Walt Mossberg

These Two Laptops Are Small and Sleek, But Come With Flaws

The laptop is taking over from the desktop as the main type of personal computer, but the most popular and economical laptops sold are too large for maximum mobility. Making laptops that are tiny as well as powerful is a tough design challenge.

I’ve been testing two of the latest efforts to crack that problem. The first is from Toshiba, a company that once dominated the laptop world, but has since slipped badly. The other is from Dell, best known for larger, clunkier laptops. Both machines are stylish and worked fine in the tests, but each has flaws that might give a buyer pause.

These two new laptops, which use Intel’s Core 2 Duo processor, are very different in size. The Toshiba Portege R500 weighs just 2.4 pounds, has the footprint of a standard sheet of paper and is only about ¾-inch thick at its thinnest point. Yet it squeezes in a DVD drive. It sports a 12.1-inch widescreen display with very good resolution. The screen is lit by LEDs instead of by traditional lamps. That makes for more brightness and saves power.

The Dell XPS M1330, while still relatively small, is larger than the Toshiba. It weighs a hair under four pounds, has a larger footprint and is thicker. It falls into a hot new laptop category that features 13.3-inch widescreen displays — a size considered a good compromise between the small displays on the lightest laptops and the larger ones on the heavier models. The M1330 has some very un-Dell-like aspects to it, such as a choice of three lid colors and a slot-loading DVD drive that doesn’t require a pop-out tray.

Toshiba claims the R500 is the world’s thinnest notebook with a built-in DVD or CD drive. Dell claims the optional LED version of the M1330 is the thinnest with a 13.3-inch screen.

The Toshiba starts at $1,999 for a unit with a 120 gigabyte hard disk, a gigabyte of memory, and built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless networking. The Dell starts at $1,299 for a model with a 120 gigabyte hard disk, a gigabyte of memory, built-in Wi-Fi (but not Bluetooth) and standard display. An LED display costs $150 more; Bluetooth is an extra $20.

I tested the base model of the Toshiba R500 and found that it performed well. My particular machine came with Windows XP, though Windows Vista is also available in a model that costs $150 more. The tiny silver computer handled everything I threw at it, including Microsoft Office, the Firefox Web browser, the iTunes music program and more.

Toshiba’s Portege R500, top, and Dell’s XPS M1330

In my tough battery test, where I turn off power-saving features, maximize screen brightness, turn on Wi-Fi and play an endless loop of music, the R500 lasted an impressive three hours, 44 minutes. I estimate that in more normal use, you could get five hours of battery life.

But my test Toshiba, a production unit, had a major flaw: The DVD drive didn’t work. Apparently, the lens on the drive had come loose in shipping. Toshiba sent another unit with a working drive, but this is a major issue because the machine uses a new, very thin type of DVD drive that seemed fragile to me.

In fact, the R500 lacked a solid feeling overall. The keyboard was OK, but the touch-pad buttons seemed flimsy and stiff, and I had the impression that this was a computer you’d have to treat gently. It also had trouble reconnecting with my Wi-Fi network after waking up from its sleep state. And it was loaded with the trial software and offers I call craplets.

The Dell XPS M1330, on the other hand, felt solid through and through. From its crimson cover to its wedge shape, it’s also a handsome laptop. The unit I tested had the LED screen and a full complement of options, which would have brought its price to $2,188.

Like the Toshiba, the Dell speedily handled Microsoft Office, Firefox, iTunes and other software. Its Wi-Fi worked very well. My test model used Vista, and had the extra memory and souped-up graphics Vista needs to work well. The M1330 isn’t available with Windows XP. To Dell’s credit, it can be ordered with no craplets on it, for no extra money. But because it uses Vista, it starts up painfully slowly. A reboot took more than four minutes.

The big flaw on the Dell is battery life, a major downside for a machine meant to travel. In my test, the M1330 lasted just two hours, 27 minutes; so, you’d be lucky to get 3.5 hours out of it in normal use. Dell says the base model would do better because it has a wimpier, but less power-draining graphics system. You can get a bigger battery for $30 more, but it makes the machine larger and heavier.

The Dell XPS M1330 is a good, solid, mobile computer that needs better battery life and can get expensive once you start ordering options. The Toshiba R500 seems like a dream machine for travelers, but its DVD defect is worrisome and you may have to treat it like glassware.

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