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October 12, 1998

Toshiba Tecra 8000

Although build-to-order is the name of the game for the desktop PC market, this trend hasn't really made it to the laptop market until now. With the new Tecra 8000, Toshiba becomes one of the first major vendors to offer a one-size-fits-all notebook computer. Purchasers of the Tecra 8000 can pick the processor, memory, storage, video, and other options that they need for their specific jobs.

This offers great flexibility for Toshiba, of course, because the company no longer needs to build and stock a dozen laptop models. Instead, Toshiba can carry a single chassis and motherboard, incorporating just-in-time inventory for the options that are needed.

Among the configuration options are Pentium II processor speeds (ranging from 233 MHz to 300 MHz), memory (as much as 256MB of Synchronous DRAM, or SDRAM), video displays (from 12.1 inches to 14.1 inches), integrated storage (from 4GB to 8.1GB), and optional storage (including extra hard disk, floppy, CD-ROM and digital video disc, or DVD, drives). Toshiba claims there are more than 5,800 different configuration combinations available.

Not everything is entirely configurable, and this unit comes with a spate of fixed ports. Among the fixed devices on this unit are single Universal Serial Bus, PS/2, Super VGA, serial, parallel, infrared, desktop expansion and external floppy drive connectors, as well as two PC Card Type-II slots. The system also has an on-board NeoMagic MediaMagic 256AV video controller with an embedded NTSC/PAL composite video output port for DVD/ MPEG playback.

Good little laptop

Taken as a whole, the Tecra 8000 is a great multimedia laptop, providing strong audio/visual services and DVD playback capabilities. However, network users and managers may not find these points terribly compelling. I would prefer my network laptops to have on-board Ethernet ports rather than composite video jacks for watching DVD movies.

That's not to say that the Tecra 8000 isn't a solid choice for corporate users. The system's BIOS is Desktop Management Interface 2.0-compliant, and the laptop ships with Intel's LANDesk Client Manager, Version 3.2, providing good network management services out-of-the-box.

Another strong management aspect of this system is the Toshiba Configuration Builder CD-ROM, a utility that lets you specify the exact setup that you want, with a clean system image written to disk. This makes configuration a relatively painless procedure, and will be greatly appreciated by managers.

Test system

The system I used for testing was a fairly typical configuration, incorporating a 266-MHz processor, 64MB of RAM, an internal 24x CD-ROM drive, an internal 6GB hard drive, an external floppy drive, a built-in modem, a 13.3-inch display, and Windows 95. The system weighed in at 7 pounds (including the AC converter and external floppy drive), with an estimated street-price of $3,799.

I found the system equally useful both in my office and on the road, although I would have preferred a unit with an internal floppy drive, with the CD drive housed in a desktop expansion bay. On this topic, the current line of Toshiba DeskStation V expansion systems will work with the Tecra 8000, although a converter, which isn't available yet, will be required. I had no problems running Windows 95, 98, or NT, and was able to install Red Hat Linux 5.1 quickly as well.

I did experience a variety of resource conflicts, however. For example, the built-in modem required multiple interrupts and memory ports that ate into the pool of available resources dramatically. This problem was compounded by the dual-channel IDE controller using two interrupt requests, or IRQs. I couldn't find any spare interrupts to use with my 3Com 3C574-TX Ethernet card until I disabled the on-board parallel port. Many corporate buyers will want to exclude the modem from their units to eliminate many of these issues.

I also didn't like the positioning of the external floppy drive connector, as it is located directly below the PC Card slots. Whenever the floppy drive is connected, there is not sufficient room to also use a PC Card with an X-Jack connector.

Finally, one noticeably absent configuration option is the mouse. Both Toshiba and IBM are still shipping the pencil-eraser AccuPoint mouse, rather than a glide pad or trackball. I personally prefer the AccuPoint, but if you want something else you are out of luck.

In short, this system is highly configurable but at this point it is hobbled somewhat by its nonconfigurable elements. A typical corporate user needs built-in Ethernet support more than some of the multimedia services that come with the Tecra 8000. However, I expect that this situation will change as Toshiba improves upon their build-to-order capabilities. Eventually, you should be able to order the exact laptop that you want.

The Tecra 8000 is one of the first build-to-order laptops from a top-tier vendor. It is highly configurable, allowing you to specify the exact configurations you want when you order it. Although many of the fixed services may not appropriate for the corporate road warrior, the system is configurable and adaptable, and comes with good network services.

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