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Toshiba Portege R500

Impossibly thin and light notebook with optical drive and terrific outdoor-readable screen
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)

These days most notebooks have giant displays, the kind that even desktops didn't have just a few years ago. Those notebooks, of course, are big and rather heavy, and that can be a drag. That's why computer manufacturers make "ultra-light" notebooks. They generally weigh no more than around three pounds.

Well, Toshiba figured they could do better than that, and they have with the new Portege R500. The lightest R500 weighs no more than 1.72 pounds, which is absolutely amazing for a powerful notebook with a 12.1-inch screen, a full-size keyboard, and capable of running Vista. Many handhelds weigh more than that! Now before aficionados of lightweight computing get too excited over this remarkable machine, I should mention that only a special version of the R500 weighs in at 1.72 pounds, and that would be one with a solid-state disk, a somewhat wimpy 3-cell battery, and no optical drive. Our standard R500 with a disk drive and a much more powerful 6-cell battery weighed just under 2.4 pounds -- still stunningly little.

Optical drive despite ultra-slender profile

Yes, I did mention "optical drive." How can that be in a computer that weighs that little and is only 0.77 inches thick? Well, in certain spots it's more like an inch thick, but that is only because of a bulge from a PC Card slot and a standard RJ45 jack. The optical drive itself is almost unbelievably thin, despite being a DVD SuperMulti +/- device that supports nine formats and writes DVDs at 8X speed.

Good balance between power and battery life

If you get the idea that the R500 is a special computer that was designed to be as thin and light as possible but without giving up features and performance, that would be right. Toshiba made very few compromises and the R500 runs Vista without any problems and at a brisk pace (you can also get it with XP Professional). It is not a total speed demon, of course; that would not be possible with a miserly 1.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo U7600, an ultra-low-power processor designed to provide maximum battery life. Also, the R500 uses Intel's integrated 945GMS chipset with the Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950. That works fine, but is nowhere near as speedy as a separate and dedicated graphics sub-system.

A look at the "Windows Experience Index" -- the set of scores that measures performance under Vista in several areas -- shows that processor, memory and disk performance are all fine, but the R500 only rates a 2.0 in desktop performance for Windows Aero (the fancy semi-transparent Vista user interface), and only a 2.8 in 3D business and gaming graphics performance. Since the lowest of the five subscores determines the "base score," the R500 rates only a 2.0, not enough for more demanding applications. That's no big deal for most users, but you should be aware of it if you consider the R500. Our review machine came with 1GB of memory and that's on the low side for Vista. We'd order ours with the maximum memory configuration -- 2GB of PC2-5300 DDR2 RAM. It generally has a big impact on the Vista score, and on overall performance (though adding half a gig didn't change the Vista score on our review machine).

As far as battery power goes, the R500 is amazingly very well equipped for such a small and light machine. A 6-cell, 10.8V/5800mAh Lithium-Ion 62.6 watt-hours powerpack lasts up to 10 hours!

Well connected

Ultra-thins and ultra-lights often make compromises in connectivity but that's not the case with the Portege R500. Despite its thinness and light weight, it not only has that built-in SuperMulti DVD-RW drive, but also three USB ports, IEEE 1394 "Firewire," a RJ45 plug for its gigabit LAN, both a PC Card Type II and a SD Card slot, a fingerprint reader, external video and a docking connector. On the wireless side, there's integrated Bluetooth 2.0 EDR (Enhanced Data Rate) and 802.11a/g/n WiFi via Intel's 4965AGN module.

Extraordinary display

One of the unusual features of the R500 is its display. It is ordinary in size (12.1-inch diagonally) and resolution (1280 x 800 pixel wide format), but unique in its technology. Toshiba calls it "transreflective". This warrants some more discussion.

Explanation of display technologies

Those familiar with display technologies will recall that most notebooks have transmissive LCDs. Those are very bright indoors due to the fact that their backlights strongly and evenly illuminate the screen. Outdoors, however, transmissive displays, unless they are specially treated, wash out and become unreadable.

Some LCD displays are reflective, which means they reflect the ambient light and thus are readable outdoors. Some early iPAQ Pocket PCs had purely reflective LCDs and there were some notebooks that used reflective displays also. The problem with purely reflective displays is that while outdoor viewability is good, indoors they are unpleasant to use because they need sidelights to illuminate them.

For several years, LCD manufacturers tried a compromise between transmissive and reflective technologies. Those displays were called "transflective." They reflected some light, but also let some through. That way a backlight could be used to illuminate the display indoors, while a degree of reflectivity made for acceptable viewing outdoors. The problem was, as with any compromise, that transflective displays weren't as good as transmissive ones indoors, and not as good as reflective ones outdoors.

Above I mentioned "specially treated" transmissive displays. This is what most manufacturers of notebooks that will be used outdoors are using today. What those treatments seek to accomplish is to provide high enough contrast to make the displays readable outdoors. The contrast ratio that matters for viewability is that between the backlight and the reflected daylight. Here's the way it works: bright daylight is about 10,000 nits (nits are a measure of brightness). A computer display backlight may be 200 to 500 nits. So if the display were to reflect 4% of the daylight, or 400 nits, and the backlight of the notebook is 200 nits, the effective contrast ratio would be 1 + (emitted light / reflected light), or 1 + (200 / 400) = 1.5. That would make the display unreadable outdoors. A stronger backlight of 500 nits would boost the effective contrast ratio to 2.25, still almost unreadable in sunlight, and definitely a drain on the battery. This is where special treatments in the form of anti-reflective coating or coatings come into play. This can cut light reflection down to as low as 0.5%. That same 200 nits backlight would now produce a contrast ratio of 5, which is acceptable for outdoor readability. Boost the backlight up to 500 nits, and the contrast ratio goes up to 11, making for a very outdoor-readable display. This is the approach Dell used with its ATG D630 notebook. One of the problems with anti-reflective coatings is that they create sort of a multi-colored tint when looking at the screen from certain angles, and they can also distort the colors.

Toshiba's transreflective display

Toshiba, an expert in LCD display technology, chose a new and different approach for the R500 with what they call a "transreflective" display. The R500's transreflective screen uses a 215 nits LED backlight and looks as bright and vibrant indoors as a standard transmissive display. Outdoors a reflective layer -- a "retroflector" -- reflects light and the screen works more like a reflective LCD. The R500 actually has a "outdoors" button above the upper right side of the keyboard. When you push it, it turns off the backlight completely as it is not needed outdoors and greatly extends the already excellent battery life.

Now how exactly Toshiba's transreflective screen differs from older transflective displays we don't know. We discussed the display technology in two very informative conference calls, but Toshiba did not want to give away all of its secrets. Product Manager Craig Marking called the R500 a "technological showcase product" for Toshiba, and that certainly goes for the terrific display as well as the slenderness and light weight of the machine.

In addition to the proprietary LCD design, the R500 uses LED backlighting. LED backlights have been used in handhelds for a few years, but not in notebooks. Their use not only lowers power drain, but also allows the screen to flex without anything breaking since there are no tubes. In addition, LEDs are more durable.

Overall verdict on the R500 display: Indoors, the R500 transreflective screen is very much better than any standard transflective LCD I can remember, and outdoors it rivals some of the best anti-reflection coated transmissive screens without having the annoying color tint of those coatings. How exactly Toshiba did it remains confidential, which is okay with us. The screen does not have an anti-reflective which might have made it even better, but as is, it's terrific. If there's one complaint, it's that the vertical viewing angle is not very wide.

Toshiba's "EasyGuard" technology

The first time you pick up the R500 you will almost inevitably worry about its durability. The computer is just so light and thin, it seems as if you have to treat it with kids' gloves. Wrong. While the Portege R500 is definitely not a rugged or semi-rugged computer, it was designed from the ground up to provide protection against all sorts of everyday hazards. Toshiba's Marking called it "executive durability." Like most of its notebooks, the R500 is designed with a slate of technologies and principles Toshiba calls "EasyGuard."

What does "EasyGuard" mean? It includes shock-absorbing design that protects key components such as the hard disk, the LCD and the chassis. a 3D accelerometer detects falls and moves the hard disk head away to safety. The keyboard is spill resistant, the case made of magnesium alloy. "The R500's flexibility," Marking says, "is by design."

Bottom line

The Toshiba Portege R500 is another remarkable showcase product from one of the world's great notebook makers. Despite having a full-size keyboard, an advanced optical drive, tons of connectivity and a very powerful battery, it's thinner and much lighter than you'd expect a notebook to be. Weighing just over two pounds and being less than 0.8 inches thick, you hardly know it's there if you carry it around. The transreflective 12.1" display is totally revolutionary and provides superb viewability both indoors and outdoors. It's, however, so thin and flexible that you can't help fearing it will break, which it will not.

Like all ultra-lights, and especially those with advanced features, the Portege R500 is not inexpensive. Prices start at US$1,999, and a top-of-the-line model with Vista, 2GB of RAM an a 64GB Solid State Drive goes for US$2,999. If price is not an issue, the Portege R500 is not only a showcase product, but also one that is just perfect for anyone who values maximum mobility without giving up features. The display alone, in fact, would be worth the extra cost. -- C. H. Blickenstorfer

Toshiba R500 Notebook PC

Specifications
Added/changed Added 11/2007
Form-factor Ultraslim Notebook
Processor Intel Core 2 Duo U7600
CPU Speed 1.2 GHz
OS Windows XP Professional or Vista
Chipset Graphics Media Accelerator 950
Standard/Max RAM 1024MB-2048MB PC2-5300 DDR2
Disk/drive 120GB 9.5mm Serial ATA (5400rpm)
Optical drive DVD SuperMulti (+/-R) drive supporting up to 9 formats
Card slots 1-Type II PC Card Slot, 1 SD Card
Display type Outdoor-viewable Transreflective TFT with LED backlight (215 nits)
Display size/res 12.1-inch/1280 x 800
Digitizer/pens NA
Keyboard/scale Integrated 85-key, 100%
Operating temperature Uses Toshiba EasyGuard Protect & Fix technology
Shock Uses Toshiba EasyGuard Protect & Fix technology
Housing Magnesium alloy
Size (WxHxD) 11.1 x 8.5 x 0.77
Weight 2.375 lbs. (review unit)
Power Li-Ion (6-cell, 10.8V/5800mAh, 62.6 watt-hours)
Interface 3 USB 2.0, RJ45, IEEE 1394, fingerprint reader, dock
Interface audio in/out, 802.11a/b/g, video, Bluetooth 2.0 plus EDR
List price Starting at US$1,999
Contact www.toshiba.com

Above: It is always difficult to capture screen performance on camera. The pictures above show the Toshiba Portege R500 sitting next to an office window. The picture on top is with the blinds closed and shows the very strong LED backlight that makes for a vibrant picture. The second picture shows the R500 display with the window blinds partially opened to very bright sunlight. As you can see, the display remains perfectly viewable.

Above: These are actual, undoctored closeups of the display. Disregard the color hues; the camera lens pocks them up but not the human eye. What's important is that the display is highly readable both indoors (top) and with very bright sunlight shining through blinds.

Above: Side views show how Toshiba managed to add a multitude of ports as well as an optical drive and a full PC Card slot into this very slim and light machine. Three quarter view shows the full-scale keyboard and the fingerprint reader between the mouse buttons.

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