|Introduction & Specifications|
With the KIRAbook 13 I7, Toshiba is flexing its muscles and taking on the likes of Apple, Asus, and Lenovo in the ultrabook arena. And you know what? Toshiba seems to be on the right track. With clean lines, a 2560 x 1440 resolution display and a slick magnesium alloy body, the KIRAbook is anything but a typical laptop.
Hitting a home run in this market isn’t easy, because a true ultrabook should be as much about form as it is function. It should be thinner than a laptop, and lighter too. It needs processing power as well as decent battery life. But small, powerful hardware usually comes at a steep price, and driving the price too high invites unfavorable comparisons to other solutions. Ultrabook dimensions demand compromises, but consumers aren’t typically willing to make any one prices creep to high. What would you sacrifice? Not speed, of course. Great speakers? Not if you watch video without earphones. Graphics? Not very likely unless you don't game much. Storage space? Maybe, depending on how you feel about leveraging the cloud. Keyboard quality? Weight and size? Trackpad quality? Display quality? These are all areas where a certain level of compromise can be acceptable in a laptop, so long as the system is strong contender for it's particular target audience and use case. Ultrabooks, on the other hand, are expected to approach perfection. And (unlike more than a few ultrabooks) the Toshiba KIRAbook almost does.
It's high-DPI better-than-HD display is getting the KiRAbook a lot of attention, but let’s start with the KIRAbook’s guts and work our way out. Understandably, this ultrabook doesn’t pack a Haswell CPU, which is Intel’s new 4th-generation processor. The new, high performance/low power consumption CPU arrived shortly after the launch of the KIRAbook. But the processor in the KIRAbook we reviewed – an Intel Core i7-3537U -- launched in the first quarter of the year and remains a very respectable choice. We do expect Toshiba to roll out a Haswell update here but it's hard to say just when. The machine's dual-core Ivy Bridge processor has a 2.0GHz base clock speed with Turbo Boost to 3.1GHz. We reviewed the Core i7 version of the KIRAbook; the other two models have Core i5-3337U processors ($1,799.99 with a touchscreen, $1,599.99 without one).
The KIRAbook backs up the processor with 8GB of DDR3-1600 memory (two 4GB DIMMs) and integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000, which is standard fare on notebooks that don’t have discrete graphics. That’s a solid CPU/MEM/GFX lineup, and it’s bolstered by the speed of the KIRAbook’s 256GB mSATA SSD. Whether you’re comfortable with 256GB as your system’s total storage depends a lot on how much data you use and where you store it. Our review system had a little over 200GB of available storage on arrival, which is probably enough for most people.
One feature you might miss is an Ethernet port. The KIRAbook relies solely on wireless connectivity. That’s not too surprising, given the system’s thin body, but business users who like to plug in for a rock-solid connection won’t have that option. Wi-Fi is handled by Intel’s Centrino Wireless-N 2230 controller. The system also supports Intel Wireless Display (WiDi), which lets you wirelessly display content on your HDTV. The laptop also has Bluetooth 4.0.
Toshiba gave the KIRAbook serious audio chops as well. For recording audio, you have dual, beam-forming microphones. For output, you’re looking at Harman/Kardan speakers, powered by DTS Studio Sound. The result is that the volume can easily overcome typical office and home noises when you’re watching TV or listening to music.
And that volume is important because the KIRAbook’s fan can get quite loud when it kicks into high gear – as it did whenever we fired up movies on Netflix or ran benchmark software. When the system is handling Web surfing or other tasks, it’s silent, but when the laptop is under load, the fan emits both a loud wind noise and a high-pitched whine. The noise isn’t a showstopper, but it’s distracting.
|Design &Touch Screen|
|Thanks to its magnesium alloy body and slim frame, the KIRAbook will surely get mistaken for a MacBook Air from time to time. The system measures 12.44 inches wide by 8.15 inches deep, and is only 0.7 inches thick. And at under three pounds, the KIRAbook is easy to balance on one hand. Toshiba went for a clean look here – the logo on the lid is faint and doesn’t attract notice, and the only area that has a different color is the keyboard. It’s not a bad look, but with so many computer makers using metal (or plastic made to look like metal), the KIRAbook isn’t an aesthetic standout.
The display is certainly eye-catching, though. At 2560 x 1440, the resolution is higher than HD. Video looks great on the display and although some users have complained of fuzzy text, we didn’t find that to be the case with our review unit. Text showed up crisp. The screen is glossy, so we ran into glare issues outdoors, but glare was muted indoors near windows. The KIRAbook doesn’t use an in-plane switching (IPS) panel, which is a feature that improves viewing angles on displays. However, viewing angles on the KIRAbook are probably OK for most situations, and certainly better than some of the laptops we’ve looked at recently, such as the Lenovo IdeaPad Z400 Touch. And speaking of touch, the display is a 10-point touchscreen that handled our swipes and taps without incident.
One thing to keep in mind is that the display is surprisingly flexible, despite that magnesium alloy lid. In fact, we felt the display flex even when we simply moved the screen backward or forward by gripping the top corner.
HDMI port, and an SD card reader. One of the USB ports is a sleep-and-charge port, meaning you can power another USB device (like a smartphone, for example) while the system is off. The fan is placed at the bottom of the KIRAbook. Noise aside, we like that the fan is out of the way and we dig Toshiba's creative fan grille.
The keyboard is necessarily flat. The keys are reasonably far apart and feel a little less responsive than keys for other laptops and ultrabooks we’ve reviewed recently. That said, the keyboard didn’t slow us down noticeably. In our typing test, our average words-per-minute rate dropped by only 1 WPM from Lenovo’s Z400 Touch to the KIRAbook. Some things we like about the keyboard: The arrow keys are designed so you can easily find them by touch, rather than by looking down, and the right-hand Shift and Back Space keys are nice and big. Another plus is a Wi-Fi key for quickly toggling wireless functionality. The Delete key is tiny, but that’s a minor quibble.
The keyboard backlight is strong and the key labels light up well in the dark, which is god news for travelers. We like the touchpad. It’s responsive and handled multi-touch input with few hiccups over the course of the review.
|These days, many computer builders have gotten the message that consumers aren’t interested in starting a new computer, only to be greeted by a dozen unnecessary programs an popups. Toshiba skips that “bloatware” in favor of some good programs – but whether you find them useful depends a lot on how you use your computer.
The Windows 8 Desktop on Toshiba's KIRAbook. No bloatware to be seen - and two popular programs in the taskbar.
The most surprising programs to appear on the KIRAbook are Adobe’s Photoshop Elements 11 and Premiere Elements 11. The two are popular photo and video-editing tools for consumers and sell for more than $100, so their inclusion is a good value if you’re not a pro. What’s puzzling to us is that the KIRAbook seems more likely to be picked up by business users and other users who are seeking high-performance from their ultrabooks.
The display's resolution causes certain aspects of some programs to be rendered differently than they would be on lower resolution / DPI screens. Check out the toolbar text in Adobe Photoshop Elements.That being said, we like Photoshop and Premiere Elements for what they are. The controls are easy to understand and the software is powerful enough to salvage many photos that you thought were lost to bad lighting. One thing we noticed is that programs like Photoshop Elements display tiny toolbar text, thanks to the screen resolution. That could be a drawback if you prefer larger text, or if you sit far from the screen (if you use an external keyboard, for example).
Symantec Norton Internet SecurityThe other big name in KIRAbook’s free software roster is Symantec. The KIRAbook carries several Norton tools, including Norton Anti-Theft, Online Backup, and Internet Security (which we disabled prior to benchmark testing). These programs are common on new computers, but the subscriptions that enable them are usually fairly short – basically trial subscriptions – and you’ll need to pay if you want to continue using them. The KIRAbook, on the other hand, includes two-year subscriptions for these programs. As long as you like Norton products, that’s an excellent perk.
DTS Studio Sound and Toshiba Desktop AssistToshiba tosses in a couple programs of its own, including Desktop Assist, which brings together several system settings and tools. The DTS Studio Sound software lets you optimize audio for the output you're using at the moment - headphones, the KIRAbook's speakers, or external speakers.
|Cinebench & SiSoft SANDRA|
|We kicked off our testing with some established benchmarks, namely Cinebench and SiSoft SANDRA.
Cinebench R11.5 is a 3D rendering performance test based on Cinema 4D from Maxon. Cinema 4D is a 3D rendering and animation suite used by animation houses and producers like Sony Animation and many others. It's very demanding of processor resources and is an excellent gauge of pure computational throughput.
The KIRAbook took top honors in the Cinebench test, besting all but one system in the CPU test and providing the highest OpenGL score of its peers. The KIRAbook's CPU score in particular outpaces scores from some strong competitors, including the Dell XPS 13. Not a bad way to kick off the benchmarks.
We like SiSoftware SANDRA (System Analyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant) because its suite of benchmark tools let us get a look at the performance of individual subsystems.
The KIRAbook provided solid scores in these tests, as well. We're in the process of building our SANDRA 2013 score database, so it will be interesting to see how the KIRAbook compares to similar ultrabooks down the road. The KIRAbook's SSD is bound to help it in comparisons to ultrabooks carrying slower disc-based hard drives.
|PCMark 7 & 8|
|Next, we fired up some benchmarks by Futuremark. The company, which is based just outside of Helsinki, Finland, started publishing benchmarks in 1998. Since then, Futuremark has developed benchmarks for testing standard PCs and mobile devices and continues to update its flagship 3DMark gaming benchmark suite (a test we run on the next page) and PCMark.
Futuremark’s PCMark 7 benchmark includes a suite of tests designed to measure the way your computer would perform during typical tasks. It includes an Entertainment Suite, which offers gaming scenarios and tests its media playback capabilities. The benchmark also has a Creativity Suite, in which the system processes images and video. Other tools include the Computation Suite and the Storage Suite.
With a score of 5179, the KIRAbook took the lead among similar systems we've tested. PCMark offers scores for individual sections of the test, so we checked them out: The KIRAbook scored 2841 in the Productivity segment, 3456 in the Entertainment segment, and 10031 in the Creativity portion of the test.
Futuremark recently launched PCMark 8, which has several separate benchmarks. The Home test measures a system's ability to handle basic tasks: video chatting, web browsing, photo editing, an similar day-to-day activities. The test is designed to be run on just about any Windows 7 or 8 computer. The Creative test offers some of the same types of tasks, but puts more stress on the system and is meant for mid-range and higher-end PCs. The Work test simulates the workflow of a typical office user. And the Storage test - you guessed it - benchmark's your computer's data storage performance.
Because PCMark 8 is so new, the KIRAbook is the first system to undergo this benchmark in our labs. As a result, we can't speak to the scores, but we'll compare the KIRAbook to other systems as we benchmark them. Next up, Futuremark's 3DMark tests.
|Ultrabooks generally aren't meant to be serious gaming systems. Notebooks built for gaming typically have discrete graphics cards and are often heavier, noisy machines. But that's not to say that ultrabooks can't handle some casual gaming - many can, including the KIRAbook. We fired up the 3DMark tests and even ran Far Cry to see how the KIRAbook handled them.
3DMark 11 measures more than the graphics card’s performance (the processor can impact the score, for example) and is a good way to get a feel for a system both as a gaming PC and as a general-use computer. Futuremark recently updated 3DMark 11 to support Windows 8, so if you plan to run this test on your own Windows 8 system, be sure to get the latest update.
The KIRAbook handled 3DMark 11 very well for an ultrabook. The Intel HD 4000 graphics may be integrated, but they're perfectly capable of handling most games.
The flagship benchmark in Futuremark’s catalog, 3DMark is a popular choice for testing everything from gaming PCs to mobile devices. Of course, the technology differences between a game machine and a smartphone are significant, so 3DMark has a separate test suite for each device category. The Cloud Gate test is aimed at entry-level PCs and laptops, and has two subtests: a processor- intensive physics test and two graphics tests. We run the test suite at its default 1280 x 720 resolution and at default rendering quality settings. Keep in mind that 3DMark Cloud Gate scores aren’t comparable to scores from say, 3DMark Fire Strike (gaming PCs) or Ice Storm (smartphones and tablets).
The Lenovo IdeaPad Z400 Touch was our first system through the new Cloud Gate test, and it makes for an interesting comparison. The mid-range laptop is outgunned by the KIRAbook, and given that they're both running Intel HD 4000 graphics, one of the deciding factors is the Core i7 processor running Toshiba's new ultrabook.
When it comes to lush vegetation in a steaming, sinister jungle, no one pulls it off quite like Ubisoft does in its Far Cry series. Far Cry 2 uses high-quality textures, complex shaders, and dynamic lighting to create a realistic environment. The game’s built-in benchmark gives us a good look at a system’s performance with DirectX 10.
Here again, the KIRAbook shows it can handle itself in a game. Far Cry 2 isn't going to bring a modern system to its knees, but it's telling that the KIRAbook has one of the highest scores of the ultrabooks and laptops we've recently reviewed.
|The lack of a replaceable or upgradable battery on the KIRAbook makes its battery life all the more important. Testing battery performance is always a little tricky. The way you use the ultrabook is bound to affect its battery life, but you can ballpark it based on our results.
The KIRAbook’s performance here was fairly impressive, though under load the machine can chew through a battery charge quickly. As we’ve mentioned earlier, the system’s price demands serious performance, and Battery Eater Pro ate up the KIRAbook in a mere 112 minutes. Battery Eater Pro puts the ultrabook’s resources to work (the KIRAbook’s fan was noticeable the entire time), but plenty of systems offer more than two hours of battery life in the BEP test. Then again, those systems likely don't offer the performance of the KIRAbook either.
When we ran our Web test, however, we saw the best results we’ve seen from an ultrabook so far. The KIRAbook refreshed a webpage for a total of 7 hours and 28 minutes – beating out HP’s Envy ultrabook, by three minutes. If your usage patterns are fairly light, the KIRAbook will see you through long excursions. If you find yourself needing extra CPU cycles for multimedia work or other things like image processing be prepared to tether back up to the wall. In reality, performance when you need it and battery life when you don't could be considered the best of both worlds, again, depending on you usage model.
|Performance Summary & Conclusion|
|Ultrabooks are getting so thin that computer makers are likely tempted to cut features like backlit keyboards or squeezing keyboard and trackpad real estate. Cutting corners won’t just save them money – it can save them space in systems that have little to spare. But Toshiba's KIRAbook hits the high notes, carrying the critical performance components and slipping in smaller (but still important) perks. As it turns out, the KIRAbook also quite often took top honors in our benchmark test runs as well. This ultrabook performs like ultra-notebook should.
On the design side of things, the KIRAbook is a handsome machine. But, as we mentioned earlier, it suffers a bit from the bevy of other laptops that look very much like it. People may comment on this machine's size, but we doubt anyone will walk up to you and say “Oooh, you have a KIRAbook.” Of course that's likely not your primary reason for buying an ultrabook like this. Though form may be a tad bland here, functionality with the KIRAbook is deluxe.
As for performance, it’s a solid system and we like that this ultrabook has plenty of memory and a speedy SSD drive, instead of a slower hard drive. The lack of an Ethernet port may bother some people, but the inclusion of three USB 3.0 ports is a good move, and the sleep-and-charge port is great.
In the end, the way the ultrabook feels to you when you use it can be as important as its ability to crunch data. During our review, the KIRAbook was light and easy to carry, but solid enough (aside from the occasional lid flex) to be comfortable in our laps. The KIRAbook isn’t perfect, but it’s a true ultrabook. And starting at $1599 to $1999 as tested, the KIRAbook definitely competes well with other high-end thin-and-lights from Apple and a few others.