Toshiba Satellite M645-S4118X

If you're looking for svelte, sexy design, then Toshiba's $1100, 5.5-pound Satellite M645-S4118X may not be your cup of tea. If you're looking for excellent all-purpose performance, playable gaming frame rates, top-notch sound and video--including Blu-ray--then it's Earl Gray with a vengeance.

Pedestrian in appearance (if not in price), there's still plenty of power under the M645-S4118X's hood: 6GB of memory feeding an Intel -2410M CPU, a GeForce GT 525M with 1GB of dedicated memory, and a 5400 RPM, 640GB hard drive. The unit racked up a score of 117 on WorldBench 6, which is good but not category-leading. Gaming frame rates are reasonable, thanks to the Nvidia graphics card, but really high-end game will have to sacrifice some detail to get playable frame rates. Video playback on the 1366 by 768 display, including 1080p Blu-ray, is ultra-smooth. Even the sound emanating through the Harman/Kardon speakers is above average.

Ports are mostly standard fare for a system this size: a single always-powered USB 3.0 port, two USB 2.0 ports, headphone and microphone jacks, VGA, HDMI, Ethernet, and a Kensington lock port. There's no eSATA, possibly because the BD-ROM/DVD burner doesn't leave much room for it, but USB 3.0 largely obviates the need for it. Oddly though, outside of Bluetooth, the connectivity is over the hill--there's no 5GHz wireless, only 2.4GHz 802.11b/g/n, and the Ethernet is only 10/100.

The M645-S4118X's ergonomics are above average. The portion of the top deck housing the keyboard is lowered, which puts your fingers in exactly the correct position for comfortable typing on the medium-throw, Chiclet style keyboard. The keyboards feel is a tad soft, but there's more than enough tactile and aural feedback to create a nice typing rhythm and the layout is excellent. It's backlit, but you may turn that off in the BIOS if you wish.

The touchpad is very responsive, but the buttons are a tad stiff. There's a switch just above the touchpad that turns it on and off should you find yourself accidentally moving the cursor with the balls of your thumbs--a problem I've experienced on other laptops, but not on the Satellite M645-S4118X.

There's a sparse but competent bundle of software onboard the M645-S4118X: WinDVD for movie playback chores, the Toshiba WebCam utility (you'll want to close this during movie playback), Microsoft Office 2010 Starter, and a trial of Norton Internet Security. There are also numerous Toshiba utilities, many of them background applications, including online backup and the shock sensor. Many are not as useful. After trimming the fat, and replacing NIS with Microsoft's Security Essentials, a fast-feeling laptop felt even faster.