A Loaded, Yet Lightweight, Notebook

By Eric Grevstad | Posted August 03, 2005

Toshiba's Portege brand helped pioneer the executive status symbol known as the slim-line notebook — a thin, stylish laptop that trims weight by packing only an internal hard disk with no floppy or optical drive apart from a desktop docking station or plug-in external accessories. The 12.1-inch-screened, under-three-pound Portege R100/R200 continues that tradition today.

But sometimes, even an exec traveling light prefers to travel with a DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive — to watch movies on the plane or burn backup discs at the hotel — or craves a larger, higher-resolution LCD. So Toshiba has tweaked its recipe with the Portege S100 ($2,099 for the S100-S213TD model tested here, with a rebate cutting it to $1,999 through August 31).

The S100 offers a 14.1-inch-diagonal, 1,400- by 1,050-pixel display, a 60GB internal hard disk plus DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo, the latter swappable for a DVD burner ($370) or 80GB second hard drive ($420). Its keyboard boasts full desktop-size spacing or pitch (19mm key to key). Intel's Pentium M 760 (2.0GHz) processor, Nvidia's GeForce Go 6200 TE graphics controller, and 512MB of DDR-2/533 memory provide ample performance.

And it measures a trim 10.5 by 12.5 by 0.9 inches and weighs 4.5 pounds — as we took it out of the box, it felt so light we figured it shipped, like many notebooks, without the battery pack installed. We were wrong.

The Toshiba's AC adapter adds one pound to your briefcase. If the S213TD setup isn't light enough for your wallet, an S113TD model is $500 less with a slightly slower Pentium M 740 chip and smaller 256MB of memory and 40GB hard drive.

Now With 60 Percent More Icons
We're used to reviewing consumer PCs that come with online-service, discount-offer, and product-placement icons all over the Windows desktop. Toshiba preloads Windows XP Pro SP2 plus Microsoft Works, InterVideo's WinDVD player and Sonic's RecordNow CD burner applications and trial versions of Symantec's Norton AntiVirus 2005, Computer Associates' EZ Firewall, and Microsoft's Office 2003, but leaves the desktop fairly clear.

Instead, it pours nearly 20 icons into the system tray on the Windows Taskbar, thanks to a slew of Toshiba utilities for everything from zooming portions of the screen and managing home-versus-office network connections to specifying Fn-key shortcut combinations and setting up a RAID 1 array for systems with the second hard drive installed.

One utility automatically parks the hard disk if it senses vibration (i.e., every time we picked up the Portege to uncross our legs or connect a cable). Another replaces Windows' usual power settings with more detailed battery-saving options including LCD brightness and CPU speed as well as display or hard-drive timeouts.

Speaking of uncrossing legs, we kept shifting position or moving the S100 around a bit more than usual — while not scorching hot, the left side of the unit gets noticeably warm after a few minutes use, with a desert wind blowing from the left-edge cooling fan.

The left side of the notebook also holds IEEE 1394 and Gigabit Ethernet ports, along with a Type II PC Card slot and SD flash-card slot. Around the back are V.92 modem and two USB 2.0 ports, with a VGA-out port and the Matsushita combo drive (8X DVD-ROM playback, 24/10/24X CD-RW) at the right. Microphone and headphone jacks are up front, along with an on/off switch for the Wi-Fi radio and an honest-to-goodness dial instead of wait-for-Windows software control for audio volume.

We've tested desktop-replacement laptops that can't manage even our unofficial minimum passing grade of 90 minutes battery life, and lightweights that have cruised along for a welcome three-to-four hours. The Portege falls between those extremes, averaging an adequate but unexciting two- to two-and-a-quarter hours in our unplugged office-work and wireless-surfing sessions.

When plugged into an AC outlet, of course, the Pentium M 760 processor, 533MHz front-side bus and 2MB of Level 2 cache team up with the 5,400-rpm hard drive to deliver solid performance. Intel's 915PM Express chipset and Pro/Wireless 802.11b/g adapter handle the wireless networking.

The display's 14.1-inch size is a welcome increase over some slim-lines' 12.1-inch or smaller screens. Its 1,400 by 1,050 resolution makes menu text and icons rather small, but it's clear enough to stay on the readable side of small, as long as you keep the backlight to the top couple of its eight brightness settings.

Our unit showed rich colors with no bad pixels, though it didn't quite match the contrast of some glossy black (Sony's XBrite, Fujitsu's Crystal View) LCDs we've encountered; we found ourselves tilting the display a bit further back than we're used to for optimum viewing.

Fumbling Fingers
By now, you may be thinking the Toshiba is headed for a five-star review, or maybe four and a half considering its somewhat upscale price. Unfortunately, we haven't yet mentioned our greatest gripe — a clumsily nonstandard keyboard layout.

Typing feel is solid if shallow, but the layout is odd: dedicated PgUp and PgDn keys accompany the inverted-T cursor arrows (half the normal key size) at the bottom right. There are also dedicated (if half-sized) Home and End keys, so there's none of the Fn-key-plus-arrows shifting we often complain of, but Home and End join the Windows and right-click menu keys at the top right.

That means the Delete key, which your finger expects to find at top right, is glaringly misplaced at the bottom, to the right of the space bar. Combine that with the fact that, while there's a second Alt key to the right of the space bar, there's no second Ctrl key, and we found ourselves making typo after typo in that treacherous lower-right area.

You can adjust to the layout, but it takes practice (and preferably no alternating between the Toshiba and a desktop or other PC). We also grumbled about the Alps touchpad, which is good-sized with large mouse buttons but which occasionally skipped or wandered instead of tracking smoothly as usual.

On the other hand, we give Toshiba a thumb up for the presentation key at the left edge of the keyboard — it toggles with a quick tap between regular 1,400 by 1,050 resolution and XGA 1,024 by 768, for when you're plugging in a projector or low-res external monitor. That's very convenient.

So is the Portege S100 overall; it gives you high performance and high resolution, nearly as much power as a hefty desktop replacement with nearly as much portability as a scaled-down sub-notebook. Just a minor keyboard revision would make this a rave review.

Pros:

  • Swift performance and a sunny, high-resolution screen in a slim, lightweight traveler

Cons:

  • Keyboard layout includes a couple of booby traps; battery life could be better

Adapted from hardwarecentral.com.

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