When we first saw the Toshiba Portege R500 back in the summer of 2007, it quickly became one of our favorite ultraportable laptops--and one of our favorite laptops overall. Thanks to its small size, light weight, and plentiful extras, the R500 was very close to the final word in ultraportable systems. In the months since, very little has come our way to challenge the R500's lofty perch atop the ultraportable heap, though Apple's new MacBook Air comes close, offering a bigger screen, thinner chassis, and more powerful CPU, as well as an optional solid state hard drive.
Toshiba's SSD version of the R500 has been widely available only recently, and going toe-to-toe with the solid-state drive (SSD) version of the MacBook Air, it's a close matchup. Both systems offer expensive 64GB modules and omit the optical drive. (While both companies offer slim external drives, it should be noted that Toshiba also sells a version of the R500 with an internal optical drive). The Air is thinner and features a larger display, but the R500 keeps most of the ports and connections that go missing on the Air, and, more amazingly, manages to cut more than a pound off of the Air's weight, coming in at an astounding 1.7 pounds.
At $2,699, the SSD version of the Portege R500 is no bargain, especially considering its wimpy Intel ultra-low-voltage processor (the Air has a new, shrunk-down version of Intel's standard Core 2 Duo, which won't be available to other PC makers for months, at least). But, considering the SSD version of the MacBook Air comes in at $3,100, the R500 suddenly looks a lot more reasonable.
|Price as reviewed||$2,699|
|Processor||1.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo U7600|
|Memory||1GB, 667MHz DDR2|
|Hard drive||64GB solid-state drive|
|Graphics||Mobile Intel Express 950GM (integrated)|
|Operating System||Windows XP Pro|
|Dimensions (WDH)||11.0x8.5x1.0 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||12.1 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||1.7 / 2.4 pounds|
Cast in a matte silver, with an ultrathin LED backlit display, the R500 is still impressively tiny, even though the footprint is no smaller than the versions of the R500 that feature an optical drive. Both the screen and keyboard flex a bit under the slightest pressure, even though we know from experience that the magnesium-alloy chassis is sturdy enough for regular use and travel. At only 1.7 pounds, the R500 feels incredibly light--so much so that one colleague who picked it up asked if it was a dummy mockup for photos, rather than a fully functional computer.
The Toshiba Portege R500 manages to fit in a decent-size keyboard, which made for comfortable typing, and avoids the annoying ultraportable trap of eliminating important keys, squeezing in separate page-up and page-down keys (always important for laptop Web surfing). The 12.1-inch display has a native resolution of 1,280x800, the same as that of the MacBook Air and most other 15-inch or smaller laptops. The R500 had a matte screen, which we generally prefer, but the antiglare coating made for terrible off-angle viewing.
|Toshiba Portege R500||Average for category [ultraportable]|
|Audio||Headphone/microphone jacks||Headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||Three USB 2.0, mini-FireWire, SD card reader||Two USB 2.0, mini-FireWire, SD or multiformat memory card reader|
|Expansion||PC Card slot||Type I/II PC Card or ExpressCard|
|Networking||Modem, Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Modem, Ethernet, 802.11 a/b/g Wi-Fi, optional Bluetooth, optional WWAN|
|Optical drive||None||None, or DVD burner|
With a laptop this small, there are inevitably concessions to be made in terms of ports and connectivity. The older PC card slot is becoming increasingly irrelevant, and we would rather have seen an ExpressCard slot instead. The lack of mobile broadband was one of our key complaints about the original Portege R500. This feature is coming soon to Europe, via a 3G connection, but it's not available in the U.S. yet. Toshiba sells an external DVD burner for $269 (which seems a bit pricey), or the R500 is available with both the SSD drive and a built-in DVD burner for $2,999 (which would add to its weight).
Intel's line of ultra-low-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 TZ 150, and it soundly bested the VAIO in each of our benchmarks. But these chips can't compete with the custom version of the standard Core 2 Duo Intel designed specifically for the MacBook Air, which offered an all-around better, faster, and smoother computing experience. While not officially announced, we expect that MacBook Air's CPU to make its way into other brands later in 2008.
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 adapter with you everywhere. The Portege R500's battery was reasonably impressive, lasting 2 hours and 49 minutes on our video playback battery drain test. We didn't see much benefit in the battery department from either the ULV processor or the supposedly power-saving SSD hard drive.
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.