A laptop for your mobile video needs

In this month's look at video products for Windows NT, I'll examine Toshiba's Tecra 780CDM laptop computer. I tested the Tecra 780CDM for this series about NT video solutions because a removable full-motion video camera is an integral part of the hardware. This laptop demonstrates that video is slowly moving into mainstream computing.

Multiple hard disks and removable storage devices (such as Digital Versatile Disc­DVD), each of which holds at least 1GB of data or more, and high-bandwidth Internet pipes (e.g., ISDN, cable modems, Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Line­ADSL) are becoming increasingly prevalent. Because of these storage and data-transmission advances, full-motion video is working its way to the forefront of digital communications. Many high-end desktop systems now come with video capabilities, and some of these systems include special input and output jacks for transferring video data from one device to another.

Tecra 780CDM
The Toshiba Tecra 780CDM looks like many other Toshiba laptops until you notice the removable video camera. The video camera comes standard and attaches to the side of the laptop's screen via a locking mechanism that you can access only after removing a small plastic cover. You can affix the camera to other monitors using a separate mount. An approximately 1' cord protrudes from the bottom of the camera and attaches to a port on the back of the system. The camera uses Intel's ProShare Technology, and it is compatible with systems that use ProShare.

VideoTrack-Tecra The camera's housing lets it tilt forward or backward 50 degrees and lets it swivel 270 degrees from left to right. You adjust a ring that encompasses the lens to focus on objects as close as 100mm and as far away as you can get. Toshiba touts the camera as good for video capture, videoconferencing, and image scanning. I didn't test the Tecra 780CDM's image-scanning capabilities, but the camera excels at the other two functions.

The camera's refresh rate isn't the fastest I've seen. If anything in the image you're capturing moves, a series of parallel white lines indicates that the system is struggling to keep up with the subject. But the novelty of having a video camera on a laptop far outweighs the fact that the camera doesn't provide the best video available.

The Tecra 780CDM's other features are impressive. The system I tested came with a 5GB hard disk, 64MB of high-speed Enhanced Data Output (EDO) DRAM, a 20X CD-ROM drive, and an integrated K56Flex modem that supports digital simultaneous voice and data (DSVD) voice and fax through the V.34 and V.80 protocols and cellular phones. You can add an 8GB hard disk and a DVD drive, although NT doesn't support the Tecra 780CDM DVD drive at this time. The machine's 266MHz mobile Pentium II processor and respectable 512KB of Level 2 cache provide reasonable performance and stability, even during heavy usage.

The display is a 13.3" Thin Film Transistor (TFT) active matrix with a maximum resolution of 1024 * 768. An S3 ViRGE graphics controller backs up the display with a 64-bit graphics engine and 4MB of 64-bit Synchronous Graphics RAM (SGRAM). In addition, the card supports both OpenGL and Direct 3D graphics APIs. (For more information about OpenGL, see "The OpenGL API," July 1998.) I ran Parametric Technology's CDRS, IBM's Data Explorer (DX), and Lightscape Technology's Lightscape Visualization System Viewperf benchmark tests on the Tecra 780CDM. The system's scores­6.627 on the CDRS test, 1.683 on the DX test, and .368 on the Lightscape test­aren't outstanding, but they're not bad for a laptop with an integrated video solution.

The system includes stereo speakers and an integrated microphone. The motherboard offers 16-bit support for Sound Blaster-compatible devices, two PC Card slots, and two Universal Serial Bus (USB) ports.

Configuring the PC Card slots was a hassle. The Windows NT Diagnostics tool said that the video camera used a PCI-based bus on IRQ 11. However, after the system allotted all its IRQs, I couldn't get my SCSI and Ethernet PC Card boards to work while the video was running.

I really like the fact that the Tecra 780CDM lets you have the 3.5" disk drive plugged in and the CD-ROM drive on board at the same time. I'd prefer for Toshiba to integrate both drives into the system, or better still, include an onboard CD-Rewritable (CD-RW) drive and eliminate the disk drive. I didn't like this system's keyboard layout. Toshiba left everything on the keyboard standard, except that it moved the Windows key to the upper-right corner of the keyboard. This change takes some getting used to.

All in all, this system is a solid performer. I took it to a recent MCSE training class, and it performed flawlessly. I repeatedly subjected the Tecra 780CDM to a turbulence simulation by strapping it to my bicycle's padded rear carrier and riding down washboard dirt roads. This rough treatment didn't affect the computer's performance.

The Tecra 780CDM isn't exactly the laptop of my dreams; I prefer thinner machines. But I definitely like the system's integrated video camera. In fact, I like it so much that Toshiba isn't getting this system back; the Windows NT Magazine Lab is acquiring it. You can be confident that this system is good, because the Lab never purchases equipment without reason.

Tecra 780CDM
Contact: Toshiba * 888-598-7802
Web: http://computers.toshiba.com
Price: $3999
System Configuration: 266MHz mobile Pentium II processor, 512KB of Level 2 cache, 5GB hard disk, Integrated 56Kbps modem with cellular support, 13.3" Thin Film Transistor display, Integrated video camera, 20X CD-ROM drive, 64MB Enhanced Data Output DRAM