Toybox: Toshiba notebook protects itself with faces

Unfortunately, the technology fails as often as it succeeds

It's not just fingerprints — the shape of your face is also unique. Toshiba's Face Recognition software, which is a standard feature on the new Satellite U400 laptop, attempts to replace passwords and finger swipes with identification gleaned from images of you smiling at the webcam.

Unfortunately, the technology fails as often as it succeeds.

The key to face recognition is the U400’s 1.3-megapixel web camera, which can capture the nuances of your face in enough detail to record its characteristics on a database.

To get started, you'll need to run the pre-installed Face Recognition software and "register your face". Just as with fingerprint scanners, getting the computer to accept your face can be frustrating.

With the camera watching, you'll need to roll your head from 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.

After your face has been registered, you click on Select User, rather than typing in your password. The program scans your face and compares it with the system's database image of your features.

I used the program as the primary means of starting up the machine for two weeks. It never let in the wrong face (I tried it with four other people), but it also recognised me only about 50% of the time on the first try. Sometimes it didn’t recognise me at all, so I had 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 lots of things lower the recognition rate. Heavy backlighting, wearing glasses or not looking directly at the camera all confuse the program. The software also lacks a detailed manual, so other than a brief online help section you're on your own when it comes to discovering what works.

Although the software is something of a rough diamond it has potential, but currently it's not worth the hassle. The rest of the system is a polished gem. Sleek and only an inch thick, the Satellite Pro U400 has a sophisticated case in Toshiba's new Fusion design (black and silver, with stripes on the lid).

Then there are the little things: LED accent lights in several places, media controls above the keyboard and a convenient thumbwheel volume control. And its new touchpad is great, it's nearly flush with the wrist rest and its texture helps with accuracy.

However, the proof of a notebook lies in road use. I used the machine in the office, on trains and in cafes. It started up quickly and proved a reliable travel companion. It comes with all the basic ports: FireWire, external monitor and three USBs. On the downside, the left side of the unit gets hot.

The U400 comes with Windows Vista Home but also has a good assortment of installed software, including Microsoft Works, programs for editing movies, software for controlling the notebook with vocal commands, and a great set of utilities and games. However, battery life is a mediocre two hours and 20 minutes — I suggest adding the nine-cell high-capacity battery.

Price: NZ$2,499 (GST included).

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