As an owner of the Toshiba 3500 Tablet PC I am blown away by the new M200. this is a review of the improvements and differences.

Specs

This Toshiba has no shortage of great specs. Intel P4 Centrino 1.7 ghz, 1 GB of RAM, 7200 RPM Hard Drive, nVidia GeForce FX ToGo 5200, 12 inch 1400x1050 display. These specs alone would make a sweet laptop. Fundamentally this just beats the pants off the 3500 and it really shows when using the machine. Toshiba went with Tier 1 type hadware (nVidia, Intel chipset etc) where the 3500 has some seriously sub standard parts.

Hardware Design

There still aren't any PC laptops that are as beautiful as PowerBooks. However, I'll give credit where credit is due. Toshiba has engineered something that is a great notebook and tablet. Small subtle things make a difference when using a tablet that may not matter on a non-tablet.

Screen

The screen is a very high resolution display device and it's small (12 inches). As such it's very difficult for a young guy like me to even make things out w/o getting real close. I improved this problem 95% buy increasing the overall DPI that windows thinks it's running on. See this post.

Keyboard

It "feels good". However, the Windows key is still in the wrong place. Please swap the Tilde and Windows Key. OEMs should not be allowed to change the basic keyboard layout.

Power Button

For one thing Toshiba made the power button a slider rather than a button. On the 3500 it was way to easy to hit the power button in tablet mode putting the machine into hibernate or shutdown.

Microphone

The microphone has been placed in a location that does not put it near the fan in both tablet and notebook mode (on the 3500 it was right above the fan in tablet mode).

Pen Buttons

There are a series of buttons that are adjacent to the screen that you can tap with your pen and program the actions (this is a nifty idea). You actually press down on the plastic screen in special areas that detect the pen.

Tablet buttons

The tablet "buttons" that used to provide easy ways to scroll, and hit enter in tablet mode are not replaced with a cell phone like joystick. This was a great idea as it's now directional as well as easy to control using the pen letting giving you quite a bit of flexibility in how you interact with Windows.

Build quality

Lets just say the 3500 felt like a flimsily piece of junk. Holding it did not instill a sense of confidence. Holding a Powerbook 12 or 15 inch makes you feel like you are in a Porsche 911 or something. You can feel that this is a well crafted piece of hardware. The M200 is no where near that experience but it feels solid. The case is made out of some kind of plastic or metal that feels durable, sturdy, and doesn't get "scuffed" like my 3500. The machine doesn't flex when I hold it, there aren't protruding panels and such. It's more curvy and less boxy. there aren't "stickers" covering screw holes and so on. The screen isn't warped, or unaligned like the 3500. It feels like a very solid piece of hardware.

Battery

The battery is physically smaller and thicker. This is a good thing as it's more compact. It's a bit heavier, but seems like a better and more usable battery. Battery life is far superior. After 2+ years and no power management software installed I got about 60 minutes in my 3500 battery. It also took 10 hours to recharge it fully if I was using it. This machine so far has been running on my entire cross country flight, and the reduced performance via speed step hasn't been all that noticeable. It seems to re-charge a lot faster.

Pen

The pen is more like a Pen! It's not semi square like the 3500 which would cause me to get impressions and soreness in my hand after extended use. The M200 pen is round and actually looks like a pen. The best part is, the pen is no longer docked in the same place as the screen. With the 3500, returning the Pen to the dock resulted in something in the task bar getting clicked, or the mouse moving due to the magnetic nature of the way the pen interacts with the display. The pen also has a sort of push action release like the Newton 2100 did.

And I found a little surprise in the battery compartment. An emergency pen. Wow, what a great idea!

Trackpad

Far better trackpad. The buttons are metal and not painted plastic like the 3500. The buttons also feel snappy and will look good after 3 years of use!

Stickers

There are 10 stickers on this machine. Time to whip out the Goo-Gone. Apple puts zero stickers on their hardware. Stickers are just freaking tacky.

Inking

Overall, calibration issues seem to be a thing of the past. The alignment of the pen seems good all over the screen (well as compared to the 3500).

Orientation

The hardware has some kind of mercury switch or similar device that can detect orientation. Toshiba has included some software (oddly named the Accellerome) that allows you to program events to occur based on quickly moving the tablet forwards and backwards, or left and right. Kind of interesting I guess, but I'm not sure what I'd use it for yet.

Software

Well, as any OEM, Toshiba spends considerable time and energy creating utilities, drivers and so on for this machine. Now, typically whenever I get a new piece of hardware I just repave it and install the stuff I want (repave = install Windows XP). I didn't do that this time though. As such I was horrified as usual with the number of pieces of software installed and the amount of overhead they take up. Most of this is just philosophical problems that I have with OEMs cluttering my life with stuff I don't want or need.

However, there is some good in this case. I counted roughly 15 entries in my add/remove programs that are Toshiba specific. Much of these things are optional, but if you want to use many of the hardware goodies I mention above you need these. One great area of improvement is that Toshiba nicely organized them in my start menu so that I don't have 15 new start menu entries for utilities. They are all grouped under "Toshiba" and then there are sub folders there.

Toshiba has made some welcome changes to the Power Management software. This was something I never installed on my 3500 cause it had a tendency to hard freeze my tablet. That was not cool. But the new version is much better designed, simpler and just seems to "work".

There is a new piece of software called the CrossMenu that gets invoked when you click the tablet directional button. It's actually a nice piece of software providing some useful functionality. It's even translucent, fades out and animates. Nice touches! This is the kind of stuff that Apple does well and it's nice to see Toshiba offer us some attention to user experience.

Finally there is a piece of software called ConfigFree for managing your net connections. This is one of those classic "No thanks, I can do this myself". Seriously, there is all this stuff in Windows for doing this. Unlike the Windows Power Manager which is fairly bare bones and begging for an OEM to write something different, this is just software that's unnecessary IMHO. Plus when I have network problems I have a long list of things to point my finger at:

  • Comcast - Internet Provider
  • Scientific Atlanta - cable modem
  • Wireless Basestation - Microsoft
  • Windows XP - client wireless software
  • Windows 2003 Server - 802.1X authentication
  • IT department - manages 802.1X
  • Windows 2003 Server - manages certificates for above
  • Intel - hardware nic
  • M200 - host for intel hardware nic
  • ConfigFree - why add something else to point my finger at?

The last thing I'll say is that I hate it when ISVs create software using non-standard controls, dialogs, etc. There is really no reason to create your own Tab control. Why waste time on crap like that when the platform does it for free? I view this as a deficiency in the platform or just pure ego when people create their own OS controls (of course there is good reason for providing controls that the platform does not provide).

For a good summary of the stuff that you don't need see Jonathan Hardwick's post.

Summary

This is a great sub-notebook and a wonderful tablet. It makes me "happy". My 3500 made me far from happy. If you change the DPI of windows things get a lot better (you can actually read the text on screen). In the hardware arena I give Toshiba an A-. For software they get a B-. The 3500 by contrast would get a C- for hardware (nice first try) and a D for software.