Earlier this year, the Toshiba Satellite T130 wowed us with its sleek, ultra-portable design and gorgeous looks. Now, its slightly more advanced brother, the Satellite U500, is looking to do the same. This laptop also packs a 13.3-inch display, but, unlike the T130, it has an optional touch-sensitive screen, giving it some extra va-va-voom. There are three configurations of the U500 available. Our review sample, the Satellite U500-1EX, is available to buy now for around £765.
Brown is the new glossy black
The U500 is a gorgeous machine. Instead of the traditional glossy black or shiny white you get on most laptops, it's finished in an elegant brown, with a contrasting, matte black keyboard. These colours are complemented perfectly by the chrome piping that runs around the circumference of the laptop, dipping elegantly into the palm rest to form the mouse buttons.
Unfortunately, the U500 is let down by its unforgiveable obesity. The unit is a whopping 38mm fat at its thickest point, and weighs 2.2kg -- that's 19mm thicker and over 800g heavier than an Apple MacBook Air.
Touch me, tease me
The U500's optional touchscreen display is one of its biggest selling points. It lets you prod, finger and fondle your way through Windows 7 using your fingers instead of a mouse, which is a neat trick. It also recognises gestures and multi-touch gestures, so you can pinch your fingers together and stretch them apart to zoom -- as you can on an iPhone -- or scrawl drawings in Microsoft Paint with up to four fingers simultaneously.
There are a couple of huge problems, however. Despite being more aware of touch inputs than its predecessors, Windows 7 just can't compensate for the inaccuracies caused by fat, fleshy human fingers. We found ourselves having to concentrate very hard to accurately hit many of the smaller icons in the operating system, and often resorted to using the mouse.
We could probably get used to the fiddly nature of touch inputs on the laptop after some practice, but we can't get used to the poor image quality of the display. The picture appears grainy and has such low saturation that we actually thought there was something wrong with the laptop at first glance. Cranking up the brightness remedies the situation slightly, but it's not sensible to pay a £135 premium for rubbish image quality and the option of prodding haphazardly at icons that respond more accurately to a mouse.
The U500 is pretty fat, so it probably won't surprise anyone to learn it comes with a wealth of bits, bobs and doohickies festooned about its chassis. Three USB ports are present, one of which doubles as an eSATA port, and Toshiba has thrown in both D-Sub and HDMI video outputs.
You also get a front-mounted memory-card reader that supports the SD, Memory Stick and xD-Picture Card formats, an ExpressCard/54 slot and a DVD Super Multi drive. Just above the keyboard, which is extremely comfortable to use, lies a set of shortcut buttons. These let you as launch your favourite media application, adjust the volume, play, pause, and skip forwards and backwards between multimedia files. Unfortunately, they also issue a very annoying beep when pressed, which can get on your wick.
Behind the scenes
Three versions of the U500 are available. Our review sample, the mid-range U500-1EX, uses an entry-level Intel Core i3-330M CPU running at 2.13GHz, 4GB of DDR3 1,066MHz memory, a 320GB hard drive, Intel GMA HD graphics, 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
The entry-level Satellite U500-1E0 uses exactly the same components, with the exception of the touchscreen, while the top-end U500-1CN trades the Core i3-330M chip for a performance-orientated, 2.53GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8700 processor, a 400GB hard drive and a faster, gaming-capable Nvidia GeForce G210M graphics card.
None of these specifications will knock you on your backside with the sheer awesomeness of their performance, but all can handle everyday browsing, CPU-intensive desktop tasks and -- in the case of the U500-1CN -- light gaming.
Fast for a fatty
Based on the fatness of its chassis alone, we expected the U500-1EX to be pretty fast, and we were right. Its Core i3-330M chip helped it on its way to a relatively impressive PCMark05 benchmark score of 6,012, which, back in the year 2007, was the sort of score you could expect from Alienware laptops.
This model's graphics performance was far less impressive, however. It scored 602 in 3DMark06, which isn't very good. It'll run 720p high-definition movies, but turns its nose up at anything but the most basic of games.
Battery life wasn't great, either. In Battery Eater's Classic test, which runs the CPU as quickly as possible to indicate the laptop's minimum battery life, the U500-1EX lasted a mere 1 hour and 33 minutes -- nearly two hours short of the 3 hours and 21 minutes achieved by the Satellite T130-13M.
The Toshiba Satellite U500 is an attractive, well-built laptop, but it falls down in several areas. Its touchscreen option all but destroys its image quality, its battery life is poor and it's heavy. By all means buy it if you like the colour brown, but you may be better off with the 13.3-inch MacBook Pro or a Dell Studio XPS 13.
Edited by Charles Kloet