Toshiba Satellite L635-S3104

Toshiba‘s Web site promotes its Satellite L635 line of laptops as being “for kids,” but what the company really seems to mean is that it’s for parents who don’t want their kids to engage in serious PC gaming. While moderately priced ($780 as of April 15, 2011) for a portable with a 13.3-inch widescreen LED-backlit display, built-in DVD recorder and integrated webcam, the Satellite L635-S3104 we tested turned in mediocre PC WorldBench and gaming scores, with only so-so video and pretty poor audio quality.

In fairness, despite the way Toshiba presents the L635 line, the L635-S3104 shapes up more as a budget option for general use rather than a tool for parental supervision, as it didn’t come with the NetNanny software and other parental control features available in some models. It achieves its moderate price in part through its ho-hum configuration, consisting of Intel‘s (NASDAQ: INTC) midrange Core i5 480M notebook CPU running at 2.67GHz, 4GB of DDR3 RAM (expandable up to 8GB) and Intel Mobile HD integrated graphics.

But this unremarkable configuration, running Windows 7 Home Premium, eked out equally uninspired test scores – a 74 on PC Worldbench and Unreal Tournament frame rates that never topped 25 per second at the lowest resolution (800 by 600). By way of comparison, the HP Envy 14 that currently tops the all-purpose notebook chart scored 88 on Worldbench and achieved frame rates as high as 112 frames per second. (Of course, the Envy is also a lot more expensive, but quite a few less costly units on the all-purpose chart also outperformed the L635-S3104.)

Battery life wasn’t great, either. The unit pooped out shortly after the four-hour mark; most of the top performers on the general-purpose chart ran closer to 4.5 hours.

The Satellite L635-S3104 did a respectable job displaying DVD (480p) video, but 720p YouTube clips looked a big jerky, even when well-buffered. The integrated webcam disappointed, too-in test Skype calls, my image looked washed out and, at higher resolutions, grainy–even when I tried fiddling with various settings in Toshiba’s webcam utility. Audio through the built-in stereo speakers located above the keyboard was tinny and feeble (not unusual for portables of this class); the volume and quality did improve through headphones, but still sounded somewhat flat.

For more general routine use, however, the L635-S3104 is perfectly fine. Its shiny charcoal gray case, while a bit chunky-looking in an era of netbooks and ultraportables, is still pleasing and, more importantly, feels sturdy.

Some people may not care for Toshiba’s shiny smooth keyboard keys, but I’m not one of them: they are well-separated, have good travel, and I like the placement of Delete, Home, Page Up, Page Down and End keys in a column above the right cursor key, which makes inadvertent taps on the backspace key less likely. The touchpad is flush with the rest of the case; it supports multitouch and is reasonably responsive-but if you prefer installing a mouse, Toshiba provides a small button right above the touch pad to toggle it off or on.

You get a 640GB hard drive, although it only spins at 5400 rpm, and the DVD burner located towards the front of the left side supports 11 DVD read and write formats. The port configuration is pretty good: On the left edge, you get two USB 2.0 ports (right behind the DVD drive), along with a combined SD/Memory Stick reader. On the right edge, there’s one combined USB 2.0/e-SATA port (which also can charge USB devices when the notebook isn’t powered up); and ports for gigabit Ethernet, HDMI and PC (RGB) displays, headphone and mike jacks, and a lock slot.

The 802.11n Wi-Fi, disappointingly, supports only 2.4ghz operations (meaning it’s backwards compatible with 802.11b/g but not 802.11a gear). There’s no support for the 5ghz band, which has more non-overlapping channels and therefore is a lot less prone to interference, making it a better choice for streaming media.

Toshiba as usual insists on preloading all sorts of services and utilities that you may or may not want or need (I counted 16 in the startup list). I’m not crazy about most of these, although the disc creation and webcam utilities are obviously useful when you need them. (However I don’t care for the way Toshiba chooses to make its webcam utility accessible, as a fly-out window that appears when you move your cursor along the left edge of the display. Some might also find the ReelTime document and media organizer helpful, but again, I wish Toshiba didn’t run it by default.

There’s also a lot of third-party software. The most useful items are the ad-supported starter edition of Office 2010 and a Corel disc label creation application. I resented having the Norton security trial offer in my face every time I booted up (and having “Stay Unprotected” as the option you click to get rid of it … “Not interested” would be more accurate and less insinuating of neglect on my part.)

The Satellite L635-S3104 does look good on paper, with a respectable set of hardware features at a reasonable price. But for anything beyond fairly routine Web browsing and basic computing tasks, or if battery life is a major concern, you might be happier spending a bit more for better performance.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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