The way we hoped Ultrabooks would materialise when we first heard about them is about as close as Toshiba has gotten with its design of the 13.3in Satellite Z830. It's a magnificent piece of work that fits necessary ports and slots into an almost impossibly thin and light chassis, a chassis that also houses speedy enough components to make everyday computing tasks a breeze. While most vendors talk of no-compromise thin-and-light computing when it comes to Ultrabooks, only Toshiba has walked the walk thus far.
This is what we expected from Toshiba. The company has a lot of experience building thin and light machines, with the company's Portege R500 and R600 models being marvels in the mobile computing field because of their truly ultra-light designs and full feature-sets. It's only natural then that Toshiba has used its prowess in this area of mobile computing to build an Ultrabook that is currently much better than the offerings from Acer and ASUS on the market.
Design and user comfort
The metal body of the Satellite Z830 is strong and light and it has the most original design that we've seen so far — the Acer and ASUS Ultrabooks take too many design cues from Apple's MacBook Air. The Toshiba looks square, but classy and the chrome details covering the hinges and around the touchpad's buttons add a dash of flair.
Most importantly though, the Satellite weighs in at a barely noticeable 1.1kg and it's only 16mm thick (with the lid closed). It's much thinner and lighter than the Acer and ASUS Ultrabooks that we've seen to date. Funnily enough, the Toshiba also packs the most features.
Along the spine of the Satellite you will find Gigabit Ethernet, HDMI (full sized), power, VGA and two USB ports. The right side has another USB port, which is USB 3.0-capable, and a cable lock facility; the left side has headphone and microphone ports and an SD card slot. The Acer Aspire S3-951 that we reviewed doesn't have Ethernet built in to it, nor does it have USB 3.0 or a VGA port. The ASUS Zenbook UX31 that we reviewed has USB 3.0 built in, but it doesn't have a full-sized HDMI port (you have to buy an adapter) and it comes with a breakout adapter for VGA and a USB adapter for Ethernet. On the inside, the Satellite has 2.4GHz, 802.11n Wi-Fi (Atheros AR9002WB-1NG) and Bluetooth 3.0. You also get a 0.9-megapixel webcam.
The balance of the Satellite Z830 is excellent. Its latch-less lid can be lifted with one hand without the chassis coming up off the table at all. The hinges could use a little more stiffness though — sometimes simply lifting the notebook up off the table made the screen tilt back all the way it could go.
We found the screen's contrast good enough to make photo and video viewing pleasurable, but only as long as the screen was angled perfectly. Like so many notebook screens, the Toshiba's vertical angles in particular are narrow and a lot of fiddling is required to get the view just right. Furthermore, it's a glossy screen, which means that reflections will probably get on your nerves more often than not. It's not as bright as the screen on the ASUS Zenbook, but it's not a dull screen either.
As for user comfort, we think the Satellite Z830 is the best of the Ultrabooks so far. It has an ample palm rest (82mm deep) that feels good to rest on and its chiclet, spill-resistant keyboard is backlit. It looks great at night and is very easy on the eyes when typing in the dark. It has keys that are somewhat 'spongy' to hit, but they are impressively responsive and we didn't have any problems typing on this Ultrabook for long periods of time.
We think it's much better than the keyboard on the Acer and ASUS models in this respect. It's also better because of its layout, which is standard and roomy. You can easily make out the arrow keys — they are not squished — and there are dedicated Home, End and Page Up and Page Down buttons on the right-hand side that come in very handy when perusing long documents. The down arrow makes an annoying 'click' sound sometimes when it is pressed, which can be annoying in a quiet room — what is it with down arrow keys? We also noticed a squeaky down arrow key on the ASUS unit.
The Toshiba felt very comfortable to use while resting it in our lap, but you will need to look out for the pointy corners. The front edge of the laptop has a rounded finish that feels good against the flesh while typing, but you won't want to accidentally hit the corners of the chassis with your wrists as they feel a little too sharp.
The Synaptics touchpad was responsive during our tests. The pointer didn't over-shoot objects and it wasn't sluggish. It also performed multi-finger gestures beautifully (including three-finger flicks in Firefox). At 85x80mm, it's an ample-sized pad that we found a lot more accurate and pleasurable to use than the touchpads on the Acer and ASUS Ultrabooks. Rather than its left- and right-click buttons being concealed under the pad, it uses conventional buttons that are separate to the pad itself. However, these aren't great. They feel a little too stiff to press easily and just a little bit cheap.
If you use the Satellite on your lap for long periods of time, then some heat will be generated and it might end up feeling uncomfortable, both on your lap and under your palms as you type. After typing up documents and browsing Web pages for a few hours while using the Ultrabook on our lap, it got mildly warm and somewhat uncomfortable, but it wasn't unbearable. It runs hotter when the CPU or graphics components are tasked with a lot of work; for heavy processing loads, you'll want to rest the unit on a hard, flat surface. There is a vent on the spine of the laptop and there are holes on the base for the fan that sits near that vent. It makes a low whirring noise, but we didn't find it to be annoying.
Overall, we're pleased with the user friendliness of the Satellite Z830 and we like Toshiba's design choices. Its keyboard and touchpad are good, we love the backlight and the chassis didn't feel harsh as we rested on it while typing. It's screen could be better, but that's a common complaint we have with most laptops.
Specifications and performance
From a performance perspective, the Satellite Z830 mostly lived up to our expectations. It has an Intel Core i5-2467M low-voltage CPU, 4GB of DDR3 SDRAM (expandable to 6GB) and a 128GB solid state drive (SSD). With this configuration, the Z830 recorded 1min in the Blender 3D rendering test, 1min 8sec in the iTunes MP3 encoding test and 1hr 14min in the DVD-to-Xvid file conversion test. These times indicate that it has more than enough grunt to tackle daily chores and time-passing tasks, and it can even be used for tougher tasks if you're game, although it's not designed to run complex workloads. It felt responsive during our evaluation period and it was quick to come out of sleep states, although it was not as quick as the Acer and ASUS Ultrabooks in this respect. We're talking about a three second difference at most.
•Ultrabook specs compared: See at a glance what the Toshiba offers compared to the Acer and ASUS Ultrabooks
•See how the Toshiba Sattelite Z830 compares to the Toshiba Portege Z830
Its 128GB SSD also performed adequately, recording 33.65 megabytes per second (MBps) in our file copy tests; this is a better result than the Acer's 320GB hard drive (28MBps), but slower than the ASUS' 256GB SSD (36MBps) in the same test. In CrystalDiskMark, it wasn't as impressive, recording a read rate of 164.6MBps and a write rate of 50.62MBps. The write rate is a little slower than what we expected.
Graphics are the responsibility of the integrated Intel HD 3000 adapter in the CPU and its score of 4219 in 3DMark06 is actually a lot better than what the Acer and ASUS Ultrabooks recorded in this benchmark. You will have no problems with basic video and imaging-related tasks at the screen's native 1366x768 resolution.
The battery in the Satellite Z830 is located within the chassis and not easily replaceable (you'll have to attack the chassis with a screwdriver). It has a 47 Watt-hour rating, which is slightly less than the 50 Watt-hour rating of the ASUS Zenbook and the Apple MacBook Air, but it put up a good showing.
In our rundown test, in which we disable power management, enable Wi-Fi, maximise screen brightness and loop an Xvid-encoded video until the unit runs out of power, the Satellite lasted 4hr 7min. This is 41min longer than the Acer Aspire S3-951 (which uses a hard drive), and 29min better than the ASUS Zenbook US31 (however, the Zenbook UX31 we tested has a brighter screen, a Core i7 CPU and a 256GB SSD).
Of course, how much you get out of the battery will depend on your workload and how you configure the notebook. If you run an efficient power scheme (or in the available Eco mode), use a lower screen brightness and disable the keyboard backlight, you might be able to squeeze up to six hours out of the battery when using the laptop for basic Web tasks and word processing.
Toshiba's Satellite Z830 is the Ultrabook to beat so far. It has the lightest weight, the thinnest profile and the most features of the Ultrabooks we've seen so far, and in our opinion it also sports the best design. Its user-friendliness is also very good. We like its backlit keyboard, which we also found to be quite comfortable to type on, and we like its touchpad, which was cooperative with our movements.
We wish the touchpad's buttons were better though, that the corners of the chassis weren't so pointy, that the screen's viewing angles were better and also that the SSD was a little quicker. We're not sure how well the unit will stand up over time when it comes to heat dispersion due to the very thin chassis, but we didn't have any problems with overheating during our evaluation period.