Toshiba Portégé 3500

  • Editors' rating
    7.8 Very good

Pros

  • Convertible design provides maximum flexibility
  • Bluetooth and Wi-Fi included as standard
  • robust construction.

Cons

  • No floppy or optical drive included
  • no port replicator currently available
  • no legacy ports
  • relatively expensive
  • a little heavy to carry around for prolonged periods.

Toshiba’s Portégé 3500 must be one of the most keenly awaited of the various Tablet PCs launched on 7 November in conjunction with Microsoft’s Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. And quite right too. When Microsoft launches a modified version of Windows supporting handwriting recognition, and Toshiba designs a specially customised portable to run it, the results ought to be interesting.

Essentially, there are two types of Tablet PC, the basic pen-only ‘slate’ model and the so-called ‘convertible’ design, which has a conventional keyboard as well as a stylus for writing and drawing on the screen. The Portégé 3500 is a true convertible, a trick it manages thanks to a clever centrally mounted hinge between the lid and the case.

At first sight, the Portégé 3500 looks like a standard clamshell notebook. To turn it into a Tablet PC, you rotate the lid through 180 degrees on its special hinge until the screen is facing away from you, and then close the lid again. The screen now forms the top of the tablet.

Something designed to be carried around and used on the move needs to be both light and tough. The Portégé 3500 is soundly constructed, with alloy used for much of the case and for the lid surface. This provides the necessary degree of rigidity and resilience, but we weren’t quite so sure about the weight.

At first, the Portégé’s 1.85kg doesn’t seem too much, but it’s clear that carrying something about the size of a coffee table book and weighing nearly two kilos around for several hours might become uncomfortable. It does sit well in the hands though, thanks to a carefully balanced design that stops it always wanting to tilt to one side. This might sound trivial, but if you are going to carry something around constantly and use it as a tablet, an off-centre balance would be a real problem.

Other aspects of the Portégé 3500’s ergonomics are a similarly mixed bag. Its compact but well designed keyboard is pleasant enough to use, and the 12.1in XGA TFT screen is fine from a size and readability point of view. On the down side, the slightly reflective surface may be a problem in certain lighting (something common to most hard, pen-aware screens), and the illumination isn’t terribly bright.

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Like most notebooks, the Portégé has a slightly wedge-shaped profile when viewed from the side. When you fold it up into a tablet and turn it round so that the image on the screen is the right way up, it’s also tilting away from you, which plays havoc with the viewing angle and makes writing awkward.

You can correct the problem using the ‘change screen orientation’ option from the Taskbar, which can walk the image right round through a complete circle in 90 degree steps if required. Unfortunately, it takes three goes to shift the image through 270 degrees, which is fiddly. A user-definable pair of default orientations for landscape and portrait modes would be helpful here.

There’s a strong feeling among many industry analysts that the Tablet PC is best suited to vertical markets, like gathering medical or insurance data on the move. This means that floppy and optical drives would be a needless burden during everyday use. Toshiba clearly agrees, and neither is built in, or even offered as part of the standard package.

If you need them, they will add to the price, and critics of the premium attached to Tablet PCs will quite reasonably point out that this makes the already moderately expensive Portégé 3500 costlier still.

The other thing missing from the Portégé 3500 -- in accordance with Microsoft’s own Tablet PC design guidelines, it should be said -- are legacy ports. If you can’t get by with the two USB ports, the VGA output and the combo LAN/modem jack, then this machine is not for you. A port replicator or docking station is the obvious answer, but although a USB 2.0 replicator is in the works, it isn’t available yet, and nor is pricing.

As ever, actually using the pen and the handwriting recognition features in the new version of Windows is a mix of the impressive and the frustrating.

The first thing that took some accommodating to was the way the cursor is activated without the pen actually touching the screen. This is a bona fide part of the Microsoft design specifications for a Tablet PC, and not something Toshiba has implemented wrongly, but even with the further stipulation that the cursor must finish up within 3 millimetres of the point of contact between the pen and the screen, it made fine control difficult.

This was exacerbated by the relatively small size of screen objects like buttons on the XGA-resolution 12.1in. screen. Repeated stabs and taps with the nib at menu items, radio buttons and the like were necessary to get things done.

The actual handwriting recognition was infuriatingly unpredictable: amazingly good one minute and completely useless the next, just words apart. Interestingly, it coped almost as well with the barely legible scrawl of a journalist as it did with the perfectly formed cursive of a seasoned primary school teacher. Sadly though, even the latter was rendered into text with various peculiar errors, so speedy, scribbled note-taking during a meeting is not a realistic option. Even trying to write neatly is made difficult by the way the nib skates around on the surface of the screen, which again tends to slow you down.

The Portégé 3500 has a fairly standard 3,600mAh Li-ion battery, so we weren’t surprised when BatteryMark 4.0.1 indicated that around 2.5 hours would be a typical running time on a full charge.

As for performance, the results were more or less what you’d expect from the configuration. The reasonably fast 1.33GHz Mobile Pentium III processor and 256MB of PC133 SDRAM provide a solid enough basis for running Windows applications, and the 5,400rpm IBM Travelstar hard disk kept up well. The Trident CyberAladdin-T graphics chip with its 16MB of shared memory is adequate for 2D work, and in all fairness it isn’t likely to be asked to do more on a machine such as this.

This a rather long-winded way of saying that the Portégé 3500 is powerful enough to do what it is designed to do, namely run business applications and support the pen interface at a decent speed.

What it will not do, we suspect, is revolutionise the notebook market. The promise of handwriting recognition still outpaces the reality, and it’s questionable whether there’s enough need for this feature -- or the ability to draw freehand -- to make buyers pay the necessary premium for a Tablet PC.

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