- Review Price: £1699.16
Sony’s iconic VAIO X505VP notebook remains one of the most special mobile computers I have ever had the pleasure of reviewing. Not only was this machine ridiculously thin, but it was also unbelievably light, weighing in at a feather like 822g. Of course the X505VP was also light on features, and didn’t even have an Ethernet port built into its svelte chassis. Sony never produced another machine like the X505VP, and I had fully expected it to go down in history as the lightest notebook ever produced. However, Toshiba wasn’t going to allow that to happen.
The Toshiba Portégé R500 is a notebook that’s so light, it would make a size zero model look obese. I can’t begin to describe to you how surreal it is when you pick this machine up – your muscles instinctively gear themselves up to lift, and then realise that this thing weighs nowhere near as much as they were expecting. Put plainly, you’d be hard pushed to find a paper pad and pen that weigh much less than the R500. Toshiba rates this particular version of the R500 at 780g, but the TrustedReviews scales revealed that it’s even lighter than that, weighing it in at a truly stupendous 755g
You’ll have to forgive me if I spend a lot of time rambling on about how light the R500 is, because even a jaded old technology hack like me can’t fail to be impressed by what Toshiba has done with this notebook. In fact, when I first picked this review sample up, I was worried that the PR company had sent me a mock-up rather than a fully working machine. But when I pressed the power button it booted straight into Vista.
There’s no denying that the R500 looks pretty cool as well, finished in matte silver with mirrored highlights. The Toshiba logo on the lid has a mirror finish, much like the VAIO logo that you’ll see on Sony ultra-portable machines. The lid is also wafer thin, and that’s in no way an exaggeration. Of course Toshiba has achieved this super svelte lid by employing an LCD screen with an LED backlight, much like those seen in the Sony TZ series and the TX series before it.
But when it comes to LED backlight screens, Sony has had generations of T series machines to perfect the technology, with the current TZ machines sporting stunningly good displays. Unfortunately the R500 suffers from one of the problems seen in the early Sony T series machines – excessive light bleed. Basically, there is significant white light seeping out of the very top and very bottom of the screen, which tends to wash out the colours in these areas. Also, if you’re looking at a dark image, the uneven lighting can be very distracting indeed.
Also Toshiba has chosen not to give the screen on the R500 a high contrast glossy coating, which means that colours look nowhere near as vibrant or rich as on the Sony VAIO TZ12VN. That said, the R500 is pitched more at the business user, where the glossy screen could be viewed as less desirable, especially if you’re sitting in an office flooded with ambient light sources.
The viewing angle of the screen also leaves much to be desired, with a noticeable drop off in brightness, and definite colour shift visible when viewed at anything other than dead centre on the horizontal plane. If you happen to be off centre on the vertical plane though, the screen becomes almost unreadable, with the light bleed problem amplified ten fold.
The screen itself is a 12.1in widescreen affair with a 1,280 x 800 resolution, so anyone who finds the Sony TZ12VN’s 11.1 screen slightly too small, may well prefer the larger physical size and lower resolution of the R500.
Another vitally important part of a notebook is the keyboard, and here again, the R500 doesn’t quite deliver. The keyboard definitely looks the part, finished in a very similar matte silver to the chassis, and there’s even a decent amount of travel to the keys and a solid break to spring your finger back into position. However, there is an excessive amount of flex present, and the keyboard literally rattles when typing. It’s the right side of the keyboard that rattles, and it sounds like it’s simply not mounted properly, since there is no rattling from the left side. In fact, the whole right side of the keyboard flexes when you press a key there, while the left feels considerably more solid, though still flexy.
On the plus side, Toshiba has got the layout of the keyboard mostly right. For a start, the Ctrl key is located at the bottom left of the keyboard, where it should be – this makes it easy for anyone who uses a lot of keyboard shortcuts. There’s also a light set into the Caps Lock key, making it very easy to see when it’s active – other notebook manufacturers should take note of that one. Also, the cursor keys are dropped away from the main keyboard to make it easy to access them – although this is offset by the fact that the Page Up and Down keys sit one on top of the other, directly below Return, which is slightly odd.
Below the Spacebar is a large touchpad with a widescreen aspect ratio to match the screen. The touchpad is very responsive and makes for fast and accurate pointer manipulation, it also has a very tactile feel to it. As is usually the case these days, the far right side of the touchpad can be used for scrolling vertically through documents, while the bottom edge can be used to scroll horizontally.
Set below the touchpad is a mirrored silver insert which houses the left and right mouse buttons. The buttons are large enough to be easily accessed and have a solid click to them when pressed. Set between the two buttons is a fingerprint scanner, allowing you to secure the R500 biometrically. I’ve always liked the idea of fingerprint security on a notebook – I know that it’s far form unbreakable, but at least it stops people from taking a quick peek at sensitive data on your machine while you’re away from your desk.
Despite the R500 being so ludicrously light (sorry, I really can’t stress that enough), there’s actually quite a lot going on inside. For a start, this machine has a dual core processor inside it – an Ultra Low Voltage Intel Core 2 U7600, running at 1.2GHz to be precise. Toshiba has also supported the CPU with 2GB of memory, which should keep even Windows Vista ticking along nicely.
Connectivity is also very well catered for with Gigabit Ethernet getting you connected to a suitably equipped network at lightning fast speeds. The R500’s wireless connection is no slouch either, with Intel Draft-N Wi-Fi in evidence, while the integrated Bluetooth will let you transfer files and photos from your phone, as well as use a wireless headset. Conspicuous by its absence is a modem socket, but I can’t even remember the last time I’ve used an analogue modem, so I won’t lament its passing.
The jewel in the crown of the internal components has to be the hard disk. Toshiba isn’t the first manufacturer to send us a notebook with a solid state hard disk inside, both the Sony TZ12VN and the Dell D430 came equipped with such drives in fact. But both those notebooks shipped with 32GB SSDs, while the R500 has an altogether more impressive 64GB solid state drive inside it. Although I feel that 32GB is more than adequate in an ultra-portable notebook, I also know many people who feel that 32GB is simply not enough. Toshiba has addressed those concerns by shipping the R500 with twice the solid state storage as the competition.
Capacity aside, a solid state drive has a significant number of advantages over a standard Winchester hard disk. For a start, there are no moving parts, so there is far less chance of failure. An SSD also isn’t susceptible to shock or vibration, while problems such as disk fragmentation that affect standard hard drives, simply don’t exist on solid state media. As if that wasn’t enough, an SSD is also lighter and less power hungry than a conventional hard disk – both factors that are extremely desirable in an ultra-portable machine.
There’s no optical drive inside this particular R500, which is one of the reasons that it’s so much lighter than the Sony TZ12VN. That said, you can get an R500 with an integrated optical drive, which will still undercut the Sony when it comes to weight.
The right side of the chassis is home to the Ethernet port, a USB 2.0 port, a hardware switch for the wireless adapters, an SD card slot and a PC Card slot. The latter will be useful for anyone who has a PC Card based HSDPA card – the Sony TZ12VN only has an ExpressCard slot, but then the new TZ2 series machines can be specified with built-in HSDPA modules.
The left side is stuffed to the gilles with connectors. Here you’ll find two more USB 2.0 ports, a four-pin FireWire port, the power connector, headphone and microphone sockets, a volume wheel and a D-SUB port. It’s actually quite surprising to see three USB ports on a notebook this slim and light.
A slight annoyance is that Toshiba has chosen to fill the R500 with useless applications that just take up space and system resources. For instance, if I want to search Amazon or ebay, I’ll go to the sites and take a look – what I don’t want is big Amazon and ebay search boxes sitting in the Vista Side Bar taking up my desktop space. I know that you can delete this stuff, but I’d rather just have a clean system from the get go.
When it comes to performance, the Toshiba Portégé R500 is very close to the Sony VAIO TZ12VN, when testing with our custom 2D benchmarks and using PCMark 05. But when it comes to battery life, the Sony simply murders the Toshiba. Subjective testing using general Windows application work, with the screen set to mid brightness and Wi-Fi set on, saw the R500 only just top two hours. Comparatively, the Sony managed around seven hours under similar test conditions.
I fully expected this notebook to be scarily expensive considering the light weight and the 64GB SSD, but somehow Toshiba has managed to bring it in for only £1,699. That’s a whole £400 cheaper than the Sony, despite having an SSD that’s twice the capacity.
Even though the R500 is lighter and cheaper than the Sony, with twice the solid state storage, I’d still take a VAIO TZ12VN given the choice. Yes, the R500 is the lightest notebook computer on the planet, but I think that too many compromises have been made to achieve that goal. The screen and the keyboard are particularly poor, while the battery life is woeful by today’s standards, even for an ultra-portable.
The Toshiba Portégé R500 is an unbelievably light notebook, with a large solid state drive and an attractive price. Unfortunately, the disappointing screen and rattling keyboard and apalling battery life let the package down. Ultimately, I’d be happy to put up with a little more weight, if it meant improved build quality, performance and usability.
Score in detail
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