craig lamson I would like to introduce Craig Lamson.  Craig has been a professional product photographer for over 3 decades.  Craig has done it all and I encourage you to check out his website for the best product photography you’ll ever have the privilege of viewing.  Often times I can spend a great amount of time viewing just one of his images and learning while observing how he uses light.  Craig is a master of light, and I’m afraid that is an understatement. If you've ever wondered who I go to when I have a question you now have your answer.

 

 

 

In search of the Holy Grail ... a $750 laptop.

 

A review by Craig Lamson

 

Copyright Craig Lamson

"Enter here"  copyright 2009 Craig Lamson

 

My laptop is so 2003.  In today’s world, tech from 2003 is ancient. In ‘03 this was a state of the art $2000 desktop replacement loaded with the best goodies.  Today it’s a boat anchor, but I can’t really complain.  This Toshiba laptop has been flawless and I’ve had it on shoots everywhere including lots of dirty and dusty factories. This computer has never missed a beat and in fact it went all these years on the original install of windows XP. (Upgraded of course)

So I tried to spruce it up a bit and I installed a new hard drive and did a clean install of XP.  This helped but since this is my location computer system for shooting and processing Canon 1DsmkII files even a refresh could not save it.

I needed a new laptop.

The budget was small, only $750, so a top notch machine was out of the question.  I had to find a machine with the most bang for the buck within that price range.

I plan on using this laptop for location photography shooting tethered to a Canon 1DSMKIII.  That’s the main goal.  But I also plan on using it to process files while away from home, work on my web pages, soon to be blog, surf the net and write my spell-binding product reviews.  Did I mention my spell-binding product reviews? In addition my wife will use this as her day to day computer since her current HP laptop is less than reliable.

 

Things I Wanted:

  • A fast processor or at least the fastest I could afford
  • 4 gigs of ddr ram upgradable to 8 gigs
  • Vista 64 bit
  • Standalone video card
  • SD card slot (yes SD...I've been buying cheap mid level 16 gigs and using them in the MKIII)
  • 16 inch screen
  • Options...Bluetooth, back lighted keyboard, lots and lots of USB ports, long battery life.

 

Big Box Here We Come.

With a location photo shoot scheduled I needed the new laptop right away so I discarded the idea of buying online.  While not buying online I did do considerable research on the net.

I had one brand that was off the list before even starting...HP/Compaq. My current backup laptop is a 16" Compaq made before Compaq was bought by HP and it's a decent machine and has never let me down.  As I mentioned earlier, my wife has a current HP laptop, purchased at a big box store.  She was not looking for a powerhouse, just your run of the mill laptop. Frankly I think she picked it more for the looks and color more than anything, but it was her purchase so I mostly stayed out of it.  Sadly the thing locks up constantly, and I can’t find the fix.  It’s out of warranty so we live with it, at least until now. She will be using the new laptop when it’s not on a shoot.

Given the big box requirement that leaves Dell, Sony, Gateway and Toshiba as the main contenders for my money.  There are a number of decent choices in my price point and with most of the features I need, but what I found is that they were mostly clones from brand to brand. Same specs, different name and case style.

The standard seems to be: Core2Duo T6500, 4gigs DDR@800, Intel Shared memory graphics card and Vista Home Premium 64bit SP1.  Most offer great battery life, but the downsides are the processor with only an 800 front side bus, 2mb l2 cache and the shared memory graphics card.

I had resigned myself to integrated graphics, against my better judgment, as the cost of my 750 dollar price limitation.

The best the lot in my opinion was the Dell Studio 1737, and quite frankly it was my choice going into the store.  The big selling feature for me was screen real estate at 17 inches.  The trend these days is 16:9 widescreens which suck for anything but watching movies.  So for me bigger was better.  It had a nice keyboard with standard looking keys and a number keypad…a nice touch.  My plan was to just dash in to the store and grab my new computer and go. No need to spend an hour gawking.

Well, plans change, sometimes for the better.  My lovely wife decided to tag along and she IS a shopper!  She pointed out the Toshiba A505  and I took a look.  I had glossed over this machine while surfing because the screen is only a 16”, but am I ever lucky I had the shopper with me.

 

The Shopper Rules the Day.

Asking for some assistance from the “Geek Squad” we searched the Best Buy website and found that the A505's had a good processor upgrade from the t6500. It's .1 slower in clock speed at 2.0, but it has a 1066 front side bus and 3mb of L2 cache.  The big news however is the graphics card, an ATI card with 512mb of dedicated DD3 memory!  For a graphic intensive user like me, that is huge!

In addition to the processor and graphics card the machine was pretty similar to the rest of the pack, Vista  Home premium 64, 4gigs of ram, 500gb 5400rpm hard drive, ports and more ports and an 8 in 1 (sorry no CF) card reader. The CD/DVD burner features the new Labelflash technology, which allows you to laser etch BOTH sides of a DVD…pretty cool. The keyboard is a bit different. The keys are rather flat, and not cupped like most, and they took me a bit to get comfortable with them.  The keyboard also features a number keypad and is back lighted which is a cool, useful and good looking feature.  The other plus and a really big deal to my wife is a button to turn off the touchpad.  She just hates brushing her hand over the touchpad and moving the cursor while typing.

The case is very attractive, in gloss black with dark gray styling lines.  It is however a fingerprint and dust magnet, but it wipes clean easily with a damp cloth.  The screen is the dreaded but now standard glossy variety.  Despite being glossy it views quite well.

I bought it!

 

Review, Toshiba A505, Craig Lamson

"Testing setup"  copyright Craig Lamson 2009

 

So How Does This Baby Perform?

Once home I uninstalled all of the bloatware that ships with these computers these days and then loaded my standard graphics software.  I also calibrated and profiled the glossy screen with Eye-1 Match.  This is my first glossy laptop screen and to be honest I was not sure if I could live with it. But it calibrated well and is a very good match to the large CRT and LCD screens of my workstations.

The ultimate test for me when it comes to computer performance is raw file processing and Photoshop functions.  I generally build my own desktops and I’m not a bleeding edge kind of guy. I usually opt for a level down from the edge to maximize the cost/performance equation.

My current desktop is about a year old and has an Intel Core2duo 2.66, 4 gigs of ram and a 1gb video card. The drives are your standard 7200rpm sata drives. It’s nice but nothing special by today’s standards.  But it works great in my workflow and with my current cameras and programs.  It was my hope the new Toshiba laptop would come at least close to my desktop.

To find out how it stacked up to the rest of my computers, I picked a random Canon 1DsmkIII file and processed it on all four different machines using Capture One V4.8

 

The computers used in the test:

  • Homebuilt desktop (1) 2.66 Core2Duo, 4gigs ram, 1gb video card, 7200rpm drives, Vista 64bit
  • Homebuilt desktop (2) 3.2 duo core, 4 gigs ram. 512 mb video card, 10,000rpm drives, XP 32bit
  • Toshiba 505 Laptop (3) 2.0 Core2Duo, 4 gigs ram, 512 video card, 5400rpm drive, Vista 64
  • Toshiba laptop (4) 2.8 P4 Pentium, 2gigs ram, 128mb video card, 5400rpm drive, XP 32bit.

 

With Photoshop PS4 32 bit open on all of the machines, I processed the raw file on each machine to produce and open a 120mb, 16 bit Tiff file.  The times are the total time from pressing the process button to the file being open in Photoshop.  The results were surprising.

  • Homebuilt desktop (1) ran the process in 15 seconds.
  • Homebuilt desktop (2) ran the process in 18 seconds.
  • Toshiba laptop (3) ran the process in 16 seconds
  • Toshiba laptop (4) ran the process in a sleep inducing 45 seconds.

So far so good, the new Toshiba is performing ahead of my expectations!

 

Next, still in PS4 32bit, I changed the file to 8 bit and I ran the extrude filter (timing for the extrude filter only):

  • Homebuilt desktop (1) ran the process in 18.7 seconds.
  • Homebuilt desktop (2) ran the process in 26.7 seconds.
  • Toshiba laptop (3) ran the process in 24.3 seconds
  • Toshiba laptop (4) ran the process in 36.6 seconds

It seems the multi core processors are a big help in this task

 

I did an undo to remove the extrude filter and then increased the image size to 60”x40 @300dpi using bicubic.  This produced a 614mb

  • Homebuilt desktop (1) ran the process in 3.2 seconds.
  • Homebuilt desktop (2) ran the process in 4.3 seconds.
  • Toshiba laptop (3) ran the process in 3.2 seconds
  • Toshiba laptop (4) ran the process in 6.0 seconds

Again it appears that a multi core machine increases speed.

 

Finally I saved the 614mb file.

  • Homebuilt desktop (1) ran the process in 2.8 seconds.
  • Homebuilt desktop (2) ran the process in 3.5 seconds.
  • Toshiba laptop (3) ran the process in 18.3 seconds
  • Toshiba laptop (4) ran the process in 26.6 seconds

 

I was not surprised by these results.  The desktop machines feature faster hard drives and more importantly they have more than one drive.  The Window paging swap files and the Photoshop swap files are each on their own drive.  The drive used for file saves is also a different drive than the system drive.  On the laptops everything is contained on a single hard drive.  This really slows down disk activity for the laptop.

 

Toshiba A505

Toshiba A505 Laptop  Photo courtesy of Toshiba

 

Conclusions

I think I found a really decent laptop for photographic use for a very small price.  Overall the performance of the Toshiba A505 is the near equal of my main graphic workstation with the exception of file saves.  The screen, despite being glossy, calibrates and profiles well.  In side by side viewing with my 24” LCD and my LaCie CRT it is a very close match.  I'll have no problem processing files on this machine while on the road or while away from my workstation.

The downside so far is run time with the small battery that came standard with this laptop.  In my tests with the laptop set for full performance I was only able to run for 1 hour and 34 minutes.  The upside is that I almost never run on battery power.  In any case a much larger battery is available if needed.  All told, I’m quite happy with the A505 and glad I had the “shopper” with me when I made the purchase.  I would recommend this computer whole heartedly.

 

Windows 7 Desktop

"Windows 7 Desktop"  copyright Craig Lamson 2009

 

Addendum…Windows 7

Windows 7 has now been released, and while I have an upgrade for the Toshiba I  have yet to install it.  Instead I have done a clean install on my second workstation to evaluate this OS before applying it to my other computers.  So far I’m finding it to be a nice upgrade.  The interface is clean and easy to use and so far the performance is better than the XP pro OS I had installed on this computer.  Running the same tests I used above I found a slight increase is speed for all the tests.  Not huge, but measureable.  I’m not ready to move completely to Win7 just yet but so far it looks promising

 

Steve's Comments:

Thanks for the great review Craig!  The benchmarks are particularly useful and I'll try and include the exact same ones using the same file on next weeks desktop workstation review.  Next week I'll be reviewing my new workstation with the latest generation of "stuff" inside the box, including tips and recommendations for building your own.

It's remarkable what nice and powerful laptops are available for under $1000 USD's these days.  It was only 2-3 years ago that you'd have to expect to pay 2-3x this much for a laptop of the same caliber.  And you can still spend 2-3x as much for the newest and most powerful models out there.  We have many great choices.

If there is any interest I'll review my Dell Precision Mobile Workstation M9300, which is the system I use for my workshops.  It's very powerful and complete as an imaging workstation, but also very expensive.

I'm also thinking of adding a new Dell Adamo XPS laptop to my toolbox.  3.2 pounds, less than 1cm thick, it competes more than favorably with the Mac Air Book both in function and form.  I'm on the pre-order list, so lets see how soon we can get one sent out to Bangkok.

Again, thanks for the great review Craig.  I'm sure there are many readers looking for a quality economic solution such as this.