Pros: Thin, light, flexible power options, great screen
Cons: Multimedia port replicator a seperate piece, weird keyboard layout
I owned and reviewed the 3490CT four-years-ago, and at that time considered it to be about the best of its breed. Sadly, that machine was ruined by a Toshiba service center, and while Ive since had the similar 3480CT (still do, but its up for sale now) and the newer Portege 4000, Ive always looked back at the 3490CT through rose-colored glasses. Well, I finally found a seller on eBay with 3490CT laptops in like new condition at a reasonable price, so once again a 3490CT is in my possession.
Back in 2000, I only had the basic computer and a PC-card DVD-ROM drive, but now Ive got the full kit, including the docking station with a DVD/CDRW Combo drive, the lan port replicator, floppy drive and the all-important high-capacity plate battery. With a new main battery added, I finally have what I consider to be the ultimate 3490CT outfit, but the question is, how does it compare with more modern laptops?
Unlike 4-years-ago, the Portege 3490CT (or any Wintel PC, for that matter) is not my primary computer. I have the small Apple PowerBook that fulfills that role. Rather, for me a PC laptop is for routine carry to work (Im a police officer, so sometimes my carry laptop gets tossed around a bit) and use in environments where I dont want to risk my PowerBook (out by the pool).
Okay, so with its intended mission out of the way, how does the Portege 3490CT stack up against its more modern rivals? How does it stack up against the Apple PowerBook? Ill start by comparing oranges to oranges, and save the Apples for later. Recently, I used and reviewed the Portege R100, which is the most current descendant of the 3490 in Toshibas catalog. I also recently took a second look at the 3480CT, which was the 3490s immediate predecessor.
To start, the 3490CT is a 700MHz Pentium III laptop with 128MB of on-board ram, expandable to a maximum of 256MB and containing a 20GB hard drive from the factory. It has a semi-modern 100MHz frontside bus and uses PC100 memory in the now uncommon micro-dimm size. The laptop itself weighs 3.4lbs and is listed at .8 thick. Finally, it has an eraserhead-type mouse and an 11.3 TFT screen at 1024X768 resolution.
As the final evolution of the Portege 3000-series, it benefits from lessons learned over a three year production run, including easy docking, two battery operation and scroll buttons above the mouse buttons. Unlike the newer R100, it still has a very awkward keyboard layout that for me at least, requires the rather draconian step of running a keyboard remapping utility to disable the home and page down keys, which are to the right of the backspace and enter keys, respectively, and frequently get hit by accident when I type. Remapped as duplicates, my 3490 (and 3480 before it) now have the full-size backspace and enter keys they deserve.
As I mentioned in my R100 review, the new model is 1lb lighter, has a 1 larger screen and uses a touchpad pointing device and a conventional keyboard layout (with better key action). On the debit side, the newer model runs about an hour less on its batteries and takes up more space on your desk (though its thinner). Finally, the new model is considerably faster and can hold a lot more ram (a full 1GB).
My 3490CT came running Windows XP Professional, though since I do not have a valid XP license and there are no features in XP that I need, I downgraded to Windows 2000 Professional installed from my original 3490CT restore CD (this machine has a Windows 2000 COA). I did play with XP on this machine (and have used it on my 3480) and find performance with the newer OS to be fast and smooth, just as nice as on the R100, in fact. Yes, the R100 will perform computer-intensive tasks faster, but for routine tasks like booting up and launching a web browser, there is no practical difference in the speed of the two computers. Running Windows 2000, the 3490 is perhaps a bit faster. Of course the new Centrino powered R100 is the faster computer (the 3490 wont even run some multimedia games that the R100 handles with ease), but in OS feel (opening folders, etc), the older machine feels quicker when running the older Win2K OS.
Connected to the multimedia port replicator (I have a DVD/CDRW Combo in mine) and with a WiFi PC Card installed (I use the 3Com with X-Jack retractable antenna) there really is nothing that this machine wont do that the newest models will. Yes, it is too slow for games, at least the newest games, but for everything else it is a delight. DVD movies are flawless, with no pixilation or artifacts (WinDVD 6). Word and Excel launch in a few seconds, just like they do on the more modern R100. Even Photoshop (I have version 7) is fast and responsive, even when working with large 5 megapixel photos or high-resolution scans.
Like the R100, it is inconvenient to use this as a multimedia system anywhere except your desk. Unlike IBMs X-series ultralights, both the 3490 and the current R100 do not offer clip-on docking stations. The 3490s multimedia port replicator is a separate piece connected to the computer with a thick cable. The port replicator is also thicker than the PC itself, and almost as large and heavy, entirely defeating the purpose of owning such a small computer.
Toshiba also provided a LAN port replicator with these, and this, while smaller than the multimedia, is still too bulky to be used for the daily commute, mainly on account of its using the same thick, heavy cable. Actually, earlier 3000-series Porteges required the use of a port replicator to give video out, making those poor presentation machines, but with the 34x0 models a VGA out port was put right on the chasis, making the port replicators only necessary to access to built-in Ethernet chip or the other legacy ports (PS/2, Parallel, Serial). Since the 3490 has two PC card slots and an excellent built-in 56k modem, I fill those two slots with wireless and conventional network cards (another 3Com X-Jack handles wired networks) and just leave all of the port replicators at home. This is how the 3490 was meant to be used, and undocked like this, you can really enjoy the pleasures of a 3.4lb laptop when you travel.
Of course, the R100 does the 3490 two better, as it features WiFi and wired Ethernet ports built-in, and at almost a full pound less weight. I consider these almost equivalent for the work I do. The R100 is thinner while the 3490 is smaller. The R100 is lighter, but doesnt last as long on its battery. For super-long life, the story remains the same, with the R100 now about 1.6 lbs lighter (with two batteries), but running almost 2 hours less than the 3490 when clipped to its high capacity cell.
For me, I prefer the combination of smaller size (I work a lot on airplanes) and longer battery life, and am willing to pay an extra pound of weight to get it. Others will likely prefer the weight or the R100, as I said in the beginning, its all a matter of balance when it comes to ultralight laptops.
For an oranges to Apples comparison, I decided to pit the 3490CT against my primary computer, an Apple PowerBook G2 12 (the small one). My PowerBook is now one generation old and runs at 1.0 GHz (current 12 PBs are 1.33 GHz). It has a 40GB hard drive, DVD/CDRW combo drive and built-in bluetooth (which Ive yet to use) and WiFi, which better range than the PC card I use in my Toshiba. Finally, at 4.6 lbs and a smidge thicker than the 3490 it isnt as nice to carry, though thanks to its hinge design, it takes up even less vertical space when the screen is open, a real benefit when sitting in coach and worried about the passenger in front of you reclining.
When comparing the PowerBook with the Portege the main issue is that these machines belong to different classes, not only different platforms. The PowerBook is a subnote, not an ultralight. With the PowerBook there are no compromises to using a smaller machine save the smaller screen, which frankly, isnt even a problem for me on the 1 smaller Portege LCD. The compromise is deciding whether you want to carry around the extra 1.2lbs of a machine with everything built in, or go extra light and have nothing built in. I cant attribute the weight difference to battery capacity, for while Apples battery has slightly higher capacity and is in itself heavier, the two machines last about the same length of time on a charge, both of which capable of 3.5 hours with screens dimmed and processors slowed, but dropping to barely 2 hours when watching a DVD (still dim screen and slow processor). Bright screen and slow processor gives about 2:45 on both computers, though the Portege battery drains faster when the processors are sped up (I guess Intels SpeedStep really works).
For me, when I take a business trip, the decision on which computer to bring comes down to the length of the trip and the likelihood that my computer may get banged around. For example, I recently spent two weeks in Korea with the Army Reserve, and while it was a long trip and I planned to watch DVD movies in both my spare time on the ground and in the air, Normally, a trip of that length would make the Apple the easy choice, but since I was to be staying in a large tent, I went with the Toshiba. I dont think the Portege is significantly more resistant to damage than the PowerBook, but if it should break, I can hit eBay with $400 and buy another one. The PowerBook is a little (a lot, actually) more expensive, and that is the reason why I own two laptops.
The other situation where I will take the Portege over the PowerBook is a short trip, like the one Im taking next week. I will fly to Phoenix (1 hour and 30 minutes from LA), stay one night and then give a short PowerPoint presentation at a meeting. Maybe Ill take a few notes from one of the other speakers. Ill be home for dinner. For that role, I prefer the lighter weight of the Portege.
Professional appearance is an issue, but honestly both of these computers pack sufficient Wow Factor to be at home in any boardroom, though the glowing white Apple always scores a few extra points.
Where the PowerBook shines is as a primary machine. Later this year I will attend a 5-month training class. The PowerBook is small enough to bring to class every day, light enough be a delight to travel with, and powerful enough to completely replace a desktop computer. It even has good enough sound from its built-in speakers to enjoy movies in my hotel room without headphones (Portege has a particularly whimpy single speaker). In other words, while still very compact, it really can do the job of a full-on desktop replacement.
So, how does the 3490CT stack up today, 4 years after its introduction? Honestly, it still matches its design goals so well that the newer R100 really doesnt add anything other than a faster processor and integrated WiFi (the 3490 is just one year too old for that). Even today, the balance between weight and battery life has not made the 3490 obsolete, while performance gains from the newest hardware arent really utilized except in games and high-end content creation, which are usually best done on a desktop anyway, or at least on a laptop with a large screen and its optical drive built-in.