Tools Of The Trade: The portable computer that turns into a TV or DVD player and can run multimedia presentations

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The Independent Online

Size matters with laptops, and the ideal size is usually small. But the Toshiba Satellite P20 breaks with convention by being so big that it takes up more space than a desktop screen. It is also so heavy it would fail to qualify as hand baggage on some airlines.

Part of the reason is its 17-inch screen, which certainly gives plenty of scope for working with large spreadsheets or with graphics. But the compromise is a bulky, heavy computer, with none of the finesse of Apple's 17-inch screen PowerBook. Toshiba's choice of colours (metallic red and black) does little to help.

The main reason for buying this computer is what you can watch on it. The Microsoft Windows XP Media Center turns the computer into a video recorder, TV, hi-fi and DVD player, on top of all its PC functions.

The idea of putting Media Center software into a laptop is interesting for businesses. Designers working with sound and images would benefit from it, and the computer could be useful for running multi-media presentations. Why set up dozens of boxes and cables when a machine such as the P20 can do it all?

Unfortunately, it failed to live up to its promise in our tests. For a start, connecting it to a TV signal means removing the battery pack and putting in a TV tuner unit. This makes the P20 less portable as it depends on mains power. And Media Center needs a remote control; Toshiba connects this to the computer through a bulky external receiver. If you want the Media Center remote to work a set-top box, there's another wire to run out to that, too.

This ugly mess of cables could be forgiven had we been able to make the P20 work as a TV monitor or video recorder. However, we failed to connect it either to a digital cable or analogue aerial; consulting the manuals left us none the wiser. The computer failed to recognise a (fairly standard) Pace set-top box from Telewest.

This failure meant that it was not possible to test the P20 to its full potential, although the other Media Center features, such as DVD playback, photo display and music, worked well.

It is possible we had a rogue computer to test, or that something about our TV set- up was odd. But even then, the messy arrangement of cables and the loss of the battery in Media Center mode makes buying a P20 for the office less attractive than a neat desktop machine with the same software.

Toshiba makes another P20 without the Media Center software. We tested this and preferred it. It has fewer compromises and it might suit a creative user who needs a large screen and prefers a Windows PC to an Apple Mac. It even comes with a slim remote for the DVD unit, with no unsightly connectors.

THE VERDICT

The Toshiba Satellite P20 Windows Media Center PC

Rating: 2 out of 5

Price: £2,199 including VAT

Available from: www.toshiba.co.uk

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