Toshiba Kirabook (2014) review: The high-end Kirabook gets a battery life upgrade

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MSRP: $1,699.99

The Good The slim, lightweight Toshiba Kirabook still feels very premium, and it deserves credit for being one of the first Windows laptops to feature a better-than-HD display. Thanks to an updated CPU, battery life is now good enough for all-day use.

The Bad Higher-res screens are more common now, and available for less. The generic brushed-metal look isn't particularly distinctive given the price.

The Bottom Line The design of Toshiba's high-end Kirabook hasn't changed since last year, but it has aged gracefully. The components get an update and the battery life gets a big boost, making this an all-around excellent, but expensive, ultrabook.

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8.5 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 9
  • Performance 8
  • Battery 8

The first generation of Toshiba's Kirabook was an ambitious shot at creating a high-end product with MacBook-like buzz. That slim 13-inch magnesium-alloy laptop was even the first post-Retina PC we'd seen with a better-than-HD screen resolution -- a feature now becoming increasingly common in the upper reaches of the laptop market.

Despite many excellent high-end features, the original Kirabook fell short because its design didn't move the needle much, battery life was underwhelming, and the least-expensive model skipped the touch screen, despite a $1,600 price.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Roughly 10 months later, the second-gen Kirabook aims to correct at least a few of these missteps, and thanks to a new processor and some adjustments to features and prices, it feels like a much better machine, despite offering no overhaul of the physical design.

The second-gen Kirabook has two fixed-configuration models, both of which include the eye-popping 2,560x1,440 touch screen display. A $1,499 version has a current-gen Intel Core i5, while our $1,699 review unit has an Intel Core i7 CPU -- both have 8GB of RAM and a big 256GB SSD.

Perhaps because the past year has seen a steady stream of somewhat clunky hybrids and so-so fauxtrabooks, and nothing new or exciting from Apple in terms of laptop design, I find myself appreciating the Kirabook more the second time around. It helps, of course, that the battery life is now more in line with what one would expect from a laptop in this price range, and that there's no misguided non-touch version to confuse shoppers.

Toshiba Kirabook 13-i7s (2014) Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (October 2013)
Price $1,699 $1,399 $1,499
Display size/resolution 13.3-inch, 2,560 x 1,440 touch screen 13.3-inch, 3,200 x 1,800 touch screen 13.3 -inch, 2,560 x 1,600 screen
PC CPU 1.8GHz Intel Core i7-4500U 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U 2.4Ghz Intel Core i5 4258U
PC Memory 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz
Graphics 1792MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 4400 1749MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 4400 1GB Intel Iris Graphics
Storage 256GB SSD hard drive 128GB SSD hard drive 256GB SSD
Optical drive None None None
Networking 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system Windows 8.1 Pro (64-bit) Windows 8 (64-bit) OS X Mavericks 10.9

Design and features
The Kirabook is pitched as a premium product, and it certainly feels like one. The thin, light body is made of a magnesium alloy, which is both lighter and stronger than aluminum, and the desktop footprint is noticeably smaller than the 13-inch MacBook Air or Pro. At a hair under 3 pounds, it weighs the same as the Air, but less than the 13-inch MacBook Pro by nearly half a pound.

Sarah Tew/CNET

But, the Kirabook, while very nice, is not exactly distinctive. As with the original version, the gentle brushed metal look is hard to discern from Toshiba's sub-$1,000 systems at even a few feet away. Acer, with the Aspire S7, and Samsung, with the Series 9, manage to put together excellent 13-inch ultrabooks with industrial design that stands out from the crowd. The Kirabook is arguably better-made than either of those, but plays it a little too close to the vest, aesthetically.

The keyboard, like most recent Toshiba examples, combines slightly rectangular keys with a shorter-than-most spacebar. But unlike the versions in Toshiba's more mainstream laptops, the keyboard here feels rock-solid, with no flex, even under heavy typing, and satisfyingly deep keystrokes. The keyboard is also, as one would expect at this level, backlit.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The large rectangular clickpad is elongated, almost letterboxed, compared with the more squared-off versions on most other laptops. Two-finger multitouch gestures, such as scrolling down a long web page, work fine, which is an improvement over last year's Kirabook, which suffered from some touch-pad twitchiness.

As with the original Kirabook, and other better-than-HD laptops since, including the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus, and Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro, the real highlight here is the high-resolution screen. At 2,560x1,440 pixels, it's still playing in fairly rarified air, although there are many more better-than-HD displays today than when the first Kirabook was released. More importantly, some of them are significantly less expensive, with the Yoga 2 Pro getting down to $999 while keeping its 3,200x1,800-pixel display.

Some parts of the Windows ecosystem adapt well to these higher screen resolutions, while others do not. The actual Windows 8 tiles interface does, along with every Windows 8 app we tested. The traditional Windows desktop also works well, but some programs, including the copy of Photoshop Elements 11 that came preloaded on the system, ended up with text and menus that were so small as to be nearly impossible to read. A higher-resolution screen remains a cool extra feature to have on a laptop, especially for smooth text and more screen real estate for editing photo and video, but it's not a necessity for most.