- Review Price: £700.21
We first looked at Toshiba’s U500, the company’s 13.3in laptop, last year in the form of the Satellite U500-178. We were generally impressed, particularly with the performance of our top-of-the-line model, even if the battery life failed to live up to expectations. Toshiba has now updated the range with two new models sporting one of Intel’s Core i3 processors. They’re more or less identical in fact, except the U500-1EX we’re looking at has a multi-touch enabled touchscreen and costs around £80 more because of it.
An Intel Core i3-330M lies at the heart of the U500-1EX, with two cores that tick along at a decent 2.13GHz and 3MB of cache to help. This is further aided by a plentiful 4GB of DDR3 RAM, which is fully utilised by the installed 64-bit version of Windows 7 Home Premium, and a 320GB hard drive.
You’re stuck with Intel’s GMA HD integrated graphics, however, which doesn’t bode well for any gaming sessions. Network connectivity includes Wireless-N Wi-Fi and 10/100Mbit Ethernet – not the Gigabit variety we normally prefer. You do get Bluetooth 2.1+ EDR, though, and the need for Gigabit Ethernet is quite small on a consumer laptop.
All these details are identical on both touchscreen and non-touchscreen versions, as is the design – superficially, at least. As the chassis hasn’t changed at all our original impression remains largely intact. This is a nice looking chassis, its textured brown plastic meshing nicely with black plastic and chromed accenting, but it doesn’t bowl you over with its beauty.
Unfortunately, in this guise, it’s blighted by an incredibly thick screen made necessary by the touchscreen. This makes what was already a far from svelte machine even chunkier, which doesn’t do much for its visual appeal. This addition can also be evidenced in the weight, which is a considerable 2.4kg. That’s nearly 200 grams heavier than the U500-178, which itself was on the heavy side.
At least this chunkiness gives the machine a feeling of solidity. Toshiba has always sold itself on the quality and reliability of its laptops, so this much shouldn’t be a surprise. Aside from the keyboard, which we’ll get onto in a moment, we could scarcely detect a weakness in the U500’s build and it has the added bonus of hard drive fall protection. You needn’t worry about scuffs and scratches either as the textured plastic doesn’t mark easily.
As for the keyboard, it isn’t a bad effort – it has an excellent layout and the key actions are okay – but Toshiba hasn’t solved the flex that was evident from our previous review. All keyboards have some level of flex to them, but the U500 suffers more noticeably than most and it does have a negative effect on typing, which feels more cumbersome as a result.
Happily the touchpad holds no such gremlins. It’s just fine on all counts. Connectivity is also a strong suit, with every conceivable option squeezed into the relatively small chassis. This includes an eSATA and USB combo port, which also offers standby power for charging mobile devices on the move. This is joined by a further two USB ports, HDMI, VGA, two audio jacks (1x headphone, 1x mic) and a 54mm ExpressCard.
A memory card reader is also present on the front, as is a hardware switch for the wireless radios. We were a little disappointed to see that Toshiba has reverted to a standard tray-loading DVD drive over the slot-loading one from before, though. It just doesn’t look as good. Keyboard backlighting is another feature that’s been sacrificed.
Never fear, though, because you do get that multi-touch screen. From a functional point of view the touch element of the screen works extremely well, much better than we’d anticipated in fact. It’s both sensitive and accurate, responding well to our finger prods even where the Windows interface doesn’t lend itself well to finger operation.
Unfortunately we’re at a loss as to what to use it for. At least on a Tablet PC it makes some kind of sense, but without a rotating hinge it seems a bit pointless. Worst still, not content with making the screen incredibly thick, the touch layer also does a number on the brightness and colours produced by the 1,280 x 800 resolution screen. Consequently video and photos look rather dull on the U500, though Toshiba has at least resisted the urge to add a glossy, reflective finish.
While not up to the standards of some of Toshiba’s larger, more entertainment orientated laptops, the speakers on the U500 still pack a decent punch. Bass isn’t prodigious (to say the least), but there’s plenty of clarity and volume for a small laptop and should do the job in most instances. We’ve heard a lot worse on similar laptops.
In testing we’ve compared our review system to the previous model, the U500-178, and the excellent HP Pavilion dm3-1020ea – another 13.3in laptop that’s based on an AMD ultra-low voltage processor. As we’d expect, the HP falls someway behind both iterations of the Toshiba, but it’s impressive that our Core i3 U500 defeats the previous version despite its limited integrated graphics. It also shows the value of the Core i3 processor, which performs to a similar level as “high-performance” Core 2 Duos did, while being classed as an entry-level chip.
Nothing can hide the deficiency of Intel’s integrated graphics, however, not even the relatively undemanding Trackmania Nations. In this test it does at least produce a vaguely playable 23.5 frames per second (fps), but that’s half what the previous U500 and its nVidia GeForce 210M graphics achieved. In fairness to this review model, though, it’s a good deal cheaper – the U500-178 was £899.99 at launch – so it’s hardly surprising it doesn’t match up in every respect. It does at least better the HP by quite a small margin considering their respective prices and spec.
Where the lack of significant graphics power hinders any gaming potential, it does mean a slight improvement in battery life. Where the previous U500 stopped short of three hours, the U500-1EX manages a slightly more acceptable 189 minutes (3hrs 9mins) in MobileMark’s Productivity segment and almost reaches two hours of DVD playback.
These aren’t amazing results and are eclipsed quite easily by the low-voltage HP, but they are an improvement and should be further enhanced by using Toshiba’s Eco Mode power saving profile. We still feel, however, that 2.4kg is far too heavy for a 13.3in laptop, so whether you’d want to use it on the move that much is up for debate.
We were also disappointed to discover that the standard one year warranty on the U500-1EX is only a carry-in warranty, rather than the usual collect & return offered by 90 per cent of manufacturers. Naturally this can be upgraded, but as a starting point it seems needlessly stingy.
Good performance and a generous set of features stand the U500-1EX in good stead, but it’s too bulky and cumbersome for genuine mobile use and the touchscreen is largely superfluous. It’s still fundamentally a decent laptop, but you’re better off with the cheaper, near identical non-touchscreen version.
Score in detail
Battery Life 6
Processor, Memory & Storage
|Processor||Intel Core i3|
|Processor Speed Standard (Gigahertz)||2.13 GHz|
|Memory (RAM) (Gigabyte)||4 GB|
|Hard Disk Drive (HDD) (Gigabyte)||320 GB|
|DVD Optical Drive||DVD-RAM/?R/?RW|
Graphics & Sound
|Graphics||Intel Graphics Media Accelerator HD|
|Display (Inch)||13.3 in|
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