The Toshiba Tecra-Z40-A1401 ($1,229) blends in pretty well with the rest of the high-end ultraportable laptops currently on the market, for the most part. It has a fast, fourth-generation Intel Core i5 processor, a sturdy frame that's still relatively light, and even some unique security features. However, it has very few advantages over its similarly priced rivals, as well as some notable disadvantages. It's not a bad choice but it shouldn't be your first.
Weighing in at 3.24 pounds, the Z40-A1401 is on the higher end of the ultraportable scale but still a bit lighter than, say, the newest 13-inch MacBook Pro. The system feels sturdy and durable too, which is probably where the extra weight is coming from (a fine trade-off). What doesn't feel so fine, however, is the metallic graphite finish. During the first few uses, the exterior felt like it was covered in slightly fine sandpaper that was going to rub off on my hands. This fortunately dissipates over time, but instead of feeling secure in your hand, the casing's texture just feels abrasive.
Typing on the backlit, chiclet-style keyboard feels good, as does navigating with the trackpad, which features pairs of mouse buttons above and below its surface area. Although the display isn't a touch screen, the trackpad does support a few multi-touch gestures. There's even a pointing stick for users who still aren't fond of swiping on a little square to scroll.
The biggest knock against the Z40-A1401 design-wise is its relatively low-resolution, 14-inch screen. Although the included webcam is full HD, this prebuilt unit only comes with a 1,366-by-768 display typically found on lower-priced ultrabooks. In addition to being kind of grainy and dim to look at, it limits the user's ability to efficiently multitask on the system. When two windows are onscreen side-by-side, like a document and a spreadsheet or a browser and a video, only a fraction of them can be displayed. With systems like the Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus ($1,399.99) sporting a 3,200-by-1,800-resolution display for not much more money, the Z40-A1401 should at least support 1080p instead of currently capping out at 720p.
The Z40-A1401 features three USB 3.0 ports (one of which is a USB Sleep-and-Charge port), a full-size HDMI-out port, an SD card reader, an Ethernet port, and a slightly bulging VGA port. The fan is located on the left side and never produced a distracting amount of noise or heat during our testing. The 320GB storage puts it ahead of the systems like the Sony VAIO Pro 13's 128 GB drive, but that's countered by the fact that the Z40-A1401 features a 7,200rpm SATA hard drive, which isn't as fast as a solid-state drive (SSD). Boot times never felt unusually sluggish because of it, though. The system offers 802.11n and Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity.
The Z40-A1401 comes with Windows 7 instead of Windows 8.1. However, a free license for Microsoft's new OS, as well as a free month of Office, comes with the system so users can upgrade whenever they choose. Toshiba also bundles in a Norton Anti-Theft trial as well as some interesting security software of its own. It continues this year's trend of touch-based security with its nifty, surprisingly accurate fingerprint scanner that's easy to set up and start using. The system can also detect even the slightest vibration and automatically begin protecting the HDD from shock; just be sure to turn off the pesky notifications that pop up every time this process happens. Other features like the environmentally conscious Eco utility and PC health monitor feel a little more extraneous though and start creeping into bloatware territory. The Z40-A1401 also comes with a generous three-year limited warranty.
The Z40-A1401's benchmark scores put in right in line with its ultraportable competition. This makes sense considering how many others share its fourth-generation Intel Core i5 processor and Intel HD Graphics 4400 chipset. Its 3DMark11 GPU scores were 1,382 on entry and 239 on extreme, while games like Aliens vs. Predator ran at an unplayable 12 frames per second on medium quality and 6 fps on maximum. The only system that performed considerably better was the Asus Zenbook UX51VZ-XB71, which scored 3,382 on 3DMark at entry settings, 692 on extreme, thanks to its much beefier 2GB Nvidia GeForce GT 650M graphics card.
The non-replaceable, 60WHr, lithium ion, 4-cell battery took 6 hours 43 minutes to run down. This beats out systems like the Dell XPS 13-MLK (4:56), but is no competition for a system like the Acer Aspire S7-392-6411 (8:27). And just forget about reaching the double-digit battery life of the new MacBooks.
On the multimedia side, the Photoshop CS6 test time was an average 5 minutes 29 seconds, but its Handbrake time of 3:41 was a solid two minutes longer the most of the rest in this category. Its PCMark 7 score (2,585) is also noticeably low. That was the most surprising result, seeing as day-to-day use of the machine for casual Web browsing, writing, and video streaming never felt particularly slow.
The Toshiba Tecra Z40-A1401 does little, if anything, to pass the rest of the high-end ultraportable laptops out there, but if that was its only problem it wouldn't be too hard to recommend. However, with systems like the new 13-inch MacBook Pro, our current Editors' Choice, delivering an HD+ plus display and topping it performance-wise for only $70 more, the Z40-A1401 becomes a much harder sell. Even more comparable Windows systems like the Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus or the Sony VAIO Pro 13, which can probably be found cheaper than the Z40-A1401 at this point, still end up being the better deals. Users set on the Tecra Z40-A1401 should take the time, and extra money, to customize a better one instead.