by Alexander Britvin
04/08/2008 | 09:37 PM
Although the computer press is prone to focus on notebooks that stand out with their performance, size/weight or innovative technologies, common users are generally interested in less conspicuous models. Why? Because exceptional characteristics cost a lot of money but are not called for by every person. If you need a notebook for running office applications and watching movies and will not often take it with you on your business trips, paying extra for a 1-kilo sub-notebook or a desktop replacement with advanced CPU and graphics card doesn’t seem wise. You are likely to prefer a model with a reasonable weight and with performance appropriate for the intended applications and, accordingly, with a moderate price.
We once reviewed a notebook of this kind. It was the Vostro 1400 from Dell. It proved to be an inexpensive, reliable and functional computer with reasonable performance and good battery life. The 2.5 kilos of the Vostro 1400 are a perceptible weight, though. Practice suggests that mobile users prefer lighter models.
In this report we’ll show you an example of such a lighter model. Configured similarly to the Dell, the Toshiba Satellite U300-111 weighs only about 2 kilos. Of course, it is no subnotebook, but this weight should satisfy many users who are looking for a light-than-average model, especially as the U300-111 is cheaper than typical subnotebooks (which weigh less than 1.5 kilos). It has a display diagonal of 13.3 inches, which differentiates it from the somewhat cheaper 12-inchers weighing about 1.9-2.0 kilos, too.
Toshiba’s designers have never pleased the public with pretty-looking product boxes and the Satellite U300-111 carries on with this tradition. Its box is made from raw cardboard and shows the name of the manufacturer and some technical text.
The notebook is wrapped into a plastic bag and fixed within the box. Excepting the notebook proper, the box contains a 4000mAh battery, power adapter with cable, documentation, and a system recovery disc.
The accessories are rather scanty. You’ll have to buy an external mouse or bag separately.
Following the latest fashion, the notebook’s dark-blue lid is covered with a generous layer of lacquer, which gives it a very impressive appearance. The downside is that dust and greasy fingerprints will be perfectly visible on such a nice glossy surface. You must get a special napkin and clean the notebook regularly to keep it tidy. You can see the silvery color of the top surface of the notebook’s body glimpsing between the black lid and bottom.
There is a large logo of the manufacturer in the center of the lid.
The notebook doesn’t have a display lock. The lid is held shut by the stiff hinges hidden in the screen bezel. You can unfold the notebook by somewhat less than 180 degrees.
The notebook’s front panel offers the following components (from left to right):
Opening the notebook up, you can see the classic mix of a black top and a silvery bottom. The notebook’s body resembles a sandwich: silvery plastic, the same color as the keyboard and touchpad, is laid on the black glossy surface underneath.
There is a 1.3-megapixel web-camera together with an activity indicator above the screen. The camera cannot be turned around, so you should orient it by tilting the notebook’s lid as necessary. To the left of the camera block there is a hole of the integrated monophonic microphone. There are rubber pads on the screen bezel for softer contact between the lid and the notebook’s body.
The Satellite U300-111 is equipped with a widescreen 13.3-inch LCD matrix that has an aspect ratio of 16:10 (WXGA). Its native resolution is 1280x800 pixels. The viewing angles of the matrix seem to be sufficiently wide. It has a glossy coating that makes the image brighter and more saturated but also acts as a mirror, reflecting every bright object behind your back.
We measured the brightness and contrast of the notebook’s display using a Pantone ColorVision Spyder with OptiCAL version 3.7.8 software. We had selected the highest brightness setting before this test and the power-saving technologies did not affect the notebook’s display when it switched to the battery.
AC power source:
DC power source:
There are status indicators on the notebook’s front panel. They are visible irrespective of the position of the lid.
We should confess the battery indicator didn’t report low battery charge for some reason and the notebook would shut down rather suddenly.
In the left part of the front panel there is a Satellite logo shining in rich blue when the notebook is turned on.
The U300-111 is equipped with an 86-key silvery keyboard. It has a nonstandard design. In fact, the size of the case is wide enough to accommodate the traditional vertical column of buttons including Home, Page Up, Page Down and End, but Toshiba’s designers preferred to keep the full size of the main keyboard’s keys at the expense of that column. As a result, Page Up and Page Down are squeezed in next to the Arrow keys and are almost half their regular size.
The keyboard buttons are rather stiff but you can get used to that easily. They do not rattle. The Caps Lock indicator is located on the namesake button. The Enter button is shaped classically like the letter L. The movement keys are placed below the keyboard’s baseline, so there’s lower risk of your pressing them accidentally. The bottom left corner is occupied by a Control, which is convenient for people who are used to shortcuts like Ctrl+C or Ctrl+V. Numeric buttons and two Windows keys are available: the Context Menu key is placed to the right of the spacebar; the Windows Logo key is to the left of the spacebar. The functional keys are separated from the main keyboard with a gray insert and are divided into three groups: ESC, F1-F12, and five additional buttons (Print Screen, Home, End, Insert and Delete). The letters and the functional keys are all marked in black.
Two stereo speakers are placed above the keyboard.
Centered below the screen is a multimedia block together with Power and Internet buttons (from left to right):
The notebook is equipped with Toshiba’s typical touchpad. It is silvery like the surrounding surface and is sunken in it to prevent your finger from leaving the touch-sensitive area. The touchpad is highly responsive. There is no scrolling zone or a dedicated scrolling joystick. The touchpad is accompanied with two buttons.
To avoid touching the touchpad while using an external mouse, you can block it by pressing Fn+F9.
The notebook’s left panel contains the following components (from left to right):
The notebook’s right panel carries the following:
The notebook’s back panel shows a power connector and the back of the battery module.
On the bottom panel there are covers of HDD, memory and WLAN compartments, a battery module with two locks, and stickers with model information and the OS serial number.
The memory compartment contains two slots, each of which is occupied by a 1024MB module. This is half the maximum memory amount supported by the notebook. So, if you want to upgrade the memory subsystem to 4 gigabytes, you’ll have to replace these modules with 2048MB ones.
The notebook exhausts the hot air to the left, but there are vent holes in the bottom panel which are going to be blocked if you put the notebook down on your laps. This is not a big problem, though, as the notebook is not too hot.
The Satellite U300-111 comes with a standard 6-cell 4000mAh battery.
The Satellite U300-111 is based on an Intel Core 2 Duo T7100 processor with a clock rate of 1.80GHz (65nm Merom core with 2 megabytes of shared L2 cache). The FSB frequency is 800MHz.
Intel Core 2 Duo T7100: cache-memory
The Core 2 Duo T7100 supports Intel’s 64-bit extensions to the x86 architecture and also features Intel Wide Dynamic Execution technology which means more decoders and execution units in the CPU core and faster processing of SSE and floating-point instructions.
Intel Core 2 Duo T7100 in two power modes
Besides Intel’s traditional Enhanced SpeedStep technology that gives the notebook’s software and BIOS the control over the CPU frequency multiplier (to reduce it under low loads), this CPU supports Dynamic Power Coordination (the power consumption of the cores can be independently adjusted depending on the current load; one core may even slip into Deep Sleep mode with the lowest power consumption possible) and Dynamic Cache Sizing (unused segments of the CPU cache can be turned off to save power). For more information about Intel’s Core 2 Duo processors refer to our article called Santa Rosa + Vista: Three Notebooks Reviewedor to the manufacturer’s website.
This implementation of the Santa Rosa platform also incorporates an Intel PRO/Wireless 4965AGN adapter and an Intel Crestline GM965 chipset. The 965 series chipsets support a FSB frequency of 800MHz. The GM965 offers a PCI Express x16 interface for an external graphics card and also features an integrated graphics core called Intel Graphics Media Accelerator X3100. Connected to the North Bridge via a special-purpose Direct Media Interface, the South Bridge (ICH8-M) supports three Serial ATA-300 ports, ten USB 2.0 ports and Intel High Definition Audio. It also offers six PCI Express x1 lanes to connect external devices. For more information about the platform, visit the manufacturer’s website.
Intel Crestline GM965 chipset
GMA X3100 is the first graphics core from Intel to support shaders on the GPU. As a result, the new integrated chipset features improved performance and compatibility with 3D applications, particularly with Windows Vista’s Aero interface. The X3100 can also support DirectX 10. The new core is clocked at a frequency of 500MHz and incorporates 8 unified shader processors for 3D rendering as well as for video playback acceleration. Thanks to them, the X3100 provides hardware acceleration and post-processing for video content in MPEG-2 and WMV9 formats. The core doesn’t support the new compression standards H.264 and VC-1 (Blu-ray and HD-DVD), though. Besides higher performance, the new graphics core has acquired more advanced power-saving features, mostly meant to reduce the consumption of the LCD panel which is the main power consumer in a notebook together with the CPU. The X3100 supports Display Power Saving Technology 3.0 that is automatically adjusts the brightness and contrast of the screen to reduce power consumption yet keep the image quality high. The Display Refresh Rate Switching technology can be used to reduce the refresh rate of the screen when the notebook works on its battery.
The notebook comes with a Toshiba MK1637GSX hard disk drive (2.5” form-factor, 5400rpm spindle rotation speed, 160GB capacity, SATA interface) and a Matsushita UJ-852S DVD-burner.
The Satellite U300-111 works with DDR2-667 SDRAM, the fastest memory available on the Santa Rosa platform. Both slots are occupied by 1GB modules, so the memory subsystem works in dual-channel mode.
Dual-channel memory mode
We measured the temperature of the hottest spots on the notebook’s surfaces with an infrared thermometer after it had worked for half an hour in Battery Eater Pro 2.60 (the ambient temperature remained constant at 23°C during this test) and got the following numbers:
The following table lists the specifications of the Satellite U300-111 in comparison with its opponent Dell Vostro 1400.
The notebook’s hard disk was formatted in NTFS before the tests. Then we installed Microsoft Windows Vista Ultimate x86 and drivers downloaded from the manufacturer’s website.
The following settings were used for the tests:
Two power modes were used. First, we selected the High Performance power mode for maximum performance and the shortest battery life. Then we switched to the Power Saver mode for the maximum battery run-down time.
There are three test modes in Mobile Mark 2007:
As usual, we will first run our synthetic benchmarks.
The SiSoftware 2007 suite features an updated enhanced-functionality interface, runs on three platforms (Windows x86, Windows x64, WinCE ARM), contains 13 tests and 34 informational modules, and supports a large range of hardware devices thanks to the developer’s collaboration with Intel, AMD, ATI, SiS and VIA. The program is supported in six languages and has a free Lite version for personal use and educational purposes. SiSoftware Sandra measures the overall performance of the system as well as that of each of its subsystems.
PCMark benchmarks computer’s performance in office and office-related applications and also produces performance scores for the main subsystems (CPU, memory, graphical, and disk subsystem). PCMark 2005 carries on the tradition of complex benchmarks of the series and uses fragments of real-life applications as tests. This makes it somewhat more relevant for end-users as opposed to fully synthetic benchmarks. After running a series of 11 tests on the different components of the system, the program calculates an overall performance score in units called PCMarks. PCMark 2005 can check a computer out at processing HD video and encoding audio, and offers enhanced tests of the CPU and hard disk under multithreaded load. The overall score is calculated by the formula: PCMark Score = 87 x (the geometric mean of the basic tests), where the geometric mean is calculated as (Result 1 x Result 2 x…) divided by the number of results.
PCMark Vantage is the first synthetic benchmarking suite developed for Vista. It contains more tests than the previous versions of the benchmark.
The identical CPUs produce identical results. When powered by the batteries, the notebooks are slower because their CPU clock rates are reduced to save power. PCMark’s graphics tests indicate that the notebooks’ graphics subsystems are in fact identical. Although the Toshiba has two times more memory than Dell Vostro 1400, the results of the memory subsystem tests are similar, too. Oddly enough, the Toshiba MK1637GSX disk is better than the Seagate Momentus ST9120822AS although the latter has a higher spindle rotation speed (well, the rotation speed is not the only factor that affects a hard drive’s performance as we know from our earlier tests).
The new version of SYSMark is intended to reveal a system’s performance under different types of load. It simulates a user who is solving practical tasks in a few popular applications. The benchmark issues a few ratings that are indicative of the system performance under different loads. The results for each test load are shown separately:
Having two times more system memory, the Satellite U300-111 beats its opponent easily. The results are lower by about 50% when the notebooks are powered by their batteries.
The E-Learning test emulates the creation of an educational website with diverse media content. This script makes use of the following applications: Adobe Illustrator CS2, Adobe Photoshop CS2, Macromedia Flash 8 and Microsoft PowerPoint 2003.
Like the Sony VAIO VGN-CR11SR/P, the Satellite U300-111 comes with a larger amount of system memory and is thus superior to the Dell. This SYSMark 2007 test seems to be sensitive to the amount of system memory as well as to CPU performance.
The next script is about creating video clips using special effects. The clips are combined out of several sources, including static images. The result is prepared in two formats: HD and for online viewing. The following software is utilized here: Adobe After Effects 7, Adobe Illustrator CS2, Adobe Photoshop CS2, Microsoft Windows Media Encoder 9, and Sony Vegas 7.
2 gigabytes of system memory provides a performance boost for the Satellite U300-111.
The Productivity test models typical office activities such as sending e-mail, processing data, managing a project, working with documents. Applications employed: Microsoft Excel 2003, Microsoft Outlook 2003, Microsoft PowerPoint 2003, Microsoft Word 2003, Microsoft Project 2003, and WinZip 10.0.
This test seems to focus on disk performance, and the Dell Vostro 1400 has a faster HDD. This resembles the tests of the Sony VAIO VGN-CR11SR/P.
The final script from SYSMark 2007 is about creating an architectural presentation including a photorealistic image of the building and a clip with a flyby of it. Two applications are used: AutoDesk 3ds Max 8 and SketchUp 5.
The notebooks have identical integrated graphics cores and perform in a similar manner.
Next we tested the notebooks in a few real-life applications.
The notebooks take the same time to encode video with the DivX 6.7 codec because they have identical processors.
The Satellite U300-111 is slower at encoding MP3 files, probably due to its slower hard disk. Toshiba’s notebook is better when working on the battery, though.
The Photoshop CS2 test (processing five 5-megapixel photos) is sensitive to the amount of system memory, and the Satellite U300-111 is superior here.
The notebooks equal each other at executing our Microsoft Excel script but the Satellite U300-111 is somewhat better in the battery mode.
The Toshiba is faster at archiving the test folder due to the above-mentioned reasons.
In the next test a script is used that prepares a video clip for uploading to YouTube. The clip was made out of four video fragments captured from a digital camera. Oddly enough, the notebooks are equals when powered by the batteries but the Satellite U300-111 is far faster when powered by the mains.
The final rendering test produces nearly identical results.
Next we tested the notebooks in four versions of 3DMark: 3DMark 2001SE Pro, 3DMark 2003 3.6.0, 3DMark 2005 1.2.0 and 3DMark 2006 1.1.0.
3DMark uses its own rendering engine to create a set of 3D scenes that load the graphics subsystem in various ways. Compared with the previous version, 3DMark 2005 uses Shader Model 2.0x/3.0 instead of Shader Model 1.x, provides full compatibility with Shader Model 2.0, includes more complex tests (over a million polygons per each frame), and employs normal maps. 3DMark 2006 brings support for HDR, Uniform Shadow Maps, and multi-core CPUs. It is overall oriented at Shader Model 3.0, but two out of its four graphics tests work within the Shader Model 2.0 framework.
The Satellite U300-111 doesn’t have a big advantage even though it has more system memory.
Now let’s check out a few real games.
The notebooks are obviously not designed for playing modern 3D games. They should only be used for working in office applications.
Battery life is just as important a parameter of a notebook as its performance. The notebook’s battery life was measured with MobileMark 2007. We disabled standby and hibernate mode for the test.
The first scenario, Productivity, emulates the user’s working in typical office applications. The load is not constant as the user is frequently distracting from his work. The second scenario measures the notebook’s battery life when the user is reading text from the screen in Adobe Reader. The third scenario is about DVD playback in InterVideo WinDVD.
Three hours of autonomous operation is a superb result, but the Dell Vostro 1400 is better than the Satellite U300-111 by an hour in every test mode. This is easy to explain. While the notebooks have similar configurations, the Dell has a larger-capacity battery.
It is hard to choose between the two notebooks we have compared in this review. The Dell Vostro 1400 and Toshiba Satellite U300-111 are both a kind of a sturdy workhorse for people who don’t want to spend extra money for super-light subnotebooks or super-fast desktop replacements but need a regular notebook for everyday work and periodical voyages. The difference in performance between these two models is due to the difference in the amount of system memory. It looks like 2 gigabytes of memory is the comfortable minimum for a modern computer. The Dell can instead offer a larger battery and, accordingly, a longer battery life. The battery makes it heavier, though.
So, the Satellite U300-111 is about half a kilo lighter than the Vostro 1400, which can make a difference if you are going to carry your notebook with you often (the weight of the notebook proper should be summed up with the weight of the bag and the power adapter). The difference in weight is accompanied with a difference in price. Toshiba’s offer doesn’t look expensive, though. It is far cheaper than subnotebooks and slightly more expensive than 12-inch models that have the same weight. Moreover, the Satellite U300 series is not limited to this model only. You can buy a cheaper version with the same weight/dimensions but a weaker processor (Pentium Dual Core), smaller hard disk, and with less of system memory. But again, we wouldn’t recommend you to save on system memory.