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Toshiba Satellite U925t review

A normal-looking ultrabook with a trick up its sleeve

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Toshiba Satellite U925t hero (1024px)
Toshiba Satellite U925t hero (1024px)

As Windows 8 starts to flood the market, certain types of computers are going to become a lot more common. There will be a lot of convertible tablet / dock combinations, plenty of ultrabooks with touchscreens, and quite a number of all-in-one desktops with touchscreens. Then there are the wacky devices, like the rotating Dell XPS 12 and the flipping Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga.

The Toshiba U925t definitely falls into the "wacky" category, and the best term I can think of is "slider." It's primarily an ultrabook, but the screen's hinge allows it to fold back and then slide down over top of the keyboard, giving you a 12.5-inch tablet — the Sony VAIO Duo 11 does something very similar. Still, this device is mostly laptop — it's powered by a low-voltage Intel Core i5 processor, a large SSD, and Windows 8, and its selection of ports and jacks is right in line with the current ultrabook range. It's available now, for $1,149 — that price buys you a Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD. Does the U925t strike the right balance, giving you all the power you need and a good-enough tablet experience? Let's find out.


Hardware

Hardware


In the battle between form and function, function won on the U925t. Form not only lost, but was apparently run out of town — I really don't like the look of this laptop. (For what it's worth, my esteemed colleague Sean Hollister is a fan; "exoskeletons rule," he told me. So maybe it's just a polarizing design.) The worst offenders are the rotating and sliding mechanisms on the back that let the screen move in four directions: there are three unsightly tracks for the slider, plus two odd cutouts for the hinge. It's like the cover's been removed so you can see the device's inner workings, except there is no cover.

The hinge may be ugly, but it certainly gets the job done. The U925t's screen can be propped up at almost a 90-degree angle to the keyboard base, or laid down flat — you could mount this thing into a wall pretty easily, and I can't say I haven't seriously entertained the idea. The hinge is sturdy enough to hold the U925t in place in any position, though it does wobble ever so slightly when you touch it. It also grates a bit as it slides along the keyboard, but I don't think it's doing any damage. The base, by the way, sticks in place thanks to its rubbery feet — you can move the screen without really needing to hold the base, which is nice.

The rest of the U925t isn't much to look at either. It has the same two-toned gray / brown color scheme as the Satellite U845W, with a smooth, metallic gray surface around the keyboard and a dimpled rubber everywhere else. The rubbery material feels good and grips well, but the smooth keyboard tray is much more attractive — it's a really odd juxtaposition of textures and colors.

At 3.2 pounds the U925t is a fairly light laptop, and slides nicely into a backpack, but it's way too heavy to hold in tablet mode for any length of time. The only way you're ever going to use the U925t as a tablet is sitting down, with the device on your lap — and for that it's actually pretty nice to be able to slide away the keyboard. The whole setup is 0.8 inches thick when it's closed – again pretty svelte for a notebook, and positively massive for a tablet. Make no mistake: this device is a laptop, through and through.

All the U925t's ports line the flat edges of the computer's base. You get what I'd call "the laptop minimum" — two USB 3.0 ports, an SD card slot, a full-size HDMI port, and a headphone jack. An Ethernet port would've been a nice addition. There's also an NFC chip located in the palm rest, which is mostly dormant for now but will theoretically be used to transfer files and the like to other NFC-enabled devices.

You ain't got no alibi
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Display / cameras / speakers

Display, cameras, speakers

Tablet displays come to laptop form factors
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This Windows 8-led convergence of tablets and laptops has one universally awesome trait: displays matter again. The U925t's 12.5-inch LED-backlit display has excellent color reproduction, so the multi-colored Start screen is shown in all its glory. Blacks do look a little gray, and there's not quite as much contrast as I'd like, but things still look good. Viewing angles are stellar, with almost no discoloration even if you're looking from an extreme angle. The touchscreen has ten-point multitouch, and is remarkably responsive — gestures and taps always registered. At 1366 x 768 it's not the highest-resolution laptop out there, but it definitely gets the job done.

When the display slides down and over the keyboard, it's still facing outward — that means you'll be tossing the U925t into your bag with the screen unprotected. That made me seriously nervous, but it doesn't seem to be an issue at all: the Gorilla Glass-coated display has no nicks or scratches after a week of being carted around in the same North Face backpack that has scratched just about every other device I own.

Below the display is a physical Windows button, which you'll see on most Windows 8 machines — it acts as a fail-safe, bringing you back to the Start screen from anywhere else in the operating system. It's a good idea, but this flush, membrane button feels so flimsy that I almost don't want to press it for fear that I'll break it.

The front-facing camera is fine for video chat, and that's all it's intended for anyway. The 3-megapixel camera in the back is pretty awful: photos are incredibly noisy and washed out, and since the screen wobbles a bit every time you touch it your photos are going to come out blurry. The lens is at the top of the rear of the laptop, so even when the U925t is closed you can slide the screen up a tad so the camera peeks out — that lets you use the camera in tablet mode, but it's so heavy and clumsy that you shouldn't even try.

There are two down-firing speakers underneath the palmrest of the U925t, angled toward you. They're cleverly positioned to use the surface below them to diffuse sound, and output nice-sounding stereo audio when the U925t is on a desk or table. They won't fill a room or satisfy an audiophile, but it's certainly a solid set of laptop speakers.

Keyboard / trackpad

Keyboard and trackpad

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Unlike the Surface or the Acer W510, which sacrifice some screen size and real estate to give you a more portable tablet experience, Toshiba eschews portability in the name of making the U925t a better laptop. It has a full-size, six-row QWERTY keyboard that is basically identical to the super-widescreen U845W. It's a perfectly usable keyboard, though I don't like that the charcoal keys are wider than they are tall (when I missed keys, I was always shooting too high). They're also a bit shallow. I got used to the keyboard pretty quickly, though, and the good immediately outweighs the bad: the U925t's keyboard is backlit, full of function buttons, and most of all it's full-size. Don't underestimate how much of an advantage that is on a Windows 8 device, especially a "convertible" one.

Since the keyboard requires a lot of space, though, there's not much left for the trackpad. It's a tiny clickable brown pad, and other than being too small to really pinch-to-zoom or scroll with two fingers it works well. The surface is smooth and responsive, and since it's set slightly below the palmrest it's easy to find with your finger. The cursor did jump on the screen a few times as I moved my finger around, but for the most part the trackpad comported itself admirably. I just wish it were twice the size, so I could scroll through my email in one swipe instead of eight. You can set it to scroll more quickly in Windows settings, but then you lose precision.

During my review, I did have one worrisome problem: a handful of times the pointer simply disappeared, and wouldn't come back until I completely rebooted the system — I had to do everything with the touchscreen. This is almost certainly not a widespread problem, but it was a stark reminder to me of just how new and unpolished Windows 8 can still be.

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Full-size keyboards are a rare commodity on Windows 8 machines
Software / performance

Software and performance

This is how Windows 8 is supposed to work
Apps
Norton
Toshiba
Desktop

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The difference between Windows 7 and Windows 8, at least as presented on the U925t, is almost entirely up to you. If you spend all your time in the Desktop mode, it's basically Windows 7 with a flatter color scheme and no Start button. The U925t is powered by a third-generation Intel processor — my review unit runs on a 1.7GHz Core i5 along with 4GB of RAM, which appears to be the only SKU available now — and as such is compatible with older Windows apps, all of which ran smoothly. Windows 8 isn't about the desktop, though: it's about the Start screen, and gestures, and Live Tiles. After using Windows RT devices, Windows 8 is a dream: apps launch and respond quickly, multitasking is really fluid, and there's virtually no lag anywhere in the system. It's a great example of what Windows 8 can be — but for much more on the software, check out our full review of the OS.

The differences between Windows 7 and 8 can be stark, but the U925t's huge bloatware load should make many Windows 7 users feel right at home. There's a huge section of apps on the Start screen labeled "Toshiba Apps," with a smattering of first- and third-party apps. You get Ebay, iHeartRadio, Netflix, Encyclopedia Britannica (which apparently still exists), along with Toshiba's Media Player and Book Place apps. There's also a Toshiba Central app, which is actually really clever: it's a centralized resource for all the information about your computer, and for links and guides for the machine. Any time you need your serial number or have a support question, just launch the app — it's a great idea, and I hope other manufacturers make similar software.

I'm happy to say that gaming isn't any worse on this Windows 8 ultrabook than on any of the similarly specced Windows 7 devices I've tested — there's been some worry about gaming performance on the new OS, and I didn't notice any downgrade. Unfortunately, it's also no better: older games at lower settings are decent enough, but on any recent game, things stuttered along at about 12-15 frames per second, a number that doesn't really qualify as "playable." Like many ultrabooks, the U925t has Intel's HD 4000 integrated graphics, and whenever you see that number you should expect this level of performance. The older and less demanding the game, the better the chance it will run, but you should generally expect to play your games elsewhere.

In a coup for Windows, boot and resume times were also really fast — the U925t turns on in about 10 seconds and resumes basically instantly. In that sense, it feels almost like a tablet.

Battery, heat, noise

Battery life, heat, noise

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It's apparently hard work to pump out 11 frames per second during my Left 4 Dead 2 sessions. In normal use — web browsing, Office, even streaming 1080p video — the U925t is pretty much cool and silent, but the moment you engage Flash, or start playing a game, it's like a jet engine's been turned on. The vents in the rear blow hot air onto your knees if the computer's in your lap (leg hair beware), and it gets loud enough that it starts to drown out the sound coming from the speakers. The bottom of the machine heats up, too, especially in the back left corner — right underneath a sticker warning you that "PC BASE CAN BECOME HOT!" Points to Toshiba for accuracy on that one.

Odds are, though, you're not going to use this machine to play games. And whether you're getting work done or just surfing the web, the U925t mostly runs cool, silent, and fast.

Battery life on the U925t is good, as long as you're paying attention. I got about five hours of constant use from the device, in a mix of tablet and laptop mode. (That doesn't include playing any games, which absolutely destroys the battery.) That includes browsing in both Windows 8 and desktop mode, listening to Rdio music, watching YouTube videos, and writing in Google Docs and Evernote. It's not quite an all-day machine, but it'll definitely last you a cross-country flight's worth of tweeting, browsing, and working. There's just one problem: because the screen is facing out with the buttons exposed, accidental presses can kill. A brush of the U925t's power button turned it on in my backpack a number of times.

From dead silent to deafeningly loud
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The sliding trick is nice, but the U925 doesn't have much else going for it

The U925 is a laptop that sometimes pretends to be a tablet. It doesn't pretend very well — it's just too heavy to be a tablet — but I still like that I can fold it down and rest the screen on my lap when I'm watching a movie. Other than its shape-shifting gimmick, though, the U925t unfortunately just doesn't bring much to the table. It's an unattractive machine with very average performance, and just enough problems (like the trackpad issue) to give me pause.

There are so many Windows 8 computers coming out in the next several weeks, in plenty of converting form factors. (The Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga is on my desk right now, and so far looks great.) You'd certainly do okay spending your $1,149 on the Toshiba Satellite U925t, but if you can wait a few weeks there will almost certainly be options that offer better design, better performance, or both.