Toshiba's new Portege laptop sports 500GB SSD

Weighing just 2.46 pounds, it's aimed squarely at business execs

When a light-weight box arrived on my desk recently from Toshiba Corp., I immediately figured I had a new solid-state disk (SSD) drive to review. In fact, it was an SSD -- a whopping 500GB drive wrapped in a laptop that tipped the scales at a mere 2.46 pounds.

At only 0.77-in thick, Toshiba's new Portege R600-ST4203 business notebook is the thinnest and lightest PC laptop available today. Toshiba bills it as "the ultimate ultralight notebook." Measuring 11.1 inches by 8.5 inches, it bests Apple's MacBook Air in weight, doesn't skimp on ports, and has an internal optical drive. (If you get the Portege without the optical drive, it weighs just 1.72 pounds.)

The Portege R600, which runs 64-bit Windows Vista, comes in a silver finish, has a docking connector for when you land back in the office and is powered by a 1.4GHz Intel Centrino 2 Duo Core chip. It has 3GB of DDR2 SDRAM and uses a mobile Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 4500MHD with 128MB-1340MB dynamically allocated shared graphics memory.

Best of all it can ordered with the aforementioned 500GB SSD. Toshiba's previous model, the Portege R500 Notebook, featured a 64GB SSD, so this drive is leaps and bounds beyond that one in terms of capacity. But all that space will cost you an extra US$1,400.

There's a wide array of ports, including a 10/100/1000 Ethernet port, an RGB video output port, an audio port, a microphone input port, a headphone jack, two USB ports (placed conveniently on either side), an ExpressCard Slot and an eSATA/USB combo port that charges external gadgets while the computer is in sleep mode. It's a nice little feature for those who travel and may want to charge a cell phone or other hand-held device from the laptop. However, if you read the fine print on the specification sheet, you'll see that not all external devices, even if they're USB-power enabled, will charge from the system in sleep mode. You may have to plug the laptop in for some devices.

A transreflective screen

One cool feature is a new wide-screen 12.1-inch indoor/outdoor transreflective side-lit LED screen. Transreflective means that the screen reflects and transmits ambient light. A button just below the right hand side of the monitor shuts off the backlight and allows the light of the sun to power the display reflectively. I tried this, and it works remarkably well. I was able to clearly see the screen with no sun glare whatsoever. Overall, the 1280-by-800-pixel resolution is excellent. A webcam and microphone are built into screen bezel.

With an ultra-thin, six-cell, removable lithium-ion battery that will last up to 7.5 hours, Toshiba says the Portege uses up to 50% less power in idle mode than earlier models. The battery life is attributed not only to the low-power SSD drive but to the transreflective screen, which also uses very little power. And it has a spill-resistant keyboard, which basically gives you a few extra minutes to drain and dry the laptop after unexpected spills.

The amenities don't come cheap. The 500GB SSD model of the Portege R600 retails for $3,499, though you can get a low-end version with a basic 160GB hard disk drive for $2,099. So basically, you're paying a lot of money for the drive -- but what a drive it is. Being a systems company, Toshiba brings its own proprietary technology to bear in creating an SSD that includes a proprietary controller, firmware, circuit board and multi-level cell flash memory chips.

Toshiba spokesman Jared Leavitt made it clear that because of the cost is prohibitive for most, this notebook is aimed almost exclusively at business executives.

One of the things that makes it a good travel laptop, however, is also a demerit in my mind: The Portege has a plastic case. While it helps with the weight, plastic also makes the machine feel flimsy, as if the first time you drop it or squash it, it'll crack. When you pay more than $2,000 for a laptop, its case should be made of alloy. And, these days, you can purchase a stylish MacBook Air -- with a 128GB SSD and an aluminum body -- for $1,799.

Performance

The reason I wanted to check out the Portege R600 was to test the high-capacity SSD, which Toshiba claims is three times faster than a comparable 128GB SSD. To test the overall performance of the SSD, I used HD Tune, v2.55, as the benchmarking tool. The I/O result was an extremely consistent 168.9 MB/sec. average read rate, a .2 millisecond data access time and CPU utilization of only 7.8%. While Samsung's SSD isn't going to rival Intel's X25-M, which has read rates of up to 250MB/sec, it turns in very respectable performance, which undoubtedly contributes to what in the end is a very efficient machine. Unfortunately, the SSD came set up with several disk partitions, which disabled the write benchmarking capability of HD Tune's software, as well as several other benchmarking tools I use.

Next, I measured boot up time. Running on battery power, from a cold start, the Portege R600 took 39 seconds to reach the Windows Vista log-in screen -- decent enough, but not all that impressive for a high-end laptop sporting an SSD. A restart took 52 seconds. I've tested Dell laptops using Intel's X25-M and seen boot-ups in the 20-second range.

To test battery life, I used BapCo MobileMark 2007 benchmarking software, which registered a battery life of 7 hours, 32 minutes.

For those planning to use the Portege R600 on the go, the laptop comes with an Intel Wireless WiFi Link 5100AGN card and a Bluetooth v2.1 + EDR card.

As for software, the Portege R600 comes with PC Health Monitor, which acts like a car dashboard and monitors everything from battery charge capacity to CPU temperature to the fan's speed. When something is acting up, PC Health Monitor alerts you much as an engine light does when there's car trouble. The Portege also comes with multi-level password utilities, including a fingerprint reader that was not only incredibly easy to set up, but easy to use. It automatically asks you for two fingers, which means you can use either your right or left hand, depending on how you have the laptop situated.

The SSD version is can withstand a shock of up to 3Gs when running, and 60Gs when it's off. Beyond that, and you run the risk of losing data. The hard disk drive version has a drive impact sensor, which automatically removes the read/write head from the drive platter to avoid damage and data loss.

The last word

All in all, this is a high-quality travel laptop suited for folks who have the money to spend for a light-weight, high-performance machine. The SSD works as expected, but make sure you really need that amount of space before spending so much for the drive.

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Lucas Mearian

Computerworld (US)

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