Manufacturers of Windows hardware seemed to have finally caught on to what makes Macs popular: sex appeal. Many companies, including HP and Dell, are producing attractive desktop and laptop computers that stray from the formulaic boxy PC designs of yore.
I recently got to play with one of the most notable new releases from Toshiba.
The Portégé R400 is a light, slender, and sleek Windows notebook computer. Its screen can be swivelled around for use as a stylus-driven Tablet PC. The case is an elegant combination of shiny black and white surfaces that compliment Vista’s look and feel perfectly.
Co-designed by Microsoft to feature some of the advanced capabilities of the new Windows, the Portégé R400 is pretty much the only PC portable I’ve ever admired from a design perspective. That may be due to the fact that this high-end computer takes most of its hardware cues from the more pedestrian, but visually distinguished, Apple MacBook.
Many of Apple’s products walk a fine line between looks and usefulness. The perfect example of this is probably the original iMac’s nigh-unusable hockey-puck mouse. Many people argue that the popular iPod is pretty much impossible to operate (personally, I have no problem with it).
The curent-model MacBook is definitely one of Apple’s triumphs, striking a very good balance between visual appeal and functional experience.
If you read my column last week, you’re aware of how important I consider that second quality – experience – when using technology. Any gizmo can look cool and promise functionality beyond all comprehension, but if it’s no fun to use, then what’s the point?
This is where the Portégé R400 comes in. Toshiba and Microsoft outdid themselves in designing a feature-rich, eye-catching laptop computer. Unfortunately, this technical beauty is also a bundle of never-ending frustration in practical use.
The first indication of trouble comes when you try to open the unit. Like Apple’s MacBook, the Portégé R400 doesn’t have a physical latch for holding the lid down. Instead, magnets and a spring-controlled hinge work together to keep the laptop closed.
In using the R400, to break the magnetic connection and overcome the tenacity of the lid’s hinge spring requires two hands and a considerable amount of force. This can be very frustrating if you’re talking on the phone and only have one hand available.
In comparison, the MacBook’s lid can easily be opened using just one hand.
Closing the lid of the R400 can be quite alarming, too. It literally slams shut. A couple of times I thought I may have actually cracked its screen.
Another major flaw in the Portégé R400 is its fan, which is incredibly loud and seems to run constantly. After each use, it literally left a ringing in my ear. The MacBook’s fan is also noisy, but it comes on very rarely.
Probably the biggest problem with the R400 is its keyboard. Toshiba’s engineers seem to have tripped over their own ambitions in seeking to out-funk the MacBook here.
Apple’s twist on the laptop keyboard was simple: provide a bit of space between each key. The gap provides the keyboard with an unusual appearance that’s also, I was surprised to discover, very functional. My touch-typing is more accurate on the MacBook keyboard. My fingertips seem to be able to distinguish each key more precisely.
Toshiba, on the other hand, just seems to think it’s cool to make the über-important “Shift” and “Enter” keys as small as possible and place them in slightly unusual positions. I found the R400 absolutely impossible to type on.
Then there’s the R400’s much-ballyhooed “edge” display, a small panel that sits on the front edge of the laptop. This clever feature is supposed to be able to present information about email and appointments even when the lid is closed and the computer’s asleep.
Despite two hours of troubleshooting, I couldn’t get it to give me anything more than the time of day.
These are just a few points that identify the functional failings in what could have been a technical triumph for Toshiba and Microsoft (my list actually goes on).
The many foibles of the Portégé R400 amass over time to sour the entire experience of using the unit. When I first pulled this computer out of its box, I was in love. After two weeks of using it I despised it more than the yappy little dog next door (and that’s a lot).
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If that’s the case then, from a design perspective, Toshiba’s sexy new built-for-Vista tablet PC is more of an homage to Apple’s popular MacBook than Microsoft’s new Windows operating system.
Despite Toshiba’s best intentions, the Portégé R400 is little more than a lesson in how fashion can all too easily defeat function.
Let it be a lesson to us all that we carry into our next computer-shopping expedition.
Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, July 6, 2007.