Toshiba Dynabook SX Review

At first glance its impossibly light frame, bright clear screen, and oddly curved top is sure to turn heads.
At first glance its impossibly light frame, bright clear screen, and oddly curved top is sure to turn heads.
At first glance its impossibly light frame, bright clear screen, and oddly curved top is sure to turn heads.

Highs

  • Lightweight
  • ultra-portable design
  • 802.11b/g wireless

Lows

  • Poor battery life
  • hollow feel
  • lack of optical drive

DT Editors' Rating

Summary

With the Dynabook SX, Toshiba takes an utterly conventional approach to a category of notebooks that is entrusted with defying convention.

The Dynabook SX is a textbook case of beauty being more than skin deep. It is an ultralight that is excellent at first glance but suffers upon detailed inspection. Once you get over the flashy exterior and diminutive size, the poor battery performance, annoyingly hard to push trackpad buttons, and a generally hollow-feeling shell might make you wish they kept this product in Japan.

While Dynamism has come through again in preparing a hot Japanese notebook for U.S. consumers, Toshiba made an average notebook barely worth the effort.

Introduction

The Toshiba Dynabook SX is an ultralight notebook aimed at the mobile traveler willing to sacrifice features in order to save every ounce of weight. Unfortunately, some might think those sacrifices are just too much.

At first glance it’s impossibly light frame, bright clear screen, and oddly curved top is sure to turn heads. But a closer inspection reveals a sub-par battery life, average keyboard, and little attention to design details.

Captured in Japan for American Eyes

Like most ultralight notebooks, you won’t find the Dynabook at your local CompUSA. With the exception of Sony and Fujitsu, laptop manufacturers have long ago decided that the land of SUVs doesn’t have much of an appetite for ultralight notebooks. That created a niche market of technophiles and regularly mobile users who craved the easy carrying size of ultralights and were willing to pay a premium. Importers like Dynamism (who provided the unit for review) have filled that niche by providing the latest laptops from Japan with the convenience of North American software and support. If you need exclusivity and are willing to pay a premium for to import a Japanese notebook with high design and mobility, these services just might be perfect for you.

The Toshiba Dynabook SX weighs only 2.19 pounds but features a 12.1″ XGA TFT, a 1GHz Intel Centrino processor, and 802.11g/b wireless connectivity. It comes with a standard 256MB of RAM but can be upgraded to 1GB. It is encased in a magnesium alloy housing and includes a shock-mounted hard drive (40GB or 20GB).


The diminutive Toshiba Dynabook SX is light in the hands and light on features.

Featured all over the Web and in print, and covered regularly at Designtechnica, Dynamism has built a reputation on delivering the latest laptops from Japan months before they hit the US market, if they ever do. They take care of all the normal issues that might come up if you happened to buy a notebook from a regular retailer, from an English translated manual and software, to honoring your warranty should anything go wrong.

With that said, the careful attention and nature of the products offered means that there will always be a price to pay – both in cost and in features – for the exclusivity of being one of the proud few in the country to own a Japanese import. For instance, although the Dynabook had English characters on the keyboard, the layout of our review sample was just slightly altered so that tapping the : (colon) key produced a ‘ (single quotes). Changing from an English to Japanese keyboard in Windows fixed the issue, but the location of the colon had been moved to an area that most North American users would not  be used to.

Also, sliding in a Secure Digital card to test for performance found that no SD card driver had been installed. After searching for fifteen minutes, we gave up. However, all those little problems melt away the first time you open up a Japanese import in a coffee house and immediately draw a crowd.

Look and Feel

The Dynabook’s shiny magnesium alloy cover and minimal logo-less top certainly fit the bill to draw a crowd. Toshiba has also added a unique stepped-down top, which added to the unique look and was also somehow supposed to help if the notebook was dropped. Whether the odd shape was gratuitous or ingenious is subjective, but we were left rather ambivalent.

But while the slopped hood may seem a nice design feature to some, many of the other design details left a lot to be desired. Partly because of all the empty space supposedly to keep it safe from dropping, the overall notebook had a hollow and pliable feel. Not the solid block you typically expect from a tightly packed notebook. And in general much of the finishing left a lot to be desired, such as the poorly matched plastic for the PC card eject mechanism.

Form and Function

All that empty space helps to make the Dynabook feel even lighter than it looks. Unless you’ve been sporting the JVC Interlink 7310, you likely have never held a notebook this light. An HP iPaq PDA with a WiFi adapter is actually heavier than the Dynabook. The notebook is so light that its power adapter weighs 20 percent more than the notebook itself. And while that bodes well for the mobile travelers desperately trying to save money on costly back massages, it certainly means compromise.

Like most ultralights, you will be compromising on a smaller monitor and optical drive-free design. At 12.1 inches the monitor wasn’t big, but the 1024×768 resolution certainly sufficed for most eyes thanks to a very bright clear screen. For those who worry about the diminutive size of ultralight notebooks, Toshiba has included a convenient one-touch zooming utility that decreases the screen resolution to make for easier reading of text.

On the inside, the Dynabook sports a solid standard of components. Like most ultralights, the Dynabook is a single spindle notebook. Unfortunately for the design-conscious that are likely the target market, Dynamism doesn’t sell the matches external CD-Rom drive. But these are common compromises for an ultralight notebook, as very few offer internal optical drives.

Battery Issues

Another common compromise on ultralights is the battery. This is mostly because while many other components, such as the microprocessor, have increased by leaps and bounds, current battery technology is over ten years old.

Lithium Ion is the most commonly found battery in notebooks such as the Dynabook SX. L-ion is such a terror for ultra-portables in particular because it must be formed into a square, taking up valuable space which is at a premium in a notebook the size of a hardcover book. It also happens to be the single heaviest component.

Lithium Polymer batteries, introduced in the late 1990s, were supposed to reverse this trend, allowing you to create a soft and flexible battery that could be curled around the underside of a keyboard and hug corners. However, Polymer batteries turned out to be quite expensive, and although they’ve been included in some ultralights, such as Fujitsu’s Loox from Dynamism,  they are typically packed just like the old Lithium Ion.


The Dynabook SX battery (left) will only give you about two hours of mobile computing.

Toshiba has gone with the older Lithium Ion battery, packing it on the back of the laptop, apparently satisfied with the meager two hours of life. Whether consumers will be willing to take such a short battery life just to shave a few ounces remains to be seen, but the Dynabook is clearly not the blockbuster the Libretto was. We found it disconcerting that the component that was responsible for a major part of the weight and size of the unit performed so dismally.

This seems surprising for a company with such a vaunted history in ultralights. The Toshiba Dynabook is part of a long line of ultralights from Toshiba, one of the first companies to release an ultralight notebook with the Libretto. It was also one of the first to use a Lithium Polymer battery, the first to build a trackpad into a laptop, and the first to have more than three hours of battery life.

Conclusion

In the end, Toshiba’s approach to the battery is indicative of the overall product, an utterly conventional approach to a category of notebooks that is entrusted with defying convention.

The Dynabook SX is a textbook case of beauty being more than skin deep. It is an ultralight that is excellent at first glance but suffers upon detailed inspection. Once you get over the flashy exterior and diminutive size, the poor battery performance, annoyingly hard to push trackpad buttons, and a generally hollow-feeling shell might make you wish they kept this product in Japan.

While Dynamism has come through again in preparing a hot Japanese notebook for U.S. consumers, Toshiba made an average notebook barely worth the effort.