Review: Toshiba Kirabook

Toshiba has attempted to reinvent themselves with a 2560 x 1440-resolution Ultrabook

There are no doubt some good Windows laptops out there from the big brands, but there isn't really a flagship to go head-to-head with Apple's MacBook Pro with Retina display. Until now. For some reason it's taken quite some time for Windows laptop manufacturers to realize that 1366 x 768, or even 1080p displays won't really cut it in the modern world of high density displays, and that's why Toshiba's Kirabook is one of the first real high-end contenders.

The key feature of this Ultrabook is without a doubt the 13.3-inch 2560 x 1440 "PixelPure" display, which is all part of Toshiba's reinvented laptop line-up ,and although the touchscreen unfortunately doesn't come standard, you do get Corning Concore Glass to protect it either way. Aside from the display, Toshiba is also touting their AZ91 magnesium alloy casing for the Kirabook, a material apparently 100% stronger than the aluminium alloy Apple uses for their MacBook Air.

The key feature of this Ultrabook is the 13.3-inch 2560 x 1440 display

All the premium aspects of this device do come at a considerable cost though, with the entry level Kirabook starting at $1,600. Apple's 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display, one of the Kirabook's main competitors, starts at $1,500, which makes this battle all the more interesting. Toshiba provided me with the top-end model with an Intel Core i7 processor and a touchscreen - a model that costs $2,000 - so let's see how it performs.

Design

Differentiating a laptop from the horde of others of the same shape, size and color is a tough task, especially when you're not only one of the lesser known players in the market, but also going up against one of the best laptop designers going around: Apple. Toshiba has opted for a design similar to, but not the same as the MacBook Air, giving it a personal flare so that it's not confused with other Ultrabooks on the market.

An initial inspection gives the impression that the Kirabook uses a wedge design, but some clever tapering and curving actually makes the laptop have largely the same thickness until right towards the bottom edge. It might have been nicer visually to have a proper wedge design, but at the end of the day it doesn't affect the functionality or ergonomics of the machine, and hopefully Toshiba used the extra space for extending the battery.

There's no doubting the Kirabook is very well constructed

The majority of the materials Toshiba has used for the Kirabook come with pretty impressive marketing terms. There is a "uniquely reinforced" honeycomb structure, "precision crafted" magnesium alloy that's also used in high-performance race cars, strength "over 100%" greater than the aluminium alloy used in the MacBook Air, and Corning Concore Glass to protect the display.

I always take these often ridiculous claims with a grain of salt, but once I actually held the Kirabook there's no doubting that it's very well constructed. The base feels extremely solid with the internals very well protected, exhibiting absolutely no flex where a plastic case might give way. The portion of the device containing the display is a little less solid as you can bend the case with a moderate amount of force, but it should be more than enough to prevent any damage to the display.

Aside from the benefits to the strength of the Kirabook, the magnesium alloy also looks and feels great. The brushed, minimalist lid containing a single Toshiba logo in the bottom corner delivers a premium look, while the main body is also in a class above your standard Windows laptop. I wouldn't say that the body feels as nice as the aluminium unibody of the MacBook line, as there are several joins in the case and the alloy used here just doesn't have as nice of a texture, but it's nevertheless very good.

The Corning Concore Glass, from the makers of Gorilla Glass used on a number of smartphones, is not only very sturdy but is also a pleasure to use. Swiping fingers across the display - if you get the touchscreen model - is a task that requires very little effort thanks to the coating, although I refute Toshiba's claims that it's fingerprint-resistant: although there may be fewer fingerprints on the display than you were expecting, the ones that do manage to stay there are somewhat hard to remove.

One of the few aspects of the design that doesn't appear as premium is the base, and luckily you're probably not going to be looking at it too often. There are numerous visible screws along with the rubberized nubs for raising the base when on a desk, which allows the fan grill (also a feature of the base) to intake some air. Luckily there's also a fan grill along the hinge section, so that the CPU can still be cooled if you've placed the Ultrabook on your bed or couch.

Around the device you'll find the power socket, full-sized HDMI port and two USB 3.0 ports on the left-hand side, while the right side has another USB 3.0 port, an audio jack and an SD card slot. To keep the device slim there is no Ethernet port on the Kirabook, which may be an issue for some people but personally I was fine simply relying on the wireless radios.

The keyboard was one area I was particularly impressed with

The keyboard was one area I was particularly impressed with the Kirabook: the keys are adequately spaced and responsive, which made it easy for me to adapt to the layout; each key is also backlit, which greatly improves its usability in dark environments. The trackpad is also large and relatively easy to use, complementing the touchscreen (if you pay for it), although sometimes I found it somewhat difficult to right-click.

By my measurements, the Kirabook came in at 19.8mm thick (at its thickest point), which is respectable for an Ultrabook but not the slimmest going around - of this thickness, 6.7mm is in the display module while the base takes the remaining 13.1mm. At 1.35 kg its weight is quite respectable, coming it at the same weight as the 2013 MacBook Air and lighter than the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display (1.62 kg). It doesn't feel like a burden to carry around this laptop, which is what you'd expect from a 13-inch device.

While I may not be as impressed with the construction of the Kirabook as I am with the MacBook line, it's no doubt a very solid build made with premium components and including a high-quality keyboard. Pulling the device out in a meeting room will likely turn heads for its sleekness, and of course for the crisp display running Windows 8.

Display & Audio

The standout feature of the Toshiba Kirabook is the 2560 x 1440 (WQHD) display which comes standard in all models and is branded by Toshiba as being a "PixelPure" panel; in actual fact it's just an LED-backlit LCD display. Toshiba wouldn't say exactly what sort of LCD panel we're looking at here, but it doesn't appear to be TN TFT thankfully, as this is a premium panel and you would expect more high-end technology.

A 13.3-inch 2560 x 1440 16:9 panel equates to a pixel density of 221 pixels per inch, and you can really tell from the moment you boot up this Ultrabook. The display is far nicer to look at than any 1366 x 768 display and crisper than any 1080p panel, with text looking the best I've ever seen on a Windows 8 laptop - it's so very, very sharp, and no photos are really going to show just how good it looks, so you really need to see it to believe it.


An extremely close look at the Kirabook display. You won't put your face this close during normal use.

But it wasn't text that impressed me the most about the Kirabook's display, it was the absolute crispness and clarity while looking at photos and videos. A range of high-resolution wallpapers were pre-loaded on the review unit, and all of them looked absolutely breathtaking on the WQHD panel, especially those of nature. Flicking through images has amazing clarity, and at some point you'll likely just load up a few photos and just stare at the display to admire the pixel density.

You won't want to go back to watching standard definition content that's for sure

HD video also looks stunning on the Kirabook's display, although you'll need at least 1080p or ideally 4K video to fully utilize all 3.7 million pixels. Firing up some Blu-ray movies and a selection of 4K video samples looks fantastic when you have a dense display like on the Kirabook, and you won't want to go back to watching standard definition content that's for sure. I was watching a 4K video of some bees and honeycomb that Toshiba had provided, and then went straight to watching 480p TV content and I couldn't believe how terrible the SD content looked in comparison.

One major downside that hinders the greatness of this panel is the display scaling options that are available in Windows 8, but I'll explore that in more detail in the software section. Hopefully with Windows 8.1 and the increasing prevalence of high-resolution displays, text can be crisp across all applications.

Aside from the pixel density, which is easily the most fantastic part of this display, the color quality is decent from what appears to be an IPS panel (but might not be). The visuals are vibrant without becoming supersaturated, and generally I found the color reproduction to be faithful to the source. Contrast is also very good, with deep blacks and bright, untinted whites, although occasionally you can spot some backlight bleed when you're watching dim content in a dark room.

Viewing angles from the PixelPure display are acceptable, as you can use the panel from a range of angles, although when you get significantly off center the colors begin to wash out like many other displays. The washing out isn't very extreme though, so even if you're on a ridiculous angle you'll still be able to make out the content on the display.

The top level of brightness available from the LED backlight is reasonably bright, but not the brightest I've seen from a laptop display. This is likely due to the extreme density of the display, which makes it more difficult for the light to pass through the complex array of subpixels, resulting in a a slightly less bright display compared to a WXGA display with the same backlight level.

However it's not usually the brightness that's inhibiting when using the Kirabook outside, I was often more annoyed by reflected light coming off fingerprints on the glass panel. Toshiba claims this display is "fingerprint-resistant", and like I mentioned in the design section this isn't always the case; chances are you'll want to clean the display regularly to prevent grease buildup.

My biggest complaint about the Kirabook display, though, is the prevalence of ghosting while looking at fast-moving content, especially as you're swiping through the Start screen. Large areas of high contrast moving across the display can produce noticeable 'trails' behind the object, although it's less of an issue with scrolling text on web-pages. This issue has likely come about due to the display controller being not quite optimized for the large array of pixels, as it often appears to be not fast enough.

The Toshiba Kirabook contains Harman/Kardon speakers, which are of an acceptable quality but nothing amazing. When listening to music they can be quite tinny, and as they are located on the bottom panel of the device, the sound quality is affected by the surface you place the laptop on. They can go quite loud when watching movies, which is a bonus if more than one person is crowded around the display to watch a film, but aside from that it's best to make use of the audio jack on the right-hand side.

Performance

Between the three available models of the Toshiba Kirabook, there are few differences: each device comes with 8 GB of 1,600 MHz DDR3 RAM and a 256 GB solid state drive as standard, as well as Bluetooth 4.0 and Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n. The lower-end touchscreen model and the model without the touchscreen both include an Intel Core i5-3337U processor, which is a 1.8 GHz dual-core CPU (Turbo Boost of 2.7 GHz) with Intel HD Graphics 4000. The high-end touchscreen model I have for review includes an Intel Core i7-3537U processor with a 2.0 GHz dual-core (3.1 GHz Turbo) CPU and the same Intel HD Graphics 4000 GPU.

  Toshiba Kirabook Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display
Model PSU7FA-00Y00L PSU7FA-00X00K PSU7FA-00T00K MacBookPro10,2
Display 13.3-inch LCD
2560 x 1440
13.3-inch LCD
2560 x 1440
10-point capacitive touchscreen
13.3-inch LCD
2560 x 1600
Processor Intel Core i5-3337U
Dual-core 1.8 (2.7) GHz
Intel Core i7-3537U
Dual-core 2.0 (3.1) GHz
Intel Core i5-3210M
Dual-core 2.5 (3.1) GHz
Graphics Intel HD Graphics 4000
RAM 8 GB DDR3 at 1600 MHz 8 GB DDR3L at 1600 MHz
Storage 256 GB solid state drive 128 GB solid state drive
Connectivity Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n (dual-band)
Bluetooth 4.0
Ports 3x USB 3.0
3.5mm audio jack
SD card slot
HDMI
Proprietary DC in
2x USB 3.0
2x Thunderbolt
3.5mm audio jack
SD card slot
HDMI
MagSafe 2 DC in
Battery Li-po 52 Wh non-removable Li-po 74 Wh non-removable
Launch OS Windows 8 x64
Copious pre-installed software
Windows 8 Pro x64
Copious pre-installed software
Mac OS X 10.8 'Mountain Lion'
Size & Weight 316 x 207 x 17.9 mm
1.21 kg
316 x 207 x 19.8 mm
1.35 kg
314 x 219 x 19 mm
1.62 kg
Price US$1599 US$1799 US$1999 US$1499

Looking at the table above you'll notice that the entry-level Toshiba Kirabook has some both some advantages and disadvantages compared to the entry-level MacBook Pro with Retina Display: the Kirabook comes with more storage (256 GB vs 128 GB) and it's slimmer and lighter (17.9 mm vs 19mm and 1.21 kg vs 1.62 kg), while the RAM, graphics and connectivity are the same. The MacBook has a faster CPU (2.5 GHz vs 1.8 GHz, but at a cost to power consumption), but it has a larger battery (74 Wh vs 52 Wh) and it's cheaper by $100.

The $1,799 Kirabook model, which comes with a touchscreen and should be the first model you should be looking at as the touchscreen is quite useful, compares most closely to the $1,699 MacBook Pro with Retina Display, which ups the CPU and storage to 2.6 GHz and 256 GB respectively. For $100 extra you're now basically getting a lighter laptop with a touchscreen, so the battle is very close.

Now on to the actual performance of the Kirabook, and keep in mind that the review unit I have is the high-end model costing $1,999 which boosts the processor up to 2.0 GHz with a 3.1 GHz Turbo Boost. Web browsing performance, which will likely be a significant portion of your usage with the Kirabook, was perfectly fine even when I had loaded many tabs and I was switching between them with speed.

Modern applications also load quickly, and their performance is also very much good as generally speaking they don't require a great deal of resources. During web browsing, Modern app usage and other light tasks, the fan on the Kirabook remains very quiet and the CPU doesn't appear to be under any significant stress.

The machine also seems to do a good job of offloading video playback to the Intel HD Graphics 4000, as even 4K playback didn't seem to stress out the processor beyond 20% usage. This means there's virtually no chance of laggy video playback as the Kirabook can handle even the most high-quality content, which is fantastic as you'll want to check out 4K content wherever you have access to it.

The machine seems to do a good job of offloading video playback to the Intel GPU

While a laptop isn't the best platform for intense photo or video editing, I tried out some basic Photoshopping on the computer and it seems to handle light editing relatively well, helped by the inclusion of 8 GB of RAM. If you're planning on rendering 1080p video, expect it to take quite some time as the dual-core processor isn't designed for CPU-demanding multi-threaded tasks, and 1080p editing is more painful than pleasurable.

What I was most interested to see, though, was how the Intel HD Graphics 4000 chipset would go at rendering 3D content such as games at the display's native resolution of 2560 x 1440; of course this Ultrabook isn't targeted at gamers, but nevertheless you might like to do some light gaming on your $2,000 laptop at some point. So I installed both Borderlands 2 and Torchlight to start with, checking if the Kirabook could play the games reasonably at any graphics level.


My advice: don't try this at home

It's not surprising at all, but the Kirabook is completely incapable of playing Borderlands 2 at its native resolution, barely registering 10 frames per second during my short time playing the game at the lowest graphics settings. I had to dial the resolution way down to 1280 x 720 to get a playable frame rate of just below 30 FPS, which by no means is great, but it at least allows you to play. The fans also kicked in to a horrendously loud level, sounding like a jet engine on the tarmac after just 5 minutes of gameplay.

It's not surprising at all, but the Kirabook is completely incapable of playing Borderlands 2 at its native resolution

Unlike Borderlands 2, Torchlight was actually playable on the Kirabook at around 45 FPS at maximum graphics and native resolution, which shows that indie games with lower levels of graphical quality are actually playable on this system. But don't expect to do any serious gaming from this year's biggest titles as it's clear that Intel's GPU is not up to the task at all.

Software

As you might have guessed from reading this review, the Toshiba Kirabook runs Windows 8 64-bit out of the box, and depending on the model you get you'll either end up with standard Windows 8 or Windows 8 Pro like in the model I have for review. At Neowin we cover a phenomenal amount of stuff related to Windows 8, so if you're wondering how this operating system functions I suggest checking out some of our past coverage.

The biggest downside to Windows 8 being the operating system of choice for the Kirabook is the desktop scaling settings, which simply aren't adequate enough for the 2560 x 1440 display used on the unit. Due to their design and structure, Windows Store apps tend to scale relatively well to the high-density display, but the majority of legacy desktop applications look like utter rubbish with scaling settings activated.

One of the few apps that is acceptable with desktop scaling set to the default 165% is Internet Explorer, which has crisp text and generally does a decent job of scaling up webpages, but the majority of other apps look like they've been rendered at 720p and then scaled up significantly like you've just zoomed in on an image. This means that not only images, but also text can look terrible in desktop apps, appearing blurred where it should be crisp and clear.

Text can look terrible in desktop apps

You do have the option to disable desktop scaling and just use standard 100% mode, which means the desktop renders at 2560 x 1440 and so everything is very small and hard to see, but nevertheless crisp. In reality this option isn't feasible, so you're just going to have to put up with dodgy scaling until Windows 8.1 comes around, which is said to improve desktop scaling considerably.

Aside from the issues with Windows 8, the Kirabook comes with the usual smattering of bloatware and unwanted applications, ranging from an Office 365 trial, to Adobe Acrobat Reader 11 and even a few largely useless Toshiba utilities that you're probably not going to use very often. But the most annoying inclusion is a Norton Internet Security 60-day trial, which floods you with annoying pop-ups and messages - I recommend disabling it immediately unless you have a license longer than 60 days.

For a premium device that costs at least $1,500, it's disappointing that Toshiba decided to bundle bloatware with the installation of Windows 8. If you do end up purchasing this device, I'd recommend reverting to a clean installation of Windows as soon as possible so that you can get on with your computer usage without the distractions of the installed third-party software.

Battery Life

Toshiba has chucked in a 52 Wh non-removable battery into the Kirabook, and combined with Intel's Ivy Bridge low-voltage (U-series) processor you can expect around six hours of battery life with your average sort of internet browsing. It's a shame that Toshiba didn't wait to include a Haswell fourth-generation Core processor, as the battery life would likely be several hours longer with similar device speeds, but nevertheless six hours is a decent amount from this sort of device.

If you push the laptop's screen brightness up to maximum you'll definitely get less than six hours of life, probably closer to four as the backlight can consume a lot of power. Similarly, intensive tasks that use a lot of the CPU, including gaming (not that the system is really powerful enough for this) will drain the battery reasonably quickly, so I wouldn't class the Kirabook as having an "all-day battery" like some recent laptops and tablets.

In our battery life rundown test, which features a 720p video looping at 75% brightness in airplane mode until the system dies, the Kirabook managed 4 hours 42 minutes of life: a respectable effort considering the power consumption of the display, but it could likely have been improved if Toshiba had waited to include a Haswell processor in the Kirabook.

Conclusion

The Toshiba Kirabook is the first real foray into the world of high-density displays on Windows 8 laptops, but it's not necessarily the polished, high-end product that you may be after.

I was immensely pleased with the crispness, sharpness and clarity of the 2560 x 1440 panel on the Kirabook, which really is something to behold when you take the unit out of the box. The pixel density makes most things a joy to look at, but the persistent issues pervading Windows 8 desktop scaling causes many apps to look far less than awesome on the high-density panel.

The build quality and construction is very good, with the Kirabook feeling strong thanks to the magnesium alloy shell. When it comes to the performance of the unit, generally speaking the Intel processor is up to scratch, except for in gaming where the HD Graphics 4000 chipset is far too slow to be useful at the display's native resolution in the most recent games.

It's not necessarily the polished, high-end product that you may be after.

But at the end of the day, it comes down to the price and its main competitor: the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display. The fact that the Kirabook starts at US$1,599, with a touchscreen only included on the $1,799 model and up, makes this a hard sell for a premium laptop. It ticks many boxes, but the only serious advantage over the $1,499 Retina MacBook Pro, which of course you can install Windows 8 on if you really want the Microsoft experience, is the touchscreen and that'll set you back, essentially, an extra $300.

I don't blame Toshiba for trying to re-invent itself, and the Kirabook is generally a very sweet device to use, but I would perhaps wait until the price drops and Microsoft improves Windows' desktop scaling before venturing into the world of high-resolution Ultrabooks. If you're desperate right now - and believe me this seems odd to say - purchasing a Retina MacBook Pro and installing Windows on it may just be a better option.

The Kirabook was reviewed using a production model provided by Toshiba; the unit was fully updated at the time of testing.

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