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It's not generally good form to start a review with a complaint, but if an example of the excesses of glossy black plastic was ever needed then Toshiba's current range of consumer notebooks would be the perfect fit. We thought Samsung was keen on the stuff, but Toshiba just takes the biscuit. A glossy lid we can deal with, likewise a glossy screen, and we can even tolerate glossy interiors, such as those found on the Samsung Q310, within reason, but glossy keyboards? It's just a step too far.
Happily, while we have some reservations with Toshiba's choice of materials, the U400-189 highlights that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover alone. A 13.3in machine, the U400 is the portable all-rounder of Toshiba's range, matching Core 2 Duo processors and decent feature sets with a 2kg chassis that can plausibly be carried around without breaking your back. In this sense, it's similar to the Samsung Q310, Dell XPS M1330, Dell Studio XPS 13 and the outstanding Sony VAIO Z Series, though unlike the latter three, the U400 costs a fairly affordable £670 online, so it's really competing against the Samsung Q310 and notionally the HP Pavilion dv2 as well. Hell, some people might even consider a netbook, like the Samsung NC10 or Toshiba's upcoming NB200 as a comparison, though it's not a view we'd encourage.
Despite the above complaints, for the large part the U400 is a nicely designed machine. Its glossy black (or navy blue depending on the light) lid is a definite improvement upon the pinstripe effort found on the Satellite A300-177 last year, while we've come to rather like the black and silver striped interior - grease and fingerprints accepted.
Particularly neat, though, is the backlighting dotted around the touchpad, the 'Satellite' logo in the bottom left, the status icons to the right and the touch-sensitive media keys above the keyboard. These are all smart additions, as are the labels denoting the location of ports at the sides and the speaker grills, which are rather less obtrusive than those found on Toshiba's larger notebooks, like the Satellite A350-11N.
It's just that glossy keyboard that's the sticking point. It's not just that it's glossy, though: it gleams. It constantly reflects light from above, which can prove very distracting, while the obvious issue of grease, fingerprints and dust can't be ignored. Indeed, when you look at it, you rather imagine it's been dipped in a large vat of lip-gloss and that, like a Hollywood star whose face has been subject to a little too much 'enhancing', were it to face direct sunlight, it might just melt away. This isn't to say it would, it almost certainly wouldn't, but that's the impression it gives.
Directly underneath the keyboard, however, the U400-189 hides away a very comprehensive specification. This includes a nippy, rather than rapid, Intel Core 2 Duo T6400 processor, which runs at 2.0GHz with an 800MHz FSB and 2MB L2 Cache. It's one of the older variants of the mobile Core 2 Duo, with a 35W TDP rather than 25W, but it more than holds its own. This is matched with a plentiful 4GB DDR2 RAM (though only 3.5GB can be addressed by the 32-bit OS) and a 320GB hard drive, so you're not left wanting for system memory or storage capacity.