Review: Toshiba Satellite U840W

Ultrabooks may not be commodity computers yet, but that’s the path we seem to be going down, at least. Credit then is due to Toshiba, which is doing something unique with its Satellite U840W.

There’s no sense beating around the bush: It’s the screen that will immediately catch your eye when you crack open the machine’s lid. At 14.4 inches diagonally, it’s an odd overall size, but the real story is in its dimensions. With a 21:9 aspect ratio and 1792 x 768 pixels of resolution, it’s got the widest screen of any laptop I can remember — wider even than some of Sony’s niche oddities like the 8-inch P Series (1600 x 768 pixels).

Why would you want such a wide screen? I’m still working on that one, but as a veteran multi-window user, I found myself surprisedly enjoying the ability to clutter up the screen with lots of layers. You can actually watch a nearly full-size video on one side of the screen and still have room for IM and e-mail on the other. On a standard 16:9 widescreen laptop, that’s just not an option.

It helps that the screen quality is very high-grade, plenty bright and with lovely color reproduction. The LCD is backed up by ample specs — 1.7GHz Core i5, 6GB RAM, and 500GB hard drive with a 32GB SSD back. Performance on general applications is impressive, even exemplary, though with only integrated graphics, you won’t likely be gaming on one side of the screen and working on the other … unless we’re talking about Minesweeper.

Ports include HDMI, a full-size/flip-out Ethernet port, SD card reader, and three USB ports, all USB 3.0 and one which provides sleep-and-charge functionality. Battery life, at almost four hours, is better than I was expecting.

The chassis material selection is interesting, with a textured and rubberized material on the entire bottom, on the palmrest, and on about a third of the lid. This makes the laptop very easy to grip and manipulate singlehandedly, and the brushed aluminum that makes up the rest of the lid makes for an interesting visual contrast. I do wonder a bit about how durable this rubberized material will be over time, as it seems prone to scuffing.

I was immediately prepared to dislike this machine for simply being ‘too different.’ But after actually using it for a while, it eventually won me over like one of those three-legged puppies.

Size is a concern here, but though the U840W appears huge, it’s a bit of an optical illusion because it is so short from front to back. The width is actually the same as the typical 15.6-inch laptop, so it will still fit in most laptop bags, but at 3.7 pounds and 22mm thick, it’s quite a bit lighter than carriers of larger laptops will expect.

My only real complaints with the U840W are its input devices. The touchpad isn’t sensitive enough, and the keyboard is lackluster — not enough travel, mushy action, and with keys that are far too short vertically. I understand that the screen is ultra-wide and stubby short, but there’s no reason for the keyboard to feel the same way.

That may ultimately be a small complaint against the U840W. I was immediately prepared to dislike this machine for simply being “too different.” But after actually using it for a while, it eventually won me over like one of those three-legged puppies.

As an aside, the U840W has a sibling in the form of the Toshiba Satellite U840, a supposed “non-wide” version of the U840W with a 16:9, 14-inch display. Putting these two computers side by side, however, it’s clear they have virtually nothing in common — adopted siblings instead of fraternal twins. Though it weighs the same, the $880 U840 has none of the same design stylings and its ports are in different places. The two PCs have the same CPU and RAM configuration, but the U840 gives up two of its USB 3.0 ports for USB 2.0 ports, and its 500GB hard drive has only a 16GB SSD component. It runs about 10 percent slower on the whole and takes a few seconds longer to boot.

Bigger concerns abound, though: The screen is hopelessly dim and washed out, and the touchpad is utter junk — rattling around when you tap on it. The U840 isn’t just boring in comparison to the U840W, it’s actually unpleasant to use. Regardless of what you think about the U840W, give the U840 a pass. (U840 rating: 4)

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