The premium ultraportable notebook category has never been more competitive. Between the long-lasting ThinkPad X220, the gorgeous Samsung Series 9, and the instant-on 13-inch MacBook Air, consumers have a wide range of compelling options. But what if you don't have well over a grand to spend? Enter the Toshiba Portege R835-P56X, an update to the company's popular R700 series that costs a very reasonable $929 (and starts at $829). This 3.2-pound speedster includes a second-gen Core i5 processor, USB 3.0 support, and Intel's nifty WiDi 2.0 technology for streaming video wirelessly to a TV. Sound too good to pass up? Read on for our full review.
The Portege R835 looks nearly identical to its predecessor, and we're not complaining. The chassis is still made of magnesium alloy, complete with a handsome dark blue lid. Although they're plastic, the chrome hinges are a nice accent, as are the smoky gray touchpad buttons. When we picked it up, the Portege R385 didn't feel as sturdy as the aluminum MacBook Air or the Samsung Series 9 (which is made of even stronger duralumin), but this is still a fairly durable design for the money.
As with the R700, the R835's durability extends beyond its magnesium finish. Toshiba used a honeycomb rib structure for the base and palm rest for extra resilience. You also get hard drive protection and a spill-resistant keyboard.
Weighing 3.2 pounds, the Portege R835 is one of the lightest laptops you'll find with both a 13-inch display and a built-in DVD drive. While not as thin as ultraportables that eschew optical drives, the 0.7-1.1-inch profile makes this machine easy to slip into a bag.
Keyboard and Touchpad
Because the keyboard sits between the space for the battery and the large touchpad, the keys on the Portege R835 aren't quite as large as what you'll find on competing ultraportables. They're shorter than those on Toshiba's own 13-inch T235, making the keyboard feel cramped.The keys also gave too little feedback when typing, which made it more difficult to tell when we'd successfully hit a target. Nevertheless, we acclimated to the layout in about 30 minutes and typed at our usual speed as we wrote this review. We'd really like to see Toshiba add a backlit keyboard, like on the Samsung Series 9.
Two small dedicated buttons sit above the keyboard on the right side. One launches the Eco Utility for saving power, and the other engages Intel's WiDi 2.0 technology for streaming video to a big-screen TV. (More on that technology below.)
Measuring 3.3 x 2 inches, the R835's touchpad isn't as ginormous as those on the Samsung Series 9 (3.9 x 2.7) or the 13-inch MacBook Air (4.3 x 3 inches), but it's still plenty large for smooth navigation. With the older Portege R700, the cursor sometimes jumped around when our palm accidentally brushed up against the touchpad, but we didn't experience that issue this machine.
In our tests, pinch-to-zoom and rotate gestures worked fine on the Portege R835. Plus, the Synaptics touchpad lets you perform neat tricks. We configured a three-finger press to launch Google Chrome and activated three-finger swiping (great for flicking through photos). You can also deactivate the touchpad with a button right beneath the space bar.
Not a fan of touchpads with integrated buttons? Then you'll be pleased with the R835. The two dedicated mouse buttons worked well, whether we were opening apps or selecting text.
Maybe it's because of the new processor, but the R835 doesn't get as warm as its predecessor. After playing Hulu at full screen for 15 minutes, the touchpad registered 86 degrees, the area between the G and H keys reached 88 degrees, and the bottom of the underside measured 96 degrees. The R700 was about as cool on top but reached 103 degrees on the bottom. The only spot where the R835 got slightly uncomfortable on our lap was the bottom-left side near the vent, which registered 102 after our Hulu test.
Display and Audio
The LED-backlit 13.3-inch display (1366 x 768 pixels) on the R835 delivered a bright and colorful picture when we streamed a 480p episode of The Daily Show from Hulu. However, because vertical viewing angles are narrow, you need to push the screen back a bit so the display doesn't wash out.
To test out the small speakers above the keyboard we cranked Blink 182's "All the Small Things" on Slacker. The R835 got loud, but the song sounded too harsh above 60-percent volume.
The only new addition with the R385 is a USB 3.0 port on the right side for connecting high-speed peripherals. Otherwise, you still get Ethernet, headphone and mic on the right, along with the optical drive and SD card Slot. The left side houses the power connector, VGA, USB/eSATA port, a third USB port, and HDMI.
Webcam and Face Recognition
According to our Skype video caller, the R835's 0.3MP webcam delivered a bright and mostly clear picture. She also noted that the sound was plenty loud. You can also use this webcam with the built-in Face Recognition software. The system correctly identified our mug after a few minutes, but having to move our head around to log in was annoying. We'd skip this option.
Intel WiDi 2.0
Thanks to Intel Wireless Display 2.0 technology, you can stream your desktop and high-definition video to a nearby monitor or big-screen TV. But first you need to spring for Netgear's Push2TV 2000 receiver ($92), which connects to your set via HDMI. Once you have that component, all you need to do is press the dedicated WiDi button above the keyboard on the R385 and then use the included Intel software to search for nearby receivers.
We hooked the Push2TV up to a Samsung HDTV and connected with the Portege R835 within 30 seconds. Then we played a 1080p trailer of Scream 4 from YouTube on the 32-inch LCD. Playback was smooth and detailed, and audio was in sync with the on-screen action. Just keep in mind that you can't play copy-protected, such as DVDs, yet; that capability will come with a software update later this year.
The Portege R835 packs a second-generation, 2.3-GHz Intel Core i5 2410M processor, 4GB of RAM, and a whopping 640GB hard drive running at 5,400 rpm. The more business-oriented (and more expensive) configuration of the R700 we tested last year had a 7,200-rpm hard drive and an older Core i5 processor but a higher clock speed. Those differences explain why the R835 turned in a slightly lower score in PCMark Vantage (6,115 vs. 6,657).
Both the ThinkPad X220 (7,719) and Samsung Series 9 (6,857) scored higher, but the former has a faster CPU and hard drive, while the latter sports a zippier solid state drive. Still, this ultraportable is no slouch. Thanks to Intel's Quick Sync Video technology inside this machine's second-gen Core processor, it took the R835 45 seconds to transcode a 114MB video from MPEG-4 to AVI using Oxelon Media Encoder. That's 8 seconds faster than its predecessor.
The R835's 5,400-rpm drive booted Window 7 in 49 seconds, which is about 10 seconds faster than the average ultraportable but behind competing systems equipped with SSDs. We did notice that it took only about 3 seconds for the R835 to wake from sleep after we closed the lid. The drive's transfer rate of 25.3 MBps is below average.
Intel's new HD graphics really flexes its muscles on this sequel. The Portege R835 notched a 3DMark06 score of 4,564, which is more than double what the R700 mustered (1,967). We also saw a boost in gaming performance. The R835 achieved 44 frames per second in World of Warcraft with the settings on Good, 10 points higher than its predecessor. That rate dipped to 17 fps at the max, which isn't playable.
Battery Life and Wireless
The charger for the Portege R835 is certainly compact enough to take with you, but chances are you won't need it for most of the day. On the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous surfing over Wi-Fi on 40-percent brightness), the machine's six-cell battery lasted 6 hours and 22 minutes. That runtime is better than the category average (5:32), as well as the R700 (6:01) and the Samsung Series 9 (5:11). Still, the 13-inch MacBook Air (6:36) and the ThinkPad X220 (7:51) both lasted longer.
Too bad the wireless card in this notebook didn't perform very well. Intel's WiFi Link 1000 AGN radio delivered a transfer rate of 20.6 Mbps at 15 feet from our router, which dropped all the way to 8.6 Mbps at 50 feet. Those numbers are well below the category averages of 31 Mbps and 19 Mbps from those distances, respectively.
Toshiba bundles an almost overwhelming amount of branded utilities with the Portege R835. In additional to Face Recognition for security and Eco Utility for extending battery life, you'll find a Hard Drive Impact Sensor, which pulls the head to prevent damage when it detects sudden movement. You also get Bulletin Board for posting photos, notes, and more in one place and Reel Time, which displays thumbnails of recently opened files. Other choices include Toshiba Assist (help and service), Media Controller (media streaming), and Service Station (for software updates and PC health info).
Non-branded apps include Google Chrome, Microsoft Office Starter 2010, and Windows Live Essentials. That package comes with Mail, Messenger, Movie Maker, Photo Gallery, and Writer.
A couple of programs proved annoying. The Web Camera application automatically opened when we hovered the cursor over the top left part of the screen--until we turned the software off--and the hard drive sensor presented pop-ups when it detected movement. We quickly turned that feature off, too. Then there's the usual Norton Internet Security pop-up offers; Toshiba includes a 30-day trial. Even Toshiba gets in on the pop-up act with a come-on for its online backup service (see below).
Warranty and Support
Toshiba backs the Portege R835 with a one-year standard warranty and 24/7 support. To see how the company fared in our tech support showdown click here. You can also see how Toshiba ranked in our 2011 Best & Worst Laptop Brands report by clicking here.
The Toshiba Portege R835 starts as low as $829. That price includes the same amount of RAM and same size hard drive as our configuration, but features a slower Core i3-2310M processor. We think the bump in speed is worth the premium, especially since you can find the R835-P56X with the Core i5 CPU for $899.
We liked but didn't love the last Toshiba Portege because it ran a little hot and we experienced some problems with the touchpad. Toshiba has addressed those issues with the Portege R835-P56X. The company also beefed up the graphics performance while maintaining more than 6 hours of battery life--without ballooning the price. The R835 isn't as sexy as the Samsung Series 9 or as fast as the ThinkPad X220, but it costs $720 less than the former and $370 less than the latter (as tested). Although the keyboard could be better, those in the market for Windows-powered ultraportable will find the Portege R835 to be a solid value.