Toshiba's Tecra R850 (PT520A-01S003) is one of the more stylish Sandy Bridge-based business computers on the market. It's a 15.6in model that's thin (around 26mm), very well built, and relatively light (2.49kg). With a full-sized keyboard and a dual-pointing device, it's also quite comfortable to use. However, the out-of-box experience isn't great as it takes a long time to set up initially, and it also comes with lots of pre-installed software that can get in the way.
Design and features
Without a doubt the biggest drawcard of this Tecra notebook is its design. It's one of the nicest looking and feeling business notebooks we've reviewed. The base is only around 21mm thick and its stiff, plastic (high stiffness resin, or HSR) construction is very sturdy. You can lift the unit from either side with one hand and it won't groan or noticeably bend. The screen feels robust despite being around 8mm thin, and it's held in place by a strong pair of hinges that allow it to tilt all the way back. On the downside, the screen itself isn't great. It has poor vertical viewing angles and its contrast is poor. Furthermore, the screen emits a slight shimmering effect that's noticeable particularly in dark colours. We haven't seen this effect since we tested the Dell Inspiron 15R N5010.
The Toshiba Tecra R850's palmrest has a striped texture and it's 95mm deep — both of these features make the notebook very comfortable to type on. The keyboard has isolated keys that have a glossy finish, but they don't feel slippery when you hit them. The keyboard doesn't bounce when you hit the keys, and they feel reasonably soft. However, the space bar sometimes needed a much harder hit than the rest of the keys. We wish there was a backlight for the keyboard; its omission may be a hint that you shouldn't work at night.
Two pointing options are present on the Toshiba Tecra R850: a touchpad (85x49mm) and an AccuPoint device. Both are comfortable to use and the AccuPoint doesn't get in the way while typing, although the buttons for the AccuPoint are a little too hard to press. The touchpad supports gestures: pinch zoom, pivot rotation, pan scrolling (using two fingers to scroll) and circular motion scrolling. Only pinch zoom is enabled by default in the Toshiba Touch Pad driver.
A fingerprint reader resides between the left and right touchpad buttons and it was accurate during our tests, even when we swiped messily. The fingerprint reader can be used to log in to the system, and it can also be used in conjunction with Toshiba's Fingerprint Utility to act as a substitute for passwords to your most-visited sites. Annoyingly, this only works with Internet Explorer, not with Firefox or Chrome. Face recognition is also available for logging in to the system. Data is protected by a sensitive motion detector that parks the hard drive's heads whenever it senses a bump or excessive movement. Its sensitivity can be adjusted.
The edges of the Toshiba Tecra R850 house a DVD burner, Gigabit Ethernet, VGA, DisplayPort, eSATA, a combination headphone/microphone port, an ExpressCard/34 slot, an SD card slot and four USB 2.0 ports (including the eSATA port, which does double-duty as a USB port). One of the USB 2.0 ports is also a USB 3.0 port and Sleep-and-charge is supported, too. The base has a connection for a docking station.
You also get a webcam, Bluetooth and dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi. A SIM card reader was present in our test model, but a 3G modem and software were not installed (embedded 3G is optional).
Specifications and performance
On the inside, the Tecra R850 runs a Second Generation Intel Core i5-2520 CPU, which has two cores, Hyper-Threading and a frequency of 2.5GHz. You also get 4GB of DDR3 SDRAM, AMD Radeon HD 6450M graphics and a 7200rpm, 500GB hard drive. In our performance tests, the Tecra managed similar results to the Lenovo ThinkPad T420, which uses the same CPU, but its graphics performance was better than the Lenovo's thanks to the extra grunt of the discrete AMD graphics chip.
The inclusion of a separate graphics card didn't hinder the Toshiba's battery life. It lasted 4hr 15min in our rundown tests, in which we disable power management, enable Wi-Fi, maximise screen brightness and loop an Xvid-encoded video file. It's an excellent time for a 15.6in laptop, especially since its 6-cell, 66 Watt-hour battery isn't large and sits snugly in the spine of the chassis without protruding. We have been disappointed in the battery life of many previous Toshiba units in the last 6-12 months, so we're pleased that this Tecra was able to record such a good time. You can use Toshiba's eco utility to get even more life out of it — it can be invoked by pressing the shortcut button above the keyboard.
Performance and battery life aside, what's great about the Tecra R850 is its usability. Despite being a big unit, it's comfortable to use on your lap for long periods of time. It doesn't get overly warm and its fan is barely audible — you probably won't hear it over the sound of your fingers hitting the keyboard. We do wish its screen was better though, as text looked a little washed out toward the middle of the screen, and we regularly had to fiddle with the viewing angle. It's definitely not a great screen for viewing photos, but is fine for viewing graphs and PowerPoint slides.
Another annoyance is the prolonged set up time once you pull the Tecra R850 out of the box. Even though it was brand new, we had to restore it to its factory settings, which took well over an hour. A lot of extra software is installed that business users and administrators probably won't want — no less than 11 services show up in the Windows System Tray area upon boot up. This includes a 60-day trial of Norton Internet Security and the Toshiba Bulletin Board application. It's almost the same hard drive image that's used for Satellite notebooks, which are aimed at home users.
The Toshiba webcam utility is one of the more annoying pre-installed applications because of its interface. It sits hidden at the top-left edge of the screen and surfaces every time you put the cursor over it. It will also show up if you accidentally overshoot the mark when you're aiming for the File menu in an application or trying to change tabs in Firefox 4, for example. Apart from sometimes being annoying, its interface could use some sprucing up, and this is a knock on most of Toshiba's software — the elegant physical looks of the Tecra aren't mirrored in Toshiba's pre-installed utilities.
For system administrators, the Tecra R850 comes with Intel's vPro and Active Management technology, which allows for the laptop to be remotely managed and diagnosed if any problems arise.
Despite our quibbles with the set up time, pre-installed software and the poor screen, the Tecra R850 is a great business notebook. It has a top-notch hardware design that looks good, feels good to use and, perhaps most importantly, feels strongly built. Its battery life is also very good for a 15.6in notebook.
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