Toshiba Qosmio G50: Cell processor inside

To say we were a little bit excited about playing with the Toshiba G50 is like saying a weekend in Vegas can be a little bit of fun. It’s not often that a laptop swaggers through the doors of the APC Labs with a brand new processor tucked inside especially when that chip is usually found buried deep inside a kiddies gaming console. With its Cell processor promising to deliver a HD video revolution from the comfort of our crotches we had high hopes for the G50. Yet we remembered feeling the same enthusiasm about its Cell-powered brethren the PS3. And we all know how that story has played out. Would the G50 be a similar SPE- powered setback?

Taking this brutish laptop out of its box revealed a machine which makes no qualms about the fact that it’s designed to stay in one place for extended periods of time. It’s a true multimedia laptop and has the billboard sized screen to prove it. At 18.4in across we confess that this is the largest laptop screen we’ve ever seen. With a stunningly crisp 1980 x 1020 resolution it’s begging to play your High Def movies until the wee hours of the morning. Watching a variety of DVDs proved that it’s an exceptionally high quality screen with a wide viewing angle making it suitable for a small crowd. Due to this massive screen the entire case is gargantuan in its proportions and weighs slightly less than a small child at 5kg. A lithe road warrior the G50 is not even though Mad Max looks so damn good on that big screen…

The three Harman/Kardon speakers – with puny sub built in – pump out exceptional sound quality for a laptop. Sadly they still pale into comparison when played next to a $50 pair of standalone stereo speakers let alone a decent 5.1 theatre setup. Luckily the G50 has SP/DIF out (though not optical) allowing you to make use of your home theatre speakers if you can find the obscure cable necessary.

For movie viewers so far so good. But wait there’s more – that Cell processor hasn’t been included as a keyboard controller ya know. It’s a four SPE variant (unlike the PS3’s eight SPEs) hence Toshiba billing this as a quad-cored laptop. In case you forget that these four SPEs are throbbing away under the hood there’s even a small utility on the desktop which graphically displays the load on each of the four processors. It’s a good thing this software is included because the sad truth is that without it you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between this and a non-Cell equipped multimedia laptop.

The first benefit is supposedly higher image quality when playing a HD signal. Unfortunately this is exceedingly difficult to prove because in its infinite wisdom Toshiba has not included a Blu-ray drive. This decision is without doubt a hangover of Toshiba’s once proud allegiance to HD-DVD technology and is thus understandable. Yet it’s no less of a major kick in the pants for this machine. How dare the G50 claim to be a HD powerhouse when it lacks the one true format of HD movie playback? Using the integrated digital TV tuner didn’t prove the Cell’s case either with the TV signal looking no better (or worse) than other HD tuners we’ve seen on non-Cell powered machines.

The only other way to test the power of the Cell processor is when mastering DVDs using the Ulead MovieFactory included on the laptop. Unfortunately we don’t have this software to use on our other Cell-less laptops so a direct comparison is impossible. However our favourite benchmarking software PC Mark Vantage does have a section devoted to Movie and TV performance. Like nearly every other piece of software in the real world this is not optimised for the G50’s Cell processor… and it shows. To our disappointment the G50 scored one of the lowest PC Mark TV & Movies scores we’ve seen at 2165. We’re quite surprised that it performed so poorly considering the other components within the case aren’t too shabby. The Core2 Duo T9400 ticking over at 2.53GHz is a respectable processor while the NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT should be more than capable of handling movie duties. Just don’t expect to be playing games released post 2005 on this game-lite GPU. Alongside the CPU and GPU is a hefty amount of memory and storage; 4GB of DDR2 and 640GB of 5400RPM HD to be exact. Yes we wish it had 7200RPM drives as well especially if you’re going to be doing extensive video editing.

So far the Cell processor hasn’t really impressed… a similar story that has been played out by the PS3. But there’s one ace up its multi-cored sleeve yet; gesture control. Harnessing the infinite power of the Cell processor with the razor sharp resolution of the built in webcam Toshiba has built a laptop that can read your commands with a wave of the hand or a flick of your finger. Well that’s what the marketing fluff says. In reality gesture control relies on a uniform background even lighting and a light north easterly breeze blowing at no more than three miles per hour. In other words it’s infuriating to get consistent results so use a mouse or the included remote.

Yet despite our misgivings with the Cell processor there’s still a lot to love about the G50. Considering the massive screen real estate it’s pretty good value. The case is gorgeous and rugged and the speakers actually do a decent job. Even the inclusion of something as simple as IceTV (an Aussie EPG which we’re big fans of) makes us realise that Toshiba is on to something with this theatre PC. And then we remember Toshiba’s stupid decision not to include a Blu-ray drive and we shake our heads in dismay wracked with the pain of what could have been. If and when a Blu-ray equipped version arrives the G50 will be a beast to reckoned with… but until then there are more capable HD multimedia notebooks on the market.