For several years, Toshiba America led the portable personal computer industry with the lightest, most rugged and most powerful PCs on the market. But in recent years, the company has fallen behind Apple, Compaq and IBM. Toshiba never stopped building well-made notebook and laptop systems, but the machines were unimaginative, a little on the heavy side and had come to be a bit out of date.
Not anymore. Toshiba is back on track with its new Portege sub-notebook computers. I’ve been using the $2,599 T3400 monochrome version for a couple of weeks, and I’m quite impressed. It’s about $100 more and half a pound heavier than IBM’s ThinkPad 500, but I prefer its design. IBM doesn’t even offer a color sub-notebook. Toshiba’s active matrix color Portege (model T3400CT) costs $3,999.
Both new Toshibas come with DOS 6.0, Windows 3.1 and CommWorks for Windows, which lets you transfer files between computers by cable and also serves as telecommunications and fax software.
From a design standpoint, the Portege offers the best of both Apple and IBM. Like the Apple PowerBooks, the Portege’s keyboard is recessed behind a platform where you can rest the heels of your hands. Aside from being more comfortable, it makes the machine easier to use if you don’t have a desk or tray table to rest it on. Like all IBM ThinkPad models, the Portege has a pencil-eraser-shaped pointing device (in lieu of a mouse or track ball) that sticks up between G, H and B keys, letting you control the cursor with a single finger.
The mouse buttons, located on the palm rest, are large and easy to press. I found myself adapting very quickly to this method of pointing and clicking, while I’ve never been comfortable with the track balls built into most notebook PCs. I’m especially unhappy with Compaq’s track balls, which, on most models, are in the upper right corner of the screen.
Toshiba didn’t just take the best of two worlds. It added some features of its own, including a high-capacity lithium ion battery that, according to the company, will run a monochrome unit for between four and eight hours and a color model from three to six hours.
I carried the monochrome version on a recent cross-country flight and did well for the five hours between San Francisco and Baltimore, although I did turn it off during dinner. The unit can be configured to go into a “sleep” or standby mode when you turn it off or close the cover. Turn it back on and everything comes back as you left it. I left mine in this state for several days without fully depleting the battery.
The monochrome version weighs 4.1 pounds; the color model is 4.4 pounds. It’s 9.9 inches wide, 7.9 deep and 1.8 high. The term sub-notebook generally refers to machines that weigh four pounds or less, so they’re stretching it a bit. Notebook PCs usually weigh in at between 6 and 8 pounds, while laptops, which are no longer in great demand, weigh between 8 and 12. There are lots of terms to describe heavier portable machines. My favorite is “luggable.”
To reduce the size of the machine, Toshiba reduced the space between each key, resulting in a keyboard that’s about 10% smaller than a standard PC keyboard.
I’m a pretty fast touch typist and I did find myself having to slow down a little to use this keyboard, but it wasn’t bad. Nevertheless, I’d like to see an ever-so-slightly larger version with normal spacing between the keys.
The machine has a 486SX microprocessor chip running at 33 megahertz. It comes with four megabytes of random access memory, expandable to 20.
It has a 120-megabyte hard disk and an external 3.5-inch floppy drive. There are the usual expansion ports, including a slot for a credit-card-size PCMCIA expansion card. PCMCIA cards can be used to add a modem, network adapter and other devices. A “port replicator” socket allows users to plug in an optional ($239) connector that provides access to various external devices, such as an SVGA monitor and an external keyboard and mouse.
The T3400 monochrome model has a passive 8.4-inch (diagonal) screen that’s surprisingly easy to read. Unlike some passive matrix displays, it’s able to keep up with rapid movements of the cursor.
The Porteges are more expensive than the competition, but they’re well designed, rugged and have a very nice feel to them--factors that can be important when considering a portable PC.