Windows gets its own high-res notebook
Typically when I meet with a manufacturer to talk about new products, they're coy about mentioning their competitors. They refer to "our competition," or "other players," or "similar devices." Every company wants me to believe it's the only company on the planet, that any others aren't even worth the lip service.
That's what made my last meeting with Toshiba so odd. While showing me the new Kirabook, the highest-end ultrabook the company has ever made and the first in a new line, the company's product managers and PR reps couldn't stop talking about Apple. They told me "we're lighter than Air," and compared "apples to apples — our apples to Apple's apples." While other manufacturers have raced to the bottom and to the lowest common laptop denominator, they said, Apple has stolen the high end with an enduring focus on quality. Toshiba thinks it can change that.
The Kirabook is designed to be the Windows equivalent of the MacBook Pro with Retina Display, or the Chromebook Pixel: it's uncompromised hardware, a true flagship device for those willing to pay for it. Windows 8 desperately needs that: every ultrabook I've seen makes some sacrifice in the name of a price tag, and it's led to the perception that Windows 8 machines can't be as good as a MacBook. It takes more than a super-high-resolution display to make a great laptop, though. Can Toshiba zig where other manufacturers have zagged, forget the price tag and just build the best Windows laptop ever?
The Kirabook's price tag may put it in the MacBook Pro's league, but it actually looks more like the MacBook Air. 2.6 pounds and 0.7 inches thick, the wedge-shaped notebook is a little lighter than the Air and a bit thicker — but the comparable MacBook Pro with Retina display is much thicker and almost two pounds heavier. This silver-and-black notebook is the smallest, thinnest, lightest high-resolution laptop I've ever seen, and that's pretty remarkable.
Toshiba spent a lot of time talking about the AZ91 magnesium alloy it used in the Kirabook, which the company claims is 90 percent stronger than the aluminum used in the Air. I can't vouch for the specific numbers, but the Kirabook certainly feels far sturdier than Apple's laptop. I spend a lot of time holding my Air in one hand by its palmrest as I walk around, and it flexes and creaks while the Kirabook's base stays stays firm. Even the hinge is nice and sturdy, light enough to be opened with one hand but sticky enough to not wobble too much when you tap on the screen.
There is one unnerving exception, however: the lid itself gives and flexes a lot, even under relatively light pressure. It doesn't appear to be a real problem, but I don't like feeling as if I'm going to snap off a chunk whenever I open the Kirabook. The Kirabook at some points reminded me of the Excite 10 LE tablet, which was accompanied by a similar design language had a litany of build quality and design issues. For $1,599 that's almost inexcusable.
Toshiba misses in other parts of the design as well. The shape of the laptop's two parts is most accurately described as "dustpan" — rounded at the bottom where the two parts meet, but more squared at the extremeties. Even the wedge design makes me want to use the Kirabook to scoop things off my floor. It also gives the Kirabook's palmrest sharp edges and corners, and an asymmetrical design that takes away from the otherwise handsome, understated device. Toshiba's so close here, but I still much prefer the look of the MacBook Pro or the Asus Zenbook.
Somewhat less than the sum of its parts
Hunting the elusive perfect trackpad
It may not be a weird 21:9 ultrabook, but the design here is still unmistakably Toshiba — partly because there are big Toshiba logos on either side of the lid, but mostly because the Kirabook comes with the same keyboard I've seen on countless Toshiba laptops before, strange science-fiction font and all. The not-quite-square keys are a bit shallow, so you never get a satisfying clack as you type, plus the keys themselves are slightly too small — even though they're well spaced out, it just feels cramped. The keys are backlit, and there are lots of function keys for navigating around Windows or changing various settings — it ticks all the boxes, but it's not quite a great typing experience.
The recessed trackpad is big, smooth, and comfortable, but there's some software execution missing. Tapping with two fingers to right-click doesn't work all the time, and pinch-to-zoom and even two-finger scrolling are hit-and-miss as well. Toshiba got the hardware right, and I'm hopeful it can continue to tweak the trackpad's software — someone has to get it right eventually — but I found myself tapping and swiping on the Kirabook's touchscreen more often than normal.
Sound fires out the bottom of the Kirabook, through two speakers on the sloped edge of the laptop's base. Manufacturer partnerships with audio heavyweights are a cliché of laptop marketing at this point, but Toshiba's collaboration with Harman Kardon and DTS once again produces a surprisingly good set of speakers here. The Kirabook pumps out loud, impressive audio, with bass response and clarity I wouldn't expect from a notebook this thin. It's still no match for even a decent set of external speakers, but they'll certainly do in a pinch when you're watching movies on the go. And trust me, you're going to want to watch movies on the Kirabook.
Whether you call it Retina or ultra-high-res or something else entirely, the trend is clear: 1080p has been ousted. The Kirabook joins the MacBook Pro and the Chromebook Pixel as the best laptop displays on the market, with a 13.3-inch, 2560 x 1440 screen that looks absolutely fantastic. At 220 pixels per inch, it's right in line with the 15.4-inch screen on the Retina MacBook Pro. Colors are beautiful, viewing angles are solid, and things look unbelievably crisp in such high resolution. Except for the things that don't.
The Kirabook has the same problem Apple encountered with the first MacBook Pro with Retina Display: most Windows apps aren't designed to be seen at such high resolutions. Chrome is effectively unusable, for instance, and most apps don't render text or images properly. I laughed out loud the first time I tried to watch a full-screen YouTube video, and saw the hilariously tiny controls along the bottom of the screen.
Toshiba and Microsoft do everything they can to alleviate the problem: there's a handy tool on the Kirabook for tweaking the display's resolution so things look their best, and most Windows 8 apps look great at full resolution anyway. Most desktop apps look pretty bad, though, whether it's Evernote or Steam or Quicken — icons are too small, pictures too blurry, text too pixelated. I'm not sure they're going to be updated any time soon, either, given that the Kirabook is but one (very expensive) computer in the Windows ecosystem. A lot of websites have been improved as a result of high-res displays on MacBooks, iPads, and elsewhere, but a lot of the web still looks bad on screens this good. This screen is incredible, and watching Netflix on a Windows machine has never been so beautiful, but it shines a harsh light on how low-res Windows still is.
Unless you're willing to wait out a pretty steep development curve, you might want to wait a while before buying a Windows PC with such a high-res display. Not only are there aesthetic costs, but performance takes its toll as well.
The best and worst of Windows, in glorious high resolution
3.7 million pixels is a lot for one processor to handle
As a MacBook Air user, I've grown accustomed to performance slowdowns — the occasional spinning wheel or stalled app is the price I apparently have to pay for a light, thin computer. The Kirabook promises to be something more — MacBook Pro power in a MacBook Air body — but it seems that any extra power in the computer is dedicated to pushing the screen's 3.7 million pixels. So for all the extra oomph, you're still left with a solid but imperfect computer.
The base, $1,799.99 Kirabook model (the $1,599.99 model doesn't have a touchscreen, and neither Toshiba nor I think you should buy it) comes with an Intel Core i5 processor, Intel's integrated graphics, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB solid-state hard drive. For $200 more you get a faster Core i7 processor plus Windows 8 Pro, and though I've only tested the higher-end model it certainly seems worth the extra expense. I worry the i5 model wouldn't be up to the task, because it often seems like the Kirabook is bumping up against the ceiling of its performance even with an i7. In normal use, it works perfectly smoothly, but if I was watching a movie, browsing the web, and flipping between Metro and Desktop modes frequently, it would stumble. Not a lot, or often enough to be a problem, but it did stumble. The Kirabook clearly needs all the power it can get, and even now is just quirky enough to give me pause.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display had a lot of the same issues, which makes me think there are currently really only two ways for a computer to manage such a high-resolution display: either provide an excess of horsepower like the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro, or use a much simpler operating system like Chrome OS. (There's a chance Intel's upcoming Haswell chips could fix that, though.) Your best option for now is probably the 15-inch Pro and its discrete graphics, but Apple's laptop is somehow even more expensive than the Kirabook.
There's also no performance middle ground with the Kirabook — it's either cool and quiet, or really loud and really warm — and when it gets going, it gets going. The fan whirs loudly, and so aggressively that it makes the laptop's palmrest vibrate pretty intensely. It's really hard to work on a laptop that sounds and feels like it's about to lift out of the stratosphere. That's luckily the exception rather than the rule, and for the most part it's nearly silent and fairly cool. It's also really responsive, booting in about seven seconds and resuming in less than two.
If I'm going to spend $1,600 or more on a computer, I expect there to be perks — excellent customer support is a huge part of what makes Apple's computers great, for instance. Toshiba matches the Genius bar with a dedicated call center in Utah for Kirabook owners, which Toshiba says you'll be able to use to speak to a human 24 hours a day, whether your computer is broken or you just can't figure out how to make the Charms menu appear. (Toshiba even refers to the team in Utah as "our Geniuses.") At the same time, though, Toshiba slathers the Kirabook with bloatware and stickers that make it feel anything but premium. Norton pop-ups abound, and Toshiba installs a number of its own apps along with third-party options like Amazon and Ebay. You do get full versions of Photoshop Elements and Premiere Elements, which is a nice add-on. Luckily everything is easy enough to remove, and I actually like the "KIRACentral" app that has all your computer's relevant information and support channels in one place. Still, every time Norton (which is mercifully also paid for) tells me my computer is infected or my hands brush the three stickers on the palmrest, I wonder how no-compromise the Kirabook really is.
Battery life, for its part, is at least only slightly-compromise. I got 5 hours and 16 minutes of life on the Verge Battery Test, which cycles through a series of popular websites and high-res images with brightness at 65 percent, and in normal use typically got right around five hours. That's pretty solid ultrabook battery life, and only a hair less than the equivalent MacBook Pro, but it does make clear that all-day battery and high-res screens remain mostly mutually exclusive.
The Kirabook makes me really excited for the next version
The Toshiba Kirabook is by and large a very good ultrabook. Its screen is unparalleled in the Windows 8 market, it's light and thin and generally well-designed, and it has no glaring flaws. It has flaws, yes, but the absence of a deal-breaker is normally enough for me to recommend a Windows laptop. For $1,599 or more, though, these little flaws – a jumpy and imperfect trackpad, some performance quirks, that ugly give on the lid — give me great pause.
But the Kirabook's real problem is one of timing. It's coming out just before Haswell chips are available, which promises better performance for a screen this high-res; it's also way ahead of its time for Windows, and for now there are just too many places where having a screen this good is actually a negative. I spent a week feeling like I needed glasses, because everything in Chrome was so blurry. (I did spend a lot of time in Internet Explorer as a result, though, so maybe it's not all bad for Microsoft.)
Plus, for $100 less you can get a 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display, and that's a tough sale for any manufacturer to make. I'm hoping the Kirabook is the start of a trend for Windows 8 laptops, as one manufacturer after the next realize that building great laptops might be a sustainable business model after all. But I'm really hoping that whoever follows Toshiba's lead also does the job slightly better than Toshiba. I'm happy to pay top dollar for a great Windows laptop, and I don't think I'm the only one. I'm just waiting for someone to make a truly great one.
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