Toshiba Portege R500: the best ultraportable, until you break it

Ultraportables are the latest hot-ticket item in the world of laptops and while the ASUS Eee PC and the Apple MacBook Air are two of the most popular notebooks in that niche the Toshiba Portege R500 trumps them both in sheer mobility.

Weighing a feather-light 887g the R500 shaves a few grams off the Eee PC’s carry weight while still accommodating a 12.1-inch display and full-sized keyboard. Plus it has a minimalist silver motif not unlike the MacBook Air’s design (albeit without the seamless lines) and manages to throw in built-in mobile broadband a healthy selection of ports and slots and an integrated DVD drive.

It’s a potent combination enough to make any road warrior weak at the knees but a couple of serious shortcomings make the R500 considerably less attractive. For starters it feels too flimsy for our liking. Most laptops have a little flex in the display when you bend either side but the R500’s display seems like it’ll snap if you apply only a moderate amount of pressure. The casing also has a worrying amount of give when you press down on it which doesn’t fill us with confidence as to its road-worthiness.

Specs-wise the R500 seems ably-equipped with a 1.3GHz Intel Core 2 Duo U7700 ultra-low voltage processor 1GB of memory Intel GMS 945GMS Express graphics and a 120GB 5400rpm hard drive. But day-to-day performance tells another story. Put simply the R500 isn’t gutsy enough to run Windows Vista Business and using it for even simple tasks like web browsing is punctuated with long delays. If anything you’ll become well-acquainted with the Vista’s spinning circle wait symbol and the high-pitched whine of the R500’s fan kicking in at regular intervals. Even our DVD of Will & Grace was unwatchable with severe audio lag and jitter.

As expected the benchmark results aren’t flattering. In PCMark05 it scored 1980 PCMarks which is low even by ultraportable standards and on par with the performance you’d expect in a sub-$1000 notebook. 3DMark06 resulted in a similarly underwhelming score of 139. The R500’s RAM can be upgraded to 2GB but the better alternative is taking up the offer to downgrade the notebook to Windows XP Pro.

Another sore point is the 12.1-inch screen. It’s a good size and has a decent 1280 x 800 resolution but view it even slightly off-center and the contrast washes out completely so you can’t see what’s on the screen.

But the R500 does have some redeeming qualities. Battery life from the standard 6-cell battery is a decent 3 hours and 29 minutes with our rigorous DVD run-down test – real-world usage should be closer to five hours without wireless switched on. The inclusion of built-in HSDPA is another perk that saves you from having to use an external card or USB modem although you’re tied into using BigPond which has the widest coverage but the most expensive data plans.

Touch-typers will appreciate the R500’s full-sized and comfortable keyboard – a feat that Toshiba achieved by extending it all the way out to either side of the casing. Another area Toshiba hasn’t skimped is connectivity. All of the wireless bases are covered with 802.11a/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 2.0 + EDR and for connecting peripherals it includes three USB 2.0 ports FireWire VGA Gigabit Ethernet SD memory card slot and a Type II PC Card slot. A biometric fingerprint sensor is located between the mouse buttons but – surprisingly – there’s no webcam above the screen for video conferencing.

At $3630 for this particular configuration (cheaper models are available without built-in WWAN) the R500 is in the same price league as the flagship MacBook Air and Lenovo ThinkPad X300. However even with the mobile-friendly conveniences of a super-light carry weight and long battery life the R500’s flimsy build and pokey performance make it feel like a much cheaper laptop.