In 2008, Apple ushered in a new era of portable computing with its Macbook Air. These ulta-thin notebook computers sport 11-inch or 13-inch displays, now ship exclusively with solid-state drives (SSDs) and lack an internal optical drive (CD/DVD) to save on size and weight. In response to the success of the Macbook Air, Intel developed a set of specifications for the Ultrabook, a higher-end type of sub-notebook running Windows. The goal is to produce Windows-based systems with reduced size and weight and extended battery life, without compromising performance.
According to Intel, the company expects 75 Ultrabooks to be introduced this year. For the last few weeks, I have been using one of these: Toshiba’s Portege Z830-S8301. This was the first Ultrabook I have used, and from what I have seen, this new line of Windows machines might just give Apple a run for its money. While I don’t have a benchmark against which to compare the Portege, it definitely has its pluses and minuses.
Ultrabooks are intended to be light, and the Portege may just be one of the lightest around. Weighing in at 2.5 pounds, it is hard to believe that this is basically a full-featured notebook that weighs less than a netbook. The Portege is also extremely slim, measuring 0.6 inches by 12.4 inches by 8.9 inches.
The body is made of magnesium alloy, which is one of the reasons why the Portege is so light. One drawback, for me anyway, is that the Portege is so light it comes across as being cheaply made. The body feels plastic and the screen is incredibly wobbly.
Compared to a Macbook Air, the Portege probably won’t be winning any beauty contests. However, I find it rather stylish, in an understated sort of way. The black-on-gray color scheme is subdued, although the chrome accents seem a little over the top. At any rate, I am personally more interested in performance.
The screen itself is a 13.3-inch, LED-backlit matte panel with a 1,366 by 768 resolution (the standard for most Ultrabooks on the market). I am a huge fan of matte displays, since there is less reflection, especially when in high-light conditions. I was happy with the brightness and colors of the display, and text appears clear and sharp.
The touchpad is smooth and responsive. Toshiba offset the touchpad on the wristrest, but it is centered with the “home” keys on the keyboard. This is a minor design feature, but one that cuts down on accidental “bumps” to the touchpad. To completely avoid this, there is a touchpad “on/off” button between the space bar and the touchpad that allows you to deactivate the touchpad if you are using a separate mouse. I also like that the Portege offers two dedicated buttons instead integrating them into the touchpad. One minor complaint, however, it that the chrome buttons are fingerprint magnets.
Nestled between the touchpad buttons is a fingerprint reader. I have had laptops before that have these readers, but I have never used them. Now I regret having waited so long. It is so much easier to scan your fingerprint to unlock the computer than it is to use the traditional method of hitting Ctrl+Alt+Del and then entering in your Windows username and password.
The built-in stereo speakers are more than sufficient for playing music and audio. At high levels, however, sound becomes a bit distorted, which is typical with such small speakers.
The Portege has a spill-resistant, backlit keyboard that you can turn on and off or that will, by default, turn off after 15 seconds pass without pressing a key. I wasn’t overly impressed with the typing experience on the Portege, however. The keys were a bit stiff, and they were also shallow, and I found myself making more typos than usual. The keys themselves are also a bit smaller than those found on other notebooks of similar width that I have used in the past.
The Portege comes loaded with a variety of input/output features. For video, the Portege Z830 is equipped with VGA and HDMI ports. Audio and speaker jacks are on the left side of the chassis, next to the SD card slot.
On the right of the Portege is a USB 3.0 port, and there are two USB 2.0 ports on the back. One of the USB 2.0 ports has Toshiba’s “sleep and charge” functionality for recharging phones and other devices, even when the machine is off. Having side-by-side USB ports is especially useful if using USB-powered devices with dual plugs, such as the Toshiba Mobile Monitor and AOC USB Monitor, which I will be reviewing in a couple of weeks. Again, Toshiba’s attention to detail is impressive.
For wireless connectivity, the Portege has Bluetooth and 802.11n Wi-Fi along with a 10/100/1000 Ethernet connection for wired networking.
While I didn’t use this feature, the Portege supports Intel’s Wireless Display WiDi, which streams the display to an HDTV equipped with a third-party adapter.
For video conferencing and chatting, the Portege Z830 also comes with a 1.3-megapixel Webcam and speaker. It offered reasonable image quality, provided there was adequate lighting. In low-light conditions, there is a definite drop off in performance.
Keep in mind that, like all Ultrabooks, the Z830 does not have an internal optical drive. So if you install a lot of software from CD or DVD, you will need to pick up an external drive. This is becoming less and less of an issue, as you are able to download most software from the Web.
For internal storage, the Portege Z80-S8301 has a 128-gigabyte solid-state drive. While this may not seem like a lot of storage, especially when many “traditional” notebooks ship with 300-gigabyte drives or bigger, I have yet to max out this much space, even with my collection of digital music and photos. The plus side of SSDs is that they are much faster and more stable than hard disk drives (HDDs). This is apparent when booting up, which takes less than 30 seconds, and even more so when waking the computer from sleep, which takes under five seconds.
The Portege comes with a bevy of pre-installed software, including Windows 7 Professional 64-bit. There is also Google Chrome, Internet Explorer 9, Windows Office Starter 2010, Microsoft Live Essentials, Skype, and a 30-day trial of Norton Internet Security.
The Ultrabook is also backed by the three-year parts-and-labor warranty.
The Portege Z830-S8301 I tested comes with a Core i5 dual-core 1.7Ghz processor and 4G of RAM. This will provide you more than enough computing power for everyday Web surfing, email, word processing, etc. The Portege has integrated graphics, which can get bogged down with graphics-intensive operations, such as gaming.
Portege claims the Z830-S8301 has over eight hours of battery life. In my testing, I was getting a little under seven hours of operation between charges, which is still some of the best battery life I have seen. Reflecting a recent trend started by Apple, the battery is not removable.
One other thing worth noting is the on-board fan, which is on the bottom side of the chassis. This positioning seemingly amplifies the noise instead of muffling it when it is running, as I found it to be noticeably louder than many other notebooks I have used in the past.
After using the Portege Z830 for a few weeks, I was sad to have to send it back to Toshiba. This is by far the lightest laptop I have ever used, although its airiness lends a feeling of cheapness as well. It is positioned for professionals looking to minimize weight while traveling, without giving up much in the performance department.
You are also paying a price premium for the Portege’s slimmed-down design. The reviewed model costs $1,199, although this is still cheaper than a comparable Macbook Air. The cost will no doubt put off many consumers, especially when comparably equipped, albeit chunkier, notebooks can be had for half the price. However, if price isn’t an issue and you are looking for a lightweight notebook than doesn’t skimp on power or features, the Toshiba Portege Z830-S8301 is well worth a look.
Wayne A. Thorp, CFA, is the author of “Gadget Corner.” All reviews are based on firsthand experience of the product or service. No third-party compensation is received for opinions on products, services, websites or topics. However, sometimes the author is not required by the manufacturer or their PR firm to return the product under review. In such instances, it is our policy to convey this within the review. The views and opinions expressed in these reviews are strictly those of the author. Any product claim, statistic, quote or other representation about a product or service should be verified with the manufacturer or provider.