Toshiba Portege Z835 Ultrabook Review

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If Intel has its way, most laptops will eventually be Ultrabooks, which if you strip away the marketing jargon simply refers to slim and light machines with long battery life and enough processing power to watch Netflix and play Farmville. Toshiba’s Portege Z835 is part of the first wave of Ultrabooks, and tries to get an edge with a relatively low price tag of $899. I’ve been using a Portege Z835 review unit for a week, and I think Toshiba’s pulled off a good first effort, but the lower price doesn’t come without sacrifice.

The Portege Z835 runs Windows 7 Home Premium and includes a 13.3-inch display with 1366-by-768 resolution, a 1.4 GHz Intel Core i3 processor, 4 GB of RAM and a 128 GB solid state drive. It measures 0.68 inches at its thickest point, and weighs 2.9 pounds. It has an SD card slot, HDMI and RGB outputs, an Ethernet jack and three USB ports, including one with USB 3.0 support.

(MORE: Eight New Tablets and Ultrabooks You Should Know About)

Toshiba hasn’t made the sharpest-looking Ultrabook around. Its deep gray frame has a brushed aluminum finish on the lid, but you can still feel plenty of plastic elsewhere. Next to most other Windows notebooks, however, the Portege Z835 looks like a supermodel, and it’s shockingly light. I showed this laptop to a few folks, and “oh wow” was the typical reaction. People still think Windows laptops have to be clunky monstrosities. Not so.

Although the Portege Z835’s slim figure will get the most attention at first, its backlit keyboard deserves more praise. Typing on this laptop is a pleasure, with island-style keys that snap satisfyingly into a depressed panel. There’s not a lot of movement on the keys–a reality, perhaps, of ultra-thin design–but that never slowed me down while typing this review.

The Portege Z835’s trackpad doesn’t disappoint, either. Its medium-sized matte panel glides smoothly under the fingers, even if isn’t as silky as the MacBook Air’s glass trackpad. Whereas some Ultrabook makers have opted for a clickable trackpad, the Portege Z835 sticks with dedicated buttons. They’re easy enough to press, but I prefer tapping on the touch panel instead. That said, I wish this laptop supported two-finger tapping to simulate the right mouse button. At least it supports two-finger scrolling.

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I’m discussing the keyboard and trackpad before writing about performance because with today’s laptops, those features are more noticeable than small differences in processor power. Any decent laptop will let you browse the Internet, watch videos, play casual games and do some light photo or video editing. And while spec junkies may scoff at the Core i3 processor inside Toshiba’s Portege Z835–most others are using Core i5 or i7 processors–the difference doesn’t amount to much in real-world use. None of these laptops are able to play Battlefield 3 or other modern PC games. If that’s what you’re after, you need a different kind of product. The Portege Z835 is just fine for typical laptop use, and it also performed well as a desktop replacement, with my dual monitors plugged in through HDMI and RGB cables.

Toshiba claims that the Portege Z835 gets eight hours of battery life, but I couldn’t make it happen on 62.5 percent brightness. Expect about six hours of basic web browsing and word processing, and maybe five hours if you’re watching a lot of video.

So where does Toshiba’s Portege Z835 go wrong? The main problem is its display, which washes out at even the slightest vertical off-angle. Change your posture while using this laptop, and you’ll probably have to tilt the screen to bring everything back into view. It’s a nuisance. Also, the Portege’s fan produces a high-pitched whir that’s quite noticeable in a quiet room and will drive you crazy if you think about it too much. The bloatware situation isn’t too bad on this laptop–most of it is first-party tools could come in handy, such as a web camera application–but there’s some anti-virus trialware on board from Norton, which I promptly removed and replaced with Microsoft’s free Security Essentials software. Google’s Chrome browser is pre-installed, which I see as a not-entirely-necessary positive.

If Ultrabooks are the future of laptops, a machine like Toshiba’s Portege Z835 will some day seem average. Its viewing angles are narrow, its fan is noisy and its design is thicker and cheaper than some of the competition. But compared to most present-day Windows machines, the Portege Z835’s slim figure, smooth trackpad, excellent keyboard and ample ports make it a standout laptop, and it’s cheaper than most other Ultrabooks at $899. For early Ultrabook adopters, the Portege Z835 is worth considering.

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