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    Toshiba’s light weight laptop heavyweight

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2008 First published in Business in Vancouver  June 3-9, 2008; issue 971

    High Tech Office column

    As the weather warms up, my thoughts turn to travel. And that means that portability becomes increasingly important to me. First on the list: a laptop that’s smaller and lighter than the standard seven-pound 15-inch screen models.

    Apple grabbed a lot of attention a few months ago when it debuted its MacBook Air model. Being thin enough to fit in a mailing envelope makes for a good demo, but to shed bulk, it also shed features – perhaps too many for comfort. Lenovo responded with its ThinkPad X300. Like the Air, it weighs around three pounds, but has multiple USB ports, Ethernet and Firewire built in and a DVD drive, all features left out of Apple’s model.

    I recently had loan of Toshiba’s new Portege R500 SSD, which is even lighter. It weighs a mere 1.7 pounds. While you can get still smaller portable computers, they have scaled-down, awkward keyboards and screens. Toshiba’s model offers full-sized keys, and a 12-inch 1280x800 wide-screen display. (Apple and Lenovo’s ultra-portables both have 13-inch displays).

    Last year’s 2.4-pound R500 model with a built-in DVD writer is still available. It remains the lightest laptop with a built-in optical drive. This new model saves weight by dropping the optical drive (though the case is moulded as if it still contained one, complete with faux eject button) and by replacing the standard spinning-platter mechanical hard drive with a solid-state drive (hence the “SSD” in its name).

    This 64-gigabyte drive – think of a scaled-up memory stick – saves weight and adds durability, while also helping with battery life. But solid-state drives are expensive. The R500 SSD lists at $2,800; last year’s 2.4-pound models with larger standard hard drives (and built-in optical drives) cost around $2,200. (A similar solid-state drive is used in Lenovo’s X300 and available as an option for the MacBook Air, each priced comparably to the R500 SSD.)

    Toshiba also saved weight with its magnesium case and by using a relatively small three-cell battery. Like Lenovo’s X300 and the other R500 models, it’s built around a 1.2 GHz Core Duo processor, which is not particularly powerful (the Air has a faster 1.6 GHz processor) but it’s also not power hungry. As a result, battery life was better than I expected: five to six hours in power-saving mode. Without being plugged in, it lasted an entire workday without needing recharging. (Partly, of course, extending battery life by powering down whenever it wasn’t being used). A larger (and heavier) battery is an optional extra.

    It has a relatively slow processor and just one gigabyte of memory. I was surprised that Toshiba included Windows Vista. I found performance better than I expected. With up-to-date drivers, Vista performs well, which hasn’t always been the case.

    I was also pleased that the R500 SSD didn’t come with a bunch of pre-installed performance-sucking unwanted programs. Trial versions of Microsoft Office 2007 and Symantec security software were included. Users will need to get non-expiring office and security programs.

    I was less pleased with the keyboard. Though full-sized with a solid feel, it had “\” keys beside shrunk-down Enter and left-shift keys. As a result, I found myself often typing unwanted slashes when I tried to capitalize or move to a new line.

    Like the X300, Toshiba’s ultra-portable includes a fairly generous set of ports: three USB ports, a Firewire port, a PC Card slot and a slot for SD-format memory cards. Unlike the X300, but like the MacBook Air, there’s no built-in DVD burner; external drives can be connected via USB. While this adds weight, it can be left behind when not needed.
    If you don’t need the DVD drive, the R500 SSD is a capable model that comes in at nearly half the weight of Lenovo’s (and Apple’s) model, making it the champ for throwing in a bag and carrying down long airport terminal corridors. •

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan
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