Look and feel
Is it $1,600-nice? Not quite, but then again, few things are.
Whether Toshiba ultimately succeeded in strengthening its reputation really isn't for us to say -- only time (and laptop sales) will tell if consumers have more confidence in the brand than they did before. We'll say this, though: the Kirabook is generally a tastefully designed machine, and durable, too. A good place to start might be the magnesium used on both the lid and chassis, which Toshiba claims is 90 percent stronger than the aluminum used on the MacBook Air. Of course, we've no way of confirming that claim, but it's definitely clear the magnesium brings all sorts of benefits: it's lightweight, resistant to scratches and it looks dignified as well, in the way metal laptops usually do.
On the inside, it makes use of the same honeycomb construction as Toshiba's older Portege machines, which makes it exceptionally durable, especially in the palm rest area (you know, the place you're likely to hold it with one hand). And yet, as resilient as this thing is, we can't get over how light it feels. At 2.9 pounds, it weighs about the same as the 13-inch Air, and that's with a touchscreen on board. Without the touch panel, the weight comes down to 2.6 pounds, which is pretty insubstantial -- even for an Ultrabook. Despite its small size, though, it still packs more ports than you'll find on most ultraportables: an HDMI socket, memory card reader, headphone jack and three USB 3.0 ports (painted black on the inside for a more subtle effect). The only thing you're missing is an Ethernet port, which you'll only find on the thickest Ultrabooks anyway.
So we've established the machine is nice, but is it $1,600-nice? Not quite, but then again, few things are. If we could have Toshiba rewind the design process and reconsider a few of its decisions, we'd start by nixing the tacky chrome trim ringing the trackpad, along with the Harman / Kardon branding on the right end of the palm rest (HP, we hope you're reading this too). The front edge can be uncomfortably pointy, especially when you're carrying it in-hand. As sturdy as the chassis is, the lid exhibits a disturbing amount of flex. We'd also prefer not to see any bump or ridge where the keyboard meets the chassis. The intake fan on the bottom is unsightly and, as you'll find, it doesn't even do an efficient job of managing heat. At the very least, the Kirabook has most of the things an expensive machine should have: a metal chassis, a slim wedge shape, a backlit keyboard and a high-res, nearly edge-to-edge glass display. But if you ask us, it's not striking enough to warrant such a lofty price.
Keyboard and trackpad
If you bought the Portege Z835 and came away disappointed with the typing experience, well, the arrival of the Kirabook won't do you much good. But you can at least know that Toshiba took your complaints to heart. After many customers (and reviewers!) criticized the keyboard for being too cramped, Toshiba made an effort to improve the layout, with deeper travel and some subtle contouring at the top of each key. And it worked: the Kirabook's keyboard is, indeed, more pleasant to type on. Anecdotally, we were able to fly through emails at a fast clip, making barely any typos along the way. If you'll allow us to reset your expectations a bit, "deeper travel" is a relative phrase -- the buttons here are still pretty flat, though they offer more feedback than Toshiba's earlier Ultrabooks. And besides, on a machine this thin, any sort of keyboard bounce amounts to a welcome surprise.
As you'd expect from a machine of this caliber, the Kirabook comes standard with keyboard backlighting, which you can turn off by pressing Fn-Z. If you look around, you'll find some other functions embedded on the main keyboard, like the 1 and 2 buttons, which you can use to zoom in and out of the Start menu. There's also a magnifying glass on the left end of the spacebar, but we strongly suggest ignoring it, if possible: onscreen objects can look pretty ugly once you start zooming in.
The Kirabook's Synaptics trackpad is wide and tall, leaving you plenty of space for two-finger scrolls, pinch-to-zooming and all the gestures native to Windows 8. Like other laptops we've seen, it actually handles those more complex maneuvers reasonably well, but it struggles with single-finger tracking. In particular, you might find that the cursor doesn't move when you drag your finger across the trackpad. Even when the cursor does move, it doesn't always go where you want it to, or it stops short on the screen before you get there.
Fortunately, as we hinted, the touchpad feels much less stubborn when you're doing things like scrolling with two fingers. Pinch-to-zoom is pretty fluid, too, though we found it worked better in some apps than others. For instance, we sometimes weren't able to pinch with a thumb and index finger; just the index and middle fingers. Other times, though, the pad registered a thumb just fine.
Display and sound
With a 13.3-inch, 2,560 x 1,440 display, the Kirabook is the first Windows laptop with a screen sharp enough to take on the Retina MacBook Pros and the Chromebook Pixel. It's a tremendous opportunity for Toshiba and indeed, it mostly follows through with a stellar viewing experience. Movies look fantastic, colors are vibrant and the 220-ppi screen is about as sharp as you'd expect, which is to say you won't see a hint of pixelation at the native resolution.
Depending on the content, anyway: many of your favorite desktop apps won't look right at that resolution, a problem we found with the original Retina display MacBooks too. Things just don't scale properly, so you could end up with tiny buttons, tiny search fields or web pages that don't gracefully scale to fill the whole screen. And when objects do fill the screen, they sometimes look blurry and stretched out. As it happens, Toshiba included a utility to help toggle between different text and screen settings, but you have to sign out of Windows any time you want to switch, which is tedious.
If anything, we wish the viewing angles were a little more forgiving. Toshiba says the Kirabook does, in fact, have some sort of wide-viewing-angle technology inside, but that it's not IPS. Whatever it is, it doesn't do a great job preserving the color and contrast at odd angles. Head-on, the display is gorgeous and to its credit, it's readable from lots of different angles. But even if you push the screen forward slightly, the colors start to become distorted. And from any angle, the glossy finish tends to reflect a lot of light (check out our photos in this review and in our initial hands-on -- the screen is so glare-prone it's actually difficult to photograph). All told, we wouldn't categorize this as a dealbreaker, but you can definitely color us disappointed: we rather hoped the first-ever Windows laptop with this kind of resolution would offer flawless screen quality too.
Inside, the Kirabook has DTS Studio Sound technology on board. So far as we can tell, the main benefit is that the volume gets loud -- loud enough that you don't have to bother with the distortion-prone high-end range if you don't want to. And you won't want to. Even with the volume set to 50 out of 100, we could easily enjoy various Kanye West songs (more or less) as they were intended to be heard, though depending on how good your hearing is you could probably get away with 25 out of 100 in a quiet space.
Performance and battery life
We'll dispense with the benchmark scores for the time being: all you need to know about the Kirabook is that it's noisy. It's noisy when it's working, and it's noisy when it's doing absolutely nothing. More than once, the sound of the fans caused people nearby to stop what they were doing and gape at the wheezing machine sitting before them. This thing is so easily overwhelmed, in fact, that we could barely run PCMark 7, a Windows benchmark so basic it works on even the lowest-end machines. Sure enough, though, that test caused the fans to spin noisily, the keyboard deck to heat up and the screen to freeze, leaving us no choice but to perform a hard reset.
It was a similar story with 3DMark11, which should say something about how much gaming you can expect to do on that high-res screen. Occasionally, the system even piped up after it had been sitting idle, with no programs running. To be fair, there were plenty of times when it ran quietly, but it's tough to predict when the noise is going to become a distraction.
And that's a shame, really, because the Kirabook's raw benchmark scores are smoking. With a 2GHz Core i7-3537U CPU and eight gigs of RAM, it's capable of PCMark 7 and 3DMark06 scores that fall well into the 5,000 range, with boot-up times hovering around 10 seconds. I/O speeds are top-notch as well, with read / write rates topping out at 553 MB/s and 500 MB/s, respectively.
Toshiba rates the Kirabook's 52Wh battery for a little over six hours, which translates to around five in our grueling battery rundown test (video looping with WiFi on). In particular, it lasted an average of five hours, 12 minutes, which isn't as long as advertised, obviously, but at least matches other touchscreen Ivy Bridge Ultrabooks. The Kirabook also deserves points for keeping pace with heavier machines like the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 -- given that this thing weighs just 2.9 pounds, we reckon its runtime could've been a lot worse. In any case, though, if five hours and change isn't good enough, the best we can suggest is that you wait for a possible Haswell refresh. Who knows? Maybe Haswell will help with the overheating issue too.
Software and warranty
Like HP's been doing with its high-end Spectre machines, Toshiba is attempting to justify the lofty price by throwing in full versions of popular programs, and offering a longer-than-usual warranty. Chiefly, that bonus software includes full versions of Adobe Photoshop Elements 11 and Premiere Elements 11; Microsoft Office; and a two-year Norton Internet Security subscription. Also on board: Netflix, Vimeo, Hulu Plus, Amazon and eBay. And... that's it. Not a clean Windows install by any means, but at least there's no trialware.
As for that warranty, the standard protection plan includes two years of coverage with a dedicated phone support line promising near-instant pickup times, along with support for questions that don't fall under the technical support umbrella, per se. (Think: "How do I find my way around Windows 8?" not that any of you would ask that.) Also, if you care, those phone technicians are all based in North America, which is apparently something Toshiba's customers have been asking for. That helps explain the $1,600 price somewhat, in that Dell, HP and other companies charge between $90 and $100 for a two-year plan. Even without it, though, this would be an expensive piece of kit.
This section is going to be short and sweet, and you have Toshiba to thank. Since 8GB of RAM, 256GB of storage and that 2,560 x 1,440 display all come standard, there's very little room for differentiation between the various configurations. In all, there are three models to choose from, starting with a non-touch, Core i5 version for $1,600. If you want a touchscreen (of course you do -- this is Windows 8), you'll need to step up to the $1,800 model, which also has a Core i5 processor. Finally, for $2,000 you get the full enchilada: a touchscreen computer with a Core i7 processor inside. Whichever you choose, you're looking at Ivy Bridge processors -- at least for now. Something tells us that a Haswell refresh is coming, though: Toshiba worked too hard on this thing not to update with the newest components.
With less than three weeks to go until Intel launches its new, battery-life-improving Haswell processors at Computex, you'd be crazy to purchase a laptop right now. Lots of ultraportables will be on display at the show that week, with ASUS and Acer already confirmed to host their own press conferences. So if you've been waiting for a replacement to the Acer Aspire S7 or any of ASUS' touchscreen Zenbooks, your patience might be rewarded in just a few weeks' time.
Separately from Computex, we wouldn't be surprised if Apple refreshed the MacBook Air sometime this summer (as it always does), this time with a fourth-generation Core processor and a sharper screen. The Kirabook, too, will probably get a CPU refresh within the coming months, so even if you're fond of it, now might not be the best time to buy.
There's no question the Kirabook is Toshiba's best Ultrabook to date. But is it good enough to win over wary consumers? We're inclined to say no, at least at this price. For all the things Toshiba got right (attractive design, improved keyboard, solid specs, generous warranty) there are a few important details it overlooked. There's the 2,560 x 1,440 display with the narrow viewing angles, and the noisy fan that drowns out the otherwise fast performance. Despite all that, it's still a good machine in many ways, but we'd suggest waiting for a possible price drop, and maybe even a Haswell refresh a few months down the road. In fact, we wouldn't suggest buying anything until other PC makers reveal their summer lineups. Who knows? A month from now, Toshiba might not be the only game in town for high-res Windows laptops.