Top 10 ultraportable laptops

Ideal for the mobile professional, these notebooks stand out for their low weight and small footprint

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Toshiba Portege R600-ST520W
Portege R600-ST520W Review, by Arthur Gies, PC World June 8, 2009

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Rating:

CPU: Core 2 Duo U9400; CPU speed: 1400MHz; Display size: 12.1 inches; Hard drive size: 160GB; WorldBench 6 rating: Fair

Pros:
Thin and light - even for ultraportables
Room for an optical drive

Cons:
Mono speaker, poor sound

Bottom Line: The Toshiba R600 is best suited for those seeking the lightest ultraportable around that can handle office documents.

REVIEW:
While Toshiba's new Portege R600-ST520W hits the ground running with a base weight of 2.4 pounds (3 pounds with the power supply included) and a thickness just over the 1-inch mark, its price tag of well over 2 grand and its so-so hardware reduce the Portege R600 to a good--not great--showing (and it becomes a tough sell when compared to netbooks that cost less than a quarter of its price).

Toshiba sent us their midlevel R600 configuration. Priced at $2149 at the time of review, it includes an Intel Core 2 Duo SU9400 processor at 1.4GHz, 3GB of DDR2 RAM, integrated graphics from Intel, a Wimax-capable wireless card, and a 160GB hard drive with a 32-bit version of Vista Business Edition installed. (That choice of operating system should make this machine's intended audience clear enough.)

In general office performance, the R600 does all right, but it won't win any medals: It scored a 67 in Worldbench, beating out Fujitsu's LifeBook T2020 and Dell's Adamo (these notebooks scored 64 and 65, respectively), but came up short compared with the Macbook Air's 78. You probably wouldn't expect to play any games on this thing--and we confirmed that. Unreal Tournament 3 couldn't squeeze out more than about 6 frames a second at its lowest supported resolution. At least the R600's battery hung in for just under 6 hours to a charge.

While the numbers might indicate a lackluster user experience, I didn't find this to be the case. The R600 felt very responsive, handling several running programs and DVD playback simultaneously with no hitches. This is probably due to the 3GB of installed memory, but in any case, the R600 was easy on my patience, and on my wrists.

The keyboard takes up about half of the notebook's main body below the screen. While you won't find a 10-key input or a lot of function keys, you will find a comfortable and uncompromised layout. Unlike the truncated, clipped keyboards of netbooks and other ultraportables, the R600 features full-size keys and a well-placed FN key that doesn't get in the way. My only complaint is related to one of my major issues with the notebook itself. Its superlight weight and thin construction make it feel positively dainty at times, and as a user with large hands, I often felt I was going to break it. There's also a moderate amount of flex toward the middle of the keyboard. The touchpad is smaller than those on many full-featured notebooks, but it isn't tiny, and it gets the job done.

The R600's display is pretty impressive for its size. Packing a 1280-by-800 resolution into a small footprint, it features excellent brightness and a glare-resistant screen that remains viewable in any lighting conditions it's likely to see. It also has an outdoor lighting option, which deactivates the monitor's backlight. Though the vertical viewing angles are slightly spotty, this isn't an issue for the most part. Color reproduction is good, image quality is razor-sharp, and text is readable without causing too many headaches.

Maybe Toshiba would really prefer you didn't upgrade the R600 at all on your own. While the laptop has a pretty wide array of kits, including a WiMax radio (you'd need to find an area with WiMax coverage to use it), upgrading it is a nightmare. You'll need jeweler's screwdrivers to open the expansion panels on the R600's underside, only to be met with a paltry DIMM slot and not much else.

Sound is where the R600's nature as an ultraportable presents its other big compromise; the mono speaker's maximum volume is too quiet to be heard over even low levels of ambient noise, and the sound quality is awful. Even the external audio controls leave something to be desired--the old fashioned dial on the left side of the notebook looks dated and awkward. The R600 fares a little better with headphones, landing somewhere around the lower end of average for sound quality, but volume remains quiet.

As an ultraportable, the R600's inputs are reasonable. You get two dedicated USB ports and a third that pulls double duty as both a USB and an e-SATA port (the latter is always nice to see), plus gigabit ethernet, SD and Express Card slots, and a VGA output. The business audience will likely appreciate this last touch, as most office projectors continue to support primarily VGA. As for included software, you have the standard packages for backup and for hotkey and wireless management. The HDD Protection utility (which stops the hard disk's heads in a safe position if movement is detected) is well-intentioned, but you'll want to turn down its sensitivity right away.

The R600's design looks stylish enough, at least with the lid closed. It features a brushed metal surface in silver--subdued but not boring (and it's nice to see Toshiba move away from high-gloss, high-fingerprint surfaces). With the lid open, the design is not so great, at least in my opinion--mismatching surfaces don't look modern, they usually look bad. Other than this (admittedly minor) qualm, the R600 is a handsome ultraportable that will catch more than a few glances.

Toshiba meant to create an ultraportable that lived up to the name and then some. Did it succeed? A snappy user experience, an incredibly usable keyboard and a bright, great-looking screen add up to a resounding "Yes!" But then there's the performance. The Macbook Air remains a solid choice, with its dedicated graphics and faster CPU. And the jury is still out on whether you need WiMax support--you could always opt for the R600's cheaper cousin, the A605, which omits it. If you absolutely must have the thinnest, lightest notebook possible and if an internal optical drive is mandatory, it's a toss-up between the R600 and Lenovo's ThinkPad X300.

This story, "Top 10 ultraportable laptops" was originally published by PCWorld.

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