It's LightBut No Lightweight
TECH & YOU PODCAST
Can a laptop be too light and too thin? I'm a big fan of featherweight computers. But I have been discouraged by the slightest and lightest of this class because of the compromises they forced me to accept—cramped keyboards, undersized displays, poor battery life, puny storage, and less-than-stellar performance. The Toshiba Portégé R500 breaks the mold.
The R500, starting at $1,999, is a miracle of miniaturization. By cramming most of the electronics onto both sides of a specially engineered motherboard, Toshiba was able to produce a notebook that is just 0.8 inches thick and weighs only 2.4 pounds. But it has a full-size keyboard, a 12.1-in. widescreen display, a 120-gigabyte disk drive, and, most surprising, a built-in CD/DVD drive. With this single attractive product, Toshiba has thumbed its nose at a bustling subclass of diminutive notebooks known as ultra-mobile PCs, which includes the Vulcan Portals FlipStart (Tech & You—Apr. 16) and the Samsung Q1. These have much smaller displays and other serious deficiencies, and aren't that much lighter than the Toshiba.
Of course, the R500 is not without flaws. I'm most concerned about its ruggedness. This is the first laptop to use a CD drive that is just 7.5 mm thick. The slide-out tray looks like it might snap off in a strong wind, and I had to perform surgery on my preproduction unit to realign the read/write laser, which had become dislodged in shipping. The R500 uses light-emitting diodes instead of fluorescent tubes to provide backlight for the display. This allows the cover to be extremely thin and flexible—so much so that I wonder about its ability to protect a fragile glass screen.
STILL, THE R500'S VIRTUES may be worth the extra dose of TLC this laptop demands. The 1.2-gigahertz Core 2 Duo processor, though not Intel's (INTC ) fastest chip, is plenty speedy for the routine tasks users are likely to require. Toshiba plans to switch to Intel's power-thrifty Santa Rosa chips once engineers figure out how to cram them into the skinny case. Features I loved included a button that reconfigures the display to let you read the screen outside on a sunny day. The R500 is equipped with Wi-Fi but doesn't come with built-in connectivity to dial-up or wireless phone systems, such as Verizon's BroadbandConnect. You can solve that easily with USB or PC Card modems.
Battery life is something of a mystery. The R500 features a huge battery relative to the size of the notebook: It accounts for nearly one-third of the unit's total weight. Toshiba claims battery life of up to 10 hours on a charge, which would put the R500 in a class by itself. But in tests I got closer to a still-respectable four hours. A Toshiba spokesman explained that the software on my sample unit is not optimized for power savings. If that's true, I expect production models to yield six to eight hours in normal use, which would be impressive.
Later this year, Toshiba says it will take the weight of the Portégé down to 2 lb., partly by switching to a solid-state disk drive and partly by cutting the battery capacity in half. The latter sounds like a poor trade-off for most users.
If you are looking for a lightweight but less radical—and less expensive—notebook that uses Intel's latest Santa Rosa chips, you might consider Lenovo's X61s, starting at about $1,200. It's an inch thick, has a 12.1-in. display, and weighs in at 3 lb., with an extended-life battery that gives around five hours of working time. It doesn't have a built-in CD drive, but it looks and feels like it could be run over by a truck and keep right on working.
The good news in these products is that a relentless focus on battery life and advances in miniaturization from both chipmakers and notebook designers are bound to please people who like their notebooks small and light and don't want to compromise. Another win for the road warrior.
For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Technology & You at businessweek.com/go/techmaven/