bezel is also a matte black plastic, but lacks the fancy design. Overall, this a very understated look that will no doubt appeal to business users, but it lacks the panache of the HP ProBook series, which has a more elegant brushed aluminum lid.
Above the keyboard are buttons for launching Toshiba's Eco utility, outputting the screen to a projector or larger display, and volume controls. These are handy to have, but we think they would be better put to use if they offered quick access to, say, PowerPoint or some other business-centric function.
Measuring 14.7 x 9.9 x 1.5 inches and weighing 5.8 pounds, the A11 is a bit too bulky to carry around; those who travel often should look elsewhere. This notebook is certainly portable enough to take to meetings, but you'll need to keep an eye on that battery meter (more on that below).
The large chassis of the A11 kept the system relatively cool while streaming a Hulu video at full screen. After 15 minutes, the touchpad was 88 degrees Fahrenheit, the space between the G and H keys reached 90 degrees, and the middle of the underside was 92 degrees. Still, we could tell this notebook was working hard: the underside by the exhaust vent measured 110 degrees.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The A11's deck is large enough to comfortably fit a full keyboard and number pad. The black matte keys are of the traditional variety, had a nice textured surface, and responded well when typing. We were up to our usual speed in no time.
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The 3 x 1.6-inch touchpad is comfortably large, and its surface let us move around with ease. Below, the two mouse buttons (separated by a fingerprint reader) are made of a shiny metallic plastic, which makes them really stand out on the all-black deck. Despite picking up fingerprints, the buttons were large and responsive.
Display and Audio
Click to enlargeThe 15.6-inch display on the A11 has a resolution of 1600 x 900. While we could get by on the lower-res panel in the base model (1366 x 768), the extra pixels are welcome in a system with discrete graphics. The screen has a glossy finish, which is unusual for a business notebook; this makes it more reflective than we'd like. Horizontal viewing angles were wide enough so that two people could sit on either side of the screen, but vertical viewing angles were limited; we found that the ideal position was 10 to 15 degrees past vertical.
The stereo speakers, mounted on the left and right front of the system, were very loud for a business notebook. Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" blared out as if we were at the Stone Pony ourselves, but lower tones were sadly lacking, drowned out by treble notes that became harsh as we cranked the volume to its max.
Durability and Security
Chances are, a notebook such as the A11 will see a lot of use in its lifetime, which is why Toshiba outfitted the machine with what it calls EasyGuard Technology: hardware and software features designed to increase its longevity. This includes a 3D accelerometer that parks the hard drive in the event the notebook is jarred, and shock absorbers that further protect the hard drive and other components such as the LCD panel.
On the security front, the A11 includes the aforementioned fingerprint reader between the mouse buttons, Infineon Trusted Platform Module Software (which encrypts the hard drive), and Toshiba's Secure Digital Token Utility, which lets consumers use an SD Card as a key to access the notebook.
Ports and Webcam
The A11 comes with a healthy selection of ports, including three USB, eSATA/USB, DisplayPort, VGA, serial, Ethernet, modem, headphone, and mic. One of the USB ports, as well as the eSATA/USB port, can charge connected devices while the system is turned off. The system also has a 7-in-1 memory card reader and an ExpressCard/54 slot.
The A11's webcam proved adequate for video conferencing. Over Skype there was plenty of detail in our face, but colors were muted; our skin took on a bluish tone.
Powered by a 2.66-GHz Intel Core i7-620M processor and 4GB of RAM (expandable to 8GB), the A11 scored a blazing 7,029 on PCMark Vantage, almost 2,800 points above the mainstream laptop average, and better than the HP EliteBook 8440w (6,975) and Apple MacBook Pro in Boot Camp (6,699), both of which utilizing the same processor and amount of RAM.
The A11's 7,200-rpm, 320GB hard drive was fast, duplicating a 4.97GB folder of multimedia in 3 minutes and 3 seconds, a rate of 27.8 MBps. That's about 5 MBps faster than the average and just above the HP ProBook 5310m (26.2 MBps), but below the Lenovo Thinkpad SL510 (29.2 MBps).
Using Oxelon Media Converter, the A11 transcoded a 114MB MPEG-4 to AVI in a blazing 48 seconds, beating the mainstream average by 16 seconds.
Packing a discrete Nvidia NVS 1200M graphics chip and 512MB of memory, business users looking to procrastinate will be able to play mainstream titles on the notebook fairly well. The A11's 3DMark06 score of 3,406 is just below the mainstream average (3,446). Although it's not a business system, the $829 Samsung R580 (which has a Nvidia GeForce GT 310M GPU) scored a slightly higher 3,889.
In World of Warcraft, when we turned the resolution to 1024 x 768 and set effects to default, we saw excellent rates of 129 frames per second; even at max resolution and effects, it reached a still-playable 26 fps. In Far Cry 2, the system managed 41 fps at 1024 x 768, but dropped to 11 fps at its native resolution. For both games, the Samsung R580 performed slightly better.
Battery Life and Wi-Fi
While the version of the Tecra A11 with integrated graphics saw a runtime of 4 hours and 37 minutes (an hour longer than average), this model lasted just 2:06. That abysmal runtime is nearly 2 hours less than the category average. This is the price you'll pay for a Core i7 processor and discrete graphics.
Wi-Fi throughput was very strong. The Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6200AGN 802.11a/g/n radio saw throughput of 38.5 Mbps at 15 feet from our router, and 25.7 Mbps at 50 feet.
The A11 also comes with Intel's My WiFi technology; once enabled, it allows the user of the A11 to share his or her Internet connection, creating an ad-hoc wireless network.
Click to enlargeThe A11 has an excellent EPEAT rating of 22 out of 27; the notebook took 1 hour and 36 minutes to recharge to 80 percent, and another 37 minutes to fully recharge. During that time, it drew an average of 44.1 watts. Its LAPTOP Battery Efficiency Rating (total watts divided by battery life) of 46.6 is about 13 points above the mainstream average, where lower numbers are better.
If $1,349 is too much to pay for a business notebook, Toshiba offers five preconfigured versions of the A11, and lets shoppers customize the notebooks, too. The base model, which sells for $879, comes with a 2.13-GHz Intel Core i3-330M CPU, 2GB of RAM, a 5,400-rpm, 250GB hard drive, and integrated graphics.
Software and Warranty
Click to enlargeThe usual array of software is preloaded on the A11, including a 30-day trial of Norton Internet Security 2010, a 60-day trial of Microsoft Office, and Intuit QuickBooks. Other Toshiba-centric apps include its Bulletin Board (not entirely useful on a non-touchscreen system) and ReelTime, which sorts documents and files along a timeline that runs across the bottom of the screen.
The A11 comes with a longer-than-usual three-year warranty and 24/7 phone support. To see how Toshiba fared on our Tech Support Showdown last year, click here.
In the Tecra A11, Toshiba has created a very capable and affordable system for business users. For $1,349, you get a powerful processor, Nvidia graphics, and a high-resolution screen--but atrocious battery life. However, this laptop is loaded with useful productivity features (such as the ability to create a hotspot on the fly), security utilities like Secure Digital Token, and a three-year warranty. Before taking the plunge, though, make sure you need discrete graphics; otherwise, you could probably get by on a system like the 14-inch HP EliteBook 8440p, which costs about $400 less, has a more durable and stylish design, and lasts about twice as long on a charge.