Tools of the Trade: The Tecra A2

Portable for the people: the Toshiba laptop that won't break your budget ... or your back

Toshiba's Tecra laptops used to be chunky, grey computers that looked as though they would last for ever. The company marketed the Tecra as a desktop replacement computer, built to withstand wear and tear but with few concessions to either aesthetics, portability or, for that matter, price.

This has changed. The latest Tecra, the A2, weighs in at a reasonable 2.6kg, and is delivered in a two-tone case with a silver clam-shell lid. It is by no means the lightest or smallest portable computer on the market, but neither is it going to cause back strain among its users.

The entry-level A2 laptop comes with a 40 gigabyte hard drive, 256 megabytes of memory, a 14.1-inch screen and a 1.4 gigahertz Intel Celeron M processor. None of this makes for turbocharged performance. In Toshiba's defence, however, the A2 machine costs only £799 (before VAT).

Even budget-conscious buyers expect new laptops to come with good connectivity options, and here the Toshiba machine does not disappoint. The wireless networking card supports both the 802.11b WiFi standard and the faster 802.11g version, which is a bonus considering the low entry-level price.

For wired connections, there is a built-in ethernet port and a V90 modem. The CD drive is a decent specification for an entry-level laptop: it records CDs and plays DVDs. Unfortunately, a manufacturer's claimed battery life of 2.55 hours does not allow for periods of extended movie watching.

This is just one of the compromises that make it difficult to take the measure of the A2. In some ways, such as the networking, this is a fully featured computer. In others - including the processor, the memory, the hard drive and battery - it is really quite basic.

There is nothing wrong with a basic computer at a basic price, of course. Toshiba offers faster computers in the A2 range, with Pentium M rather than Celeron processors and, in the top-of-the-range model (priced at £1,099), 512mb memory.

But the A2 range is let down most of all by its build quality, rather than by its features.

Toshiba laptops used to be known as virtually indestructible, if hardly pleasing on the eye. The A2 is much more neatly designed than the grey slabs that Toshiba was churning out a few years ago. However, the improvement in aesthetics seems to have come at a price.

The casing used for the A2 has a plastic feel both to the eye and to the touch, especially when the machine is compared with the current laptop ranges from IBM and Apple. It is heavier and larger than would be ideal for a frequent business traveller, but it does not feel sturdy enough to replace the desktop computer altogether. Moreover, the screen is neither as bright nor as crisp as we would like to see.

Toshiba has done well to bring the cost of its Tecra business laptops down to prices that most buyers can afford, and the A2 has some good features. But when it comes to laptops, paying a little more is often a sensible investment.

For our money, on a budget of £799, either Apple's iBook range or Toshiba's own iBook-like Portege A100 are better-designed, better-built computers with very similar specifications and a superior battery life.

Buying the A100 rather than the A2 means going with a smaller 12.1-inch screen and an 802.11b wireless networking card, but these are worthwhile compromises to make for a more solid computer.


Toshiba Tecra A2 laptop

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Price: £799 plus VAT.

Pros: 802.11g WiFi networking, competitive price.

Cons: basic specification, build quality and screen could be better.

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