Toshiba Tecra M3 review

Monday 16 January 2006This is over 17 years old. Be careful.

In a comment here last week, Mikey asked for a small review of my Toshiba Tecra M3. Overall, I am very pleased with it. My previous computer was a Thinkpad T30 with a 1.86 GHz CPU and 1Gb of RAM. The Toshiba has a 2GHz CPU and 1.25Gb of RAM, but feels faster than those numbers would suggest, because it has a 7200 RPM disk, one of the prime reasons I chose it. Building this web site (a task that involves a lot of disk and CPU) goes about twice as fast on the Tecra than on the Thinkpad. The 60Gb disk is not gargantuan by today’s standards (some laptops I looked at had 100Gb!), but is 50% larger than my last one, and the speed is great.

The screen is very bright, bright enough that a co-worker on seeing it became angry that his desktop LCD monitor was not as bright.

There’s a lot of attention to saving battery power: there’s a physical switch on the front to disable the wireless networking, and both a systray utility and a Fn-key to turn off power to the CD drive.

But speaking of software utilities: the Toshiba has more than I’ve ever seen. The Add/Remove Programs control panel lists 19 programs whose names start with “Toshiba” (or “TOSHIBA”, can’t they pick one style at least?). And in typical fashion, it feels like many of them duplicate others, or have subtly-different approaches to the same problem, or aggregate the others in confusing ways.

Of course, this infestation of utilities is not limited to Toshiba. The video system is by Nvidia, and their control panel is a blossom of controls which I somehow still had to augment. There’s a separate systray utility just to flip the display 180 degrees, something that would be useful if this were a tablet PC, but it is not. And in the encyclopedia of display options is a panel about rotating the display, but it didn’t include turning off the systray rotator. One last insult: the Nvidia drivers includes a full-blown hotkey facility, which comes pre-configured with one hotkey: Ctrl-Shift-R rotates the display 180 degrees, something I found out by accident. Imagine my surprise!

More negatives: in a very quiet room, I can hear a strange beeping noise from the inside occasionally. This is not a software noise, and I don’t know where it’s coming from. This may be better than a similar problem I had with the Thinkpad, where a few times a day, I’d hear that “bonk” sound played (it’s “Windows XP Critical Stop.wav”), with no program on the screen to take credit for it. I just muted the volume and forgot about it...

Here’s the thing that bugs me about the Tecra, though: the keyboard. The keys are very nice, and all of the reviews will tell you about the full-size keyboard (see the image on this review at Notebook Review). But the placement of the specialty keys is sub-optimal. The Ctrl vs. Fn key is precisely the opposite of the Thinkpad, and drove me nuts while I was using both, but my left pinky has long since gotten over it.

The six-key Ins/Del/Home/End/Up/Down keypad has been split up and stretched along the side. I can sort of use them, but it requires stopping and looking at the keys more than I would like. The real crime, though, is the one I noticed last: there is no right Ctrl key! Yes, for some reason Toshiba believes we need two Alt keys but can get by with just one Ctrl key. I for one have a habit of hitting Ctrl-Enter or Ctrl-Home or Ctrl-End with just the right hand, and it drives me batty to simply not be able to. It’s one thing to have to find a usual key in a slightly different place. To have the key be nine inches from where you expect to find it is more than an all-day non-stop typist should have to put up with.

Luckily, most of the day I use a USB keyboard, attached to an Advanced Port Replicator. The port replicator is nice and small (the last Dell replicator I had was a giant platform for the laptop with an enormous back piece that seemed to take over my desk). It is difficult to get the laptop onto the replicator, though, because the symmetry of the replicator doesn’t line up with the symmetry of the laptop, if you know what I mean. The Thinkpad had a nice satisfying clunk of the two together, like a car door. The Toshiba feels more like two pieces of sheet metal being forced to fit. I figure I’ll get the hang of it eventually, but for now I approach the mating process delicately.

Overall, the Toshiba Tecra M3 seems to be a good workhorse portable desktop replacement. I use it for some heavy development (Django, MySQL, Eclipse, Firefox, Thunderbird, and VMware player all running at once), and it has not let me down.


As I've mentioned in other comments, I have a Tecra M4. It's looks nearly identical to the M3 except that it's a TabletPC. The screen can flip around so that you can use it as a tablet -- otherwise it acts just like a convention laptop. The TabletPC stuff is cool but I use it mostly as a laptop. In fact, at work I mostly use it as a brick -- I drop it into the port replicator and use a wireless keyboard/mouse and flat external screen. At home I have another port replicator but no external keyboard or display yet -- I use the M4 keyboard and display. The keyboard is mostly fine except for the layout issue that you mentioned. The M4 display is bright but I think the touch sensitive layer used for the TabletPC makes it slightly less bright than the M3.
A tool like SharpKeys can be used to reamp single key presses:

If it were me I'd probably map Ins to Right-Ctl, but then, if it were me that keyboard layout would drive me freaking insane.
Thanks Ned! What type of external keyboard do you use?
I have an M3 that work gave to me, and I have got to agree with Ned, the keyboard layout is ridiculous. Apart from that it's not a bad machine, but the keyboard you have to interact with all day every day, and for it to be hard to use is quite frustrating.
I bought a Dell Inspiron 9300 (17" widescreen 1920x1200 resolution!) in September and absolutely love it. The keyboard layout is especially kickass. Here's a _huge_ (3480x4832) picture of the open machine:

The insert/delete/etc keys are all in the normal config, just above backspace instead of to the right... hitting them becomes natural almost instantly. The arrow keys are below the right shift, also trivial to get used to. Yes, it has a function button between the ctrl and alt on the left, but since I'm used to straddling the (useless) windows key over there anyway, it doesn't bother me in the least.

Since I never use a port replicator or external keyboard, it's essential that I be comfortable with the keyboard.

I reformatted the drive as soon as I got it, so no bloatware from Dell. It has a function to disable wireless and bluetooth, don't think it has one to disable the CD drive, but I haven't looked for it.

Overall... the machine totally kicks ass. Glad to hear your Toshiba is standing you in good stead. Try uninstalling some of that Toshiba crap that you don't need... less is more, like they say.
Mikey: I use a Microsoft Natural Pro keyboard, an old split kind. I love that keyboard, and will probably be buried with it if I don't lose it or wear it out. To round out the hardware: I use a generic Dell mouse, a Dell 2005fpw flat panel display, and Zenith wireless headphones that I found.

Nate: I couldn't quite swallow buying one of those enormous widescreen laptops. They seem too big to me, and don't fit in my laptop case. Maybe the next one...

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