We’ve become accustomed in recent months to new laptops opting for 16:9 aspect displays, but the U500 bucks this trend with its 16:10 ratio effort and its resultant 1,280 x 800 native resolution. Anyone who has been grumbling about the loss of their vertical pixels will be pleased, but in most other respects this is a wholly average display offering up decent brightness, colours and sharpness but mediocre viewing angles. Blacks aren’t the deepest we’ve seen either, even compared to other laptops.
Typically the speakers on Toshiba laptops are a cut above the rest. This is true of the U500, but to a much smaller extent. Compared to many similarly-sized laptops, which often suffer truly appalling audio, these speakers deliver acceptable clarity and volume, but bass is just as lacking as any contemporary. Toshiba also appears to have dropped support for Dolby Sound Room on this model, something that was present on the outgoing U400. Overall this is a decent laptop for entertainment, but not an outstanding one.
A similar verdict can be made of the keyboard. We love the backlighting and the layout is very good too, but there was a noticeable amount of flex – particularly towards the centre of the keyboard – that made the action of the keys feel mushier than it otherwise would. We also found that the ultra-smooth ‘semi-matt’ keys were rather slippery. None of these issues are deal breakers, but of the laptops mentioned at the beginning of this article the Toshiba has marginally the worst keyboard.
It’s hard to make similar criticisms of the touchpad, even if it’s a bit too small for its multi-touch support to be of any practical benefit. More importantly it’s well positioned and has two responsive buttons, making it no barrier to getting work done.
Unfortunately where the U500 really falls down is in its battery life. Being a full fat, high-performance laptop, one wouldn’t expect epic levels of longevity, but the U500 died 10 minutes short of three hours in MobileMark’s Productivity test and barely squeezed past an hour and a half in the more demanding DVD test. These results are comfortably bested by competing models, not least the U400, which wasn’t life-changing when it came to battery life either.
Clearly the six-cell, 40 watt-hour capacity battery won’t suffice for many, making an extended/second battery a prerequisite purchase for them. And it’s not as if the U500 is especially light, either, weighing in at 2.25kg with its standard battery. One potential solution is to use Toshiba’s neat Eco Utility, which is accessible via a shortcut on the touch control bank above the keyboard, to help extend life. This is useful to a point, particularly thanks to its recording and monitoring of total power use, but a better battery is still a necessity to our minds.
There’s plenty to like about Toshiba’s Satellite U500-178: it’s very fast, portable and offers excellent connectivity, both wired and wireless. It also has one or two outstanding features, such as the backlit keyboard and the ability to charge USB devices even when switched off. In use, however, it’s ultimately let down by mediocre battery life and a slightly sub-par keyboard, but if you don’t mind buying an extra battery then its performance and varied features still warrant it a place on your shortlist.