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Toshiba Kirabook (2015) review: A premium laptop with a few non-premium quirks

This high-end 13-inch laptop adds better battery life and faster performance, but doesn't upgrade its design.

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Dan Ackerman
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Dan Ackerman

Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming

Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times

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6 min read

The Kirabook series from Toshiba was originally one of the only laptops to compete directly with Apple's Retina display MacBook Pro series. It featured a highly polished design, fast processors and a better-than-HD display. The original Kirabook was in fact one of the first Windows laptops we reviewed with a display resolution higher than 1,920x1,080.

toshiba-kirabook-2015-01.jpg
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Toshiba Kirabook (2015)

The Good

Toshiba's Kirabook has a brilliant higher-res screen, powerful components, and a slick, sturdy design, plus display tweaking software for photo and video experts.

The Bad

The basic look hasn't changed in the past couple of years, while the competition is catching up. The touchpad isn't as responsive as it should be.

The Bottom Line

The Toshiba Kirabook is still a worthwhile high-end Windows alternative to a Retina MacBook Pro, but it could use a little of that Apple secret sauce for its touchpad.

In the couple of years since that first model, other PC makers have gotten into the high-res game, and displays with 2,560x1,440 pixels or even full 4K resolutions are, if not common, than not hard to find for a little over $1,000. That means more competition for the MacBook Pro, but also more competition for the Kirabook.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The 2015 update to this premium 13-inch laptop keeps the same look and feel, and the same high-end display, but upgrades the processor to a fifth-generation Intel Core i7 (considered the top of the mobile CPU line). Like other fifth-gen Core i7 laptops, there's a cost associated with this level of performance, and the Kirabook's single 2015 configuration runs $1,499 in the US. The Core i7 Kirabook is £1,082 in the UK or AU$1,999 in Australia, but note that the UK version Toshiba is currently selling still has last year's fourth-generation Core i7 CPU. By way of comparison, the Core i7 Lenovo LeVie Z (minus a touchscreen) is also $1,499. Dell's XPS 13 is slower, but also has a very attractive higher-res tough display, and Apple's 2015 revision to the 13-inch MacBook Pro delivers largely similar performance. Both are $1,299 for a Core i5 configuration.


Sarah Tew/CNET

The Technicolor Chroma Tune app for switching between display color profiles, an extra feature originally seen in the high-end Toshiba P50t (one of the first true 4K laptops) is now included here. It's not all that useful unless you're an expert on color gamut and temperature, but it includes presets for cool, warm, Rec. 709, plus a special Technicolor setting. For the uninitiated, Rec. 709 is a widely used color standard for video content, and according to our TV expert David Katzmaier, that should be your default setting. He says, "Rec. 709 will give you a little better contrast and punch. On the flip side, Technicolor looks a little more washed out but may be better in a bright environment."

The Kirabook is light, sturdy, well-built, and powerful, with a brilliant higher-resolution display. But it's also marred by a couple of less-than-premium-feeling features that seem out of sync with its premium price. The keyboard keys are small and clacky, and the touchpad is simply not responsive enough, especially when using multifinger gestures. For a laptop more expensive than the current 13-inch MacBook Pro (which we consider to have the most practical current combination of power, portability, and features) that means our otherwise strong recommendation of the Kirabook includes a couple of caveats.

Toshiba Kirabook (2015)

Price as reviewed $1,499
Display size/resolution 13.3-inch 2,560 x 1,440 touch-screen
PC CPU 2.4GHz Intel Core i7-5500U
PC memory 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz
Graphics 3,839MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 5500
Storage 256GB SSD
Networking 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system Windows 8.1 (64-bit)

Design and features

This is the third Kirabook model we've reviewed since 2013, and the look and feel of the laptop's body is essentially unchanged (much like the MacBook Pro we keep comparing it to). The 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, less than the 13-inch MacBook Pro. The Lenovo LaVie Z is around 2 pounds, and the lightest Core i7 laptop by a wide margin.

The gentle brushed-metal look across the back of the lid and the keyboard tray is upscale, but hardly distinctive. Especially over the past few years, Toshiba has played it very close to the vest in terms of laptop aesthetics. But the trim design does have one especially useful feature. The body is shallower than most 13-inch laptops, thanks to a smart layout of the keyboard and touchpad in the interior tray. That means the Kirabook is especially well-suited for airline seats or anywhere else you need to squeeze into a tight space.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The keyboard feels unchanged since the previous Kirabook we reviewed, but since then, we've seen and used some excellent new space-saving laptop keyboards from Dell, apple and others. Compared to some of the 2015 competition, the keyboard here now feels held back by small-surface-area keys and an overall plastic feel. There's still very little flex under your fingers while typing, which is a positive feature we called out in the previous model.

The touchpad is another story. Of the pad on the 2014 Kirabook, we said: "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 touchpad twitchiness." It seems that twitchiness is back, at least in our hands-on testing. Single-finger navigation and tapping was fine, but the all-important two-finger scroll gesture almost always chugged, leading to a frustrating Web surfing experience.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The 13.3-inch display remains a main selling point, with a 2,560x1,440-pixel resolution. While on the glossy side, the images looks good from extreme side angles, and the Chroma Tune app offers extra control over the actual look of the image though its color temperature presets. Touch response on the screen is excellent, and we're pleased that Toshiba is no longer trying to hawk a non-touch version.

Ports and connections

Video HDMI
Audio Stereo speakers, combo headphone/mic jack
Data 3 USB 3.0, SD card slot
Networking 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0

Connections, performance and battery

Just as the laptop's design is very middle-of-the-road, its selection of ports and connections is likewise unsurprising. Three USB 3.0 ports, which can power USB-connected accessories even when the laptop is asleep or powered off, an SD card slot and HDMI for video output.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The premium price also covers licenses for Adobe Photoshop Elements and Premiere Elements, as well as a two-year warranty, which is twice as long as typical laptop warranties.

As a Core i7 laptop, you can rightly expect excellent performance from the Kirabook. In our challenging multitasking test, it was faster than the Core i7 Lenovo LaVie Z, but fell behind the 2015 versions of the MacBook Pro and Air. In single-app tests, the Kirabook, LaVie Z and MacBook Pro traded the top spot, but the scores were all fairly close.

In hands-on anecdotal testing, the system was fast and responsive, and worked great for everything from high-res video streaming to work on office documents. It's certainly more than fast enough for all but the most demanding users, unless you're planning on playing high-end PC games or doing complex editing of lots of high-res video.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The battery life in the Kirabook has steadily improved over the three generations of the system we've tested. That's thanks in large part to the better efficiency of Intel's Core i-series processors, and this Kirabook trades up to the current fifth-generation Broadwell-generation chips for a decent battery life boost. It ran for 8:50 on our video playback battery drain test, versus a little under eight hours last year and around five hours on the original 2013 Kirabook. In a more-challenging online streaming test with HD video, it ran for 5:26.

While current-gen MacBooks beat the Kirabook by a large margin, this system ran longer than some other recent high-end Windows laptops, including the Lenovo LaVie Z and the touchscreen version of Dell's XPS 13.

Conclusion

Toshiba's high-end Kirabook is a slick, well-made laptop that includes premium components and an excellent better-than-HD screen. When the series first debuted a couple of years ago, it was one of the only legitimate competitors to the Retina MacBook Pro. But since then, higher-res displays have become much more common, and powerful Windows laptops have become lighter, slimmer and more stylish.

That leaves the Kirabook as just one of many worthwhile premium Windows 13-inch laptops, and the underwhelming touchpad response tempers my enthusiasm. It remains a worthy candidate, but not the head of the class.

Handbrake Multimedia Multitasking test

Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2015) 303Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2015) 370Toshiba Kirabook (2015) 382Lenovo LaVie Z 360 409Dell XPS 13 (touchscreen, 2015) 441
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test

Lenovo LaVie Z 360 221Toshiba Kirabook (2015) 228Dell XPS 13 (touchscreen, 2015) 243Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2015) 261Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2015) 268
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Apple iTunes encoding test

Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2015) 99Toshiba Kirabook (2015) 101Lenovo LaVie Z 360 101Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2015) 107Dell XPS 13 (touchscreen, 2015) 113
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Video playback battery drain test

Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2015) 1080Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2015) 946Toshiba Kirabook (2015) 530Lenovo LaVie Z 360 460Dell XPS 13 (touchscreen, 2015) 422
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance (in minutes)

System Configurations

Toshiba Kirabook (2015) Windows 8.1 (64-bit); 2.4GHz Intel Core i7-5500U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 3839MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 5500; 256GB SSD
Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2015) Apple OSX 10.10.2 Yosemite; 2.7GHz Intel Core i5-5257U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1866MHz; 1536MB Intel Iris Graphics 6100; 128GB SSD
Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2015) Apple OSX 10.10.2 Yosemite; 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-5250U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1866MHz; 1536MB Intel Iris Graphics 6000; 128GB SSD
Dell XPS 13 (touchscreen, 2015) Windows 8.1 (64.bit); 2.2GHZ Intel Core i5-5200U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 3839MB (shared) Intel HD 5500 Graphics; 256GB SSD
Lenovo LaVie Z 360 Windows 8.1 (64-bit); 2.4GHz Intel Core i7-5500U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 3839MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 5500; 256GB SSD

toshiba-kirabook-2015-01.jpg
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Toshiba Kirabook (2015)

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 9Performance 8Battery 8
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