Want an ultraportable notebook that concentrates on features rather than style? Optical drive, full speed processor, wireless display, USB 3.0, light weight, long battery: Toshiba delivers again with the Sandy Bridge update to the Portege range - mostly.
Ultraportables tend to be pricey and to favour sleek design, battery life and light weight rather than performance. The R830 isn't cheap, and it's both light and long lasting but the design is understated - and the performance is unusually good. That’s because instead of a low-voltage processor, you get a full Sandy Bridge Core i5-2520M - and no, it doesn't scorch your lap.
That's because unlike most notebooks that let the components heat up and then use a fan to push hot air out of the case, Toshiba designed the case so that fan pulls cool air in and passes it over the motherboard to keep things fairly cool in the first place. That's the principle and it seems to work; even on a hot day it's not uncomfortable to use the R830 in shorts for general tasks - we had to run four GPU-accelerated web apps and stream a video before we noticed any increase in temperature and it was never hot enough to be a problem. We also appreciated the 7200rpm speed of the 500GB hard drive; the new Core i5 processors are strong performers and it's nice when the drive speed keeps up. That helps with the 20 second boot time (from powering on to being logged in to Windows); we also like the option to have the R830 turn on automatically when you open the lid (tucked away in the BIOS).
The design is all about practicality; the matte black case is magnesium alloy and the chassis is particularly sturdy without being heavy or looking clunky. The chunky silver dropped hinges are robust as well, but the thin screen will flex if you deliberately try to twist it - although as with the previous generation, it also stands up well to the punishment of being thrown into your carryon and dragged around the world. Don't let the slimness and light weight fool you; the build quality is excellent.
Unlike some current 13-inch ultraportables, it has a removable battery; you probably won't need to carry a second battery though, as we got over 6 and a half hours of battery life for a mix of editing documents, heavy web browsing, streaming music and video with a high screen brightness (so turning off Wi-Fi and turning the screen down should actually get you the promised 9 hours). Playing a DVD continuously, the battery lasted over 5 hours. The only drawback is that charging time is quite slow; after a couple of hours, we still had only 33% charge.
At 1.5kg the Portege R830 isn't as ultra-ultra-light as the upcoming Sony Vaio Z which weighs just under 1.2kg, but then it also packs a DVD drive which is rare in any ultraportable, let alone one this lightweight (Toshiba claims the double-sided motherboard is a quarter the size of the competition, which would explain why there's room for the optical drive). It has a good selection of ports for something this small; VGA, HDMI, Gigabit Ethernet, an SD Card slot cleverly tucked into the end of the palm rest, separate headphone and microphone sockets and one port each of USB 2, USB 3 and combined USB and eSATA (a port that can also charge devices while the Portege is switched off, if you choose). As well as the usual Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, the R830 also has built-in mobile broadband (14.4Mbps HSUPA) and Intel's new wireless display - if you have the right TV or Netgear adapter that lets you play HD video from the laptop on your TV screen.
Keyboard and tackpad
With this thin a system it's not surprising that the keyboard doesn't have as much travel as some notebooks and the keys have a distinct click as you type, but they're comfortable to type on for a long time and the isolated key tops are both large enough and well enough spaced that typing is accurate as well. The secondary keys are all a good size and they're laid out well - although the strip of Home/End, PageUp/PageDown navigation keys along the right-hand side of the keyboard takes a little getting used to if you're used to a different layout.
There are no dedicated media keys, not even volume, so everything is a secondary function on the function and number keys - apart from the two buttons at the top of the keyboard that turn on the ultra-low power eco mode and the wireless display, and the handy button above the touchpad that turns it on and off. There's no backlight on the keyboard, but the fact that it's spill resistant could come in handy on the road.
The touchpad is offset slightly to the left, which puts it comfortably beneath your fingers when you're typing. The 4-inch size (diagonally) is large for a 13-inch notebook, with two distinct physical buttons separated by the fingerprint reader; all the system indicators are neatly lined up here - not the first place you'd look, but not distracting either. The buttons have a positive action - again you'll notice the click - and the matte touchpad surface is responsive (without only the slightest of textures to keep your fingers from sliding around). Pinch-zoom, edge and two-finger scrolling are all fluid and responsive; the three-finger gestures for launching a favourite app or flicking through slideshows work better than on many systems but we often found both gestures were detected when we only meant to use one of them.
When the Sandy Bridge Core i5 isn't paired with a discrete GPU and relies only on the integrated Intel graphics, you don't get the same graphics performance. Streaming 1080p video from the Internet showed crisp details and good, vibrant colours (although the contrast on dark images was fairly poor); but the video was noticeably jumpy rather than playing smoothly. 720p played over the local network has the same excellent detail and natural, accurate colours but without the jumpy playback. The 1366 x 768-pixel resolution of the 13.3-inch screen is typical for notebooks of this size; the extra-bright LED backlighting isn't and the viewing angle is very wide horizontally and only slightly less vertically (although the matte finish means you don't have to angle it to avoid reflections).
The sound is fair; there's little bass and the treble sounds somewhat tinny, but the midrange is strong and there's little distortion until you turn the volume all the way up. The volume level is fine for watching a video or listening to music if you're on your own; it wouldn't fill the room for watching with friends (and the screen size is a little small for that).
Like most laptops the Portege comes with a selection of pre-installed software, including Nero 10 for burning optical discs as well as the usual Office Starter, Windows Live Essentials and MacAfee. BBC iPlayer links and Skype are useful as well, but the business user this machine is aimed at may not be interested in the Wild Tangent games portal and Toshiba's own Photo Service for printing photo books and 7Digital-powered Music Store have a lot of competition. And while Toshiba's own utilities are certainly useful (especially the ReelTime tool that shows your document history by type), rather too many of them are running in the background by default to get the performance you'd expect from this spec.
At this price, you might expect the Portege R830 to have more premium features - a backlit keyboard, an ambient light sensor, discrete graphics or a better quality screen - but then you remember it has mobile broadband, wireless display, an optical drive and a full-power Core i5 and the price seems more reasonable. For the business user - or anyone who needs a lightweight workhorse - the balance of features make sense, and the battery life is welcome (and even switchable graphics would have a significant impact on that). You could quibble about some of the choices, but the R830 has distinct advantages over its flashier competition.