MacBook Air Vs. Portege Z835 – This time It’s Personal

Air and Z835 comparisonYou take the high road and I’ll take the low road seems an apt place to start a comparison between the Apple MacBook Air and the Toshiba Portégé Z835. Both are Ultrabooks, which means they’re very light and extremely thin, but things start to diverge at that point. The Air has an artful design, a good high resolution screen and a price tag to go along with it. The Z835 seems to be engineered in an attempt to cram the most stuff in there while keeping a lid on the price. Since price and value are inevitably linked, which should one chose? In the following review we’ll take a look the strengths and weaknesses of both the Air and the Z835. That will hopefully help you determine which is the right notebook for you.

Specs Comparison

These are the main specs of the machines under review:

Apple MacBook Air Toshiba Portege Z835-P330
Processor Intel Core i5-2557M 1.7GHz, 17w Intel Core i3-2367M 1.4GHz, 17w
Memory 4GB DDR3 1333MHz 4GB DDR3 1333MHz
Storage 128GB Samsung mSATA SSD 128GB Samsung mSATA SSD
Screen 13.3” Glossy WXGA+ (1440×900) TN LED 13.3” Glossy HD (1366×768) TN LED
Graphics Intel HD3000 Intel HD3000
Ports / Slots Two USB 2.0, Card Reader, Headphone/Microphone Jack, Thunderbolt Three USB: One Powered and One USB 3.0, Headphone and Microphone Jacks, HDMI, VGA, Card Reader and Ethernet
Battery 50w 47w Eight-Cell
Dimensions Width 12.8”, Depth 8.94” and Height .11”(Front)/.68”(Rear) Width 12.4” Depth 8.94” and Height .33”(Front)/.64”(Rear)
Weight 2.9 pounds 2.4 pounds
Warranty 1 year 1 year


Earlier Reviews

We’ve reviewed both the MacBook Air 13” and Toshiba Z835-P330 previous to this comparison, if you want the full background and review on each machine you can read those here:

Price

The least expensive price you can find our version of the 13” MacBook Air for is around $1,250 via some Internet retailers, it retails for $1,299 on Apple.com. The Z835 under review was purchased at Best Buy for $699, a very good sale price at the time.  A quick Google search right now shows the Z835 going for a little over $800. That makes the Air $450-600 more expensive than the Z835 depending on how and where they are purchased.

Advantage: Z835

Design and Durability

So close, yet so far is how I’ve come to think of the designs of the Air and Z835. If you read the specs or took a passing glance at these two Ultrabooks, you might assume that they were similar.  In some ways they are. Both are very thin, just 2/3rds of an inch thick.  At 12.8-inches the Air is slightly wider due to the larger LCD bezel. Neither one will weigh you down either. At three pounds the Air is the chunkier of the two, if you can call three pounds chunky, while the Z835 is amazingly just 2.4 pounds. Both have simple clean designs. The Air is silver while the Z835 is a slate gray color. They each have simple logos adorning the lid. Opening them reveals black chiclet style keyboards and smooth touchpads. The Air is wedge shaped, gently thickening as it goes from front to rear. The Z835 has a more uniform thickness except at the front lip.

Toshiba Z835 on top of the MacBook Air

The design — that’s the so close part, but here’s the so far part, the construction. The Air is made from aluminum in Apple’s unibody construction method. It has that carved from one block feel to it, which is essentially what a unibody is. The Air is denser, which is why it weighs more, and feels more solid. The Z835 on the other had has a case made from plastic. While the underlying frame seems rigid, it does not feel like there’s as much protection for the insides of the Z835. There’s much more flex to it – on the lid, the palm rests, keyboard and bottom all give when pressed. The upside of that give is it won’t be as prone to dings and scrapes as the Air because it will give a little before it breaks. Both use a single hinge for the LCD that runs most of the length of the back. The hinge on the Air feels more stiff. The lip on the Z835 that’s used to push up the LCD is very small. I found myself often missing it.

Advantage: MacBook Air

Thinness and Weight

I had the Air for a few months before I received the Z835. My first thought when I pulled the Z835 from the box was there was no way the Z835 was thinner and lighter than the Air. I hadn’t used the Air for a few weeks so my recollections must have been foggy. When I put them back to back, they were within a MM of each other. The specs say the Z835 is slimmer, but to my untrained eye, the Air looked a MM or so slimmer. I was already impressed with how light the Air was, but then Toshiba somehow managed to one up the Air. The Z835 is about a half a pound lighter than the Air and it’s definitely noticeable when carrying it around.

Advantage: Toshiba Z835

Thinness Comparison

Display

LCDs
The MacBook Air is on the left and Z835 on the right in the above screen comparison

Both the Air and Z835 use 13.3” glossy LED TN panels. The gloss on the Air is low-key, only rising to bothersome when there’s a light source directly overhead or behind, while the Z835 is a more typical example of a glossy screen. Glare can be an issue at lower light levels. The resolution on the Air is 1440×900. You can fit more stuff on the screen, but text is smaller, which may make things harder to read. The Z835 uses the more common 1366×768 resolution. Text is bigger and easier to read, but more scrolling is required. The Air has a slight purplish hue to it while the Z835 has a stronger bluish cast to it. While the extra resolution on the Air is nice, it’s the better colors and wider viewing angles that make the Air’s screen stand out. Both screens are crisp, but colors are more natural on the Air. The blue complexion on the Z835 throw the colors out of whack. That can probably be reduced with calibration, but most users probably won’t make the effort. Perhaps a bigger problem for the Z835 are the viewing angles. They’re narrow, even by TN standards. Any adjustment in position and colors start to shift. Even side viewing angles are below average. While not an IPS screen, the LCD on the Air does have a nice sweet spot for viewing. A minor adjustment in position won’t cause colors to fluctuate.

Advantage: Air

Performance and Storage

Each machine uses an ultra low voltage Intel CPU. The Air uses a 1.7GHz Core i5 and the Z835 gets the 1.4GHz i3. Having the i3 means no turbo boost on the Z835. You can get the Z835 with an i5 or i7, but that costs more, which lowers its value. Each has 4GB of DDR3 memory. From a processing power standpoint, the i5 in the Air offers better oomph, but that’s probably not a huge issue for most users of these machines. They’ll spend most of their time doing like Office and Internet, which don’t need much processing power. To test the performance I coded a .VOB file on each notebook using the software Handbrake. The Air took 4 minutes 12 seconds to code the file while the Z835 needed 7 minutes 7 seconds to code the file. The GeekBench 2 scores seem to mirror the Handbrake test.

Toshiba Z835 GeekBench Score
Toshiba Z835 GeekBench 2 Score
Apple Air GeekBench score
Apple MacBook Air GeekBench 2 Score

These are Ultrabooks, which means you’ll get an SSD for storage. That’s a good thing because SSDs are fast, but have limited capacity. These aren’t machines for storing your Blu-ray collection. Boot times are fast, just over 20 seconds for both, and applications open quickly. Both machines come with 128GB SSDs. The SSD on the Toshiba does a nice job of ironing out any performance advantage the i5 on the Air offers for most uses. Having used both extensively, I’d say they perform very similarly doing the usual notebook tasks, except where more processing power is needed. There, the Core i5 on the Air is faster.

Advantage: Tie

Keyboard and Touchpad

The Air and Z835 each use six row chiclet style keyboards. Both are backlit. You can adjust the light level on the Air while the Z835 only has one brightness level. It’s either on or off. I thought the Air backlight looked better because in addition to lighting the character, it illuminates the edge of the key. The keyboard on the Air is more firm due to the unibody construction. There’s no flex to it at all and the quality of the material used to make the keys is better, but the key depth is more shallow than the Toshiba. The Z835 on the other hand has better key depth. The keyboard on the Z835 has a bit of flex to it when you get going and the keys have a more plastic like feel to them. Toshiba says the keyboard on the Z835 is spill resistant, but when you flip it over, there doesn’t seem to be any drain holes. I’m not sure how that works. Both keyboards are decent, but are certainly no match for a good ultraportable keyboard like the X220.

Keyboard comparison of Z830 and MacBook Air

The touchpad on the Air is much bigger than the Z835, measuring 4”x3” to the Z835′s 3.25”x1.75”. Both touchpads are smooth to the touch. Dragging you finger across either is effortless with no hesitation from the cursor. The button mechanism on the Air’s touchpad is stiff, particularly the top third of the touchpad. When you add this to the corner used to the right click, it makes the effective size of the Air’s touchpad smaller than its actual size. While not as stiff, the buttons on the Z835 are made from a cheap looking metal. When pressed, they make make a distinct click, which you can feel. Both touchpads use gestures like pinch to zoom and two finger scrolling. Toshiba decided to disable the two finger scrolling by default. You must turn it on in the mouse settings. Both touchpads worked about the same in my opinion.

Advantage: Tie

Battery Life

Both the Air and the Z835 use non-replaceable batteries that are enclosed inside the case. Apple and Toshiba do this to help keep the machines slim, but the downside is if you need to replace the battery, it’s a lot more complicated than just buying a battery and swapping it as you can do with most notebooks. With the Air you can take it to an Apple store if there’s one nearby, but the Toshiba will most likely have to be sent off somewhere, which means downtime. To test the batteries on the Air and Z835, I set the screens to half brightness then just did normal laptop stuff like surf the web, listen to music, work on the reviews and watch movies. The Air was able to get 5:50 of battery life while the Z835 5:09. That’s an extra 40 minutes of Facebook time in class.

Advantage: Air

Upgrades

Due to their thinness, upgrading an ultrabook must be done when the machine is purchased. You can choose which configuration you prefer, but after that, there are no upgrades. It would be nice if down the road you can add memory or change the SSD, but we’re not there yet.

Advantage: Neither

Ports

If there’s one area the Z835 dominates the Air, it’s in the port selection. The Z835 has every port the Air does, except Thunderbolt, plus HDMI, Ethernet, VGA, USB 3.0 and a powered USB port, meaning you can charge a USB device while the Z835 is off. Thunderbolt is twice as fast as USB 3.0 and can connect a monitor using a mini-DisplayPort cable, but there’s so few Thunderbolt devices at the moment, it’s practical value is low. The right side of the Z835 has the USB 3.0 port. The right side of the Air has an SD card reader, USB 2.0 port and the Thunderbolt port.

Right

The rear of the Z835 has an Ethernet port, two USB 2.0 ports(one powered), HDMI and VGA. The Air has no ports on the rear.

Rear

The left side of the Z835 has a card reader, headphone and microphone jacks. The Air offers USB 2.0 port and a headphone/microphone jack.

Left

Advantage: Z835

Heat and Noise

Both notebooks stay cool to the touch when in use, never going above warm, even when doing processor intensive tasks like benchmarking. The fans are a different matter. The Air can get noisy. It’s louder than than the Z835 when pushed, but most of the time it remains very quiet. The fan on the Z835 has a hum/grind to it. It starts a few seconds after the power buttons is pushed to start the machine and remains audible until the machine is shut down or is put to sleep. It’s a constant annoyance. Music or conversation can drown the fan noise out, but it can be aggravating when using the machine in a quiet room.

Advantage: Air

Wireless and Networking

Both offer WiFi cards, the Air a Broadcom card and the Toshiba an Intel 1000 card. I’ve used both at home, work and around town. Neither have given me any trouble connecting or downloading. Internal WWAN is not an option for either machine. The Air does come with Bluetooth for those who want it. It does sync with the iPhone quite seamlessly. Bluetooth can be had on better equipped Z835s, but that means spending more money. The Z835 has an Ethernet port for anyone needing high speed data transfers over a wired network. WiDi, Intel’s wireless display technology, comes standard on the Z835 if you’ve got a WiDi enabled TV.

Advantage: Tie

Software

Being that these machines are ultraportables doing everyday tasks, I don’t know how much importance the Mac vs PC debate holds here. It’s unlikely most of the users of these machines will be doing heavy 3D modeling or video editing, where one OS may have an advantage over the other. The Air comes with OS X Lion while the Z835 comes with Windows 7 Home Premium. Either of those operating systems are more than up to most of the challenges their users will throw at them. For being a consumer focused machine, I was surprised the Z835 has a minimum of bloatware. Only Office, the Google Toolbar and the very irritating Norton, but a few minutes is all that should be needed to remove them. Toshiba does have a few good utilities for the battery and diagnostics. One swell feature on the Z835 is when pressing the FN key an overlay of the button functions pops up on the screen, which is helpful for anyone new to the machine. Thankfully, Apple has chosen not go the bloatware route. With higher price points, they have that luxury. The only one is the Office trial, but it’s no nagware like Norton. Apple has its own nice set of utilities in iLife. It’s a basic set of software applications – iDVD, GargageBand, iMovie, iPhoto and iWeb. They come on every new Mac.

Advantage: Tie

Warranty

The Air and the Z835 both come with a one year warranty. The Air only includes 90 days of software support while the Z835 includes software support while it’s under warranty. That seems kind of stingy on Apple’s part for an expensive notebook. It’s kind of difficult to say anything about the quality of the warranty service for a review, but I think the ace Apple has up its sleeve in terms of the warranty service is its stores. You can take any Apple product to one of its stores and have it fixed right away with an appointment. If the Z835 requires service you’ll have to send your notebook to Toshiba for service, which means you’ll be without it while it’s being serviced.

Both Apple and Toshiba will let you upgrade the warranty. The Air’s warranty can upped to three years for $250 with AppleCare, pushing it over $1,500. This includes software support for the life of the warranty. Apple does not offer accidental coverage. If you drop your notebook or spill liquid on it, you’re in for an expensive repair. The Z835′s advantage in terms of the warranty is you can add on-site and accidental coverage to the Z830 for a fee. It will be fixed regardless of how it’s damaged. That might be important for some who travel with their notebook frequently. Notebooks that travel tend to take a beating.

Advantage: Tie

And the Winner Is…

Apple MacBook Air winsI think few would argue that the Z835 is a better ultrabook than the Air. Sure, the Air is better, but is it worth $450-600 more than the Z835-P330? I think that will depend on what your priorities are. If you’re budget has suffered this recession and you want an ultrabook, then perhaps the Z835 merits consideration. The Z835 does offer some advantages over the Air. It’s lighter, has wider port selection and is more wallet friendly. That’s if you can live with its shortcomings, mainly the sub par screen and noisy fan. The Air on the other had is easier to live with because it has a better high resolution screen, runs cool and mostly quiet, gets longer battery life, looks and feels better. Those have value, particularly the better screen and quiet operation. It may boil down to how you view the world. I would prefer to pay more and get something I like than settle for something else because it’s less expensive. I think the longer you plan to keep your ultrabook, the more this rings true.

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