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Toshiba Tecra M7

The Tablet PC convertible in the Tecra lineup gets a wide screen and tech updates to be Vista-ready
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)

This is a review of the Toshiba Tecra M7 Tablet PC convertible. A Tablet PC convertible looks like a standard notebook, but it has a special screen hinge that let's you rotate the screen as shown on the picture below and lay it down flat on top of the keyboard with the display facing up. The notebook has now become a tablet or slate computer, albeit one that is considerably thicker than a "pure" slate that does not have a physical keyboard.

The Tecra M7 is a fairly large machine that is primarily designed to be used on a desktop or as a desktop replacement. Its fashionable wide screen lends itself to watching DVDs. The pen interface, combined with Microsoft and third party utilities and applications, opens up a lot of new functionality, including navigation with the pen instead of the mouse or touchpad, ink to annotate documents, and software designed to be used with a pen.

All of this is currently facilitated by a special version of Windows, called Windows XP Tablet Edition 2005. It's not a fundamentally different version of Windows, just one that includes a number of add-ons and extra functionality. The next version of Windows, Vista, will incorporate all of the Tablet functionality, and this new Tecra is ready for it.

In this review we'll explain what the Toshiba Tecra M7 is, what it is meant to be, and what it is not. We'll also explain how this new Tablet product relates to its predecessors for those who have been following Toshiba's pioneering efforts in pen computing over the years. Yes, Toshiba has been making pen computers for 13 years, going all the way back to the DynaPad tablets that duked it out with the original IBM ThinkPads that were pure tablets as well. The notebooks came later.

Below you can see what you can do with the Tecra M7. It goes from being a standard notebook to one where you can twist the screen at an angle, to having it face backwards which can come in handy for presentations, all the way to a tablet with the LCD facing up.

Philosophical overview: how quickly things change

Time measured in human terms is very different from time measured in computer terms. Heck, 25 years ago I paid 4,000 high-powered 1981 dollar for one of those original stone-age IBM PCs. Today you get a whole lot more computer for a small fraction of the price, inflation-adjusted or not. Problem is, while people change relatively slowly, computers advance at a much more rapid pace. It's been just a year since here at Pen Computing Magazine and RuggedPCReview.com we heralded the arrival of the magnificent Toshiba Tecra M4. We sort of viewed it as the first of a new generation of Tablet PCs. Not only was it large and powerful enough to serve as a true and real desktop replacement, what with its new Intel processor and terrific 1400 x 1050 display, it also seemed the first Tablet PC that was, essentially, ready for Microsoft's impending new operating system, Vista. In fact, we dug up all of Microsoft's proposed Vista requirements and matched them against the M4's specs. Those requirements, of course, turned out a moving target, but we felt reasonably sure that a M4 equipped with a good amount of RAM and the optional NVIDIA GeForce Go 6600 graphics controller would be able to run Vista just fine. And it probably will.

Well, as is usually the case, the hardware became obsolete before the software even arrived. The marvelous Tecra M4 enjoyed only a very brief lifespan, even as far as computers go. So the point of whether the M4 was ready for Vista was moot; it was replaced before Vista arrived. But replaced with what?

In terms of Tablet PCs, with another Tecra. In July of 2006, Toshiba announced the Tecra M7 Tablet PC. Toshiba was quite obviously aware that we were not the only ones wondering whether a new machine was going to be ready for Microsoft Vista. This time, the first item on Toshiba's product specifications states unequivocally: "Windows Vista Premium Ready." So there. We'll get into the details later.

So how is the Tecra M7 different?

Right off the bat, there is one big difference between Toshiba's flagship Tablet PC offering last year and the one this year, and it, more than anything, represents a change in style, tastes, and perhaps fashion. Like many new notebooks, the M7 now has a "wide" display instead of a screen with the standard 4:3 aspect ratio that goes back to the dawn of computer and television time. Just like TVs a few years ago gradually began switching from the standard 4:3 ratio to the 16:9 format that's closer to what you see in a movie theater, now notebooks are doing the same thing.

Whether you're happy with this depends on what you use your computer for. Both screens measure 14.1 inches but the Tecra M4's was 11.25 x 8.5 whereas the new M7's is 12 x 7.5,. In terms of square inches that's 95.625 versus 90, so you actually get a bit less real estate. Same as far as pixels go. The new screen is 1440 x 900 pixels, the old one was 1400 x 1050, so that is 1.29 million versus 1.47 million. So despite the same diagonal width, the M7 gets you less screen and less resolution, albeit in a more modern and obviously future-oriented format.

The wide format takes a bit of getting used to. It's great for when you watch DVDs, but I'd say most people still get their movie enjoyment either in the theater or on a home TV screen. And for those times when you watch a DVD on a PC, it is not essential to have a wide screen. Nice, but not essential. It is nice to be able to place two windows side by side, and the wide screen makes that much more possible. It's no advantage for web browsing as web pages are generally portrait oriented anyway. What happens is that you quickly get used to it.

The different aspect ratio also meant other design changes. A nice thing about the old M4 was the multiple ways of navigating and clicking. You got both an AccuPoint II pointing device and a TouchPad with primary and secondary control buttons in addition to the pen. With the M7 -- a machine that is not as deep -- it's down to a simple touchpad and the pens. I don't see that as a disadvantage as too many controls can be confusing, but I definitely liked the Accupad pointing device (better known as the "IBM nipple").

However, comparisons really don't make much sense unless you own a Tecra M4 and wonder whether you should upgrade to the M7. So let's look at what the M7 has to offer.

What you get with the M7

That would be a thoroughly modern notebook that is technologically up to snuff. There are different configurations. Ours was the M7-S7331, the top configuration that lists for US$1,899. It comes with a 1.83 GHz Intel Core Duo T2400 processor, a gigabyte of PC4200 DDR2 SDRAM, a 100GB SATA hard disk spinning at 5,400 rpm, a DVD-SuperMultiDrive, that 14,1-inch wide viewing angle display, a 5-in-1 card reader, 802.11a/b/g wireless, gigabit LAN, and the Intel Graphics Media Adapter 950.

You can also order the Tecra M7 a la carte instead of preconfigured. That way you can get processors anywhere from a 1.66GHz Core Duo T2300E to a 2.33GHz Core 2 Duo T7600. You can boost memory up to 2GB, and opt for the NVIDIA Quadro NVS 110M separate graphics controller instead of the integrated Intel Graphics Media Accelerator. You can select the Atheros 802.11a/b/g wireless LAN circuitry instead of Intel's, get a 7,200 rpm serial-ATA disk up to 100GB instead of the slower 5,400rpm models, and stock up on a variety of accessories. The extended "slice" battery is nice if you need maximum run time. That battery, incidentally, is made necessary since the M7 does not have a media bay where you can exchange the optical drive for a second hard disk or battery.

Below you can see the M7 from all four sides, with all its ports, controls, slots and interfaces.

What all those specs translate into is a thoroughly competent notebook computer that can do just about anything you throw at it. The Core Duo chip is quick, though in any Windows machine, "quick" always depends on how much additional gunk and startup items you have installed (whether you want them or not). There are four USB ports, an IEEE-1394 "FireWire" port, modem and LAN connectors, a docking connector, and the usual microphone in, headphone out jacks. Audio volume is controlled with a hardware rocker on the front, a solution that we much prefer to onscreen volume controls. The back also has a VGA-out connector and a separate S-Video out port.

Toshiba also managed to give the M7 more than acceptable battery life. Its 4,700mAh power pack rates just over four hours on the MobileMark benchmark, and that can be boosted to almost eight hours with an optional slice battery.

Overall, the machine has little design touches all over the place that show Toshiba's long experience in pen computers. The display, for example, is covered with a protective shield that extends well beyond the LCD borders. That way the pen does not bump into a bezel when you need to select something along the perimeter. And no matter which way the LCD case is oriented, you can secure it to the main body of the computer with a latch that rotates both ways. All ports are easily accessible and the machine doesn't get very hot. That is important when you use it tablet-style.

Multi-talented SuperMulti drive and card reader

The optical "SuperMulti" drive is a veritable Swiss Army knife of optical disk functionality, You can use it to read CDs, write on CDs, play DVDs, and read and write on both DVD-R and DVD+R disks, even the double-layer ones. And it also supports DVD-RAM. Today's proliferation of memory card formats is handled via a multi-card reader that supports SD cards, xD-Picture cards, and Sony's Memory Stick and Memory Stick PRO, though there's only one slot for all of these, so you can only use one at a time. There is a separate PC Card slot which can accommodate any Type II card or any adapter for additional card formats, such as the still popular CF Cards.

Security

Notebook computer security is becoming a major issue, and Toshiba went all out to make sure your data is protected. The S7331 version of the M7 comes with an integrated fingerprint reader that works with included password and identity management software. And that is just the beginning. The M7 includes the TPM built-in security controller that uses secret encryption keys saved in a system that relies both on software and hardware, adding significant additional security. That facilitates a virtual drive within which sensitive data can be stored securely. You can also configure secure email and a variety of other options. And a special Toshiba password utility adds yet another layers. All of this means that you can make the M7 a virtual fortress for your data. Just make sure you don't forget how to unlock it.

Sizable, but still handy

With a footprint of 13.7 x 10.2 inches and a thickness of about 1.6 inches, this is not a small machine, and it also weighs around six pounds. What this means is you have to decide if a machine the size of this Tecra is a good compromise between the power, large screen and peripherals you need, and the mobility requirements you have. If screen size matters most, this is the machine for you. If mobility is a high priority, there are several lighter and handier Tablet PC convertibles available that weigh a couple of pounds less and are considerably smaller.

The Tecra M7 as a Tablet PC

When Microsoft reinvented the pen computer back in 2002, few would have expected it to grow into convertible notebooks as large as some of the full-size machines available today. My guess is this is in part due to the public's demand for ever larger screens, and in part to Microsoft's de-emphasis of the pure slate form factor and concentration on notebook convertibles that primarily serve to integrate new technologies such as pen and ink (though they really have been around for almost two decades) and popularize new technologies in mainstream notebooks.

As is, the Tecra M7's Tablet PC functionality consists of a Wacom-style active digitizer, a slender pen that can be stowed away in a garage next to the optical drive and which does not need a battery, the rotating display hinge that lets you convert the notebook into a slate, a variety of hardware buttons on the display face that support tablet functionality, screen rotation so you can use the slate both in landscape and portrait mode, and a slew of pen-specific or pen-supported software applications and utilities.

The hardware controls allow you to do a lot of things without access to the keyboard. A "cross-functional" navigation control button brings up a snazzy onscreen menu not unlike what you get on a Sony PSP. With it you can select from which horizontal menu bar you want to pick. Selections are shortcuts, customization, application launch, and switching windows. A second button serves as the ESC key and also handles screen rotation. A third one brings up the Windows Task Manager, a forth one the handy Toshiba Assist utility (shown in the picture to the right) that allows access to almost every connectivity, security, protection and optimization function. A fifth one, finally, serves to assist you with presentations.

In terms of useful software, the Tecra M7 includes a lot. Windows Journal is sort of an ink notepad that lets you use the computer just like a legal-size pad. You can use different pens, colors, highlighters, erasers and so on. There is also stationary and you can email such notes, convert them to text, etc. There is Microsoft OneNote, a terrific application that lets you take, find, organize and share notes and just generally pulls together all the various data you gather and collect on your computer. There is an Education Pack for Tablet PC and a Microsoft Experience Pack for Tablet PC. Both include many interesting examples of how pen and ink can be used on a computer. My favorite is the Snipping Tool that lets you capture and annotate anything on the screen. It is incredibly useful and totally invaluable. Above to the left you see an example; it's a small section from Toshiba's Tecra M7 page that we captured and annotated, then saved as a JPEG file.

Does all of this make the Tecra M7 a handy slate computer you want to take into the field. Not really. For that it is too big and heavy. You can use it that way, especially since the Tecra has a very nice wide-angle display that remains readable in portrait mode, and since its battery lasts a good long time. We wouldn't subject it to too much abuse. It is not a rugged or even semi-rugged computer, even though its hard drive is protected via a 3D accelerometer that senses motion and can move the hard drive head out of harm's way. However, it is definitely sturdier than your average consumer notebook. The casework is magnesium alloy, the LCD panel has shock absorbers as does the hard disk, and the keyboard is spill-resistant.

Worth the extra money?

Here we get to an unfortunate predicament that has hampered pen computing from day one: the additional hardware adds cost and complexity. The active digitizer sitting behind the LCD is a rather complex and costly item, and adding the screen pivot mechanism costs, too. Add the pen and all the extra software and it all means higher cost. That can be justified when consumers see extra value, but so far few do. Microsoft has been remarkably consistent, if perhaps not particularly aggressive and pro-active, in promoting the Tablet PC platform, but many consumers simply won't see why they should pay more for a M7 than other members of the Tecra family.

Longtime Pen Computing Magazine readers will be thrilled over getting this much computer for just US$1,589 (or US$1,899 for our top-of-the-line model), but the average computer buyer may just see the US$699 Tecra A8 or the US$859 Tecra A6. The argument used to be that ultra-lights, which most early Tablet PCs were, always cost more, but the M7 is not an ultralight. What all this means is that this machine will appeal to people who can see its value as a Tablet PC convertible and appreciate all that it offers.

Here at the Pen Computing and RuggedPCReview.com office, we absolutely love the Toshiba Tecra M7, just as we loved the Tecra M4 before it. It's a powerful, flexible, intelligently conceived and designed state-of-the-art machine that simply offers more.

See the Tecra M7 on Toshiba's website
--Conrad H. Blickenstorfer