Ultrabook attack escalates: Toshiba U840 is a 14-inch practical powerhouse

When Intel launched the Ultrabook campaign to force laptop makers to produce lighter slimmer and more usable laptops the focus was on 11in and 13in machines. That’s because the first Ultrabooks – such as those from Acer and ASUS – were fundamentally designed to attack tablets and MacBook Airs technologies for which the Wintel world had no real answer and which were making inroads into the laptop’s market share. The initial marketing message was that Ultrabooks were barely heavier than tablets with the same resume times but with all the advantages of a keyboard and a real professional operating system.

One of the first things you notice about the U840 is its upmarket look.

But there was one problem with the Ultrabook concept: while it presented a higher-performance alternative than a tablet and made superthin and light laptops more affordable it meant that you were buying a computer with a small screen and a tiny hard drive. Perfect for going on the road but an Ultrabook was never going to become your primary machine because the 13in form factor is just too squeezed if you need to use applications that require a big screen for example spreadsheeting apps or Photoshop.

The U840 casts a sleek side profile.

This is why Toshiba’s new 14in U840 Satellite Ultrabook (and also a 14in Ultrabook Series 5 Ultrabook released by Samsung) are hugely important: they are the first Ultrabooks for a bigger screen size that can genuinely replace your big 15in laptop since the difference in screen real estate between 14 and 15.6in is not as generally noticable. If you’re used to a 15.6in laptop the big drop in weight reduced thickness and massive improvement in battery life that you get by shifting to a 14in Ultrabook are more than worth the tiny drop in diagonal screensize. But going a fraction smaller from a 15.6in laptop to a 13.3in laptop is simply going to be too big a jump for many users.

It might not look like much from this angle but that 14in footprint feels much roomier in terms of screen real estate that a comparative 13in Ultrabook.

One of the first things you notice about the U840 Satellite (RRP $1499) is that it’s far more upmarket-looking than Toshiba’s other working-class Satellites made of brushed (metallic silver) aluminium with flowing contours and pleasingly rounded edges. With a slight wedge shape that is 19.9mm at its thickest it’s not as insanely thin as the 15-16mm-thick 11in and 13in Ultrabooks but it’s way slimmer than standard fatty notebooks. It’s also way lighter than conventional notebooks at 1.73kg. Made with solid aluminium it looks and feels robust unlike its smaller 13.3in little brother the Z830 which is made of magnesium alloy and uses special materials in the screen that make it very light but unnervingly flexible. The Satellite U840 is an aluminium ingot by comparison.

The U840 (bottom) unlike a 13in Ultrabook (top) has room to include…

The Chiclet keyboard looks great and is easy to type on and feels kilometres wider than the one on the Z830 together with the trackpad. Maybe that’s because just a couple of exta millimetres between the keys makes all the difference when touch typing.

The processor is a low-voltage Intel Core i5 which is the same as that found in the smaller-screen Ultrabooks. The big surprise – and maybe it shouldn’t be because we’re dealing with a larger Ultrabook – is that storage is a 320GB mechanical hard drive paired with a 16GB caching drive that makes possible the quick resumes that the Ultrabook spec demands as well as adding to general system performance. This is backed up by a whopping 8GB of RAM and it’s amazing how this contributes to the performance of the U840.

…a far greater array of ports.

The Ultrabook did not feel at all like something powered by a low-voltage chip. We ran some productivity tests and it was as snappy as any of our desktops even with a low-voltage Core i5 inside.

Ultrabooks with 14in screens will have more ports because there’s more real estate down the sides of the laptops. This one has three USB ports (one being USB 3.0) Ethernet network port and a full-sized HDMI port for connecting it to a big display. There’s also an SD card slot a case lock slot and headphone and microphone jacks.

And a beautiful trackpad to boot.

The Toshiba and Samsung and other 14in Ultrabooks show that the Intel Ultrabook strategy is having an impact. While initially promoted as being for superslim 11in and 13in machines the Ultrabook is really about forcing the laptop makers to stop being lazy and deliver laptops with better portability usability and battery life across the board.

And judging by the Toshiba U840 laptop buyers can only benefit.