Toshiba should know a thing or two about skinny, featherweight laptops. Back in 2007, the company unveiled the Portege R500, a 2.4-pound laptop measuring what was then an anorexic 0.77 inches (19.6mm) thick. Much to everyone's disbelief, it managed to squeeze in an optical drive.
Fast forward four years and it's entering the Ultrabook market with the Portege Z830 (that's the Z835 if you get it at Best Buy). And here comes the déjà vu: it's even lighter than the competition, at 2.47 pounds, but still houses a full suite of ports, including USB 3.0 and 2.0, HDMI and Gigabit Ethernet. It also promises more than eight hours of battery life, besting claims made by the likes of Apple, Acer and ASUS. Not to mention, with a price of $800 (Best Buy only), it undercuts competing models -- and at a time when every other Ultrabook seems to have some fatal flaw, whether it be a flaky touchpad or skimpy battery life. Clearly, there's lots of room here for something more carefully thought-out. So is Toshiba's Portege know-how just what the market needs? Let's see.
Look and feel
For a machine that's going to sit on the shelf at the Best Buy, the Z835 looks like it would be more at home under the arm of some suited, late '80s businessman. We're not sure if it's the drab black-on-gray color scheme, the chintzy chrome accents or some combination thereof, but put together they make for a design that's at once dated and stuffy.
It doesn't help that there's a lot going on here: in addition to the power button, the area above the keyboard is home to two launch keys, including ones for Intel Wireless Display and Toshiba's eco utility (more on that later). There's also a thin strip below the touch touch buttons that houses six LED lights that glow green and orange. Wedged in between the space bar and the touchpad is a button for turning off the trackpad. In a quirky touch, the fan sits on the bottom side, protruding ever-so slightly. The hinge, meanwhile, has a metal shoulder on each end that matches the reflective material used in the touch buttons. That wouldn't be so noticeable if it weren't for the fact that there's thin cutout above the hinge in both those spots, putting about an eighth of an inch of blank space between the hinge and the corners of the display -- an optical illusion that fools you into thinking the screen is sitting higher than it is. As a finishing touch, the palm rest comes plastered with four stickers. You can remove these, of course, though we wish more OEMs would paint them on the bottom, as Lenovo did with the IdeaPad U300s.
It's a shame because in a blind hands-on, the Z835 feels exactly like we'd always hoped Ultrabooks would feel. At 2.47 pounds, it's almost half a pound lighter than the Air, and believe us when we say you can feel the difference. What's incredible, too, is that despite being so featherweight the Z835 still crams in more ports than anything else we've seen. These include a USB 3.0 socket and Kensington lock slot on the right; an SD reader and headphone and mic ports on the left; and a buffet of openings 'round back that includes twin USB 2.0 ports, Ethernet, HDMI, VGA and the power port. Of those USB 2.0 sockets, one of them uses Toshiba's Sleep and Charge technology to charge gadgets while the laptop's dozing fitfully.
The only Ultrabook that come close to this kind of spread is the new HP Folio 13 and, as it happens, it's also the heaviest of the bunch, at 3.3 pounds. Otherwise, almost every Ultrabook is missing something. The 13-inch MacBook Air has two USB 2.0 ports, an SD slot and a Thunderbolt port, for which there aren't yet many compatible peripherals. The ASUS Zenbook UX31 has USB 3.0 and 2.0, mini-HDMI and mini-VGA, and comes with Ethernet and VGA adapters. The U300s, meanwhile, has HDMI, USB 3.0 and 2.0, but no SD slot or Ethernet jack. Finally, the Acer Aspire S3 -- one of Toshiba's main competitors at this price point -- houses two USB 2.0 ports, as well as HDMI-out.
With lightness, though, comes mixed build quality. Although the Z835 is made of magnesium alloy and has the same honeycomb caging you'll find inside other Porteges, it feels less solid than other the Air or UX31. When you grip it in one hand, the whole thing feels sort of hollow, especially as you press your fingers into the bottom side. We also noticed the lid wobbles, especially after you set the laptop down. Then again, that brushed metal casing proved immune to both scratches and fingerprints, so however flimsy it felt, we never felt compelled to handle it with kid gloves.
Keyboard and trackpad
The Z835's keyboard is on par with those belonging to some of the other Ultrabooks we've tested, but that isn't exactly saying much. As with so many other chiclet arrangements, the keys here don't offer much travel. Worse, still, each individual key has a squat shape, leaving barely enough vertical space for even small fingertips. Suffice to say, that didn't stop us from typing portions of this review (and with few spelling errors, at that). We suspect you'll adapt, as people often do to imperfect keyboards, though we'd remiss if we didn't warn you that there's a learning curve.
Still, Toshiba wisely extended the keyboard from one end of the deck to the other, wasting very little space on the sides. As a result, most of the major keys -- Enter, left and right Shift, Caps Lock -- are amply sized and easy to hit if you're touch typing. (Others, such as the Fn and right Ctrl buttons, have been reduced to the size of a fingernail, and are no larger than any of the lettered keys.) The typing here is also pretty quiet, with the keys making a comforting, low-pitched sound. Another bonus: it's spill-resistant, showing Toshiba is indeed putting its business-centric Portege expertise to good use here.
The Z835's keyboard is also backlit -- not too shabby, considering the $900 Acer Aspire S3 doesn't have this feature (the $900 HP Folio does, however). Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but we noticed it isn't particularly bright. If you sit on the side of the laptop (you know, away from the keys), you'll see white lights glowing beneath the buttons. To Toshiba's credit, the backlighting does become more obvious as your surroundings get dimmer, which means it'll come in handy the next time you attempt to work through an overnight flight. But even then, the lighting feels more subtle than what you'll see on the Folio or Air: you're not going to see white light pooling beneath the keys; just a faint glow from the keycaps, leaving you with barely enough of a glow to type in the dark.
The 1.75 x 3.3-inch touchpad, though short, offers a smooth, low-friction surface that makes it easy to drag the cursor across the screen -- nope, no lag or jumpiness for once. It even pulls off pinch to zoom reasonably well. The problem is that the pad is small enough that you'll have to angle your hand just so in order to have enough room to stretch those fingers out. Even then, you'll likely feel your fingertips bump against the edges of the trackpad. It also supports one- and two-fingered scrolling, but for whatever reason, neither gesture is enabled out of the box; you'll have to go into Synaptics' device settings and select these options yourself.
The two touch buttons should serve as evidence that sometimes, a staid design can have its advantages. Yes, those buttons are made of a tacky reflective metal that collects your oily fingerprints. But there's something to be said for not having to put up with a touchpad with a built-in buttons -- you know, the kind we often rail on for being too flaky. Here, the buttons are reliable, easy to press and fairly quiet.
Display and sound
Like every other Ultrabook offered at this price, the Z835 has a 1366 x 768 display. We figure, if more pixels are a necessity, you shouldn't have any qualms about spending an extra three hundred bucks on the UX31, which comes standard with a 1600 x 900 panel. As for everyone else, that 1366 x 768 pixel count should be enough for checking email and scrolling through webpages. So our real gripe about the screen actually has very little to do with specs but, rather, the quality. Granted, TN displays in general don't offer great viewing angles, but they seem particularly narrow here. If you look at the display head-on with the brightness cranked up, you'll enjoy pleasant colors and crisp-enough detail. Dip the lid forward, though, or watch from the sides and you'll see the picture become washed out with more severe contrast. As with so many other displays we've tested, it's adequate, but you will have to remember to adjust the screen carefully before settling in for your next True Blood marathon.
Toshiba also threw in its Resolution+ technology, which promises to upscale video to as high as 720p. While it doesn't hurt to have this feature, it's more of a marketer's bullet point than anything else. For one, you can only use it in Windows Media Player 12, which means this won't compensate for the amateur quality of home videos on YouTube and Vimeo. Even when we used it in Windows Media Player, though, we didn't notice much of a difference. Grainy videos looked as pixelated with ever.
Here's your first clue that audio quality wasn't a top priority for Toshiba here: the volume controls are built into the "3" and "4" buttons, while the main row of function keys is given over to things like locking the computer, going into hibernation, adjusting the brightness and disabling the touchpad (an odd thing when there's also a discrete button for that). Oddly, too, there's no onscreen indicator showing the volume level as you adjust it.
As it turns out, the sound quality is fairly ho-hum, though volume is the least of its failings. It's not as loud as, say, the Bang & Olufsen-equipped UX31, though it's on par with other Ultrabooks, such as the U300s. No, the real weakness is the way tracks sound -- and that's despite MaxxAudio software on board to help enhance the quality. Pop songs by the likes of Lady Gaga sound alright at median volume settings, but they take on a distant, metallic quality as you pump the volume. Rap tracks and more bass-heavy numbers are predictably thin as well.
The $800 configuration we tested sports a 1.4GHz Core i3-2367M processor, 4GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD and an eight-cell battery rated for 8.28 hours of runtime. Given its price, it performs well. Thanks in part to its Hi-Speed Start technology, it boots in 23 seconds -- almost half the 45-second startup time we observed with the similarly priced Aspire S3. Its benchmark scores are higher across the board, too: it notched a 500-point lead in PCMark Vantage and a nearly 400-point gain in 3DMark06. And, as you'd expect, the Z835's SSD offers much faster read speeds than the 5,400RPM hard drive that comes with the entry-level S3. In the disk benchmark ATTO, the Z835's mSATA drive managed read speeds that peaked just below 200 MB/s, while the S3 topped out at 80 MB/s reads.
For our part, the Z835 didn't get in our way while we worked (actually, it did sometimes, but that's a function of the obnoxious bloatware load, which we'll tell you about in a bit). During our testing, we carried on our normal routine of juggling tabs in Chrome, writing emails, reading blogs and streaming YouTube videos. The machine didn't hiccup, even when we started downloading and installing programs and running a full system scan in the background using Norton Internet Security. We did notice a slight lag as we opened a new tab while playing a web video, but other than that, multitasking was smooth.
Toshiba Portege Z835 (1.4GHz Core i3-2367M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s (1.8GHz Core i7-2677M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)
ASUS Zenbook UX31 (1.7GHz Core i5-2557M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)
Acer Aspire Ultrabook S3 (1.6GHz Core i5-2467M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)
13-inch, 2011 MacBook Air (1.7 GHz Core i5-2557M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)
5:32 (Mac OS X) / 4:12 (Windows)
Samsung Series 9 (1.7GHz Core i5-2537M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)
Notes: the higher the score the better. For 3DMark06, the first number reflects score with GPU off, the second with it on.
Curiously, though, the Z835's solid-state drive couldn't match the S3's HDD in write performance: it reached about 50 MB/s, whereas the S3 at least maxed out around 75 MB/s. Either way, the Z835's SSD isn't fast compared to other solid-state drives. The U300s, for instance, achieved 250 MB/s reads and 200 MB/s writes, while the UX31 remains the champion with 550 MB/s reads and 500 MB/s writes. Then there's one other area in which the S3 triumphs over the Z835, though, and that's resume time: the S3 takes just two seconds, whereas with the Z835 you'll wait four. Not a deal-breaker, though it does dovetail with some of the other ways in which the Z835's performance seems to trail the competition.
Additionally, it didn't take much to get that fan whirring. You might think that because it's tucked on the bottom side of the laptop any noise would be muffled. Wrong. Even when coming out of hibernate mode the system piped up, and that noise continued even after we logged into Windows. The result, at least, is that the machine never got hot. Yes, the area above the keyboard gets warm to the touch (not that you'll touch it much anyway), but the keys themselves stayed nice and cool. Still, we'd be concerned about working in bed with the Z835, and having pillows or blankets wrap themselves around the vent on the bottom side, making it more difficult for the laptop to keep its surface temperatures under control.
So are these imperfections enough to justify spending an extra $300 to $500 on a higher-end Ultrabook? That's a question you'll have to answer for yourself. For some benchmark junkies reading this, they'll be a deal-breaker. But we're willing to bet that with a 23-second startup time, some of you won't fret too much about the raw performance scores.
The best we've seen so far in an Ultrabook -- albeit by a margin of just eight minutes. In our rundown test, which involves looping a movie off the hard drive with WiFi on and the brightness fixed at 65 percent, it lasted five hours and 49 minutes. If you were to buy the identically priced Acer Aspire S3 you'd have to settle for an hour and 40 minutes less runtime (ditto, more or less, for the $1,349 Samsung Series 9). Still, though it's technically the best, the Z835's longevity is comparable to the Zenbook UX31 and, to a lesser extent, the MacBook Air. Needless to say, we'll be curious to pit this against the HP Folio 13, which costs the same and is rated for nine hours of use. We know, we know: battery life ratings are often exaggerated bunk. That said, we wouldn't be too surprised if we soon had a new battery life champ.
This is probably a good place to explain that eco utility we mentioned earlier. Though it looks like a dashboard showing the display brightness and power consumption, in practice it's just a pre-configured battery-saving setting. So, if you enable eco mode, the keyboard backlight turns off, the display dims and the system will turn off the screen and hard disk sooner than it normally would. From what we can tell, it's an app dedicated to flipping on one particular power management profile: there are some advanced settings, but so far as we can tell, you can't adjust any of those metrics (at least not here -- you'll of course get more options in Windows Power Options). And though it's interesting seeing the real-time graph illustrating the power consumption, we suspect that's not what most consumers will use this utility for.
Toshiba loaded the Z835 with bloatware, but in an interesting twist, most of it's software the company wrote itself. These programs include: Toshiba Assist, Disc Creator, DVD Player, Face Recognition, Fingerprint Utility, HDD/SSD Alert, HDD Protection, HW Setup Utility, Media Controller, Password Utility, PC Health Monitor, Recover Disc Creator, Service Station, Security Assist, Sleep Utility, Value Added Package and the laptop's webcam software.
Among these apps is Bulletin Board, which Toshiba has been bundling on its laptops for some time now. With this app, you get a canvas for posting to-do lists, sticky notes and a calendar widget, along with "written notes" (these will be about as legible as if you scribbled them in MS Paint). Any time you want to remove something from this hodgepodge of reminders, just drag the pin that's attaching it to the virtual board, and it'll fade away. It works well enough, though we can still think of some tweaks that would make the app more intuitive. First, Toshiba should pull in calendar entries from Google Cal and other services so that you don't have to manually enter appointments. Also, a local weather widget might be more useful than the analog clock currently included as an option.
Moving along, ReelTime opens a scrollable carousel showing your activity on the PC in chronological order. That means apps you've used, documents you've opened and websites you've visited. We can see it being a handy way to pull up things you accidentally closed that perhaps didn't have a quick desktop shortcut. At the same time, though, we're not sure we'd get much use out of this, given that Windows 7 lets us pin key apps, docs and sites -- not to mention the fact that most browsers let you reopen recently closed tabs.
Still with us? Good. Because we're not done yet. Toshiba also added Microsoft Office Starter 2010, Windows Live Essentials, Google Toolbar and Google Chrome -- you know the stuff you're resigned to seeing on your spanking new laptop.
Worst of all, if you buy this through Best Buy, you'll be greeted by the retailer's own app store, which takes over most of the screen almost as soon as you start up. Actually, let's clarify that: you'll see the shop, along with a smaller overlay window that summarizes what the store is all about. (Spoiler: Best Buy wants to sell you stuff. Lots and lots of stuff.) You can remove this from your list of startup items, of course, but the reality that this is what you get in exchange for scoring such an inexpensive Ultrabook is still quite frustrating. You know what they say: there's no such thing as free lunch.
The $800 configuration we tested, the Z835, is a pre-built version that's only available at Best Buy. To recap, it comes stocked with a 1.4GHz Core i3-2367M processor, 4GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD and a eight-cell battery rated for more than eight hours of battery life.
The price goes up if you order through Toshiba's website, but at least the options expand -- a little, anyway. Even here, you'll find pre-configured models, which means you won't have the option of cherry picking the processor or amount of pre-installed RAM. Starting at the low-end, there's the Z835-ST8305 ($880 after instant savings), which comes with identical specs as the Best Buy model, except it costs eighty bucks more. Best Buy's bloatware aside, we can't see why you wouldn't go with the cheaper option.
Next in line is the Z830-S8301, a pre-configured model that rings in at $1,200. It would seem here that you're paying 50 percent more for that 1.7GHz Core i5-2557M CPU, since this model, too, has 4GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD and integrated graphics. Kind of an outrageous price when you consider that the HP Folio starts at just $900 with very similar specs. The most tricked-out model on display is the Z830-S8302, which costs $1,430 and is also pre-configured. For that chunk of cash, you get a Core i7-2667M CPU, 6GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD and integrated Intel graphics.
Okay, technically that's not the last configuration you can buy. There's also a configurable model, the Z830-BT8300, but with a starting price of $1,100 and entry-level specs that include a Core i5 CPU, 2GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, there's no reason for consumers to choose this option. Maybe that's the point: your only OS choices with that configuration are Win 7 Professional or Ultimate, which makes it pretty clear this particular model isn't for mainstream users.
This is the part of the review where we usually weigh an Ultrabook against its competitors, all them imperfect in some way. The Z835 is no exception, though it does trump its opponents in several key categories. Its battery life is the best we've seen so far, though the ASUS Zenbook UX31 isn't far behind. It offers a more robust selection of ports than any other Ultrabook (save the HP Folio), and still manages to weigh roughly half a pound less than the others.
When it comes to specs, the Z835 loses a little bit of its shine now that we know what the Folio will be bringing when it goes on sale December 7th. Whereas the Z835 starts at $800 with a Core 3 CPU, the Folio will go for $900 and up with a Core i5 processor and a battery that purportedly lasts up to nine hours (we'll be the judge of that). Otherwise, they both have 128GB SSDs, backlit keyboards and 4GB of RAM. We'll break down the Folio's performance in our review, but for now, it's clear you can get more processing power at roughly for a small premium.
Still, the Z835 is a better deal than the $900 Acer Aspire 3, which starts with no backlit keyboard and a slower 5,400RPM drive. It's no wonder it trails the others in all of our performance benchmarks.
With us so far? The Z835 is the lightest, most longevous Ultrabook we've seen. Now that we've got that squared away, here are some downsides: it's not offered with a 256GB SSD. By most metrics, it's not an extraordinarily fast performer. The Air, UX31 and U300s all of combine an SSD with either a Core i5 or i7 processor and, as you'd expect, they eat the Z835 for breakfast. Then again, the 13-inch Air starts at $1,299, while the UX31 and U300s start at about $1,100. Seems fair to us, more expensive machines offering superior performance
In terms of ergonomics, you'll find better keyboards and larger trackpads on the Air and U300s. Still, the Z835 isn't the worst in this area either: its keyboard is better than the UX31's and no worse than the S3's. Also, while its trackpad is nothing to write home about, it's still much more reliable than the UX31's.
And then there's design. On the one hand, to each his own. If you don't mind the Z835's buttoned-up look, ride off into the sunset with it and don't mind our nitpicking. We'll also say that the Z835's lightness helps make it pretty in a way that its shiny chrome accents don't. In other words, industrial design includes more than just aesthetics. Still, we're inclined to say it's objectively less attractive than the Air, UX31 or U300s, each of which are striking in their own way.
We can only ding a laptop so much for being homely. Once you get past the Z835's dated looks (and you will as soon as you pick it up), it's actually among the best Ultrabooks we've seen. After all, it's earned a bunch of superlatives here: lightest, best battery life and most robust selection of ports (that one's a tie with the Folio). Not bad for $800, especially considering many of its chief competitors cost three, if not five hundred dollars more.
If you'll indulge us in a game of devil's advocate, though, we can think of reasons besides the design that you might think twice about this. So far, three competitors (the Air, U300s and UX31) perform markedly faster. Of those, the UX31 and Air each have higher-res displays. And while the Z835's keyboard and trackpad are adequate, the Air's and even the U300s' are better. Still, those seem like minor quibbles considering everything this laptop has to offer at this price. So, if you don't mind the design and dig the price and long battery life, carpe diem! No regrets, we say. And even if you don't take the bait, we suspect you'll soon be seeing more laptops like the Z835: after all, Toshiba has proven it's quite possible to make an exceptionally light, long-lasting Ultrabook that costs well under $1,000. If Toshiba can pull it off, well, everyone else is just going to have to follow suit.