Toshiba can be relied upon to regularly update its laptop range, as the U500-178 we're looking at today proves. This is the company's latest take on a 13.3in laptop, following in the footsteps of the U400-189 we reviewed back in May. As ever there's plenty of competition in this particular segment of the market, most notably from the likes of the Samsung Q320, Dell Studio XPS M1340 and the Acer Aspire 3935, all of which offer excellent packages, albeit with different strengths and weaknesses.
We're extremely pleased to report that Toshiba has finally seen sense and reduced its use of the dreaded glossy plastic. It's still present on the U500, surrounding the 13.3in display, but the lid and body of the machine are covered in a brown, textured plastic that's far more pleasing to the eye and the touch. It's a similar story with the keyboard, whose semi-matt keys aren't as reflective as those on the U400.
This makes the U500 a far more practical and enjoyable machine to use, though it's not necessarily a stunning piece of design. It's hard to put your finger on what it is, but the combination of hues and textures doesn't quite hang together as cohesively as some of its contemporaries. It's still a tidy looking machine, though, and one that's easier to live with than its predecessor.
What's most likely to excite potential buyers is the range of features and options on the U500. There are several different models, ours being the top-of-the-range effort that runs to a cool £899.99. A lot of money, granted, but with a 2.53GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8700 processor, 4GB of RAM, a generous 500GB hard drive and a 512MB nVidia GeForce G210M all on-board, you're getting a lot for your money.
Coupled with a 64-bit install of Windows 7, the U500-178 absolutely flies, showing a clean pair of heels to many previously reviewed systems in PCMark Vantage. Gaming performance isn't too shabby, either - we managed a smooth 31.8fps in Trackmania Nations on the high detail settings. Consequently you could play older titles, such as the original Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Half-Life 2 (and related episodes) and casual games such as Spore with no real problems.
There are plenty of other reasons for cheer, too. This version has the ever sought after backlit keyboard, as well as a smart slot-loading DVD drive. Wireless-N Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 2.1+ EDR and Gigabit Ethernet ensure comprehensive network connectivity, while the presence of Toshiba's motion-sensing hard drive protection technology is another bonus few (if any) similar laptops offer.
Wired connectivity is also especially strong. Staples, such as VGA and HDMI for video, a memory card reader, audio jacks (one headphone/SPDIF, one mic) and a trio of USB ports are all present, but one of those USB ports doubles as eSATA and will charge mobile devices when the laptop is turned off. There's also a 54mm ExpressCard slot, though we wonder how many people actually use these in this day and age.