Infinite fun

Toshiba's American foray into the home desktop market has raised the stakes as well as some eyebrows


"The Toshiba Infinia 7200 is a bold stroke in terms of design and functionality, and it is sure to be looked back on as a pace setter in home PCs." Not exactly the sort of praise you'd expect for a first product in one of the most competitive personal computer markets in the world. Nevertheless that's what PC Magazine in America said about Toshiba's first desktop offering for the home market. More to the point it was Toshiba's first new desktop PC offering anywhere outside of Japan for over eight years!
That same edition of PC Magazine also looked at IBM, Sony and HP home models and had some nice things to say about each, but the magazine chose the Infinia desktop as the "Editor's Choice" - one of the highest accolades in American personal computing. If Toshiba designers and engineers were flattered by this, it is understandable. In a market as competitive as desktop PCs, not many commentators would have put money on Toshiba leading the pack when the company announced it's return to desktop computing in the summer of 1996.

The future was mobile

Toshiba abandoned desktop computing in 1988, when it proudly announced that the "future is mobile" - a standpoint that Visions has documented over the last seven years. Indeed at the time it seemed only logical. The mobile PC market was growing at rates far in excess of desktops and taking an ever increasing share of the total. Mobile technologies created revolutions in working practices, for instance by allowing you to take a mobile PC home with you. Home computers were unheard of. The word multimedia had not been coined, the Internet didn't exist, and modems managed a breathtaking 2400 bits per second.

Nobody could foresee the great developments ahead. Yet the technological chains on the desktop market have been shattered by the revolution in communications and multimedia. As connectivity has become ubiquitous and the worlds of television, video, sound and telecommunications have rapidly merged with the PC, it was only a question of time before a home PC would successfully combine them all. PC Magazine reckoned that such a machine should be "part-teacher, part-entertainer and above all a member of the family…" and "… the Toshiba Infinia comes closest to this ideal."

Personally InTouchTM

From the very beginning the Infinia design was conceived with home use in mind. These are not business models adapted to home use. The colour of the casing, the curves and the highlighting immediately remind users of their TVs and video recorders. The InTouch module is designed with buttons and controls that are familiar from fax and answering machines, as well as the radio, TV, stereo and video. This is no coincidence because it is exactly these functions which are integrated within the personal computer via this unique interface.

InTouchTM and the optional InTouch Remote module are the user's personal interface to his digital entertainment and educational world. Whether checking for telephone messages, making a call, playing a favourite CD or tuning in to TV and FM radio, everything can be done with one-touch access. InTouch also tells you how many messages are waiting and which station you are tuned to. Finally, adjusting volume with InTouch is a synch- no modern digital design, just a simple, old-fashioned volume knob to turn.

Most importantly, InTouch controls the Instant On functionality which makes an Infinia so much like other household electronics. This new standard, developed jointly between Toshiba, Intel and Microsoft, will be part of the industry-wide PC97 specification. All home models will have to meet this to get the acclaimed "Designed for Windows 95" logo.

Instant PC

Instant On means that any functionality of the PC can be activated within a second of start up - removing once and for all tedious boot routines. It is no co-incidence that Toshiba's notebooks have enjoyed something remarkably similar called Resume mode since 1988.

Where the InTouch module also comes out tops is its position. Unlike many others it is not on the PC box, which often stands on the floor or sits under the table. Instead it is on the screen, immediately in front of every user. The LED or LCD display (depending on model) indicates at a glance the status of the PC.

The InTouch Remote control allows you to do all of the above from anywhere in the room, just as you do with your stereo, video and TV. More innovatively it also functions as a wireless mouse when you get down to some real computing or digital entertainment.

Toshiba's multimedia advantages

Toshiba's leap into the home multimedia PC market wasn't quite such a surprise for some industry watchers. In 1994 Toshiba Corporation founded a multimedia division to look at the opportunities offered by the coming merger between personal computing, telecommunications and home entertainment.

One of the first dividends of this work was Toshiba's leading involvement in the DVD consortium. Now Toshiba holds around 80% of the patents associated with the DVD standard. From the word go, the DVD standard bore the hallmarks of Toshiba's multimedia involvement. Time Warner, 6.25% of which is owned by Toshiba, was the leading Hollywood proponent of DVD. This helped establish the new standard as a consumer vehicle for films, the ideal replacement for the worn-out VHS video standard. DVD was also clearly a long-term replacement for Toshiba's CD-ROM business.

Toshiba's own consumer divisions also had a role to play. The corporation's strengths in user- and home-friendly design, intuitive usage interfaces and knowledge of consumer market tastes give it an advantage over PC companies which have never experienced these fickle markets. The acclaim for InTouch module demonstrates this perfectly - even six months after it's launch. It's knowledge of consumer electronics ensured that their integration with digital computer technology was smooth and without problems.

At the same time Toshiba's mobile PC success had helped it understand the technologies needed to make multimedia and communications so easy to use. Innovations such as "InstantOn" were born of the constraints that battery life imposes on notebook PCs.

In Japan Toshiba is a leading supplier of a wide range of home equipment, Toshiba's design teams could draw on the experiences of this highly competitive market as plans for Infinia were drawn up. These were supplemented with US-based design work from Pentagram, the design house which worked successfully on Apple Macintosh and PowerBook styles.

Consumer face, PC inside

Technology freaks shouldn't however be disappointed by Infinia's emphasis on image and easy use. The technology inside is a match for the best on the market. A range of Pentium processors, matched by the best memory, video board and hard disks around compete head-to-head with all-comers.

But Toshiba is not content just to use the best of tried and trusted technology. The use of Universal Serial Bus, known simply as USB, is an example of the adoption a technology for the future. USB's major advantages over traditional expansion and connectivity methods are plug and play and so-called "daisy-chaining". This means that not every external device has to be directly connected to the PC. You can connect devices to each other in one long chain. For inexperienced PC users who just want to enjoy the benefits rather than learn the technology, USB is easy to use and trouble free, exactly the goals Toshiba set for all Infinia models.

MMXTM Infinia

On February 3rd Toshiba America took Infinia a step further, updating the top two Infinia models with the latest Intel Pentium Processors with MMX Technology. At the same time the CD-ROM drives were upgraded to 12-speed models and the modem was increased to a 33.6 Kbps version. A "1" was added to the number designations to indicate the new models.

For maximum multimedia amusement, a 16-bit SoundBlaster® Pro with SRS® 3D sound and speakers attached to optional Toshiba monitors creates the right atmosphere. The 64-bit S3 Inc. ViRGETM DX3D graphics accelerator with 2 MB of 40 ns EDO video memory ensures that the visuals match all expectations in whatever dimension.

All models are also DVD ready, with a DVD option available for the US market since the beginning of March 1997. There are enough slots for an optional MPEG decoder board as well, so that these home PCs can also function as a DVD player to match the TV and CD player functions.

PC, talk to me

In the Infinia range, the sound system and the phone functionality are standard on all models. The modem comes equipped with full duplex support and the software for the answer machine functionality is part of the package. Phone calls can be made hands free, dialling either via a screen console or using the numeric keypad on the keyboard. This makes the Infinia the communications centre of the house.

In the USA, software for various on-line services is also included as well as the two most popular browsers, Netscape Navigator and the Microsoft Internet Explorer. The modem is the key to all this functionality and it can also function as a fax machine, rounding off the communications package.

For advanced users Toshiba America now offers an InTouchTM Video Phone option using Intel's ProShareTM Technology. This software integrates with the optional Toshiba TV/FM Radio video capture card to offer a complete home video conferencing solution. It is even designed to work at the speeds that traditional analogue telephone lines offer. It includes an NTSC analogue colour camera to provide a 300,000-pixel resolution flicker-free picture which approximates a 640 x 480 video picture.

Toshiba inside and out

Like many desktop models nowadays Toshiba's Infinia range is based on motherboards of an Intel design. Unlike many desktops on the market, much of the rest actually comes from the company whose name is on the front. One of Toshiba's many advantages as a large electronics corporation (see box) is the wide range of components it produces itself. From CD-ROM drives, via memory chips, hard disk drives, DVD drives, monitors, circuit boards, ASICs and other controller chips, Toshiba Corporation has developed into a leading manufacturer and supplier to many computer companies world-wide.

In a highly competitive market, it is perhaps no surprise that Toshiba not only wants to sell the components but also the final product. Many of the components inside an Infinia are as Toshiba as the design on the outside. In contrast to the components, Toshiba will not be selling the design advantages to third parties. Although currently only available in the USA, Toshiba is researching the market requirements and particularly specific national needs for home PCs in many other parts of the world.

Bienvenu, Infinia

No European country currently has a home PC market comparable to the US one. Yet one of the main advantages of demonstrating these revolutionary home appliances at CeBIT in Germany was to test European reactions. Their multimedia and communications abilities make them ideal for the sophisticated and computer-literate US home market. As European markets develop during 1997, Infinia models will no doubt continue to be a major talking point.

The next few months will be decisive for the future of Infinia in Europe. As PC Magazine wrote: "the PC isn't just for business anymore… the PC is continuing to evolve into an all-in-one home computing, communications and entertainment centre… Toshiba's Infinia is the most highly evolved of this emerging species… and its abilities blur the line between PC and TV." It is generally recognised that Europe lags behind America in the adoption of new technologies. When Europe is ready, the Infinia will be waiting.

US Specifications at a glance
Specification/modelModel 7201 Model 7161Model 7130
Processor200 MHz Intel Pentium with MMXTM Technology 166 MHz Intel Pentium with MMXTM Technology 133 MHz Intel Pentium
Hard disk3.1 billion bytes (3.0 GB) 2.0 billion bytes (1.9 GB)1.6 billion bytes (1.5 GB)
CD-ROM12-speed 12-speed8-speed
InTouch moduleLCD version LED version
Memory32-128 MB EDO RAM 16-128 MB EDO RAM
Cache256 KB pipelined burst SRAM level 2 cache
Video2 MB 64-bit ViRGETM with 3D graphics acceleration
Sound system16-bit SoundBlaster Pro compatible with SRS 3D sound
O/SWindows 95
Slots/expansion3 x 32-bit PCI and 3 x 16-bit ISA + 2 x 5.25" bays and 1 x 3.5" bay
PortsPS/2 mouse, 2 x USB, microphone, MIDI/joystick, speaker out, line-in
Connectivity33.6 Kbps DSVD modem, speakerphone and digital answering machine software, internet browsers

All models come in mini-tower format with keyboard, mouse, floppy disk drive, Windows 95 and a range of home and education software titles for the US market. The TV/FM Radio board is standard only on the 7201 model.

The Toshiba Monitors are optional:
17-inch monitor15-inch monitor
16.23-inch viewable image13.78-inch viewable image
0.28 mm CRT dot pitch0.28 mm CRT dot pitch
30 KHz to 66 KHz autoscan multifrequency operation 30 KHz to 66 KHz autoscan multifrequency operation
5-watt/channel stereo speakers5-watt/channel stereo speakers
5-watt sub-woofer-
Front-mounted integrated microphoneFront-mounted integrated microphone
Headphone and ext. microphone jacksHeadphone and ext. microphone jacks
Energy-star and MPR II compliant Energy-star and MPR II compliant