Saturday, 19 November 2011

Toshiba Portege Z835 review

Toshiba should know a thing or two about skinny, featherweight laptops. Back in 2007, the company unveiled the Portege R500, a 2.4-pound laptop measuring what was then an anorexic 0.77 inches (19.6mm) thick. Much to everyone's disbelief, it managed to squeeze in an optical drive.
Fast forward four years and it's entering the Ultrabook market with the Portege Z830 (that's the Z835 if you get it at Best Buy). And here comes the déjà vu: it's even lighter than the competition, at 2.47 pounds, but still houses a full suite of ports, including USB 3.0 and 2.0, HDMI and Gigabit Ethernet. It also promises more than eight hours of battery life, besting claims made by the likes of Apple, Acer and ASUS. Not to mention, with a price of $800 (Best Buy only), it undercuts competing models -- and at a time when every other Ultrabook seems to have some fatal flaw, whether it be a flaky touchpad or skimpy battery life. Clearly, there's lots of room here for something more carefully thought-out. So is Toshiba's Portege know-how just what the market needs? Let's see.

Look and feel

For a machine that's going to sit on the shelf at the Best Buy, the Z835 looks like it would be more at home under the arm of some suited, late '80s businessman. We're not sure if it's the drab black-on-gray color scheme, the chintzy chrome accents or some combination thereof, but put together they make for a design that's at once dated and stuffy.
It doesn't help that there's a lot going on here: in addition to the power button, the area above the keyboard is home to two launch keys, including ones for Intel Wireless Display and Toshiba's eco utility (more on that later). There's also a thin strip below the touch touch buttons that houses six LED lights that glow green and orange. Wedged in between the space bar and the touchpad is a button for turning off the trackpad. In a quirky touch, the fan sits on the bottom side, protruding ever-so slightly. The hinge, meanwhile, has a metal shoulder on each end that matches the reflective material used in the touch buttons. That wouldn't be so noticeable if it weren't for the fact that there's thin cutout above the hinge in both those spots, putting about an eighth of an inch of blank space between the hinge and the corners of the display -- an optical illusion that fools you into thinking the screen is sitting higher than it is. As a finishing touch, the palm rest comes plastered with four stickers. You can remove these, of course, though we wish more OEMs would paint them on the bottom, as Lenovo did with the IdeaPad U300s.

It's a shame because in a blind hands-on, the Z835 feels exactly like we'd always hoped Ultrabooks would feel. At 2.47 pounds, it's almost half a pound lighter than the Air, and believe us when we say you can feel the difference. What's incredible, too, is that despite being so featherweight the Z835 still crams in more ports than anything else we've seen. These include a USB 3.0 socket and Kensington lock slot on the right; an SD reader and headphone and mic ports on the left; and a buffet of openings 'round back that includes twin USB 2.0 ports, Ethernet, HDMI, VGA and the power port. Of those USB 2.0 sockets, one of them uses Toshiba's Sleep and Charge technology to charge gadgets while the laptop's dozing fitfully.
The only Ultrabook that come close to this kind of spread is the new HP Folio 13 and, as it happens, it's also the heaviest of the bunch, at 3.3 pounds. Otherwise, almost every Ultrabook is missing something. The 13-inch MacBook Air has two USB 2.0 ports, an SD slot and a Thunderbolt port, for which there aren't yet many compatible peripherals. The ASUS Zenbook UX31 has USB 3.0 and 2.0, mini-HDMI and mini-VGA, and comes with Ethernet and VGA adapters. The U300s, meanwhile, has HDMI, USB 3.0 and 2.0, but no SD slot or Ethernet jack. Finally, the Acer Aspire S3 -- one of Toshiba's main competitors at this price point -- houses two USB 2.0 ports, as well as HDMI-out.
With lightness, though, comes mixed build quality. Although the Z835 is made of magnesium alloy and has the same honeycomb caging you'll find inside other Porteges, it feels less solid than other the Air or UX31. When you grip it in one hand, the whole thing feels sort of hollow, especially as you press your fingers into the bottom side. We also noticed the lid wobbles, especially after you set the laptop down. Then again, that brushed metal casing proved immune to both scratches and fingerprints, so however flimsy it felt, we never felt compelled to handle it with kid gloves.

Keyboard and Trackpad

The Z835's keyboard is on par with those belonging to some of the other Ultrabooks we've tested, but that isn't exactly saying much. As with so many other chiclet arrangements, the keys here don't offer much travel. Worse, still, each individual key has a squat shape, leaving barely enough vertical space for even small fingertips. Suffice to say, that didn't stop us from typing portions of this review (and with few spelling errors, at that). We suspect you'll adapt, as people often do to imperfect keyboards, though we'd remiss if we didn't warn you that there's a learning curve.
Still, Toshiba wisely extended the keyboard from one end of the deck to the other, wasting very little space on the sides. As a result, most of the major keys -- Enter, left and right Shift, Caps Lock -- are amply sized and easy to hit if you're touch typing. (Others, such as the Fn and right Ctrl buttons, have been reduced to the size of a fingernail, and are no larger than any of the lettered keys.) The typing here is also pretty quiet, with the keys making a comforting, low-pitched sound. Another bonus: it's spill-resistant, showing Toshiba is indeed putting its business-centric Portege expertise to good use here.

The Z835's keyboard is also backlit -- not too shabby, considering the $900 Acer Aspire S3 doesn't have this feature (the $900 HP Folio does, however). Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but we noticed it isn't particularly bright. If you sit on the side of the laptop (you know, away from the keys), you'll see white lights glowing beneath the buttons. To Toshiba's credit, the backlighting does become more obvious as your surroundings get dimmer, which means it'll come in handy the next time you attempt to work through an overnight flight. But even then, the lighting feels more subtle than what you'll see on the Folio or Air: you're not going to see white light pooling beneath the keys; just a faint glow from the keycaps, leaving you with barely enough of a glow to type in the dark.

The 1.75 x 3.3-inch touchpad, though short, offers a smooth, low-friction surface that makes it easy to drag the cursor across the screen -- nope, no lag or jumpiness for once. It even pulls off pinch to zoom reasonably well. The problem is that the pad is small enough that you'll have to angle your hand just so in order to have enough room to stretch those fingers out. Even then, you'll likely feel your fingertips bump against the edges of the trackpad. It also supports one- and two-fingered scrolling, but for whatever reason, neither gesture is enabled out of the box; you'll have to go into Synaptics' device settings and select these options yourself.

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