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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Toshiba Satellite L50-B-1DV review: slim and light budget laptop offers decent performance

When we first reviewed one of Toshiba's L50 laptops last year suggested the company should "cut the price by £100 and it'd be a good budget offering". And indeed this year's recommended retail price has been lowered. In actual fact the price cut on this year's model is closer to £130, which means that it now ought to make a very decent budget laptop.

This year's model is slimmer and lighter, as it no longer includes an internal DVD drive. The 15-inch display chassis has slimmed down from 29 to 23.5 mm thick, while the weight has dropped from 2.5 to just 2.2 kg. (See also: 20 best budget laptops of 2014.)

It's one of the slimmest and lightest 15-inch laptops we've seen recently, and far more portable than most budget Windows laptops.

Its build quality is unexceptional, as the casing – which is available in a variety of colours – has a distinctly plasticky feel to it. It seems reasonably sturdy and we wouldn't worry about it taking the occasional bump in a backpack.

There's flex in the keyboard panel, but the keys themselves feel firm and responsive and we felt comfortable enough typing up some notes on the Toshiba L50 during our test period. We were also pleased to see a gigabit ethernet port available on the left-hand edge for wired networks.

But while the external design has been updated the main components inside the L50 haven't changed much since last year.

Prices for the Toshiba L50 range start as low as £319 for model with ye olde Intel Pentium processor, or £399 with a newer Haswell-generation Intel Core i3. We tested one of the mid-range models that costs £519 with a Core i5 running at 1.6 GHz with a healthy 8 GB of memory and 1 TB hard drive. (See all budget laptops reviews.)

There's also an Intel Core i7 model available for £619, while £649 will get you an AMD Radeon R7 M260 graphics card thrown in as well.

The specification of our review unit was in essence unchanged from last year, and the 15.6-inch screen has the same low 1366 x 768 resolution. That's slightly more forgiveable at this new lower price, and while the viewing angles are still limited – around 120-degrees both vertically and horizontally – the image is bright and colourful enough for web browsing and streaming video.

The speakers are described as 'Skullcandy certified'. We found them quite loud and with a reasonably solid bass sound, although higher frequencies still have a tinny timbre to them. (See also: What's the best laptop you can buy in 2014?)

Given the similarity in the basic specification we were a little surprised to find that the measured lab performance of this model wasn't as good as that of its predecessor.

The updated L50 managed only 2500 points in the general-purpose PCMark 7 benchtests, compared to 2850 points for the model we tested last year – and that's despite both having the exact same CPU, memory quota and hard disk capacity.

The Home and Work suites in PCMark 8 were equally modest at 2150 and 2370 points respectively. We suspect the hard drive is the culprit here, acting as a severe bottleneck in our benchmark tests.

You certainly notice the sluggish hard drive when turning the laptop on. Even when using the Windows 8 fast-start option the L50 takes a good 35 seconds to boot into the Start screen, followed by about 15 seconds of cursor-spinning before it's really ready to start launching applications and get down to work.

Even so, those performance scores are still above average for a laptop in this price range, and once it's caught its breath the L50 is perfectly capable of handling web browsing and routine tasks like running Microsoft Office. The 8 GB of memory is also good for a budget laptop, and means that the L50 can handle the occasional spot of photo- or video-editing when required.

Gaming is probably out, though, as even at 1280 x 720 resolution the Toshiba L50 could only manage 23 fps in our casual gaming test with Stalker: Call Of Pripyat.

Battery life was also disappointing. Last year's touchscreen model gave us just over 5 hours of streaming video on the BBC iPlayer, but this new model surprised us by shutting itself down after just 4 hours and 15 minutes. And that's with a battery that's swelled from 42 to 53 Wh capacity, and no battery-draining touchscreen. See all mid-range laptop reviews.

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