DNP Toshiba Satellite U845 review

Toshiba's most recent Ultrabook offerings have something of a split personality. On the one hand, there's the Satellite U845W, a high-end machine with solid quality and a funky, 21:9 display. Announced alongside it, though, was the Satellite U845, a more modest sort of machine for folks who can't afford to spend $1,000 on their next laptop. Starting at $750, it offers all the specs you'd expect from a mid-range laptop: Ivy Bridge, Intel Wireless Display and a backlit keyboard. And, given that it's a slightly larger Ultrabook, it also makes room for key ports like HDMI and an Ethernet jack. But the U845 is hardly the only 14-inch thin-and-light on the block, and it's definitely not the only sub-$800 system aimed at the back-to-school crowd. Read on to see if there's enough pizazz here to make this a memorable machine.

Toshiba Satellite U845 review

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Look and feel

DNP Toshiba Satellite U845 review

With the exception of that widescreen display, you might have assumed the U845 shared the same design as the U845W. In fact, though, there's more than just that "W" separating the two: what we have here is a much more modest design, one befitting a lower-end Ultrabook. Though it has a brushed metal lid and palm rest, the bottom side is made of plastic, as is the keyboard panel and bezel. That bezel aside (it sure is glossy!), the design is otherwise pretty tasteful, with a spun metal power button and discreetly located LED lights.

In a similar vein, build quality is nothing to write home about, but you also could do a lot worse. Press hard enough on the palm rest and you'll notice a little flex. On the plus side, the hinge feels fairly sturdy; the lid doesn't wobble when you set the laptop down, which is something we can't say about every notebook we review.

And though the U845 is fairly chunky for an Ultrabook, at 4.1 pounds and 0.8 inches thick, it makes up for that heft with a robust selection of ports. Over on the left edge, you'll find an HDMI socket, along with USB 3.0 and separate headphone and mic ports. Move to the right and you'll see two USB 2.0 ports, an SD card reader and an Ethernet jack (huzzah!). Sure, if we could, we'd flip the ratio of USB 3.0 to 2.0 ports. Otherwise, though, this is a comprehensive arrangement. Certainly, it beats Vizio's Thin + Light, which is missing both an SD slot and that wired internet connection.

Keyboard and trackpad

DNP Toshiba Satellite U845 review

If there's one thing tying together the high-end U845W and the humble U845, it's those shallow, whisper-quiet keys. If we could change anything about the keyboard, it would be the travel, especially since this is already a pretty thick Ultrabook. After all, it doesn't seem like adding cushier keys would have been an issue, as it would be with a skinnier machine. As with Toshiba's other Ultrabooks, too, the keys also feel a little squat -- wide, but vertically short. Still, we rarely struck a key we didn't mean to press. We also appreciate that Toshiba more or less got the proportions right: the Enter, Shift and even arrow keys are big enough that touch typists should have no problem hitting them without looking.

Given how many trackpad disasters we've seen lately (see: the ASUS Zenbook UX31A, Vizio Thin + Light), it's refreshing how relatively easy the U845's is to use. For the most part, we had no problems dragging the cursor where we wanted it to go, and were also able to pull off two-finger scrolls without a hitch. Occasionally, the cursor would jump to random parts of documents we were working on. As annoying as that is, though, it at least didn't happen regularly.

Display and sound

DNP Toshiba Satellite U845 review

No surprises here: the U845's display has a 1,366 x 768 resolution, which is almost a certainty on a laptop in this price range. The reflective finish means you might have a difficult time if you're working on a plane and need to dip the screen forward when the guy in front of you leans back. Still, you should be able to watch a movie with a few friends crowded around -- just dim the lights to cut down on glare.

Unlike Toshiba's higher-end laptops, you won't find any Harman Kardon speakers here, which means you can expect good-enough volume, but distant, tinny sound quality. Just like on every other laptop in this category, naturally.

Like many newer Ultrabooks, the U845 packs Intel's Wireless Display technology, which makes it possible to stream 1080p movies to a big-screen monitor or HDTV. You can also mirror your desktop, if enhanced productivity is what you're after. Whatever it is, though, you'll need to pony up for a compatible set-top box if you want to take advantage of this feature.

Performance

PCMark Vantage 3DMark06
Toshiba Satellite U845 (1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U, Intel HD Graphics 4000) 7,936 4,235
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (1.8GHz Intel Core i5-3427U, Intel HD Graphics 4000) 11,738 Would not run
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 (2.5GHz Core i5-2410M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 7,787 3,726
Vizio Thin + Light (14-inch, 1.9GHz Core i7-3517U, Intel HD Graphics 4000) 13,525 5,443
Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M5 (481TG-6814, 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U, Intel HD Graphics 4000 / NVIDIA GeForce GT640M LE 1GB) 7,395 9,821
Acer Aspire S5 (1.9GHz Core i7-3517U, Intel HD Graphics 4000) 12,895 5,071
Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, 2012, 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U, Intel HD Graphics 4000) 8,624 5,155
MacBook Air (2012, 1.8GHz Core i5-3427U, Intel HD Graphics 4000) 13,469 5,827
ASUS Zenbook Prime UX21A (Ivy Bridge Core i7 processor, Intel HD Graphics 4000) 10,333 4,550
Samsung Series 9 (15-inch, 2012, 1.6GHz Core i5-2467M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 10,580 4,171
Lenovo IdeaPad U310 (1.7GHz Core i5-3317U, Intel HD Graphics 4000) 8,345 4,549
Lenovo ThinkPad X230 (2.6GHz Core i5-3320M, Intel HD Graphics 4000) 8,234 4,891
Sony VAIO T13 (1.7GHz Core i5-3317U, Intel HD Graphics 4000) 8,189 3,847
Note: higher scores are better

Our test unit ($880 as configured) comes with a 1.7GHz Core i5-3317U -- the same one used in similarly priced Ultrabooks, like the Lenovo IdeaPad U310 and Sony VAIO T13. At this price, you'll also get 6GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive coupled with a 32GB SSD and, of course, Intel's HD 4000 graphics. All told, its performance is roughly on par with similarly specced machines (read: Core i5 systems without all-flash storage). In PCMark Vantage, for instance, its score slightly trails the U310 and T13, but they're all clearly in the same ballpark. Its maximum I/O performance (108 MB/s reads and 84 MB/s writes) also trails the other two machines, but not by much. Even its boot time lags just behind the others, but we're talking about a 21-second startup versus 17 or 20 seconds.

If you've read a few of our Ivy Bridge laptop reviews, you know by now that the newest HD 4000 chipset provides a nice boost over last year's HD 3000. Still, it's by no means a magic bullet for gaming. In Call of Duty 4, for instance, our frame rates hovered around 19 to 20 fps, and that was at the default resolution (1,024 x 768). And that's par for the course, really: we've tested this game on many an Ultrabook by now, and aside from models with discrete graphics, we haven't cracked 30 fps.

Battery life

Battery Life
Toshiba Satellite U845 5:12
Samsung Series 9 (15-inch, 2012) 7:29
Lenovo ThinkPad X230 7:19
Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, 2012) 7:02
MacBook Air (13-inch, 2012) 6:34 (OS X) / 4:28 (Windows)
Dell XPS 14 6:18
HP Folio 13 6:08
HP Envy Sleekbook 6z 5:51
Toshiba Portege Z835 5:49
Sony VAIO T13 5:39
MacBook Air (13-inch, 2011) 5:32 (OS X) / 4:12 (Windows)
HP Envy 14 Spectre 5:30
Toshiba Satellite U845W 5:13
Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 5:11
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon 5:07
Samsung Series 5 Ultrabook (14-inch, 2012) 5:06
Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M5 5:05
Dell XPS 13 4:58
Lenovo IdeaPad U310 4:57
Acer Aspire S5 4:35
Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, 2011) 4:20
ASUS Zenbook Prime UX21A 4:19
Acer Aspire S3 4:11
Vizio Thin + Light (14-inch) 3:57

What is it with all these heavier, bigger-screened Ultrabooks that don't pull their weight in battery life? If you take a look at the table up there, you'll notice with many of the 14-inch Ultrabooks -- the Samsung Series 5, Acer Aspire M5, HP Envy 14 Spectre -- the battery life scores tend to be clustered in the five-hour range, falling short of several smaller Ultrabooks. In our formal battery test, which involves looping a video off the drive with the display brightness fixed at 65 percent, the U845 lasted five hours and 12 minutes. That's slightly better than the other laptops we mentioned, but only by a few minutes and in general we'd like to see these larger Ultrabooks justify their heft with longer runtime.

Software and warranty

DNP Toshiba Satellite U845 review

Though most of the bundled software consists of Toshiba-branded apps, you'll find some bona fide crapware from other companies. These include shortcuts to Amazon Links, PriceGong and Savings Sidekick. There's also a trial version of Norton Internet Security, a less surprising addition to the mix. As for those Toshiba apps, they include eco Utility; PC Health Monitor; Resolution+; ReelTime, for quickly retrieving documents using a timeline; Service Station; Sleep Utility; Recovery Media Creator; Online Backup, Media Controller; Laptop Checkup; Face Recognition; Disc Creator; Book Place; and Bulletin Board (it is what it sounds like).

The U845 has a one-year warranty -- typical for a consumer laptop.

Configuration options and the competition

Right now, there are two pre-built configurations of the U845 on Toshiba's website, which means you won't have the chance to customize things like hard drive size or memory allotment. You've already heard about the $880 version we tested with the Core i5 processor, 6GB of RAM and 500GB hard drive. On the lower end, there's also a $750 model with a Core i3 CPU and 4GB of RAM. It, too, has 500GB of HDD storage, but in this case it's paired with a 16GB SSD, not a 32GB drive. As you'll see, even that lower-priced unit doesn't seem like such a hot deal when you find that other PC makers are offering similar specs for less money.

Take the Sony VAIO T13, for instance. That machine starts at $770 with an Ivy Bridge Core i5 processor (not Core i3) with 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive / 32GB SSD. And if it sounds like we're obsessed with specs, know this: the T13's battery life is slightly longer and, as we established, its performance is a bit faster, too. Design-wise, the two offer similar build quality.

Another deal that looks good (on paper, at least -- we haven't tested it!) is the Dell Inspiron 14z, which starts at $700 with a Sandy Bridge Core i3 processor, 6GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive with a 32GB SSD. Even if you paid $750 for an Ivy Bridge Core i5 model you'd be getting more for your money than you would with Toshiba. All that said, because we haven't tested the 14z, we can't vouch for its keyboard, trackpad, battery life or performance -- all important factors to consider, of course.

The TU845 isn't exactly a slam dunk, but it's certainly worth considering.

Moving onto Lenovo's IdeaPad U series, you can choose from either the 13-inch U310 ($639 and up) or the 14-inch U410, which starts at $749 (note: we're quoting web-only prices from Lenovo's site). In many ways, the U310 is more similar, even though it has a smaller screen than the U845: it starts with a Core i3 Sandy Bridge processor and a 500GB hard drive (disks with flash storage attached are available as an upgrade). The U410, meanwhile, is roughly the same size as the U845, but it comes standard with a 1GB NVIDIA GeForce 610 GPU. Also, the U410's hard drive spins at 7,200RPM by default, though it's not coupled with an SSD for faster boot times. Speeds and feeds aside, we've been very impressed with the U series' classy design and super comfortable keyboard.

Another good value: the Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M5, which for a similar price of $780 offers a Core i5 CPU (again, a boost over Core i3), 6GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive with a 20GB SSD. For $830, it includes a discrete NVIDIA GeForce 640M LE GPU with 1GB of RAM. As it happens, we appreciate its keyboard, graphics performance and narrow bezels, too.

In contrast, we're less impressed with the specs you'll get on HP's Envy Sleekbook 4t. At $650 (after instant savings), it has a last-gen Sandy Bridge Core i3 processor, 4GB of RAM and a 500GB drive, sans SSD. It does have a tasteful, understated design and decent battery life -- we'll say that much -- but in our testing we've been pretty underwhelmed by the jumpy trackpad.

Wrap-up

DNP Toshiba Satellite U845 review

If you're in the market for a thin and light, not-too-expensive laptop, the Toshiba Satellite U845 isn't exactly a slam dunk, but it's certainly worth considering. While the build quality, battery life and overall performance are about on par with competing machines, we've tested models with more comfortable keyboards, and if you do your homework you'll find laptops offering better specs for the same money. On its own, though, the U845 is a dependable choice, and matches up well against its competitors, even if it doesn't beat them wholesale.

Toshiba

Toshiba Satellite U845

Pros

  • Tasteful, pleasing design
  • Reliable performance

Cons

  • Shallow, oddly shaped keys
  • For the same price, other companies offer better specs
Conclusion

As a mid-range Ultrabook, the 14-inch U845 isn't a slam dunk, but it's definitely worth a look.

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Toshiba Satellite U845 review: an inexpensive Ultrabook worth considering