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Toshiba Satellite (1024px)
Toshiba Satellite (1024px)

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Toshiba Satellite U845W and U845 review

Two takes on the ultrabook

Laptops in 2012 may be thinner and lighter than ever, but the form factor's otherwise been largely untouched. You get a keyboard, a trackpad, a 16:9 widescreen display, and some ports. One of Toshiba's latest Satellite ultrabooks looks like that: the U845 is thin, light, and overwhelmingly laptop-y. But the other new Satellite is a bit different: the U845W's 14.4-inch display is "ultra-widescreen," with a 21:9 aspect ratio that is far wider and shorter than most displays its size. The U845W is focused on multimedia, designed for watching movies as much as for getting work done. Inside, the two devices are still largely the same, featuring the thin, fast, SSD-powered ultrabook specs we've come to expect.

Is the $749 U845 a better choice, with its tried-and-true form factor? Or is the company smartly thinking outside the box with the $999 U845W, reimagining how a laptop should look and work? Read on, and we'll find out.


Hardware / design

Hardware / design

Much more different than you'd expect

I can't help but imagine the design meeting at Toshiba HQ when the Satellite designs were finalized. I picture a heated debated ending in a stalemate between two totally different ideas, and with no resolution the company simply pursued both options. I can't think of any other way to explain that two ultrabooks called the U845 and the U845W would look so drastically different.

The U845 is clean and cohesive, with a brushed-metal silver aluminum lid and matching interior, plus a glossy black bezel around the screen. The bottom is a matte silver, with vents placed seemingly randomly around its surface; there's a matte silver stripe at the top of the lid as well. The U845 is sturdy and well-made, handsome without being particularly eye-catching. It's 0.78 inches thick, which is meatier than most ultrabooks, but since its edges taper sharply toward the bottom, it looks thinner than it is. At 3.9 pounds it's also fairly heavy for an ultrabook, but it'll definitely fit into your bag without racking up your medical bills.

The U845 is somewhat monochrome and innocuous in its design, but for better or worse the same doesn't apply to the U845W. In terms of dimensions, it falls in a unique category: it's as wide (nearly 15 inches) as a 15-inch laptop like the Vizio Thin and Light, but as tall as an 11-inch laptop. It features a distinct two-tone color scheme, with a rubberized gray strip occupying a third of both lid and palm rest plus the whole bottom of the device, and a brushed-metal gray / silver covering the rest. Large speaker grilles flank the U845W's keyboard, whereas the speakers fire downward out of the bottom of the U845. The U845W is ever so slightly thicker and heavier, at 0.81 inches and 4.0 pounds, but I can't say I noticed the difference between the two.

Dimensions (in.) Thickness Weight (lb.)
Toshiba Satellite U845 13.4 x 9.1 0.78 3.9
Toshiba Satellite U845W 14.5 x 7.9 0.81 4.0
Vizio 15.6-inch Thin + Light (CT15) 14.9 x 9.9 0.68 3.96
Samsung Series 9 (15-inch, 2012) 14.0 x 9.3 0.58 3.51
HP Envy 14 Spectre 12.88 x 8.7 0.79 3.79
Lenovo IdeaPad U310 13.1 x 8.8 0.7 3.8
Dell XPS 14 (2012) 13.2 x 9.2 0.81 4.6
MacBook Air (2012, 13-inch) 12.8 x 8.94 0.11 - 0.68 2.96
Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A 12.8 x 8.8 0.11 - 0.71 2.86

The port selection is roughly the same on both models, though the layout is different. Each has three USB ports lining the sides — one is USB 3.0 on the U845, and all three of the U845W's ports are 3.0. You'll also find 3.5mm headphone and microphone ports, a full-size Ethernet port, an SD slot, and an HDMI out on both computers.

There's one design touch that I hate equally on both models: there are stickers everywhere. The palm rest's six stickers are garish themselves, but they're not even the whole story; there's a big Skype sticker above the screen that I couldn't stop unintentionally looking at, plus four more on the bottom of the device. I was able to peel them all off — and the Satellite laptops became infinitely more attractive once I did — but it required a solid 25 minutes of digging my nails underneath adhesives that don't want to be removed.

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Display / speakers

Display and speakers

Maybe there's a reason 16:9 is the standard
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The driving force behind the radically different Satellite form factors is their displays. The U845's display is right in line with the rest of the ultrabook crowd: a 14-inch, 1366 x 768 screen that looks good without being overwhelmingly impressive. The LED-backlit screen uses Toshiba's TruBrite technology, which the company claims means a brighter screen with less glare and better viewing angles. In practice, it's partly true: viewing angles are indeed excellent, and the U845's screen is indeed very bright. Glare, on the other hand, is every bit as problematic as I'm used to, and if anything is slightly worse — with a dark background the screen essentially becomes a mirror. Still, it's a perfectly adequate display, and because it's so bright it's still relatively usable outdoors.

All of the above applies to the U845W, too, except its ultra-widescreen display is an inch wider and and a little over an inch shorter than the U845's. That works out to 5.75 inches tall and 13.25 inches wide, with a resolution of 1792 x 768 and a 21:9 aspect ratio — and the difference is huge, in good ways and in bad.

I tend to do a lot of work with two windows side-by-side — typically a research window next to whatever I'm writing — and for that the U845W is better-suited than any screen I've ever used. Hell, you can functionally have three windows side-by-side-by-side, which is pretty awesome.

For more normal one-window browsing, though, it's far from ideal — you trade a lot of vertical space for horizontal, increasing both the amount of scrolling you'll need to do and the amount of white space on just about every website on the planet. Unless you're using the side-by-side-by-side windowing trick, you're effectively using a much smaller display — and if you've ever used a netbook you'll remember that a 10-inch display isn't enough for a laptop.

If there were a Blu-ray player on the U845W, it'd be an absolutely killer combination, but there's definitely no room for that on its slender body. Without one, though, there's not much to watch: it took me literally hours to find a YouTube clip that would take up the U845W's whole display. Of course, when you can find it, 21:9 video is amazing — sweeping cityscapes or wide shots look fantastic. (After all, most movies are shot in 21:9 and only converted to 16:9 later.) More often, you're left with huge letterboxes on all four sides of the video, which look really bad. The U845W is meant to be a multimedia powerhouse, but without more optimized content it's actually a worse experience.

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In keeping with its media-centric features, the U845W has Harmon Kardon speakers that absolutely blow away nearly every other computer speakers I've tested. Typically Dolby or Harmon integrations bring nothing more to the table than marginally useful software tweaks, but in the U845W's case there's apparently real care applied. The speakers sound amazing, at least for computer speakers: loud enough to fill a room, with no distortion even at maximum volumes, and clear and accurate tones throughout the range. There's some bass response — though your Skrillex won't thump like it might with external speakers — and the two speakers do create a real stereo effect if you're sitting at a desk or with the computer on your lap. Now that I'm back to listening to music on my MacBook Air, I only do so with disdain, longing for the days of the U845W's audio power.

Comparatively speaking, the U845's speakers are a huge step down in quality, but then again so are most computer speakers. The U845 is just average: loud enough to hear but not loud enough to serve as cocktail party background music, and somewhat tinny and distorted at high volumes. They're fine, but I always wound up using external speakers or headphones. Or, you know, turning on the U845W and using it just for streaming music.

Keyboard / touchpad

Keyboard and touchpad

The two Satellite models share the same keyboard, a roomy six-row affair with charcoal-colored chiclet keys. As functionality goes, Toshiba made all the right decisions: there are a number of function keys, and they're mapped to be the default actions so that you're not required to hit Fn first in order to change volume or brightness. The keys are backlit, too, so you can see them in the dark. The arrow keys are set slightly below the bottom row of the keyboard, making them easier to find with your fingers and to manipulate confidently. I even quite like the rounded, monospace font on the keys themselves, but I can't say it has much effect on the keyboard's usefulness.

The feature list is complete, but the actual typing experience falls a bit short. For one, the keys are just too small — they're slightly wider than they are tall, giving the whole set a slightly cramped feel. The keys are also quite shallow, occasionally leaving me wondering whether I'd sufficiently pressed the key or not. I eventually grew comfortable with its quirks, though I never typed as fast (or achieved as satisfying a clack-clack-clack) as I can on my MacBook Air.

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Apparently bad trackpads are a choice

The keyboards may be identical, but the trackpads are almost bizarrely different. Bizarre because Toshiba gets it right on one model, and horribly wrong on another. The U845W's trackpad is quite solid: my finger glides smoothly across the clickable metallic surface, two-finger scrolling works quite well, and palm rejection is good enough (though it can be a little too easy to accidentally click sometimes). On the spectrum of Windows PC trackpads, the U845W is certainly at the high end.

The U845 is on the absolute opposite end of that spectrum. Its matte surface is so sticky that your finger jumps and stutters across it; as your finger goes, so goes the pointer. That makes every gesture worse, too, since you'll accidentally scroll a full page as your fingers jump and drag. The trackpad is oddly fickle about right vs. left clicks, forcing you to exaggeratedly click only in the far corners to avoid any confusion. Even when you try, the surface is so resistant to clicks that you have to get some real elbow grease into it. There are plenty of bad trackpads out there, to be sure, and Toshiba's probably isn't the worst example, but it's infuriating to know that the company can build a good one and simply chose not to for the U845.

Performance / software

Performance and software

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Ultrabooks have relatively strict requirements in their specs, so the fact that the Satellite ultrabooks perform well isn't surprising. They're both powered by an Intel Core i5-3317U processor, and 6GB of RAM. Both also have 500GB spinning hard drives, plus 32GB mSTA cache SSDs that help things like boot and resume times. That's right in the middle of the spec range for each device: the lowest prices ($749 for the U845 and $999 for the U845W) are for a Core i3 processor and 4GB of RAM. If you want an i7 processor, you'll have to get the U845W, and you'll have to pay $1,500 or more.

In practice, both are fast enough to be able to handle my daily routine with ease. My daily routine, by the way, is pretty intense: I typically have two dozen or so tabs open in Chrome, plus some combination of streaming music (via Rdio), some Photoshop, lots of slacking off and watching YouTube videos, and even some Netflix streaming (reruns of "The Office" provide great background noise). Doing all of those at the same time would cause the machines to stumble a bit, but for nearly every practical use case the Satellites did just fine.

Where they do run into trouble is with data-heavy processes that require the hard drive to whir to life; you will absolutely notice the difference between the Satellite models and an SSD-only drive. Thanks to the SSD cache drive, the machines still at least boot and resume quickly: both machines take 20 seconds to turn on and three seconds to wake up from sleep.

Good for the average person, bad for power users
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Plenty of bloatware, but it's reversible
PCMarkVantage 3DMarkVantage
Toshiba Satellite U845 5,291 P3,248
Toshiba Satellite U845W 6,810 P3,321
Vizio 15.6-inch Thin + Light (CT15-A2) 11,087 P3,221
Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, NP900X3C) 9,173 P3,071
Acer Aspire S5 12,379 P3,407
Lenovo ThinkPad X230 8,269 P3,159
Dell XPS 14 (2012) 10,227 P4,373
Lenovo IdeaPad U310 6,916 P2,402
Samsung Series 9 (15-inch, NP900X4B) 10,404 P1,693
HP Envy 14 Spectre (early 2012) 9,121 P1,526
Dell XPS 13 10,242 P1,697

Unfortunately, the other common trend among ultrabooks is lackluster gaming performance. Both models use Intel Integrated graphics, which are sufficient for simpler tasks but woefully underpowered for high-end 3D gaming. At only 15 frames per second Just Cause 2 is pretty tough to play, and even the older Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X puttered along at an average of 24 frames per second on both devices. On the U845W, game assets often stretched to fill the whole screen, too, which looks terrible. Gaming on an ultrabook remains a pipe dream, at least for now.

Both models ship with Windows 7 Home Premium, plus a pleasantly small level of bloatware — evidently the company made its extra money on all those stickers rather than software cruft. There are a few Toshiba tools, like a DVD burner and a Laptop Checkup app that makes sure nothing's broken or infected, plus a couple of apps from Amazon, sound enhancement software from SRS, and a NetZero app (remember NetZero?). Toshiba also makes its site the default browser home page, and installs Google and Norton toolbars, but those can all be changed and deleted in seconds. Norton Antivirus assails you with warnings about your computer's invariably broken state (right out of the box, even), but once you quiet its pop-ups and nagware, you're left with a relatively clean Windows experience.

Battery / heat / noise

Battery life, heat, and noise

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Thin and light are all well and good, but the best thing about the current spate of ultrabooks is their longevity — in a matter of months, I've become accustomed to far longer battery life from a laptop than ever before. In this new world of all-day battery life, the Satellites are only average: on The Verge Battery Test, the U845W lasted five hours and eight minutes, and the U845 held out nine minutes longer. (The test cycles through 100 websites and high-res images with brightness set to 65 percent.) Those numbers are stellar for laptops in general, but middle of the road for ultrabooks — and they're certainly not able to compete with the likes of the Dell XPS 14 or the Lenovo X230, which last up to two hours longer.

Neither heat nor noise present much of a problem for Toshiba's devices. The U845 only gets to a level I'd classify as "comfortably toasty," and though the U845W does get up to "my legs are sweating" it's not really a problem either. Each gets a little warm on the underside, particularly on the right, and a bit on the strip above the keyboard tray as well. Neither is particularly loud, either — even while playing games, I couldn't hear the fan unless I put my ear right up to the machine.

Solid longevity, but my standards are higher now
Battery Life
Toshiba Satellie U845 5:17
Toshiba Satellite U845W 5:08
Lenovo ThinkPad X230 7:10
Dell XPS 14 (2012) 6:59
Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A 5:46
MacBook Air (13-inch, mid-2012) 5:34
Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, mid-2012) 5:19
HP Envy 14 Spectre (early 2012) 5:14
Dell XPS 13 4:55
Lenovo IdeaPad U310 4:32
Acer Aspire S5 4:24
Vizio 15.6-inch Thin + Light 3:24

If I could combine the two Satellite models into one, picking and choosing the best features from each, I could create a really fantastic ultrabook — but as it is, they both feel a little half-baked. The U845W has extraordinary speakers, a usable trackpad, and a few unique design tweaks. But for most people, its display and build just don't make any sense — if you spend time writing, using Excel, or browsing the web, losing a huge chunk of vertical space is killer. It feels a bit like Toshiba made the world's best portable DVD player, then removed the DVD player and decided to charge $1,000 for it. It's good for music or watching movie trailers (which wound up being the only 21:9 video I could find), but it's not good at being a laptop.

On the other hand, the U845 is a much more versatile and usable form factor, and depending on your personal preferences might be better-looking than the U845W as well. But in keeping with its lower price, the U845 clearly didn't get Toshiba's best effort — its trackpad, speakers, and overall build quality are at least a notch below its ultra-wide sibling. It's also just a bit boring, without a single feature that makes it more compelling than its competition; even at its price the Lenovo U310 is better-looking and has a better keyboard and trackpad.

If I could combine the two Satellite models into one, picking and choosing the best features from each, I could create a really fantastic ultrabook — but as it is, they both feel a little half-baked. The U845W has extraordinary speakers, a usable trackpad, and a few unique design tweaks. But for most people, its display and build just don't make any sense — if you spend time writing, using Excel, or browsing the web, losing a huge chunk of vertical space is killer. It feels a bit like Toshiba made the world's best portable DVD player, then removed the DVD player and decided to charge $1,000 for it. It's good for music or watching movie trailers (which wound up being the only 21:9 video I could find), but it's not good at being a laptop.

On the other hand, the U845 is a much more versatile and usable form factor, and depending on your personal preferences might be better-looking than the U845W as well. But in keeping with its lower price, the U845 clearly didn't get Toshiba's best effort — its trackpad, speakers, and overall build quality are at least a notch below its ultra-wide sibling. It's also just a bit boring, without a single feature that makes it more compelling than its competition; even at its price the Lenovo U310 is better-looking and has a better keyboard and trackpad.

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