Toshiba KIRA Ultrabook review
Toshiba's KIRA offers everything we want in an Ultrabook, we just wish it wasn't so loud
- Excellent screen
- Sturdy build quality
- Swift performance
- Loud fan
- No Ethernet dongle
The Toshiba KIRA is a lovely Ultrabook that's designed for those of you want to splurge on a finely crafted product. It would suit anyone who wants great performance and a very high resolution screen in a thin and light chassis. However, the fan in the chassis can get very loud and annoying.
Price$ 2,199.00 (AUD)
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There's a lot of excitement around the high-end KIRA laptop from Toshiba, primarily because it comes with the best screen ever to be put into an Ultrabook. Not only does it have excellent colour, high brightness, and wide viewing angles, it also has a massive 2560x1440-pixel resolution. In an area of 13.3 inches, this works out to be a density of 221 pixels per inch. Photographers and designers take note: it is a marvellous screen.
Design and features
Physically, the Toshiba KIRA (PSU7FA-00T00K) is a 1.28kg unit that's 23mm at its thickest point (this is counting the thickness of the rubber stops on the base, dicounting them it's 20mm), but the design tapers towards the front of the machine, making it look thinner. It feels well balanced to hold and, importantly, it feels very strong. It's made out of pressed magnesium alloy that has a honeycomb structure. We first saw a similar structure in HP's business-oriented EliteBook 2530p many years ago, and it's used to add strength while keeping the weight down.
There is no discernible flex in the chassis of the KIRA and definitely no creaking when you move it around. The only weak spot in the chassis is right above the gap for the full-sized SD card slot; if you press hard enough at this point you will make the chassis 'click'. A stiff-enough hinge keeps the screen perfectly in place, and it also helps keep the screen as still as possible when you tap it — it is a touchscreen after all, and even though the KIRA doesn't convert into a tablet, we found ourselves using the touchscreen a lot to navigate the Windows 8 Start screen and to play games within the modern user interface.
Toshiba is going for a recognisable look across all of its KIRA products (the KIRA Ultrabook is one of many in the company's luxury product line-up that will feature the same name), and the Ultrabook features a minimalist design that includes only a power button at the top-right corner of the base. Meanwhile, the indicator LEDs are subtle and won't be a distraction when using the laptop at night — we love this.
Around the edges, Toshiba has included the full-sized SD card slot we mentioned earlier (cards sit halfway out), in addition to a full-sized HDMI port, a combination headphone/microphone port, and three USB 3.0 ports (which can also work when the laptop is off). It's a good array of features for such a small laptop — we especially love the full-sized inclusions — but if you want networking, you'll have to make do with the built-in 802.11n dual-band Wi-Fi (it's an Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6235 module). You also get Bluetooth (version 4.0) and a built-in webcam. An Ethernet dongle is optional.
Performance and battery life
Despite being a thin and light laptop, the KIRA doesn't lack speed. It comes in either Intel Core i5 or Core i7 models, with this review model being an Intel Core i7-3537U CPU. It's joined by 8GB of DDR3 SDRAM, and a 256GB Toshiba solid state drive (SSD). You can use the KIRA for office work, browsing the Web and online communications, but it's also capable of crunching tougher tasks. You could use it effectively to edit photos (also because of the great screen) and to encode media files. Indeed it ships with Adobe Photoshop Elements 11 and Premiere Elements 11 (as well as a bunch of other pre-installed software, for which Toshiba is notorious).
In our Blender 3D rendering and iTunes MP3 encoding tests, the KIRA recorded times of 40sec and 49, respectively, with the Blender time being particularly fast. The Core i7-3537U runs at 2GHz, and it's one of the fastest we've seen in an Ultrabook to date (it's even faster than the version of the Gigabyte Extreme Ultrabook that we saw recently, which had a 1.9GHz Core i7-3517U CPU). In our Handbrake test, in which we convert a DVD file into an MP4 file, the KIRA took 18min 12sec, which is 20sec longer than the Gigabyte, but nevertheless within the range of time that we were expecting.
Graphics are handled by the Intel CPU, which has integrated Intel HD 4000 processing, and a score of 5078 was recorded in 3DMark06. Anything over 5000 in this benchmark is very good for an Ultrabook with integrated graphics. In the latest 3DMark, the KIRA recorded 3637 in the Cloud Gate mid-range test, and 510 in the Fire Strike test. It's not a machine that's design to crunch real-time 3D graphics, but it will handle some games as long as you use a low screen resolution and image details. It's fine for playing many games that can be found through the Windows Store.
The SSD put up respectable transfer rates in CrystalDiskMark, recording 487 megabytes per second (MBps) for reading, and 268MBps for writing. It's one of the faster 256GB Ultrabook SSDs that we have seen so far. Like many SSDs in thin and light laptops, it's an mSATA device, rather than a full-sized drive.
Perhaps the facet of the laptop's performance that surprised us most is the longevity of its battery. In our rundown test, in which we disable power management, enable Wi-Fi, maximise screen brightness and loop an Xvid-encoded video, the KIRA's sealed 52 Watt-hour battery lasted 4hr 24min. This is a long time considering the laptop uses a Core i7 CPU and such a high resolution screen. If you employ a sensible power management plan, you will be able to get more life out of it, and there is even an extra plan to choose from called 'eco'. You can see the 'eco' settings by launching the Desktop Assist application, and this also shows how much power the laptop is consuming, as well as things like carbon emissions and savings. It's interesting to play around with.
At this point we need to point out of the major drawbacks of this laptop: its fan. When the CPU needs to work hard, the fan will spin fast. When the fan spins fast, the fan will make noise. And it will make lots of noise. In our office, the fan was easily heard from across the room while we were running our tests on it. Clean air is sucked in from the bottom of the chassis when it's placed on a hard, flat surface, and it rushes out of a vent on the rear. This vent has two outlets, one at the bottom and the other near the top, which pushes air between the chassis and the screen's hinge.
The fan also occasionally made noise while we browsed the Web, depending on whether there were Flash elements on the page, for example, and it was also quite loud when we played simple games such as Solitaire TriPeaks. The noise can be tempered a little by selecting a power profile that isn't High Performance, but even in other plans, if the CPU has to work, the fan will at some point kick into action. We think it could be too loud to use in a boardroom while giving a presentation, or in any other quiet environment for that matter.
On the bright side, the fan does an excellent job of keeping the chassis cool. We image the base would get unbearably hot if the fan wasn't as effective as it is, so the noise from the fan is at least vindicated in this respect. Nevertheless, we think it's an important point to note if you're considering buying this laptop. The 4th generation of Intel Core processors (codenamed Haswell) should help in a laptop like this, mainly because it won't put out as much heat and won't need as vigorous a cooling system.
As for user comfort, the KIRA is quite good, both in terms of its input devices, and also regarding the ease with which the high-resolution screen can be viewed. Because the 2560x1440-pixel resolution can make the Desktop looks very small on the 13.3in screen, Toshiba has installed a program that allows you to magnify it. It's the same program that we mentioned earlier, called Desktop Assist, and it allows you to enlarge text by up to 200 per cent when you use the custom settings. This will make the Desktop icons and the Taskbar bigger, as well as windows and dialogue boxes. The downside is that it can also make Web site appear large in Chrome, thereby negating the value of having a screen with such a high resolution. Web pages were rendered much smaller in Firefox.
As for video playback, even with the native resolution of the screen being so high, watching standard resolution video on it wasn't a problem. We enjoyed watching movies in full-screen mode, which played back a little sharper than we expected. Some streaming video services could end up looking a little worse-off though; we streamed basketball games through NBA.TV during our tests, which is a Flash-based service, and the quality of the picture at 1600Kbps was not as good as it was on a lower resolution screen (such as a Full HD screen, for example), but it looked much better when we used the 3000Kbps setting. You'll just need to keep in mind that some Web streams won't look great on such a high-resolution screen.
The large resolution comes in very handy if you're the type of person who likes to line up windows side-by-side while multi-tasking, and it's also excellent for viewing and editing photos. If you're a photographer, you'll definitely want to check out this laptop. Not only because its resolution is so large, but also because its quality is so lovely. Colours are vibrant and bright, and the viewing angles are wide, both horizontally and vertically. As with most touchscreens though, the Corning glass on the front is reflective, so you might need to adjust your viewing angle or seating position to counter reflections.
A good keyboard sits in the base, and it's backlit, which we love. You can switch the backlight on and off manually using he keyboard combination Fn and Z, and it's worth going through the Desktop Assist program to turn on the notification for this setting so that you can see which backlight mode you are using (for example, 'always on' or 'timer' mode). The keys are a little smaller than usual, but they are soft and have more travel than we're used to seeing from Toshiba Ultrabook keyboards — they don't feel as shallow as the keys on Toshiba's Portege, for example. We like some little things about the layout, too, such as the space around the arrow keys, and the dedicated Page Up and Page Down keys located near the arrow keys.
The touchpad is a large one (105x59mm) and it feels smooth. We didn't notice any problems with its tracking at any of the different screen magnifications we tried, but the cursor did sometimes bounce a little off position when we attempted physical left- and right-click operations (these buttons are under the pad itself). It supports multi-finger gestures and it executed them reliably. It also supports Windows 8 swipe-in gestures. Sometimes, the swipe-in gestures were invoked inadvertently, but this is something we've noticed in other Windows 8 Ultrabooks, too.
We don't often mention the speakers in Ultrabooks, but the Harman/Kardon speakers in this small laptop are actually decent. You can easily enjoy listening to music through them, although low frequencies can make the chambers rattle like crazy.
It's hard not to like the Toshiba KIRA. It has everything we want in an Ultrabook: a strong chassis and a light weight, great performance, full-sized ports, and an excellent, high-resolution screen. For the most part, it's an Ultrabook that's a pleasure to use, and we even made a lot of use of its touchscreen. We think the noise from the fan is a problem though. It was very loud at times during our testing, even when just using the notebook to browse the Web or look at photos, and we think this will be very distracting for most people, whether at home or in a business environment.
Toshiba supports the KIRA with an on-site 2-year warranty for metro areas (regional areas get a pick-up service), and it covers accidental damage. There is also a dedicated phone line for support. It ships with the Pro version of Windows 8.
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