As I admitted yesterday, I’ve taken part in Talk Toshiba‘s blogger outreach programme. I thoroughly approve of this sort of thing. Not only does it make bloggers feel even more important than we already think we are, but it allows us to play with shiny things for free. (It’s also a boon to those with a hardware unpacking fetish.)

Before I start the review proper, I should state my prejudices. My first work laptop—paid for by the Institute of Cancer Research, pbui—was a Toshiba. This is because they made the smallest machine that could run basic molecular imaging software briskly enough to give presentations in real time and because they still made notepad PCs that came with a pointer controller (or “nipple”) in the middle of keyboard instead of a trackpad at the front. Trackpads are great for beginners and non-touch-typists, but if you are a practised pointer user and don’t want to waste time moving your hands to-and-from your home keys then they’re a pain. On a machine as small as the smallest Toshibas used to be they would have been a waste of valuable human interface space. The other great attraction of the Toshibas was that most of them ran Linux very nicely indeed in the days when that was a rarer attribute.

When I moved to the Rosalind Franklin, I was instructed to choose a Sony Vaio because these are what was supported and known to run Linux. The model I got looked pretty and it ran reasonably fast, but I hated it. It was big, showy, and ate through battery charges like Max Clifford’s mobile phone. The trackpad drove me batty.

When I was made redundant I bought the IBM that I use today, secondhand on eBay. Then I bought an external battery pack for it new (also on eBay). I love IBM (now Lenovo) laptops. They are tough, reliable, functional machines—with nipples! Almost all of them run Linux very nicely. The small ones are also truly portable, though not as portable as the equivalent Toshibas used to be.

So, the important thing to remember when reading this review is that I see laptop PCs as a necessary working evil. They are for giving talks with, for doing hurried edits, for browsing the Web away from your desk. As long as they run fast enough to run the programs I want to run—and almost all laptops do these days—then all I ask of them is that they inconvenience me as little as possible: I want a nice screen; I want as good a keyboard as it is possible to pack into the space available; I want a pointer in the middle of that keyboard; and I want enough connectivity to get round the shortcomings of the base specification. Long battery life is a bonus, but I rarely use a laptop for any great length of time on batteries alone.

The A8 they sent is, unfortunately for them, a large format laptop—or what I would dismiss as a “lifestyle” machine. Personally, I wouldn’t buy something that big unless I wanted a desktop replacement, and then I would plug in a separate keyboard and mouse and mount it on some kind of ergonomic rig. If humans had been meant to work on laptop PCs all the time we would have been given hunchbacks. The A8 isn’t heavy though.

On the positive side, the big screen is great for watching DVDs and the keyboard, while not as deep as my IBM, is large enough and responsive enough for me to touch-type comfortably on, despite the absence of a proper slope. What isn’t so great is that it comes with a touchpad, not a pointer, and the touchpad was slightly flaky to begin with. (I suspect that it might have some kind of “learning” system that adjusts to the way you use the pad, but I didn’t have time to investigate this properly.) Worse, the headphone socket is built into the front edge of the machine, just underneath the pad. This is the worst possible place for it. Imagine reclining on a sofa with your head propped up on some cushions and your legs in an A-profile, watching a DVD. You can’t rest the machine against your stomach and the headphone plug-and-socket are under permanent strain.

I’m not going to go into technical details about the specifications, because, to its credit, I never came up against the machine’s hardware limitations under Windows XP, but I was only using the machine for editing (with Open Office that I downloaded and installed), DVD viewing, and surfing the Web. I’m just going to talk about performance as a user in front of a black box. The A8 seems to have a good graphics card with smooth drivers. The extra (bright, contrasty) screen space was helpful for wordprocessing—though what people who use computers for work really want is taller monitor formats, not the wider ones that are proliferating as workstations morph into entertainment centres. The hard drive comes with software that protects it from jolts and, thankfully, its pop-up messages informing you that it has temporarily parked the heads can be turned off. The built-in Wi-fi found my network easily and stayed locked on. I think the battery life was pretty good, but it usually is with a new laptop.

Does it look nice? If I cared about that sort of thing, I would say yes. Is it fast? As fast as I would ever want. Would I buy one? Probably not, but that’s not because it has any serious shortcomings (apart from the headphone thing), but because it doesn’t suit my needs. A wander around PC World is enough to tell you that the market it competes in is very competitive one. Toshiba need to do something special to persuade regular punters to buy their machine over the others. Perhaps this kind of “Web 2.0” outreach will help, but the most effective route to dominance in this kind of market is the Apple approach. Toshiba should make something that’s more than nice-looking, but gorgeous; that has more than a fine display, but pays obsessive attention to every aspect of usability. Neither thing is easy, but good luck to them.