Review: Satellite notebook protects itself with faces instead of fingerprints

Toshiba's latest notebooks use face recognition for security -- but is the technology ready for prime time?

It's not just fingerprints -- the shape, contours and lines of your face are also as unique as you are. Toshiba Corp.'s Face Recognition software (which is available as a standard feature on the Satellite U400, M300, A300 and P300 models) attempts to replace tedious passwords and uncertain finger swipes with identification gleaned from images of you smiling at your computer's webcam.

Unfortunately, the technology ultimately fails as often as it succeeds.

I tried it with Toshiba's new Satellite U405-S2830, a 4.7-lb. (5.4 lb. with the AC adapter) notebook powered by a 2.1-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, a generous 3GB of system memory, a DVD multidrive, a 13.3-in.-wide screen and a 250GB hard drive.

Satellite Pro
Satellite U405-S2830

The key to face recognition is the Satellite U405's 1.3-megapixel Web camera, which can capture the nuances of the face with enough detail to record those characteristics in a database. Mounted on the top bezel of the display lid, the camera is at eye level for most users.

To get started, you'll need to run Toshiba's preinstalled Face Recognition software and "register your face." Just like fingerprint scanners, getting the computer to accept your face can be a frustrating ordeal.

With the camera watching, you'll need to roll your head side to side and up and down for a minute while it records your mug's nooks and crannies. It took me nine tries until the system got a fix on my features. When I was done, I felt like I had whiplash.

After your face has been registered, when you start up the Satellite U405, you click on Select User rather than typing in your password. The program scans your face and compares it to the system's database of your features.

I used the program as the primary means of starting up the Satellite U405 for two weeks of heavy use. It never let in the wrong face (I tried it with four other people, including my 14-year-old son and the UPS driver), but it also recognized me only about 50% of the time on the first try. In some cases, it never acknowledged that my face was in fact my face, leaving me no alternative but to type in my password.

It helps if you set the software to update its image of your face each time you successfully use it, but all kinds of things lower the recognition rate. Heavy backlighting, wearing glasses (or not wearing them) and not looking directly at the camera all confuse the program. The software lacks a detailed manual, so other than a brief online help section you're on your own to discover what works and what doesn't.

face recognition
To use Toshiba's facial recognition software, you first have to "register" your face.

If Toshiba's Face Recognition software is a diamond in the rough -- it has potential, but it's not yet worth the hassle -- the rest of the system is a polished gem. Sleek and only an inch thick, the Satellite U405 has a sophisticated case that uses Toshiba's new Fusion design (bBlack and silver with stripes on the lid).

With this system, it's the little things that count. There are LED accent lights in several places, media controls above the keyboard and a convenient thumbwheel volume control. The 19.3mm keys are just large enough to be comfortable, but the shiny surface is slippery and shows smudges. I really like Toshiba's new touchpad because it's nearly flush with the wrist rest, and its texture helps with accuracy.

The proof of any notebook is how well it works on the road. I used the Satellite U405 in the office, on commuter trains and in a variety of cafés and hotel lobbies. It starts up quickly, was a reliable travel companion and has all the basic ports: FireWire, external monitor and three USB. A big bonus is that you can set the power-conservation software so that the system can charge a USB device (like an iPod or a phone) while the machine is turned off. On the downside, the left side of the unit gets hot.

Toshiba outfits the system with Windows Vista Home, but makes up for it with a good assortment of installed software. The system comes with Microsoft Works, programs for editing movies, software for controlling the notebook with vocal commands, and a great set of utilities and games.

The Satellite U405 scored a 561 and 4,108 on the Passmark Performance and Futuremark PC Mark 05 benchmarks, well above the scores of notebooks with the same processor. The price for this performance is a mediocre 2 hours and 20 minutes of battery life. I suggest getting the nine-cell high-capacity battery, which should add an hour to its runtime, but costs an additional $150 and adds about 4 ounces to the weight.

Its facial recognition software may not be a pretty picture, but the $1,150 Satellite U405-S2830 is a powerful notebook at a great price.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon