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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Toshiba Kirabook review: High-end specs, and a price to match


What makes one laptop worth $700 and another worth $2,000? That's a tricky question, and one that has bedeviled PC makers looking to join a handful of companies such as Apple in charging a premium price for products that, at the end of the day, use many of the same components as less expensive items.
The new Kirabook from Toshiba attacks this question head on. This 13-inch laptop starts at a bold $1,599, and goes up from there. The unit reviewed here is $1,999, because it adds a touch screen and a faster Intel Core i7 processor (that's right, the $1,599 starting price does not include a touch screen -- that's a $200 add-on).
Toshiba is pitching the Kirabook as the first product in a new high-end line, also called Kira, which will complement the existing Satellite, Portege, and Qosmio lines. As the company already makes some very nice ultrabooks for very reasonable prices, the challenge with the Kirabook is to pull out all the stops to justify its high price and the heavy hype Toshiba is putting behind the new line.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
And the Kirabook is clearly a premium product. Its thin, light body is made of a magnesium alloy, which is both lighter and stronger than aluminum; the keyboard and touch pad are better than those found on standard Toshiba Satellite laptops; and most notably, the 13.3-inch display has an incredibly high 2,560x1,440-pixel resolution. Toshiba calls this PixelPure, and it's not dissimilar to the Retina Display Apple uses in its highest-end MacBook Pro laptops. Standard laptop screens top out at 1,920x1,080 pixels.
Of course, just as we said of the Retina MacBooks, there's little consumer content right now that takes advantage of higher-than-1080p screen resolutions, which is the same problem first-generation 4K televisions are facing. High-res gaming is also out of the question, as the Kirabook relies on Intel's default HD 4000 graphics. Where the higher resolution really wows is in reading plain text (which is more exciting than it sounds), and working in apps such as Photoshop, where the higher resolution lets you fit more on the screen at once.
Other than the excellent construction and standout screen, this is in many ways a standard Intel Core i5/i7 laptop, with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB solid-state drive (to its credit, Toshiba adds two years of "Platinum" support). In fact, when it and Toshiba's excellent Satellite U845T 14-inch ultrabook are placed side by side, the two look remarkably similar. And therein lies the issue I'm having with the Kirabook. It looks more upscale than the $799 Satellite, and feels better in the hand, but only incrementally. If you placed both laptops in front of consumers and asked them to guess the price difference between them, there's absolutely zero chance anyone would say $800 to $1,200.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display starts at $100 less, albeit with less SSD storage and an aluminum body that's larger and weighs more -- but we've also knocked that Apple laptop for not offering the right combination of features and price. But the MacBook Pro also has more-distinct industrial design, as do other laptops that have played in this price range, such as the Acer Aspire S7 and the Samsung Series 9.
The lesson here is that to play in the rarified air of the $1,600-plus laptop market, you need to bring a distinct, high-design look and feel, not just top-end components. The Kirabook is an excellent laptop that's highly portable and easy to use, with a great-looking screen that only a few other systems can even come close to touching. That said, it just doesn't look like a $2,000 laptop, and for that kind of money, I want to be wowed, and I suspect you do, as well.
Price as reviewed / starting price$1,999 / $1,599
Processor2.0GHz Intel Core i7-3667U
Memory8GB, 1,600MHz DDR3
Hard drive256GB SSD
GraphicsIntel HD 4000
Operating systemWindows 8
Dimensions (WD)12.4x8.2 inches
Height0.7 inch
Screen size (diagonal)13.3 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter2.9 pounds / 3.4 pounds
Category13-inch ultrabook
Design and features 
The Kirabook may be found in a museum someday, listed as a prime example of 2013 ultrabook design. All the hallmarks are there: the slightly tapered front edge, the brushed-metal look of the lid, the edge-to-edge glass over the display, and the large button-free clickpad under the island-style keyboard.
And, if you only see the Kirabook in photos, that might be the end of your observations. This is one of those products that comes off better in person than on paper, and in the hand, the Kirabook really does feel like a high-end laptop. The magnesium-alloy body is very light, but feels sturdy. The fit and finish are excellent, with a clean keyboard tray and a stiff hinge that runs nearly the full length of the system, and even the grilles for the Harman Kardon speakers and system fan have been moved to the bottom panel to keep them out of sight (that fan, however, can get pretty loud at times).
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
The backlit keyboard follows the general Toshiba model of slightly rectangular keys, with a shorter-than-most spacebar. But the keyboard is a marked improvement over the similar-looking one on most of Toshiba's less expensive laptops. There's zero flex under your fingers, and the actual keys are deeper (more travel) than on other Toshiba ultrabooks.
The large rectangular clickpad offers a lot of surface area for such a small laptop, and with Windows 8, you'll want that for all those OS navigation gestures. The pad's surface has just the right amount of resistance, but I occasionally had trouble getting it to recognize a two-finger scroll, despite playing around with the Synaptics software settings.
The biggest selling point of the Kirabook is its high-resolution PixelPure screen. At 2,560x1,440 pixels, it's in a class that only a handful of other devices reach, including Apple's Retina MacBook Pro line. Toshiba says that resolution equals 221 pixels per inch, and when reading onscreen text and viewing videos with higher-than-1080p resolution (which can hard to find, but YouTube has many), it's a great visual experience.
Windows 8 adapts to the resolution well, keeping things looking normal in its tile-based interface. Going back to the traditional desktop view can be jarring -- text and icons appear very small by default. Still, as mentioned above, there's not much content that takes proper advantage of the expanded resolution.
Is a higher-resolution screen a great extra feature to have on a laptop? Definitely -- especially if it's a touch-screen system with easy pinch-to-zoom for larger text. Is it a must-have? It's hard to say yes -- the appeal of the Retina MacBook Pro line is really more the thinner, more powerful hardware when compared with the non-Retina MacBook Pro than the screen itself.
Toshiba KirabookAverage for category [13-inch]
VideoHDMIHDMI or DisplayPort
AudioStereo speakers, combo headphone/microphone jackStereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data3 USB 3.0 (1 with sleep-and-charge)2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, SD card reader
Networking802.11n Wi-Fi, BluetoothEthernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Optical driveNoneNone



Connections, performance, and battery
The Kirabook deserves credit for making all three of its USB ports of the faster 3.0 variety, plus one of them is a powered sleep-and-charge port, which is a handy feature allowing you to plug a device into the port and recharge from the laptop's battery, even if the system is powered down. Other than that, you won't find any high-end extras, such as an NFC chip or Thunderbolt port.
There are three configurations of the Kirabook. The $1,599 model is the least expensive, trading down to a Core i5 CPU, but with the same 8GB of RAM and 256GB SSD as the other versions. The big difference here is that it does not include a touch screen. That's surprising on two fronts. First, that someone is still interested in making a Windows 8 ultrabook without a touch screen; and second, that it would cost $1,600. The version without a touch screen is a little lighter, so there's always that.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
Adding a touch screen costs a surprising $200 extra, for what is essentially the same configuration. The next step is our review configuration, which adds a Core i7 processor, and upgrades the operating system to Windows 8 Pro. All three configurations include copies ofAdobe Photoshop Elements 11 and Adobe Premiere Elements 11, and a special Platinum level of support, which consists of a two-year warranty, a special 24-7 support phone number to call, setup assistance, and a promised "annual tune-up."
Take an ultrabook and pack in an Intel Core i7 CPU, 8GB of RAM, and a large SSD, and you're virtually guaranteed to get excellent performance. The Kirabook does indeed perform like a premium laptop, and ran our benchmark tests as well or better than other U-series Core i7 laptops. Plus, the system was able to play higher-resolution videos easily, including 4K videos.
But, considering the things most people use their laptops for -- Web surfing, media playback, social-network sharing, and e-mail -- you're not likely to notice a huge difference between this and a solid Core i5 ultrabook in everyday use. The HD 4000 graphics from Intel can handle some basic gaming, as long as you keep your expectations modest, and you don't try and run games at the system's native resolution. The new BioShock Infinite at 1,366x768-pixel resolution with medium settings ran at 16.1 frames per second.
A high-end laptop needs high-end battery life. Working in the Kirabook's favor are the power-efficient CPU and SSD, but working against it is the need to drive many more pixels than the average laptop screen. In our video playback battery drain test (which uses a 1080p video), the Kirabook ran for 5 hours and 5 minutes. That's good, but not especially impressive, considering that the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro ran for nearly 7 hours and the $800 Toshiba U845T ran just over 6 hours.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
Conclusion
When Toshiba first showed us the Kirabook in person, company reps asked my colleague and I what we thought the system would cost. We gave a couple of well-reasoned guesses, but came nowhere close to the $1,599-to-$1,999 range.
But there is room for premium laptops even among today's price-sensitive shoppers. To make that leap, you really need a design that stands out from the $800-to-$1,200 crowd, and the Kirabook fails to do so, despite having a higher-resolution screen as its main selling point. That said, it's a great example of a more expensive laptop built with superior construction and materials, and feels great to use while typing, tapping, and swiping.
Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Find more shopping tips in our Laptop Buying Guide, and find out more about how we test laptops.
System configurations
Toshiba Kirabook
Windows 8 (64-bit); 2GHz Intel Core i7-3667U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 256GB Toshiba SSD
Dell XPS 13
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.9GHz Intel Core i7; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Sharedl) Intel HD 4000; 256GB Samsung SSD
Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch w/ Retina Display (October 2012)
OSX 10.8.2 Mountain Lion 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-3210M, 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz, 768MB (Shared) Intel HD 4000, 256GB Apple SSD
Acer Aspire S7-391-9886
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.9GHz Intel Core i7-3517U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 128MB (Shared) Intel HD 4000; 256GB Intel SSD
Toshiba Satellite U845T-S4165
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.8GHz Intel Core i5-3337U; 6GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 128GB Toshiba SSD
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