Review: Satellite Pro notebook protects itself with faces instead of fingerprints

Review: Satellite Pro 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's Face Recognition software (which is available as a standard feature on the Satellite Pro 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 Pro 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.

The key to face recognition is the Satellite Pro 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 Pro 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 Pro 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 per cent 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.

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 Pro 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.

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