capsule review

Toshiba Satellite M505-S4020 Glitters But Isn’t Gold

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At a Glance
  • Generic Company Place Holder Toshiba Satellite M505-S4020 Notebook

Take a standard, zippy laptop, slather on a thick layer of gloss--almost literally--and you've got the $999 Toshiba Satellite M505-S4020. This midrange portable smoothly handles Microsoft Office, online tools, media playback, and other general-purpose applications. Its mix of extra features includes above-average speakers and even a touchscreen, but the extras often distract from basic design issues instead of solving them. For example, navigating a netbook or keyboard-free kitchen PC by touch makes a lot of sense, but here the touchscreen seems more like a workaround for the weak trackpad than a needed feature. And on some level, who cares about the machine's snappy response when the battery conks out after 2 hours, 46 minutes? This pretty Toshiba Satellite turns heads with its style, but there should be more substance to back it up.

The Intel Core i3-330M processor and 4GB RAM together lift this Toshiba Satellite into the top third of recently tested laptops on our benchmarks. It scored 89 in WorldBench 6 and always kept up in real-world performance; Office, Firefox, iTunes, and other standards ran well. Unfortunately, without a dedicated graphics processor, it couldn't run most of our gaming tests. At least we could play 2D games, or older, less-demanding 3D titles, such as Portal.

Input devices are what most define the M505, for good and for bad. The blocky, futuristic font that's printed on the keyboard is nice, and the key action feels responsive. You may need some time to adjust to the flat, glossy keys; many users prefer an indentation to sense the key center. The texture also feels too slick, and every press leaves a new fingerprint smudge. The small trackpad disappoints most; you'll often drift into the wrist rest without much physical warning. Even worse, the active tracking area cuts out a full finger-width away from its edge; the mouse regularly stopped moving before I did. At least I could feel the two big buttons each time.

Maybe Toshiba's engineers figured you'd spend more time poking at the 14-inch touchscreen than using the trackpad. After all, Toshiba includes several of their own touch-enabled applications. In some situations, it can trump any trackpad, such as tapping buttons on a media player or even swapping to different applications in the taskbar. I further flexed it with Sketchbook Pro, brushing in designs with a fingertip. But it never felt right as the primary input device; quick Sketchbook Pro strokes registered as dots, and my fingers dragged with too much friction. Worst of all, it felt unnatural in reaching over the keyboard for the screen; you'll wish the display could swivel into a tablet mode.

The 1366-by-768-pixel resolution screen looks good, casting off bright colors and good contrast, but its glossy finish occasionally gets in the way. In well-lit rooms--especially those with windows--the reflections are distracting. While this is only a moderate problem compared with the worst glare seen on competitors, it's disappointing because of the otherwise good images.

You can close your eyes for one of the Toshiba Satellite's best features: its speakers. They can fill small rooms full of music with little distortion. Admittedly, the Harman/Kardon-branded audio spits a little fuzz, which is only slightly noticeable at the loudest setting. Almost all volumes up to that point reveal a clear, competent range of sound. While I could always tell that the audio was coming from a laptop, it beats nearly all competitors.

The Toshiba Satellite M505-S4020 piles on additional features, but all are forgettable. The optical drive plays and burns various DVD formats, but it can't read Blu-ray discs. It has a Webcam, but your image will look awful unless you're lit by a bright window. Touch-sensitive buttons can control Windows Media Player, but they struggle with many other media applications. The dedicated volume buttons make annoying, shrill beeps. The ports mostly meet expectations: 802.11g/n Wi-Fi, 10/100 ethernet, two USB 2.0 ports, audio in and out, HDMI- and VGA-out, a flash-card reader, an ExpressCard slot, and an eSATA port that doubles as an extra USB jack. But why no gigabit ethernet or Bluetooth?

And who cares about any of these features or about system performance when the battery dies? The battery lasted only 2 hours, 46 minutes in our lab tests, though you may wring out more life, especially by using low-power modes.

Overall, the Toshiba Satellite M505-S4020 almost always needs a caveat to go along with its overdesigned features. It's fast enough to handle current business, Internet, and media software, but most games won't work under its weak graphics processing. Its 14-inch display looks great for movies, but it has no Blu-ray drive. The touchscreen can be handy, but it's rarely practical. While the laptop's attractive, glossy design is suited for a museum, you'll have to keep a smudge cloth ready for every part of its surface.

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At a Glance
  • Don't be fooled by the glossy features and finish. While it’s fast enough for typical business applications, this Satellite cuts corners.


    • Full audio expertly reproduces music and movies
    • Competant speed powers any day-to-day applications


    • Trackpad and keyboard disappoint
    • Short battery life keeps you tied to an outlet
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