Toshiba's experimental-feeling laptop has a 14.4-inch 21:9 screen that's unlike anything you've seen before. But how useful is it?
Now that ultrabooks have hit the mainstream, the evolution of slimmer laptops has started to undergo Darwinian mutation. Consider the oddity that is the Toshiba Satellite U845W: a compact Core i5 ultrabook that has a ridiculously wide 21:9-ratio 14.4-inch display. Neither a standard laptop screen nor an ultra-high-resolution Retina Display-type experience, the 1,792x768-pixel maximum resolution amounts to a freakshow in the computer world. Is Toshiba putting us on?
The novelty is not as absurd in practice as you'd think. The 21:9 aspect ratio amounts to a CinemaScope-wide screen, enough to view a movie with no letterboxing. In addition to movie-watching, the screen is also ideal for side-by-side Web browsing or document editing.
I'm not going to deny that the U845W is a bit of a concept car among laptops. However, its price isn't absurd: the U845W-S410 entry-level model I reviewed costs $999, squarely in the normal spectrum of ultrabook prices, although with the 500GB hard drive our configuration includes (it also has a solid-state drive), you can find similar ultrabooks lacking tricked-out screens for as low as $700.
You're buying a laptop with an extra-wide screen, better-than-average speakers, and the same internal specs you'd find in any current ultrabook. You don't get dedicated graphics for gaming, nor do you get an optical drive for DVD or Blu-ray content -- perhaps the biggest omission in a laptop geared toward HD movie watching. If you want to watch movies, get ready to stream or download them.
The other thing I can't shake after using the U845W here in my office: it feels like a 15-inch laptop with its barrel sawed off. The width of the U845W matches the average 15-incher, but the depth of the footprint is shallower than a 13-inch laptop. Shallow airline trays will love the U845W, but small backpacks, bags, and maybe even your lap won't like the surfboard shape quite as much.
The Satellite U845W earns props for being a clever, even cleverly useful laptop depending on who you are, at a price that's not egregious. It's just not -- big surprise -- for everyone, simply because that big, wide screen isn't necessary. And, in the end, that screen will cost you money: consider that the Satellite U845-S406, a similar laptop in terms of CPU, RAM, and hard drive without the wide screen and improved speakers, costs $879.
|Starting price / Price as reviewed||$999|
|Processor||1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U|
|Memory||6GB, 1,600MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||500GB, 5,400rpm + 32GB SSD hybrid|
|Graphics||Intel HD 4000|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||14.5x7.9 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||14.4 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||3.7 pounds / 4.3 pounds|
The two-tone exterior of the U845W, rubberized in the front and on the underside for a better grip, lends this Satellite a different feel than any other Toshiba laptop I've seen lately: it feels more like a piece of home media gear, or a high-end Blu-ray player. The bronzed aluminum and dark textured palmrest interior frame the wide, raised-key backlit keyboard, while glossy plastic surrounds the ultrawide 21:9 display.
With its lid open, the Satellite U845W feels weirdly elongated. It also looks like the lid somehow won't close over the bottom half. It does, and when closed up, the laptop feels as long as a mini surfboard. Your backpack will need to be deeper than average to slot this in comfortably. As you can see from our comparison with the Satellite U845, it's wider and shorter when opened up, which makes it an ideal candidate for a cramped coach airline tray.
What does a 14.4-inch, 21:9 ultrawide display really mean? Numbers can be deceiving when it comes to screen sizes, especially when aspect ratios are messed with. In the case of the U845W, its 1,792x768-pixel maximum resolution is 426 pixels wider than the average 1,366x768-pixel laptop screen resolution, and exactly the same pixel height. That means that you'll be able to cram two browser windows side by side and actually make it work with some fiddling, or work on two documents at once -- or, watch a video and take notes, if you're capable of that. The entire screen's vertical and horizontal resolution falls short of 1,920x1,080 pixels, but there's a lot more virtual desktop space than on your average laptop.
So, why does everything feel so cramped in the Toshiba Satellite U845W? Because that physical screen size is smaller, in terms of vertical measurements, than most laptops. The average 13.3-inch laptop has a screen 6.5 inches high; the U845W's screen is about 5.6 inches high. A 14-inch laptop's screen is 7 inches high. You're getting the screen height of a far smaller display, perhaps an 11-incher, but spread far wider. The third-gen iPad's screen is about the same height in landscape mode; imagine an iPad screen stretched extra-wide, and you have the U845W.
That means that document icons, text, and browser windows all feel a little shrunken down. It feels like looking at a 13-inch screen in 1,920x1,080: usable, but a little hard to read. Coupled with the strange aspect ratio of the screen, it could be enough to throw off some users. CNET TV reviews editor Ty Pendlebury, who even reviewed a 21:9 TV recently, instantly recoiled when I showed him the U845W.
The extra screen width does make a difference for side-by-side document work, and of course for videos. Wide-screen videos tend to be letterboxed; on the Satellite U845W, a 21:9 video fills the screen perfectly. But how many movies or videos come in 21:9? The answer: not so many. Most online streaming videos aren't 21:9, and the result when streaming to the U845W's extra-wide screen is mixed. Downloaded movies and content will either be letterboxed if they're even wider than 21:9, or more likely will be "pillarboxed" by black bars on the sides, like when you watch 4:3 movies on an HDTV.
The Satellite U845W doesn't come with any optical drive, which means you can't instantly play Blu-rays or DVDs. So, toss out those dreams of enjoying your back catalog of CinemaScope movies on the U845W, unless you want to invest in a USB drive. It doesn't make sense, and it's frustrating, but that's the way the U845W rolls. Downloads and streaming content are what you'll have to settle for.
A YouTube trailer for "The Dark Knight Rises" filled the entire display perfectly with no letterboxing; another one exhibited "windowboxing," a phenomenon where the whole image is surrounded by black bars on the sides and the top and bottom. Criterion movies streamed on Hulu Plus filled the vertical area and had some pillarboxing on the left and right, but other Hulu Plus content had windowboxing. Meanwhile, most Netflix movies ended up windowboxed, with the movie surrounded by black bars all around. Will streaming video players ever end up playing nicely with a 1,792x768-pixel-resolution screen? I'd say it's unlikely, because this is probably the only 1,792x768 screen you'll ever see.
Games will be similarly pillared, since few if any games take advantage of the U845W's extremely unusual native resolution.
Toshiba includes a tool for snapping multiple windows side-by-side in four different orientations, accounting for wide-screen and "square-screen" viewing of media. The button appears above open windows and helps fit content to the screen.
The display's color quality and brightness are good, but not great. Off-axis viewing angles are poor, and considering the U845W's extra-wide display, that means that extreme corners of the screen begin to wash out when you look at it head-on. Black levels weren't sharp, either. I wish the display had been of a higher quality, considering the ultrabook is geared to be a high-end entertainment machine.
Making up the difference are a pair of excellent Harman Kardon stereo speakers mounted in grilles on either side of the keyboard. They sound almost as good as the premium speakers often seen in higher-end Toshiba Satellites, but bass notes seemed to distort at high volume. SRS virtual surround settings add extra depth, and helped immerse me in the movies I watched on the U845W.
I started with a discussion of screen and speakers because, let's face it, that's what this laptop is all about. The keyboard and touch pad aren't standouts. The raised keyboard's backlit keys feel stretched out, but keys on the Portege series of laptops had the same narrow feel. Added columns of Page Up/Down buttons cramp access to more useful Enter/Shift keys, and I ended up missing more than normal when touch-typing. A row of function-reversed keys control volume and screen brightness, sans annoying beeps. The wide multitouch Synaptics click pad beneath worked well and offered lots of space for two- and three-finger gestures, but the clicking action sometimes felt stiff.
|Toshiba Satellite U845W-S410||Average for category [13-inch]|
|Video||HDMI||HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone and microphone jacks||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||3 USB 3.0, (one w/power-off charge), SD card reader||2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband|
|Optical drive||None||DVD burner|
You get the standard set of ports and connections on the Satellite U845W, most notably an Ethernet jack that folds out from the side, USB 3.0, and HDMI. What you don't get is an optical drive. Most people don't use them anyway, but a movie-targeted ultrabook like the U845W almost cries out for Blu-ray compatibility. You can plug in a separate USB DVD drive, but you won't ever want to.
My $999 reviewed configuration includes a third-gen Core i5 processor, 6GB of RAM, and a hybrid hard drive comprising a 500GB hard drive paired with 32GB of SSD storage for system files. Boot-up times are somewhat improved with a hybrid hard drive: a cold boot took about 25 seconds, but that's still not as fast as an SSD-only laptop. My $999 version, the U845W-S410, is the lowest-priced version of the Satellite U845W. Other configurations offer up to a Core i7 processor, Windows 7 Professional, and a 256GB SSD, topping out at $1,564.
The included 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U processor is an Ivy Bridge Core i-series CPU, offering some modest speed improvements on last year's ultrabook chips. It's the same processor you can find on many other mainstream ultrabooks, including the more affordable Satellite U845 (not wide-screen), Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A, and 13-inch Samsung Series 9.
In CNET's benchmark tests, the Toshiba Satellite U845W-S410 performed similarly to these other laptops. Integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics offer enough oomph for some basic gaming, but nothing approaching high-end. Street Fighter IV, an older game, ran at 22.9 frames per second at 1,366x768 resolution, about standard for this year's Ivy Bridge ultrabooks that lack any extra Nvidia or AMD graphics.
The integrated battery hung in through 5 hours and 55 minutes of continuous video playback in our battery drain test, using our looping test video file. Your results with video streaming and other uses will vary. Six hours, or a hair under, is above average for a 13-inch ultrabook, but other laptops like the 13-inch Samsung Series 9 and 13-inch MacBook Air tested better. It should be good enough to last through a couple of movies during a plane flight.
Toshiba includes a standard one-year warranty with the Satellite U845W, but extended warranty plans are available on Toshiba's Web site ($139 for three years of service, or $224 for three years plus accidental damage protection). Software and drivers are easy to locate provided you know your laptop's specific model number, and a toll-free customer service number, 800-457-7777, took seconds to track down.
The Toshiba Satellite U845W is an odd-duck hybrid laptop, a wide-screen movie-friendly ultrabook that lacks a DVD or Blu-ray drive. Its extra-wide screen could be useful for some, but no one really needs a screen this wide. Any gains in letterboxed movie sizes are offset by the smaller screen height and text size. You're paying about $130 more than a similarly equipped Toshiba laptop would cost, to get the special screen and improved Harman Kardon speakers. You're not paying a fortune for the U845W's experimental offerings, however, which makes this a concept laptop you need not be afraid to check out. For some, the speakers alone might be worth it.