Laptop manufacturers will never get it right. At least, not until they come to their senses and let me be in charge of product development and, more
specifically, feature set. Buying a laptop, for me, is like trying to choose the
cable package that has at least some of the things you want, as few of the
things you don't want, and doesn't actually cost you more than the price of a
new TV each month.
With laptops you get a great keyboard, a decent screen, backlit keyboard,
blazing performance, perpetual battery life, portability, packability and as
many ports as you'd ever need plus 1 - all at a price that recognises that a
laptop spent travelling is a laptop you won't have that long. You get all that
if you bring together enough laptops and throw them in a pile, that is, but you
never get them in a single unit.
At least you didn't get that until the Toshiba Portégé series came along.
I drooled over the original
R500 and then
R600 Portégé series. I even paid a visit to Toshiba Canada to get a tour of
their facilities and some great stories about their competition. I had even gone
as far as budgeting the $2,600 it would take to get one of the fancy R600's but
then I just couldn't do it. Cheaper laptops were knocking on the door and then,
in a lifesaving moment, Microsoft gave me an Acer Aspire tablet at PDC and I
realised that light and cheap is good enough for me. Except for that dodgy touch
screen that never worked properly, the appalling battery life, the fact that I
had to unplug the battery to shut it off and that eventually certain keys
stopped working. Apart from that it was great - mainly because it was free and I
needed a knock-about.
Then came the
Toshiba Portégé R705 and the reason for a little caginess on the part of my
guide at Toshiba became clear. The R705 was $799, had a DVD rewriter, was light
as a feather and had great battery life. I loved it. It was, to me, the greatest
laptop ever built by mankind and I especially loved the DVD, even more so
because Jeff Hadfield would not cease to belittle me and my addiction to the
The R705's light started to dim, however, as my wandering eye took in the
sleeker, more youthful laptops coming out. Indeed,
Ultrabooks had hit the market
and the very best of them - the "I am not an Ultrabook" Macbook Air - was
tugging at my heartstrings. Except that I can't deal with the wonky Mac keyboard
nor the Apple Tax. I had even outgrown my safety-blanket type need for an
optical drive, so was again on the market for some laptop action.
And then I saw it. It was beautiful. Sleek, slim, dark good looks. Plenty of
open ports, and stamina for those long productive nights.
Portégé Z835 hit the market and
this was the best laptop ever built. Ever. The Portégé Z835 Ultrabook has a dual core i3 @ 1.4GHz, 4Gb RAM, a 13" display at
1366 x 768, 2 USB 2.0 ports and a USB 3.0 with charge-on-sleep, plus - and this
is the real kicker - full sized HDMI, ethernet and VGA ports. And it's thinner
than a MacBook Air. And lighter. And has a longer battery life. And is $899. Why
even bother mentioning the backlit, splashproof keyboard, the great trackpad
with actual buttons and a trackpad disable button, the SD card slot, mic and
speakers and the compact charger.
Unboxing was over so quickly that I'm embarrased to say that I didn't savour
the experience. The packaging is so simple that you basically open the
box,remove the laptop and turn it on.
Look closely at the lid of the laptop and you'll see my one big serious
complaint of the unit: it scratches. Days after I acquired it I had it in a
backpack along with half a dozen other gadgets and some - I don't know, - nails
or saw-blades or something, and the lid ended up a little worse for wear. It's a
cheap laptop and it has a plastic lid, so it is exactly as I would expect, but
not what I had hoped.
I am still learning the ins and outs of this little gem but my first
impressions of the unit are: What a lovely, lovely machine. I don't have a case
for it - I just slip it into my notpad folder since it's actually thinner than
the pad of paper I keep in there. It's stunningly thin, and is so understated
that it takes a second glance to realise what it is you have with you. It's a
laptop. It's a really thin, really sensible, and ridiculously light full
featured and powerful laptop. This is a laptop you take with you to your local
coffee house in order to make the Macbook users envious.
My first impressions were, as I may have mentioned, favourable. There were,
however, a couple of flies in the ointment.
First, it's not the most solid of laptops. It's as solid as one could imagine
a laptop this thin could be, at least until you actually picked up a Macbook Air
and realised you could use it, the Mac, to cleave logs. The lid of the Portégé
wobbles a little, or if you bend it towards you and let it go, it wobbles a lot.
Not without a certain amusement value, but even that gets tired after a while.
There is a fan on the base. A fan. In 2012. There is no floppy disk drive, no
PCMCIA port and no modem, so at least they have abandoned most of the things
better consigned to history, but a fan? A big cirle on the base of the otherwise
neat underbelly that buzzes. It's not a loud buzz, but after a couple of hours
in a quiet room it ...kinda...gets to you. In a "Will you STOP that buzzing?!"
kind of way.
The screen could be bigger. I love the trick that Gateway do with
fitting a 14" screen in a 13" chassis. Actually I don't see why that's a trick
and not actually standard practice. It just seems to make sense. The screen
could also be less shiny. Shiny is good. I like shiny. I don't like shiny that
gets in my eyes while I'm trying to work. This isn't a Toshiba specific thing,
but rather what seems to me a current fashion of laptop manufacturers to make
their machines look shiny and wonderful.
I also want more USB 3.0 ports. 3.0 is backwards compatible with 2.0, so why
do we get 2 x 2.0's and a single 3.0? I mean, apart from cost, why? Yes, I'm
really being picky here but once you've started switching your peripherals to
USB 3.0 you start to loathe the 2.0 variety.
This base model Z830 series laptop also misses out on Bluetooth, which is a
shame but doesn't hold me back. Apart from that, the fan buzz, the wobbliness,
and the too-shiny screen I can't, at this point, pick anything about this laptop
that takes away from the overwhelming good impression I have so far.
In my opinion the Toshiba Portégé Z830 series is better provisioned than any
other Ultrabook currently on the market. Others are nearly as thin, or have a
backlit keyboard, or have USB 3.0, but none have all of this, and none have the
full set of full sized ports that the Z835 has. No dongles, just grab a cable
and plug 'er in.
My verdict: 9/10.
Update 1: After using it for a month
After using it for a month (and after seeing more competitors on the market) I like it both more and less. Let's start with the cons:
- It's not a power machine. I knew this from the start, but thought I'd mention it as the first con since I know some readers are looking for a desktop replacement. This is not a desktop replacement. This is a travel or light-duty notebook. Regardless, Visual Studio runs fine on it, and for a 102-project solution with a very large web site (not web application) it took 6min 03sec to compile. Remember that it's an i3 proc with only 4Gb RAM. On my desktop I have a quad-core i7 with 8Gb RAM and paired, fast SSDs and it compiles in 3min 19s.
The main point here is that it does compile, and it does run. This machine is, for me, perfectly suited to doing development while I'm on the road.
- The fan buzz. Oh that fan buzz. It was driving me spare. However, just as I was writing up this update I discovered the best thing ever: Z830/Z835 BIOS 1.6 Addresses Fan Noise. I upgraded from the bast 1.3 to the newer 1.6 BIOS and no fan noise. None. That's because they cottoned on to the concept of not running the fan until the unit needed cooling, so while my fingers hovering over the keyboard are now slightly warmer than they used to be, the room is quiet as a mouse. Bliss.
- The screen is too short. I really do wish it was a higher resolution screen.
- The SSD is slow. Not only is it slow, but from reading the forums it seems that the BIOS has hobbled the mainboard's chipset's ability to handle faster SSDs. So, you could buy a faster SSD, but the laptop would not work it to its full capacity. That is a stupid, stupid decision.
- No bluetooth. This is just cheaping out. It means no wireless tethering to my iPhone, no using bluetooth mice without a dongle taking up one of the USB slots.
- The unit goes to sleep before the lid is closed. By this I mean: bend the lid forward so you can, say, access one of the USB ports on the back of the machine and you'll find that even bending the lid forward by a third will trigger a sleep cycle. That's nuts. Go to sleep when the lid is closed, not when it's merely nodding out of tiredness.
And the pros:
- Did I mention it was $899, has a whopping huge battery life, has USB 3.0, full sized ethernet and VGA ports, backlit spill-proof keyboard and is thinner and lighter than a Macbook Air? That still makes me smile.
- The backlit keyboard. No laptop should be allowed not to have one of these, and I will never again buy a laptop that doesn't have this feature.
- It does everything it needs to do. I'm mainly using it for email, to remote desktop into other machines, and for web stuff. It does all of this and more. I take it everywhere, and if I'm stranded and bored I just plug in my iPhone and work using the tethered iPhone connection. Yes, a 3G version would be nice, but only if someone paid the $35 a month for me. I already pay for my iPhone dataplan and don't feel like getting a new one.
- It's still the best Ultrabook. In my opinion, anyway.
Overall I'm still very happy. If I had no laptop and $899 burning a hole in my pocket, then I'd buy it again in a heartbeat. Well - maybe I'd pony up the extra cash and get one of the more higher spec'd models. i7 and bluetooth. would be nice...
Update 2: After using it for 3 months
Three months is an awfully long time in the laptop market. We hear daily rumblings of new, thinner, faster, more diet oriented ultrabooks, not to mention the ever churning Apple rumour mill and the potential for Airbook-style Macbook pros.
What I still like
My initial impression of this notebook still stands. It's an exemplary ultrabook and I am extremely happy that I spent the $899 on it. However, it's aging, and it's aging quickly by the looks of things, but when it comes down to it does it matter:
- It's fast enough to run Visual Studio and SQL Server with very large projects and data sets
- It has fantastic battery life
- It's still the lightest
- It's cheap. In fact it's only $50 more than the top of the line iPad, though admittedly it has no 4G - but I always tether my phone to it when remote so I don't actually want Yet Another Data Plan for my laptops and tablets.
Basically: it's perfectly suited to what I need and use. The end.
The story should end except the Jeff wandered by with his 2nd gen Samsung series 9 and outright coveting has taken over my rational thought. The samsung is faster, sleeker, and thinner, and it's clearly built better. Clean lines, higher quality material and a far more solid feel to the admittedly flimsy Toshiba. However, the Samsung is still $500 more than the Toshiba, which buts it in the same box as the Macbook Air, give or take a more sensible keyboard in the Samsung.
Even so, the Toshiba still has the edge in a few departments
- The keyboard on the Toshiba is nice. You can't say that about many ultrabooks, though the Macbook Air is still the leader here, except that the Toshiba has separate Home, End and Page Up/Down keys. As a developer I use these keys all the time. All the time. Without them my life is pain.
- The Toshiba has full size VGA, HDMI and Ethernet ports. We have a big screen in the conference room that we plug our 'books into during meetings. We also have wired internet for those who want to turn off the WiFi and save some juice. Not having to carry around dongles and adapters is wonderful thing.
- It's under $900.
So I'm now holding out for an Ivy Bridge powered Toshiba with a 14" 1600 x 1200 non-reflective screen in a 13" chassis, full sized VGA and Ethernet ports, 3 x USB 3.0 ports, no fan, duraluminium cover and upgraded screen hinges. For $900, naturally, but I'd pony up an extra $50 for those ports if I had to.
What I dislike
Initially I said I was fine with the reduced vertical height, then I backtracked and wished for more screen real estate, and now I'm doing a full 180 and declaring my need for a taller screen. It's just a little too small for serious dev work. Even so, for serious dev work I normally just plug it into my 24" monitor at home and I'm up and running with no problems.
The noise of the fan also bothers me, though the BIOS update all but fixed that issue. However, a new issue has surfaced: when the laptop is plugged in and charging there's a high pitched noise, similar to a slight insect buzz, that comes from the power supply. I don't know if this is related to the BIOS changes to the battering that the Toshiba has had in my care, but it's annoying if it's charging near you while you're trying to sleep.
The quality of the material could be better. It's collected a great assortment of dings and scratches, and the screen hinge definitely needs to be tighter with less bouncing if you jiggle it.
Overall I still give it a 9/10 when used in the manner it was designed. It's not a heavy development workhorse. It's not a multimedia centre. It's an Ultrabook and it's a very, very good Ultrabook.