Toshiba Satellite U845W widescreen ultrabook review

It’s not easy to make a laptop that stands out in a crowd. But Toshiba managed to do just that with the Satellite U845W. It’s the first ultrabook to feature an ultra-widescreen display with a 21:9 aspect ratio.

What’s not clear is whether this represents the first in a new breed of laptop designs, or if the U845W is an evolutionary dead end.

Toshiba designed the laptop with multimedia in mind. The 1792 x 768 pixel display looks great when you’re watching videos with a cinematic 21:9 aspect ratio. And Toshiba took advantage of the extra space on the sides of the keyboard to include a set of  Harmon Kardon stereo speakers which offer better sound than I’ve ever heard from built-in laptop speakers.

Even when you’re not viewing widescreen videos, the extra horizontal screen real estate also makes it easy to view two apps side-by-side: something that I find extraordinarily useful as a writer, since I often have two browser windows open at the same time, one for reading and researching, and one for writing.

On the other hand, most videos aren’t available in a 21:9 format and I suspect most users don’t use side-by-side windows as often as I do.

While there are no black bars above or below the screen when you’re watching videos with a cinematic widescreen aspect ratio, the vast majority of videos shot for TV, YouTube, or other online video sites have 16:9 or 4:3 aspect ratios. That means you  get black bars on the left and right sides of the screen when viewing them on this laptop.

And if you use the single-window mode, you may find yourself with a lot of white space on the left and right sides of the screen while reading websites or running apps designed for lower resolution displays.

Still, the Toshiba U845W is a relatively powerful and portable machine with a high resolution display and Toshiba deserves a lot of credit for thinking outside the box here.

The company loaned me a demo unit for the purposes of this review. It features a 1.7 GHz Intel Core i5-3317U Ivy Bridge processor, 6GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive, and a 32GB solid state disk for cache. It has a 14 inch, 1792 x 768 pixel display, 802.11n WiFi, and Bluetooth 4.0.

This model normally retails for about $1000, although it’s been known to go on sale for as little as $900.

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Design

Toshiba’s ultra-widescreen laptop has a 14.4 inch display. That’s what you get when you measure the diagonal distance from one corner of the screen to the next.

But since the Satellite U845W is a much wider screen than your typical laptop, the screen isn’t nearly as tall as you’d expect from a 14 inch laptop. It is, however, much wider.

In fact, if you place the Toshiba Satellite U845W next to a notebook with a 12.1 inch, 1366 x 768 pixel screen, it’s clear the two laptops are nearly the same height, while the the Toshiba is much longer.

The 21:9 display looks great when viewed head-on. But the viewing angles are pretty limited. Picture and video colors will start to look washed out if you tilt the screen too far back or try to look at the laptop from the left or right — which means it might not be all that easy to watch videos with friends while the U845W is on your lap.

The screen dictates the design of the rest of the laptop. There’s more than enough room for a full-sized keyboard, so Toshiba packed in a set of high quality speakers to the sides of the keyboard.

Since they’re facing up and never covered by your hands, lap, or a table when the laptop is in use, they sound loud and clear.

Toshiba built a sturdy aluminum frame for the laptop, but covered the bottom, part of the top, and the palm rest area with a “soft touch” plastic finish. The plastic has a subtle textured pattern which is relatively pleasant to touch, doesn’t get particularly hot or cold, and doesn’t act as a fingerprint magnet.

The laptop measures 14.5″ x 7.9″ x 0.83″ and weighs about 4 pounds.

Around the sides of the laptop you’ll find 3 USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI port, mic and headphone jacks, and an Ethernet jack. Because the notebook is just over 0.8 inches thick, there’s not much room for that Ethernet jack, and you actually have to pull a bit of plastic down to widen the opening before you can connect an RJ-45 cable.

There’s an SDHC card slot tucked away at the front of the laptop, beneath the palm rest.

At the back of the laptop there are a number of vents which help keep the laptop cool. They seem to work, because I’ve rarely noticed the surface of the ultrabook getting very warm (although the bottom can get a bit hot after a while).

But the notebook doesn’t have a silent, passive-cooling system. It pumps out the hot air with the aid of a noisy fan. Thanks to the nice loud speakers, you might not notice any fan noise if you’re blasting music, but if you’re using the notebook with the sound off in a quiet room, you’ll probably notice the sound of the fan from time to time.

The only distinguishing feature on the bottom of the Toshiba Satellite U845W are the four rubber feet that hold the  notebook steady when it’s resting on a tablet. There are no access panels.

In other words, if you want to upgrade the memory or storage, you’ll have to disassemble the laptop. And the battery isn’t meant to be user replaceable at all.

Fortunately even the cheapest models of this laptop come with a healthy 6GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive plus 32GB solid state cache. If you’re willing to pay an extra $500 for a higher-end configuration, you can also get a model with a 256GB solid state disk instead of a hard drive.

But generally I’m not a fan of the trend to use non-replaceable batteries in ultrabooks. Yes, they allow manufacturers to make notebooks thinner and lighter than they might otherwise be. But if your battery is damaged you’ll need to send the whole computer to Toshiba to have it replaced. And all batteries degrade over time — which means that this $1000 laptop has a ticking time bomb inside it.

A few years from now it won’t get the same kind of battery life it gets today, which could shorten the effective life span of the laptop. If you tend to upgrade computers every 2-3 years anyway, that probably won’t be a problem. If you like to hang onto a laptop for 5 or more years, you might want to find one with a user replaceable battery.

Overall the Toshiba Satellite U845W has an unusual shape and size thanks to its ultra-widescreen display. But Toshiba manages to make the laptop visually appealing with a nice blend of metal and plastic.

All the stickers that come with the laptop kind of detract from the aesthetic, but you can peel those off carefully if you don’t need to be constantly reminded that the webcam works with Skype, that you’re using an ultrabook, or that the laptop has Intel inside.

One problem with the unusual design, though, is that you may have problems finding a carrying case. Most 14 inch laptop cases or covers will be too small, and a case designed for a larger laptop will likely be too loose.

Your best bet is probably to get a large backup or shoulder bag with a padded laptop pocket that you can slide the Toshiba Satellite U845W into — although I usually feel better if I can throw a laptop into a protective slip cover before doing that.

Keyboard and Touchpad

The laptop features an island, or chiclet-style keyboard. This means all of the keys are flat rectangles with space between them. The keys are backlit, making it easier to see what you’re doing in a dark room.

In theory, the keyboard seems excellent. There’s a dedicated row of Home, Endg, PgUp, and PgDn keys on the right side of the screen. The arrow keys are reasonably sized and well placed. There are a series of Fn keys above the number row, making it easy to control media playback, adjust the volume or screen brightness, or trigger other actions.

But I find typing on the Toshiba Satellite U845W to be a bit of a pain. At first I thought the keyboard was too wide, and that my fingers had to stretch too far to hit a key. But after measuring several keyboards I realize that’s not the case.

The reasons my hands have to work harder to type on this laptop is because you have to push fairly hard on each key in order for the press to be recognized. So my fingers and wrist get a bit sore when typing for an extended period.

Over time, you can get used to this… just like you can get used to any keyboard. But after using the laptop for more than a week, I scored about 89 words per minute in a typing test — which is 5-10 words per minute slower than my usual score.

There’s also a bit of flex to the keyboard. If you press down on the keys toward the middle, the entire keyboard area bends inward a little. This doesn’t normally bother me much, but I feel like it might be part of the reason I have to press harder on this keyboard than on most others.

Below the keyboard there’s a big, wide touchpad.

It’s positioned a little off-center, a little closer to the left of the keyboard than the right. This doesn’t really bother me, since it seems to keep my palms from accidentally swiping the touch surface while I type.

Swiping a finger across the keyboard to move an on-screen cursor is a breeze, and the touchpad supports multi-finger gestures such as two finger scrolling.

But I’m not a fan of the way the touchpad handles clicks. You can press down on nearly any area of the touchpad to register a left-click. But in order to right-click, you need to press a pretty precise section in the lower right corner.

Time and time again, I’ve found myself trying to right-click, only to realize I’ve accidentally left-clicked. This leads to opening documents when I just wanted to view their properties, or opening a new website in the current window instead of in a new browser tab.

I’ve also run into a number of instances when I’ve tried to single-tap a link, only to open the same web page twice because the computer thought I had clicked twice.

Your results may vary – I’ve read other reviews from testers that loved the touchpad. For me the solution to my touchpad woes was pretty simple: I plugged in a USB mouse.

Performance

The demo unit Toshiba loaned me features an intel Core i5-3317U Ivy Bridge processor with Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics. Higher-end models are also available with faster Core i7-3517U chips. Replace the 500GB hard drive with a 256GB SSD and you’ll probably get even more of a performance boost.

But even with a Core i5 chip and a hard drive, the Toshiba Satellite U845W is pretty fast. In fact, it may be the fastest laptop I’ve ever reviewed for Liliputing (which isn’t surprising, since I tend to gravitate toward affordable PCs rather than high-end gaming rigs).

Even with a hard 5400RPM hard drive, the U845W boots in less than 30 seconds and resumes from sleep in just about 2-3 seconds.

If the laptop is in sleep mode long enough, it will switch to hibernate mode to save power, which means that instead of storing your data temporarily in RAM, it gets written to the hard drive. Resuming from hibernate takes longer than coming back from sleep mode — so you can’t just expect to open the lid and start using the laptop immediately. But it still takes just around 10-15 seconds to resume from hibernate.

The ultrabook took almost exactly the same amount of time to transcode audio and video files and create a ZIP archive as the Lenovo IdeaPad U310. That’s not surprising, since both laptops feature hard drives, SSD cache, and the same Intel Core i5 chips.

But the Toshiba Satellite U845W came out ahead in third party gaming benchmarks which also look at 3D graphics performance. I have no idea why, since both the Toshiba and Lenovo laptops feature Intel HD Ivy Bridge graphics, but the Toshiba laptop came out way ahead here.

Both laptops trounced the Asus Zenbook UX31 ultrabook I reviewed earlier this year. That laptop had an Intel Core i5-2557M Sandy Bridge processor. That laptop was certainly no slouch in the performance department, but it can’t keep up with the new kids on the block.

The Satellite U845W scored about as high as any computer I’ve tested on 3D graphics benchmarks, including the Street Fighter IV and 3DMark06 tests. I think the high resolution display may have given the laptop a bit of a disadvantage in the Street Fighter benchmark though. While running the test with a resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels, there were black bars on the sides of the screen and the overall results weren’t quite as good as I’ve seen from some other Ivy Bridge systems.

Update: An earlier version of this review showed a Street Fighter benchmark score of 8700. That’s the score you get if you run the benchmark in a window. In full-screen mode, the score drops to 7043, which is more in line with other notebooks with Intel Core i5 Ivy Bridge processors and Intel HD 4000 graphics.

In terms of everyday performance, the laptop was able to handle 1080p HD video playback with ease, and I had no problems surfing the web with more than a dozen browser tabs open while streaming internet radio.

Toshiba says you should be able to get up to 8.5 hours of battery life, but I think 5 to 6 hours is more realistic. You can subtract some time from that estimate if you’re playing video games or watching video.

But I regularly got a little over 5 hours of run time while using the laptop to read websites and write blog posts with WiFi enabled and the screen brightness at about 60 percent.

That’s plenty of time to get some work done at a coffee shop, and it might even last you for most of a cross-country flight. But it’s not quite all-day battery life.

As I mentioned, the extra screen real estate on the Toshiba Satellite U845W makes it much easier to view two websites side-by-side, which makes writing and researching articles for Liliputing almost as easy on this laptop as it is on a desktop with a 1920 x 1080 pixel display.

I wouldn’t mind a few more vertical pixels, but that would be tough to do without making the laptop larger (and probably heavier).

Software 

In addition to the Windows 7 operating system that comes with the Satellite U845W, Toshiba crams a lot of additional software on the laptop. That includes Adobe Reader, Norton Anti-Virus, and the Google Chrome web browser (which you’ll want to update, since the laptop ships with Chrome 12, which is a bit out of date).

You also get a ridiculously large number of Toshiba utilities — some more useful than others.

The Toshiba Split Screen utility is an interesting little app that lets you take advantage of the widescreen display by snapping windows to a smaller portion of the screen. This works sort of like Microsoft’s Aero Snap, but instead of dragging a window to the side of the screen to have it take up half the display area, you can press a little icon next to the close, maximize, and minimize box to snap a window.

There’s also a Toshiba Eco utility which lets you prolong your battery life quickly by adjusting settings for the display brightness, keyboard backlight, sleep mode, and other options.

Toshiba Sleep Utility lets you supply power to USB ports even when the computer is sleeping. This lets you recharge a phone or other device even if the computer’s not “on.”

You can also use the Sleep Utility to enable Sleep and Music, which lets you use the built-in Harmon Kardon speakers as external speakers for a portable audio device even when the computer is asleep. You can do this by running a 3.5mm audio cable from the headphone jack on your phone or portable media player to the audio input jack on the Satellite U845W.

Verdict

I’m not convinced that a laptop with a 21:9 aspect ratio display makes sense if you view it as a computer built for watching videos. There just aren’t that many videos available with that aspect ratio — especially since the Toshiba Satellite U845W doesn’t include a Blu-ray drive (or any optical disc drive).

Most of the videos you’re likely to watch on this computer are online videos or movies you’ve downloaded from the internet.

That said, there’s a lot to like about this 4 pound portable notebook with a 1792 x 768 pixel display. Sure, if you’re the sort of person that likes to run apps in full-screen, you’ll probably see a lot of white space on the left and right sides of your screen while using the web browser or other apps.

But if you plan to edit large spreadsheets or edit multitrack audio or video files, the extra screen real estate could come in handy. And if you’re a writer that likes to keep a research window open next to a writing window, a widescreen (or high resolution) display is the next-best thing to a dual monitor setup.

If the Toshiba Satellite U845W had a user replaceable battery, a keyboard I enjoyed typing on, and a cheaper SSD option, I would seriously consider picking one up as my next laptop.

It’s not only the only laptop available with this sort of ultra-widescreen display, it’s also reasonably thin and light and offers the kind of performance I’d expect from an ultraportable laptop in 2012.

  • http://www.facebook.com/puiu.adrian George Adrian Puiu

    Gglossy display. Not my cup of tea but I suppose I could live with it.

  • guy

    Doesn’t sound many people would buy this. Being so wide and heavy, I wouldn’t really consider this an ultraportable. You’re probably better off getting a larger overall high resolution notebook if you really need the screen real estate.

  • mjdinsmore

    Kudos for them trying something different. Will be interesting to see if it does fit a niche market to produce enough sales.

  • David

    Glossy screen. + No replaceable batter = NO SALE for me.

    • Penn Taylor

      I hear you on the battery issue. I don’t like this trend of built-in batteries either, but judging from the Apple device market, the tablet market, and the ultrabook market, far more people are willing to put up with it (or like it) than are not. I expect to see a lot more external batteries like this: http://gigaom.com/mobile/external-batter/

      For the glossy screen issue, there are always matte overlay products like this: http://www.notebookreview.com/default.asp?newsID=5753 , although, considering the odd dimensions of this particular display it’s like no one makes one that would fit. Might be able to cut down a larger one though.

  • Penn Taylor

    This looks much better as a web developer’s ultraportable than the one Dell is pushing right now. Documentation in one window right next to code in the other window: that’s like a dream come true on a laptop. Too bad it won’t have out-of-the-box Linux support and all the other nifty little things Dell is trying out in the developer’s ultraportable space.

  • Hannah Martin

    I checked out these reviews http://search4laptop.com/ before buying my Laptop and thye were quite useful, I looked through quite a few laptops but finally decided on the Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display;