Toshiba Satellite M505-S4940 laptop

Toshiba knows a thing or two about squeezing a lot into a little laptop. Has the company succeeded with this student-friendly, $650 (as of 8/11/09) machine? Well, though the M505-S4940 cuts a corner (an obstructed HDMI-out) or two (an integrated GPU, a low-rent CPU), it is a decent deal with some flashy looks–and uninspiring guts.

While it’s a little thick, this all-purpose laptop is luggable enough (13.5 by 9.1 by 1.5 inches and about 5.4 pounds) for the scholar on the go. One bonus: It’ll get a couple of glances from people in the local coffee shop. Our test unit sported a snazzy, streaky techno pattern painted into the glossy finish, as well as a few LED highlights around the keyboard that offered a subtle glow. The splashy design might distract some people enough that they forget to ask what CPU this hot rod has.

The machine has a low-octane 2GHz Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) Core 2 Duo T4200 processor. Combine that with the 4GB of RAM and the integrated GPU, and the M505 has just enough power to run the 64-bit flavor of Vista Home Premium. The machine earned a fairly mediocre score of 76 in WorldBench 6–it won’t win any races, but it will get out of first gear and run basic apps well. It just won’t run them for very long: The M505 lasted for only about 3.5 hours in our drain tests, below the 4-hour average. Even Sony’s big, beefy 15.5-inch back-to-school special (the VAIO VGN-NW125J) ran for over four hours in our tests.

The M505 fares a little better on the multimedia front, with its great 14-inch screen. Offering a 1366 by 768 native resolution and crisp colorful images, the display provides silky smooth video playback. The first episode of Lost streamed off Hulu without a hitch, and though our installed 720p test video (a couple of downloaded movie trailers) was initially slow to boot, it exploded with colors.

Unsurprisingly, in the M505 Toshiba has delivered on the audio. Again. The Harman/Kardon speakers produce crisp sound–better than just about anything in the M505’s class. It’s the one category where Toshiba has been impressively consistent. On the other hand, there’s the touchpad, which is way too tiny for any self-respecting laptop (or netbook, for that matter). If you ask me, it’s disappointing considering that Toshiba’s own NB205-310 netbook has a touchpad that eclipses the one on the M505.

Why is the touch area so dinky? It can’t be to accommodate the keyboard, whose buttons are a little on the small side. Nothing great, nothing silky, nothing to shout about. At least the quick-launch shortcut buttons atop the keys host a few interesting features. A multimedia shortcut key launches a handy app that not only looks nice and lets you quickly flip through multimedia functions, but also doesn’t bog down system performance.

An Eco mode button launches a power-saving mode that gives you lots of information–too much information, actually, as it breaks down how much power each computer component consumes. For users who want to be conscious of how much juice they consume, it’s a nice little touch. As for other apps, plan to set aside some time to uninstall the hidden “gems” that come baked onto the M505’s 320GB hard drive (no complaints about the hard drive itself, though).

The machine carries a fairly standard-issue set of ports, including several legacy ports and one new port. Among the old connections are a PC Card slot, three USB ports, an ethernet connection, a modem, a DVD-RW drive, a VGA-out, and a flash card reader. The new port is an eSATA connection, ideal for high-speed data jockeys. And the M505 also has one big tease: a port that’s labeled ‘HDMI’ but is blocked up with plastic. So for all the masochists out there who want to see–but not touch–what other options are available, the M505 is for you!

In all seriousness, though, the Toshiba Satellite M505-S4940 isn’t a horrible laptop–it’s just an underpowered portable that could have been so much more. And considering the price, the good multimedia performance isn’t enough to make this laptop a clear winner.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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