One of the two major notebook/Tablet PC announcements at CES was the Toshiba Portege R400. We were able to log a few minutes with the machine to develop an initial impression.
Above is a video of the R400 with an invisible shell on it, Toshiba had this on display at their CES 2007 booth. It’s pretty neat to see all the internals of this laptop and how everything has been crammed inside. Honestly, I think there’s a market for selling notebooks with a case like this — kind of cool looking.
Toshiba did a lot of things right with the R400. Their screen is one of the best, if not the best, we’ve ever seen in a Tablet PC. It’s an enhanced (glossy) display powered by 32 LED lights. This gives a nice even picture. Another bonus is better battery life, as these LEDs require less power. Toshiba doesn’t have official stats on the battery savings, but the indication is it’s significant.
R400 hinge (view large image)
While on the topic of the display, we need to note that the hinge design is impressive. The screen locks into place well and the mechanism feels sturdy. Toshiba has also ditched the screen hook, so it’s a little easier to get the machine in and out of tablet mode. There’s also one less thing to catch your sleeve on.
Toshiba R400 SideShow display (view large image)
Toshiba also integrated SideShow, a secondary display that gives updates on email inbox items, appointments and so on. Toshiba sees this as a less invasive way to keep people up to date. So rather than glance at your screen to see if you have email during a meeting, you can look at this tiny edge display. I don’t really buy that as a benefit, but their system does work pretty well. We saw a demo where the R400 was sent an email and a few minutes later a new message icon appeared on the display, which also shows the subject. You might be asking what the big deal is, as it’s easy to look in Outlook to see that data. Well, the R400 was in suspend while it did this, making that display a very valuable tool, especially for people without email access on other mobile devices like smartphones.
It’s not all great for the R400 though. Toshiba used a CPU generally reserved for only ultra portable machines, which this isn’t. I think a full scale processor would have been a better choice than the ULV 1.2 GHz one they choose. Sure it’s a battle of battery life, but this is a business machine that’s going to run a high-end version of Vista. Bring on the power.
Is white the new black? (view large image)
The other obvious discussion point is the color. The R400 is mostly white, something that typically doesn’t scream business. It feels much more kitchen notebook than boardroom, but Toshiba insists highly mobile corporate users want white. We’ll see if that’s true and how well their case and keyboard hold up over time. The good news is that the display and other components should be very well protected with the magnesium and polycarbonate case material.
A few other minor gripes include no support for pre-802.11n, which we’re seeing in many other competing machines right now. While on the wireless topic, they have integrated WWAN, but it’s limited to Verizon. The hard drive is also woefully slow at 4200RPM. Toshiba should have considered using a different drive configuration. There’s also no dedicated GPU.
The one that flusters us the most is the lack of optical drive. At nearly 4 pounds, the R400 is a thin and light, a class that typically includes an optical drive. Toshiba explained it away saying people only need that to install software or to enjoy movies. Their target audience won’t need to install much software or will have an external drive. They also assert that the entrainment needs aren’t an issue because the target audience knows how to rip DVDs to their hard drives. I’ll argue against both points, but the decision is already made, no optical drive for the R400.
Finally, the wireless docking solution is a very innovative feature that many will be interested in with the R400. Basically what happens is that when you put the notebook within 3 feet of the wireless docking solution that uses UWB (Ultra Wide Band) to communicate with the R400, the notebook will automatically "dock". Meaning that anything plugged into the ports of the wireless dock will be accessible to the R400. Streaming video to the dock, from the laptop and to an external screen is entirely possible given the fast wireless connection UWB offers. The wireless docking solution means no more trying to fiddle getting a notebook into the dock and slotting it in properly, then locking it in place.
I have to admit though, I want the R400 to succeed. It does a lot of great things, but in our view it’s version 1 hardware that needs to be improved to find a viable market share. Toshiba put two years of engineering into this product and the work shows. There are a lot of impressive features, but the $2600 price tag and a few questionable design decisions make the R400 a tough purchase.