Over the past couple of months, it’s become clear that the way computer makers–those companies that specify and brand the actual physical device–need to make less models. It’s because when you’re optimizing for portability and battery life, what you don’t include is almost as important what you do include. Newcomers to the laptop game Vizio and Razer have adopted this one-model few-options approach, and computers like Microsoft’s Surface show that it’s increasingly about the product, not the customization.
Toshiba is still gloriously stuck in the old paradigm: they have four different major lines of laptop, each with several models, and each of those models is itself also customizable. The Satellite U845W is comfortably snuggled in the Satellite category, which is Toshiba’s line “for consumers,” next to several similar models with identical processors and similar specs. But when you’re running many iterations like Toshiba is, there’s always the possibility that a truly innovative “mutation” could sprout out. The U845W has something that no other Toshiba laptop has: a 21:9 form factor. Yep, the screen runs gloriously at 1792×768 resolution. That means that you can watch movies at original resolutions without letter-boxing. It also means the laptop is a few inches longer and more unwieldy than the 14-inchers you’re used to. Is it worth it? Let’s find out.
It’s wide. That’s the first thing you have to understand about Toshiba’s new satellite. It will look a little different than what you’re used to. The extra width makes the U845W a head-turner, for the mere reason that’s it unusual. If you were looking for something to stand out among the MacBooks at the coffee house, the U845W will certainly draw glances. However, that comes at a cost: For instance, I’ve had the same backpack for years. It’s got a laptop sleeve built-in. I’ve put three different models of laptop in it over time, from a brick of a 15” Dell–remember this guy?–to a modern MacBook air. The U845W, due to the extra screen size, doesn’t really fit. It felt like having the portability of a desktop replacement with the power of an Ultrabook.
The industrial design isn’t bad, though. It’s not Ultrabook-thin, but it’s not pudgy either. The cover has a striking two-tone design, with a very nice textured plastic where you touch the lid and a brushed aluminum elsewhere. It’s a manageable 4 pounds, which is well within the market standards for this type of laptop. And when you first pick it up, it feels solid and well built. However, the honeymoon doesn’t last: when you use it for extended time, you’ll start to feel the hollowness of imperfect construction. It’s not a laptop that feels nicer every time you use it, which is unfortunate, because it certainly looks nice.
The keyboard is a chiclet affair, and is thoroughly okay. The picture tells the whole story, from the somewhat undersized keys to the shallow travel. I put up decent typing speeds on it, but there was definitely some disconcerting flex and for a computer that has extra width, it makes me wonder why they didn’t use the extra dimension to increase the size of the keys a bit. I understand that Toshiba probably buys one keyboard for most of the Satellite line, but it still detracts from the unique strengths afforded to the form factor and feels like a missed opportunity.
The trackpad isn’t what you’d call expansive, and it has the same hollow flex that used to be prevalent on all trackpads. It feels like a trackpad from 2009, transported to a modern laptop. That may have been acceptable a few months ago, but now the U845W has Windows 8, a operating system built for touch, and it’s not adequate. At all. The Synaptics trackpad was never a joy when floating through Microsoft’s Modern UI, and multitouch gestures never worked well at first. For instance, Windows 8 really wants you to use a sweeping gesture on the right side of the trackpad to open up a search bar or link to the Modern UI. I looked up how to do the gesture, and even practiced, but it wasn’t me. The trackpad was frustrating to use and pretty much a dealbreaker by itself.
On an unrelated note, the trackpad simply stopped working after a few days of use. It wouldn’t track the cursor anywhere. I’m not sure whether it’s a driver issue or a hardware issue, but either way it doesn’t bode well for Toshiba. I plugged in a mouse immediately, which was an improvement over the trackpad when it was working, to say nothing of the ability to control the computer again.
The port selection on the U845W hues pretty closely to industry standards, and I’ve got no problems here. On the left side, there’s a gigabit Ethernet jack, a place for a Kensington cable lock, and two USB 3.0 ports. On the right side, there’s an HDMI port, a microphone and headphone jack, and the place for the power connector. It’s pretty standard, but 2 USB 3.0 ports is better than one.
I’m about to cover this in the screen section, but when you plug in your laptop through the HDMI port you see how silly the extra screen is. The movie looks great mirrored on an HDTV, because it’s what we’re used to watching content on. If you’re mirroring, the U845W screen has two silly bars on the sides. Sure, the screen allows you to avoid silly bars on the top and bottom, but what are you going to be watching more often: 16:9 content or 21:9 content?
Let’s be really clear–the 1792×768 display is really a run of the mill, perfectly average, never-look-twice 1366×768 display with 426 extra horizontal pixels. The problem is that so few other laptops–other screens, period–have this display ratio that almost no software is optimized for it. The web isn’t: almost every news website that you browse will look totally weird because there’s huge unused space on both sides. Games can take the extra pixels into account, but game makers aren’t including content on the far sides, so it doesn’t really aid the experience. Toshiba’s included software called SnapScreen that was OK at dividing the screen for multiple programs at one, but it was generally buggy and frustrating. Windows 8 includes something called SnapView that took good advantage of the extra pixels in the Modern UI, but for the most part software simply isn’t made for the U845W’s screen.
Possible use cases for a wider screen: Watching a 21:9 movie–Sure, but these are hard to find, though. Most downloads are in 1080p.
Multitasking–The ability to fit two pages side by side with a little extra breathing room is nice.
Reading–Again, two pages side by side is nice. However, it’s not like a 16:9 display is too narrow to display two pages either.
As for the quality of the panel itself, it’s fine but it’s not great. It’s a TN panel, so the color’s not accurate. (I thought it was a bit warm.) Graphics designers won’t give it a second look, but it will be a functional computer screen for 99% of users.
The Core i5 included in the U845W is a great processor, and it powers a whole lot of mid-range laptops. The Toshiba Satellite U845W produced a Geekbench score (5230) that was right in line with what we’ve seen out of this processor. On the PC Mark Vantage Productivity and HDD tests it didn’t do well. It’s PCM HDD score (4140), which tests opening and closing files and programs to get a good idea of how fast the HD is, was significantly less than an mid-range HP Ultrabook we tried last month. The U845W does feature a 500GB 5,400RPM hard drive coupled with 32GB of solid-state storage, but the scores simply aren’t as good as we’ve seen on other laptops with a hybrid hard drive. On the Productivity score, it scored 3525, which is less than we’ve seen from other in-class laptops.
On default settings–remember, that includes an extra 426 pixels–the U845W managed 14.75 frames per second. That’s right in line with other scores we’ve seen out of the Intel HD Graphics 4000–two other mid-range laptops sporting the integrated graphics solution scored right around 15FPS too. Keep in mind that there were extra pixels rendered, so that may explain some of the slower frame rate, but also remember that those pixels probably didn’t show anything worthwhile anyway. Regardless, the U845W is a no-go for gamers.
Battery depletion (6:12): in a standard battery depletion test (display %50, WiFi on) the HP Envy 4 reach 6h40mn before going to sleep. It’s not a very intensive test (no tasks are performed) and doesn’t reflect the way real people use computers. However, this score establishes an baseline for low-intensity usage. Those who are writing documents or emails can expect a new Satellite U845W to last about 6 hours.
1080p video (3:15) The HP Envy 4 can play a 1080p MP4 video (50% brightness, WiFi on) for three hours and fifteen minutes, which is about a movie and a half. It’s also important to note that this test used a 1080p video (1920×1080 resolution), which simultaneously under and over-utilized the screen. There were extra vertical pixels that the screen didn’t have the resolution for, and there were black bars on the side from the unused horizontal resolution. Regardless, the Satellite’s battery life is completly usable, but nothing really special.
At the $1,000 MSRP, the Satellite U845W loses out on value to several other computers with similar components that are currently retailing for significantly less. Even if it were on deep discount, the flaws with the form factor and the trackpad mean it’s not a value at any (reasonable) price.
A lot of the extra horizontal space on the side of the keyboard is dedicated to harman/kardon-branded speaker grills. I took a listen though the best of Top 40 (so basically I listened to Young Money and Kayne West), and while the bass was boomier than my normal daily driver, the MacBook Air, that’s not saying much. It was a marginally better experience than other laptops, but it’s still not a feature worth paying extra for. The exact person who would pay more for a laptop with better speakers probably isn’t listening to laptop speakers anyway.
Windows 8 could bring a new era of consolidated, simplified product lines. For now, that doesn’t seem to be the case–if anything, it seems to be encouraging even more diversification and experimentation. Of course, like natural selection, when there are many mutations, many will fail. The U845W is a failed device.
The extra screen size only makes the device more expensive and more unwieldy; the actual benefits it offers are negligible and ephemeral. Plus, the U845W comes with Windows 8 pre-installed, which is a touch-based OS, and the Synaptics touchpad simply doesn’t cut it. It’s a Windows 7 touchpad on a Windows 8 device.
If anything, the U845W serves as a warning: even if a new device looks crazy and cool, for instance, this laptop with two touchscreens on the lid, or this “unbelievably great” tablet designed by a software giant, or this tablet/laptop hybrid with a sliding mechanism reminiscent of dumbphones, it still might be a ultimately failed experiment. The U845W, with its superfluous widescreen, certainly fits in that category, and while it was fun to think about and use for a few days–”hey, this is what it would be like if laptops had a cinema screen”–I wouldn’t want to use it for more than a week. Simply put, no matter what your use case, there’s a laptop out there that’s a better fit for you. It probably has a 16×9 screen.