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Hands-on with the Toshiba Portege R705

The new Toshiba Portege R705 offers a great mix of price, design, features, and performance.

Sarah Tew/CNET

We know that the quest for the perfect laptop is ultimately fruitless. Different users have different needs, budgets, and expectations, and tomorrow's technology threatens to make any just-purchased laptop semi-obsolete before it even comes out of its cardboard box. That said, the new Toshiba Portege R705 comes about as close as anything we've seen this year, offering a great mix of price, design, features, and performance.

The Portege R705 is a 13-inch laptop (similar to Apple's MacBook), which is the biggest screen size we'd consider carrying around on a regular basis, but also the smallest we'd be able to comfortably use for full-time computing. It's thinner than the current white plastic MacBook (but not as svelte as the MacBook Air or Dell Adamo XPS), and has a sturdy magnesium alloy chassis.

Toshiba lists the Portege R705 for $889, but as of this writing, it can be found online for $799. A handful of business-oriented configs are also available (called the R700, instead of the R705), adding a docking port and a few other corporate-friendly features for $999 and up.

For $100-$200 less than an entry-level MacBook, you get a newer Intel Core i3 processor (the basic MacBook has an older Core 2 Duo CPU), a large 500GB hard drive, and Intel's Wireless Display technology, which allows the laptop's display to be beamed to a remote TV or monitor (this requires a sold-separately $100 Netgear adapter that connects to your TV). Not to draw too many MacBook comparisons, but it also has an SD card slot (as does virtually every Windows-based laptop no matter the price), something the $999 MacBook lacks.

Sarah Tew/CNET

There are a few issues. The integrated Intel graphics are a drag, and the keyboard isn't backlit, which would have been a nice touch on this slick-looking system. Also, out of the box, the hard drive accelerometer was far too sensitive, parking our HDD head every time we so much as breathed on the R705.

Those problems aside, the Portege R705 looks and feels like a much more expensive laptop, and is our new go-to choice for those who want a 13-inch experience but can't (or won't) join the MacBook masses.

The brushed metal magnesium alloy chassis feels sturdy, despite its thinness (and the front lip tapers, making it look even thinner). The Portege is a cousin of one of our favorite laptops of all time, the 12-inch Portege R500. That $1,500 (or more) system suffered from too much flex in its body and lid, which is not the case here. The back of the lid on this consumer model has a subtle dark blue tint to it, as opposed to the solid black on the business-targeted variant.

The only visual element on the R705 we really disliked was the overly chromed screen hinges, which would look more at home as rims on a tricked-out car than on a sophisticated laptop.

The keyboard uses flat, widely spaced island-style keys. While perfectly usable, the keys are noticeably more rectangular than most, as if they were shortened to save space. Typing is also a little on the clacky side, but not so much as to be a dealbreaker. We do appreciate the large dedicated page-up, page-down, home, and end keys along the right side--they're usually relegated to alternate function keys on most laptops. Our biggest complaint is that the keyboard is not backlit. We've seen that feature on other Toshiba laptops in this price range, and it's always an appreciated extra.

It's not as large as on a MacBook, but the R705's touch pad is among the bigger ones we've seen on a 13-inch laptop. Multitouch gestures include two-finger scrolling, but as always seems to be the case, it's nowhere as smooth and responsive as on a MacBook. The left and right mouse buttons are well sized and easy to use--something many PC makers seem to have trouble with.

Toshiba also includes a couple of custom software utilities with the system. ReelTime is a kind of history browser, displaying every recent document and Web page in thumbnail form along the bottom of the screen. It's surprisingly slick and usable, although it's not really a necessity. There's also a Toshiba Bulletin Board app, which lets you compile photos and notes in a single workspace. It's also slick-looking, but we're always dubious of learning a whole new software tool that only works on one brand of laptop.

The 13.3-inch LED display has a native resolution of 1,366x768--roughly comparable with the MacBook's 1,280x800, and the current standard for most laptops from 13-15 inches. While not exactly matte, the screen was much less glossy than we're used to seeing from a consumer laptop. The stereo speakers were tinny and not great for music, but not out of bounds for a laptop this size.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The inclusion of a combo USB/eSATA port, plus HDMI and an SD card slot, give the Portege R705 a big advantage over the MacBook in terms of ports and connections. Even though the system has an Intel Wireless Display transmitter built in (see our hands-on demo here for more details on this very interesting technology), it's a shame the R705 does not come bundled with the Netgear adapter required to wirelessly beam video to your television. The first round of Wireless Display laptops from earlier in 2010 all included the adapter (which sells for $100).

With a 2.26GHz Intel Core i3 CPU, the Toshiba R705 is more than speedy enough for mainstream use, from Web surfing and productivity to Photoshop editing and HD video playback. The next step up, the Core i5 series of processors, offers even better performance, but we haven't seen that chip in a system this thin. Performance-wise, it certainly matches up with other current 13-inch laptops, but keep in mind that you can also get much more horsepower in the same price range by trading up to a midsize 14- or 15-inch laptop with an Intel Core i5 or Core i7 processor.

The biggest shortfall of the R705 is that it's saddled with basic Intel integrated graphics. The 13-inch MacBook, for example, has a lower-end, but still very impressive GPU from Nvidia, which is good for mainstream gaming. The integrated graphics and Core i3 CPU are fine for playing streaming HD video, but not for anything beyond the most basic games. If you're particularly interested in PC gaming, we'd try the OnLive streaming game platform, which lets you play even top-shelf PC games on virtually any laptop. Check out our detailed hands-on demo of OnLive here.

We're currently benchmarking the Toshiba Portege R705 in the CNET Labs, so stay tuned for a full review with benchmark and battery life scores.