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Toshiba Portege R500-S500 review: Toshiba Portege R500-S500

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Perhaps the laptop we've been most looking forward to checking out this year, Toshiba's Portege R500 is very close to the final word in ultraportable systems. Incredibly thin and light, it manages to squeeze a 12-inch display into a package even lighter than Sony's 11-inch VAIO TZ150.

7.9

Toshiba Portege R500-S500

Pricing Not Available

The Good

Extremely thin and light; excellent battery life; includes optical drive.

The Bad

No mobile broadband; optional solid state hard drive drives up price; limited configuration options.

The Bottom Line

Toshiba's much-anticipated Portege R500 may be the best ultraportable laptop available right now, but mobile broadband is conspicuously absent.

While there have been some less expensive ultraportables we've liked recently (such as the Averatec 1579), both the R500 and VAIO TZ are premium products, with configurations ranging from $2,000 to 3,000, thanks to high-end options, including solid state hard drives. While the VAIO and the R500 have similar prices and features, there are trade-offs. We were disappointed by the lack of mobile broadband in our R500, but we also found it offered better performance than the VAIO (largely Sony's fault for packing their system with enough bloatware to slow it to a crawl).

In the end, the battle between these two high-profile ultraportable laptops is close enough to call it a draw, with Sony getting points for battery life, mobile broadband, and overall size, and the Toshiba Portege R500 winning in performance and weight.

We got our first glimpse at the R500 a few months ago, at a furtive restaurant meeting, where Toshiba's reps insisted on sitting at a backroom table, so no one could spy the R500 prototype they carried. Cast in a matte silver, with an ultrathin LED backlit display, the R500 is impressively small, especially for a system with a built-in optical drive. Its footprint is slightly larger than the VAIO TZ150, the recently released Sony laptop the R500 will inevitably be most closely compared to, but the larger Toshiba is actually lighter by a few ounces.

The R500 manages to fit in a decent-sized keyboard which made for comfortable typing, and even avoids the annoying ultraportable trap of eliminating important keys, squeezing in separate page-up and page-down keys (always important for laptop Web surfing). A fingerprint reader sits between the two mouse buttons, but unlike the VAIO TZ, there's no Webcam. Aside from brightness mode button and a button for launching Toshiba's proprietary help utility, there are no quick-launch or media controls on the keyboard tray.

The 12.1-inch display has a native resolution of 1,280x800, lower than that of the smaller VAIO TZ screen, but we think its just right for a laptop this size. Anything higher, and text and icons become hard to see without going through the hassle of zooming in or changing the resolution (laptop screens should always be run at their native resolution for best image quality). The R500 had a matte screen, which we generally prefer, but the antiglare coating made for terrible off-angle viewing.

With a laptop this small, there are inevitably concessions to be made in terms of ports and connectivity. In this case, we were disappointed to see only an SD card slot, instead of the multifunction card readers found in most laptops. But our main complaint was the lack of a mobile broadband antenna, or even the option for adding one. You'll have to find a PC Card antenna from your mobile provider in order to add this functionality aftermarket, as EV-DO is rapidly becoming a must-have for mobile professionals. Toshiba is planning updated versions of the R500, which will no doubt include this missing feature.

The Toshiba Portege R500 is available in four different fixed-configuration models. The main differences from our $2,149 R500-S5002 were Windows XP in the R500-S5001X ($1,999), and SSD hard drives in the R500-S5003 ($2,699) and R500-S5003 ($2,999) models. While we love the idea of solid state hard drives--less heat, no moving parts, low failure rate--they are still too expensive to be taken seriously, adding $550 for swapping in a 64GB SSD drive. But next to LED backlit displays, the move to solid state hard drives is clearly the next big thing in laptop development.

Intel's line of ultralow-voltage Core 2 Duo CPUs are designed to work in small laptops where heat and battery life are key concerns. Therefore, they're not the speediest processors available, and laptop users can experience slowdown and stuttering even under the best of circumstances. The Core 2 Duo U7600 is a step above the U7500 in the Sony VAIO TZ150, and soundly bested the VAIO in each of our benchmarks. In particular, start-up time, interminable on the VAIO TZ, was much better on the R500 (note that the VAIO was bogged down with a ton of bloatware and anecdotally ran much smoother when we cleaned it up).

In hands-on testing, we had a largely smooth experience with the R500, but we did run into more occasional slowdown and stuttering (especially when running multiple applications) than you would find in a laptop with the faster, more power-hungry T7000 series of Intel Core 2 Duo CPUs. Our only major performance issue with the R500 was a slightly wonky Wi-Fi card, which seemed to cut in and out randomly. We're going to test a second unit's Wi-Fi capabilities and will update this review with the results.

A tiny ultraportable laptop lives or dies based on battery life. After all, there's no point to carrying one of these systems around all day if you have to bring an A/C adaptor with you everywhere. The Portege R500's battery was especially impressive, lasting three hours and 48 minutes on our DVD battery drain test. That's second only to the Sony VAIO TZ (by about 20 minutes) out of recent ultraportable laptops. Our DVD battery drain test is especially intense, so you can expect closer to five hours from casual use, which should be enough for all but the most demanding users. We'll take long battery life over a slight performance bump any day of the week.

Toshiba includes a three-year standard warranty with the R500, as we would expect for a premium-priced system like this, but it's only mail-in service. On-site will cost an extra $152 for the three-year term. The tech support toll-free phone line is open 24-7, and the Web site offers all the standard driver downloads and manuals.

Adobe Photoshop CS3 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Toshiba Portege R500
547 

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Toshiba Portege R500
347 

DVD battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Toshiba Portege R500
228 

Find out more about how we test laptops.

System configurations:

Toshiba Portege R500
Windows Vista Business Edition; 1.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo Ultra Low Voltage U7600; 1024MB DDR2 SDRAM 533MHz; 128MB Mobile Intel 945GM Express; 120GB Toshiba 5,400rpm

HP Compaq 2510p
Windows Vista Business Edition; 1.2GHz Intel Core Duo Ultra Low Voltage U2500; 2,048MB DDR2 SDRAM 533MHz; 128MB Mobile Intel 965GM Express; 80GB Toshiba 4,200rpm

Averatec 1579
Windows Vista Home Premium Edition; 1.06GHz Intel Core Duo Ultra Low Voltage U2400; 1,024MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; 256MB Intel Mobile Express 945GM; 120GB Fujitsu 5,400rpm

Sony Vaio TZ150N/B
Windows Vista Business Edition; 1.06GHz Intel Core 2 Duo Ultra Low Voltage U7500; 1024MB DDR2 SDRAM 533MHz; 64MB Mobile Intel 945GM Express; 100GB Toshiba 4,200rpm

Averatec 2371
Windows Vista Home Premium Edition; 1.6GHz AMD Turion 64 X2 TL-52; 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 667MHz; 64MB Nvidia GeForce Go 6100; 120GB Fujitsu 5,400rpm

7.9

Toshiba Portege R500-S500

Pricing Not Available

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 7Battery 8Support 7