The Gadgets Page

November 2, 2003

Review: Toshiba Portege 3500 Tablet PC

Filed under: Laptops,Reviews — Matthew Strebe @ 1:01 pm

Toshiba Portege 3500 Tablet PC (1.33-GHZ Pentium III, 256 MB RAM, 40 GB Hard Drive)

The Toshiba Portege 3500 Tablet PCs are capable laptops that also convert into Tablet PCs. Using an electrostatic touch screen (which is much more rugged than a typical pressure sensitive PDA screen, but works only with the included stylus) and an LCD panel that rotates around to shut in “slate mode”, the 3500 functions well in both categories.


The laptop is pretty typical of Toshiba quality standards. It’s a bit larger than the smallest porteges, which allows niceties like an easily swapped hard disk drive and a full suite of built in ports. The unit lacks a built in CD-ROM drive, but oddly we haven’t really missed it since installing software is typically done at home.

The big question of course is the swivel mechanism. Although the device appears to have a single large machined aluminum knob that holds the screen, disassembly shows that the actually mechanism is a harder (and uglier) steel swing arm hidden by a stylish brushed aluminum façade. It’s actually the best of both worlds—the actual mechanism is strong than it looks, and it looks good. When opened in laptop mode, the screen jitters perhaps slightly more than a shoulder hinged screen would, but the effect is not noticeable unless you look for it. In our four months of use, we have seen no weakening in the hinge mechanism and have no reason to believe that it won’t function flawlessly throughout the unit’s three year warranty.

There are quality problems with the tablet digitizer however. Our unit had to go back for service twice, once to a local repair shop and once to Toshiba’s depot repair, to replace the digitizer panel because an inch-wide band along the left side (where the all-important Start button resides) went dead. The final repair seems to have fixed the problem, as we’ve been unable to get it to re-appear with endless screen swiveling.

The units ship with a 40 gigabyte Travel star hard disk drive that makes more clicking noises than any laptop unit I’ve ever heard. It can actually be quite disconcerting as it clicks ferociously anytime the unit is move while in operation. The noise doesn’t seem to affect the operation or longevity of the disk, however. Most likely, it’s a protection mechanism designed to get the hard disk heads locked into place if the unit detects that it is falling or being moved too rapidly, but it is disconcerting.

Our attempt to upgrade the hard disk to an 80 gigabyte Travelstar failed because the BIOS does not correctly register the size of the disk, so the included restoration CDs won’t work. We tried a few other imaging methods to no avail, so I guess we’ll just have to wait for another BIOS update before we can get some serious capacity into this laptop. Why drive size problems are still an issue in 2003 is a mystery.


As a laptop, the Portege is as capable as its cousins in the Portege line. Small, lightweight, and a decent performer at 1.3GHz, it allows up to a gigabyte of RAM and ships with a 40GB hard disk drive. It’s built-in SD slot allows you to leave 256MB of flash memory in the unit to store critical documents without taking up the single PCMCIA or card flash slots.

Complaints include the single monophonic speaker that is useful only for Windows noises. Any attempt to listen to music through it will prompt a trip to an Apple store to pick up Sony’s amazing USB laptop speakers. Oddly, the metallic paint finish on our unit’s track pad left button has worn completely off with just three months of usage. I’ve never seen wear that dramatic on the finish of any keyboard or mouse. The rarely used right button is also showing signs of wear. Otherwise, the laptop is an excellent unit.

Swiveling the screen around and locking it in place automatically rotates the screen to portrait mode. The included stylus is contained on the left side (bottom in portrait mode) of the screen. When you pop it out and start tapping, you’re entering the strange and wonderous world of the Tablet PC.

The best way to imagine using a Tablet PC is to imagine that it’s a huge PDA. For things like web browsing and playing Civilization, it’s awesome. Your Civilization gameplay speed will never be higher. But game players beware: The machine is hobbled by a Trident CyberBlade XP video chipset that is literally barely able to redraw the screen when rotated in tablet mode, much less play anything that requires 3D rendering. Also, Direct-X only functions correctly in laptop mode. Any screen rotation will slow game play so badly as to be unusable. This laptop would be vastly improved by a more capable display processor.

Tablet PCs come with a slew of alternative input methods, such as reasonable speech recognition, handwriting recognition, a Graffiti compatible gesture recognizer for Palm fans, and an on-screen tap keyboard. None of these methods are comparable to a keyboard for anyone who can type, and if you can imagine trying to input Excel formulas via voice recognition, you can see quite clearly that using voice recognition for anything other than transcribing notes into a word processor is worthless. Also, you have to be in a silent room and have no children, pets, or significant others around if you want to get any useful amount of work done. Tap keyboards and handwriting recognition are slow, and although the handwriting recognition is good as handwriting recognition goes, it’s still not nearly good enough to rely upon. I doubt anyone has ever performed useful work that involves a significant amount of data entry with a Tablet PC in slate mode.

Similar Models

The Toshiba 3500 and 3505 are the same computer. The 3505 is sold through corporate channels and the Toshiba website and comes with a 3 year warranty rather than the retail edition 3500’s one year warranty.


Because the Toshiba is a convertible, you can use the table features while in laptop mode. This is a boon for editors who like to highlight on screen, and the pen is a more natural input device than a mouse, so you may get quite comfortable with using the pen instead of a mouse or the track pad. I personally like it, but the bottom line is that the Tablet features aren’t a good reason to select this laptop over a more capable laptop that doesn’t have a touch screen unless you know you have a specific reason to do so.

For useful tasks like working on a spreadsheet or writing a review, Slate mode is practically worthless. The lack of an exposed keyboard so badly hobbles your ability to input data that you shouldn’t even consider using a tablet for anything more than checking boxes and clicking buttons. The speech and handwriting recognition are almost amazing, but they’re not good enough to replace a keyboard and should only be considered seriously by people who cannot type.

Tablet PCs may actually be the future of laptop computing, but that future is at least a decade away. Microsoft has a lot more work to do before Tablet PCs can out-compete standard laptops for most purposes. Most of their own applications are pretty useless with a Tablet PC. The Office XP Tablet PC feature pack purports to “enable” Tablet PC users to work with office documents by adding “digital ink” capability. The added features are worthless unless you enjoy scribbling with a digital crayon over the top of your otherwise pristine office documents.

These problems are endemic to all Tablet PCs and are not Toshiba’s fault. The only thing Toshiba could have done better with the 3500 would be to use a better video chipset and provide a larger battery option. The 3500 is the best Tablet PC we’ve seen, and it is head-and-shoulders above the Viewsonic V1100 or any other pure slate mode Tablet PC.

1 Comment

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