Toshiba Portégé R500 slimline laptop
Not as sleek as the Air, but packs more features
Review Take this boy out of the box and the first thing you’re going to say — we guarantee it — is “strewth, that’s light”. We did. After years of carrying around small notebooks that were still big in weight, picking up this featherlight laptop was a real surprise.
OK, something as small as, say, the Asus Eee you expect not to weigh much, but a full-size machine? No way. Yet the R500 is a 12.1 in laptop with all the features you’d expect from any standard laptop, including a optical drive, built in and ready to use. Stitch that, MacBook Air…
Toshiba’s R500: light
The R500 is certainly a well-connected machine. There’s a Gigabit Ethernet port on the right side of the machine next to one of the laptop’s three USB ports — the other two are on the left side, where you’ll also find a four-pin Firewire connector, mic and headphone sockets, and a VGA port. Turn back to the right of machine if you want to use its SD card slot, DVD writer and, tucked underneath, the PC Card slot.
You’ll also find a switch on the right side for the R500’s wireless links: it has 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi — it’s a Centrino-branded laptop, so the wireless chippery is Intel’s — and Bluetooth on board.
The back of the R500 is pretty much all battery and it’s the R500’s thickest part. From there it slants gently to the front, where it finally curves quickly to a point. The contour’s symmetry is spoiled only by a bulge at the front, over on the left-hand side, that’s necessitated by some component that otherwise wouldn’t have fitted. The hard drive, probably.
The wrist-rest area is also home to the R500’s built-in microphone — it’s over to the far left, right where your wrist is likely to be if you’re typing and talking at the same time — and the touchpad with its chrome-effect selection buttons and, between them, fingerprint reader. Shining through the chrome: an array of coloured icons for power, wireless status and so on.
The keyboard is full size, but it’s rather spongy — indeed the whole wrist-rest area likewise lacks rigidity. But that, we guess, is a result of Toshiba’s bid to get the R500’s weight down to under 1 kg. Another is the thinness of the R500’s lid, but before we come on to that, we should just say that for all the springiness of the keyboard, we found it perfectly acceptable to type on.
The R500’s screen-housing lid is scarily flexible. It’s hinged only at the very left and right bottom corners, allowing you to bend in disturbingly far in the middle. How, you think, will this ever stand up to the rigours of life on the road? Actually, we can imagine it might work very well. It could give the screen the ability to absorb knocks and bumps that more rigid lids would send straight to the screen, with shattering effect.
Not as sleek as the Air, but packing more features
That’s certainly what Toshiba claims, but even we weren’t brave enough to put it to the test. What if the impact was slightly harder than Toshiba’s flexible tech is designed to take? The point is, you won’t want to be knocking your R500 around any more than you would another laptop.
Bending the screen causes the bevel to detach in the middle, which again might well help the R500 absorb blows, but does nothing for its perceived build quality.
Angling the screen back and forward by pushing and pulling it at the top is easy — the hinges provide just enough resistance to keep the screen where you want it without making it so hard to push that you risk damaging the thing or simply pivot the entire laptop on its rear feet.
The display itself has a resolution of 1280×800, and all the pixels are illuminated by LED. It’s driven by the Intel 945GMS chipset’s integrated GMA 950 engine, which explains the R500’s Windows Experience Index of just 2.0. Its 1.33GHz ultra-low voltage Core 2 Duo U7700 CPU and full 2GB complement of 667MHz DDR 2 memory contribute 4.5 and 4.2 points, respectively, while the 160GB hard drive — on our machine split into two 80GB partitions — scores 5.0.
But the overall Index is based on the lowest score, and that’s the graphics running Windows Vista Business’ Aero GUI. For gaming, the machine scores 2.8.
The screen’s image is nice and crisp, with better colour reproduction than a standard fluorescent tube-lit LCD. But even on maximum brightness, the R500’s panel seems a little dark when placed alongside a laptop with an old-style backlight. The viewing angle’s fine in the horizontal, but move the screen forward from its ideal position and the image quickly darkens to obscurity.
Sharp, bright LED-backlit display
Toshiba has neatly bordered the display with a dark bezel. It’s a pity it didn’t use the same hue for the rest of the machine. The R500 is kitted out in aluminium-look plastic, a colour scheme that, combined with the lack of rigidity, won’t help the machine convince prospective buyers that it’s well built. The skinny, lightweight DVD drive doesn’t either. Again, it lacks rigidity and feels like it would easily break if knocked.
But then the R500 isn’t a machine for folk who expect their laptops to take a few knocks on the way. The price reveals this to be an executive-class machine aimed at folk willing to pay for the benefits of a low-weight computer. It’s not for the shove-it-in-a-backpack-and-go brigade. Our test model, the R500-11Z is priced at £1149 before sales tax, so that’s £1350 in real money — only 150 quid more than an Air. The R500 family comprises seven members, priced from £1174 to £1761 inc VAT. To be fair, the pricey top-of-the-line model comes with a 64GB solid-state drive.
Toshiba quotes a MobileMark battery benchmark result of seven hours 30 minutes. That’s not what we got. Using the R500 for a variety of standard apps — browsing, email, instant messaging, photo editing and, for a short period, H.264 video playback — we got just over three-and-a-half hours out of a full charge.
We ran both PCMark05 and PCMark Vantage on the R500.
PCMark Vantage Results
Longer bars are better
For the PCMark05 tests, we referred back to our reviews of the Asus Eee PC and the Maxdata Belinea s.book 1, both similarly aimed at buyers seeking the acme in portability with the ability to run an operating system like Windows.
Longer bars are better
The Asus and the Maxdata failed to complete all the tests, thanks to their basic graphics sub-systems, but you can see the R500 outclasses them in every other respect too. Its GPU is nothing to write home about — it’s enough for Vista’s Aero UI, however, but clearly your not going to get the best experience running the latest 3D games on it. But its number crunching potential is clear, and that’s really what the cost above and beyond that of the other machines buys you.
Issues? The R500’s interior cooling system vents through four holes on the left side of the laptop, and it has a distinct hair-dryer quality. Crank up the machine, and the fans quickly start whirring loudly and blasting out hot air. So watch where you put your hands when you’re not typing.
The laptop itself gets warm, particularly on the left-hand side, but not uncomfortably so.
Very, very portable
So now we come to the killer question: the R500, the MacBook Air, the Eee PC — how do they match up? The comparison with the Eee is easy to address: the Asus machine’s £220 price tag means its in a very different class than the R500. We love the Eee, but it lacks the data storage capacity, processing power, big screen and optical storage that the R500 brings to the table. In its favour, the Eee has its compact size and low price tag. That makes it an excellent second computer, whereas the price of the R500 means you’re likely to want it to be your main machine.
Weight-wise, there’s barely anything in it.
As for the Air, well there’s no doubt the Apple machine looks smarter and feels better built than Toshiba’s, and has a bigger screen. But it’s heavier and has no optical drive, no Ethernet and fewer USB ports. The R500’s hard drive isn’t quick, but from what we’ve read of the Air, Toshiba’s HDD is the faster of the two.
Yes, the Air is a thing of beauty, but when it comes to getting the job done in the most portable way, the R500 beats it hands down. It’s more expensive, but you’re getting many more features for your money.
Toshiba’s Portege R500 is pricey and its construction doesn’t inspire confidence, but you simply can’t argue with how incredibly portable it is. Yes, you can buy cheaper full-size laptops. True, you can get yourself more powerful ones. But the R500 is about delivering a decent computing experience in a casing you can carry in your hand all day, which few other machine can. For us, that makes it a winner.