Walt Mossberg

A Windows Laptop With an Apple Price, but Less Juice

Laptop sales have been tanking as tablets surge. The new Windows 8 is off to a slow start with users. And the hybrid machines that claim to work as both tablets and laptops are still niche products. So what’s a laptop maker to do?

Well, most Windows laptop companies are promising to spend this year driving prices down, while continuing to experiment with better hybrid designs. But not Toshiba. The venerable Japanese firm has decided to go upscale, introducing an all-new brand of conventional 13-inch laptops that are positioned as premium products, with prices starting at $1,600.

That over-$1,000 market has long been the territory of Apple. But Toshiba figures it can offer buyers with deep pockets the Windows equivalent of Apple’s popular and much-praised MacBook Air, with premium materials, strong specs and a good warranty. It’s called the Kirabook, part of a new Toshiba brand called Kira.

I’ve been testing a Kirabook for the past five days and I found it to be a good computer whose strongest feature is a brilliant, high-resolution screen. It’s a speedy and reliable machine that’s thin and light without feeling cheap.

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The Kirabook’s strongest feature is its high-resolution screen. It’s speedy, thin and light without feeling cheap.

But I consider it overpriced for what it offers. It actually costs more than a MacBook Air, but with much worse battery life, an older processor and a design that looks like a lot of other grayish, metallic laptops.

There are three models. The top one, which costs $2,000, is distinguished mainly by its use of a very fast processor that average consumers won’t need. The other two models are identical, except the entry-level offering, at $1,600, has a standard, non-touchscreen. The middle model, at $1,800, which I tested, has a touchscreen.

The MacBook Air also has a non-touchscreen, but that’s because its operating system, Mac OS X Mountain Lion, isn’t designed for touchscreens. By contrast, Windows 8 is a touch-centric operating system, and I don’t recommend consumers buying Windows 8 computers to opt for non-touchscreens. So the least expensive Kirabook that works optimally with its operating system costs $1,800.

How do those prices compare with Apple’s, which have traditionally been higher than those of most Windows PCs?

Well, the base $1,600 Kirabook with the non-touchscreen includes a generous 8 gigabytes of memory and a 256 GB solid-state drive. The base 13-inch MacBook Air, whose price was cut $100 just Monday, costs $1,099. But when configured with the same amount of memory and solid-state storage, it costs $1,399, still about $200 less than the non-touch Kirabook and $400 less than the touchscreen model.

The two machines each weigh a hair under 3 pounds and are roughly 0.7-inch thick, though the Toshiba is a bit thicker. It also has a smaller footprint. The Kirabook has a magnesium alloy body that Toshiba claims is 100 percent stronger than the aluminum used for the body of the Air.

The Kirabook’s biggest advantage is its high-res screen. It is almost as sharp as the one on Apple’s higher-end 13-inch laptop, the MacBook Pro with Retina display. That MacBook starts at $1,499 and is $1,699 when configured with the same memory and storage as the Kirabook. The Kirabook’s screen resolution is so high that text can get uncomfortably small. I was forced to use a built-in Toshiba utility to actually lower the resolution a bit for this reason.

The Kirabook has three USB ports to the Air’s two, and Toshiba throws in a two-year warranty, while Apple’s standard warranty is just one year. The Kirabook also has an HDMI port, for easy connection to a TV, which the Apple lacks.

In addition to its high price, the biggest downsides of the Kirabook are Windows 8, whose two very different user interfaces can be confusing; mediocre battery life; and the fact it uses older processors.

By contrast, as of Monday, the MacBook Air uses the latest Intel processors, just out, which promise huge increases in battery life and better graphics. The Kirabooks aren’t due to be upgraded to these new chips till the fourth quarter.

These new processors and battery life are closely linked. Apple claimed this week that, with the new chips, the 13-inch MacBook Air can get up to 12 hours of battery life between charges. That isn’t a typo. (Stay tuned for a review of this revamped Air.)

However, even with the same, older Intel chips, the MacBook Air handily beat the Kirabook in battery life. In my tough battery test, where I turn off power-saving features, keep the Wi-Fi on to collect email and play music until the battery dies, the Kirabook lasted four hours and 27 minutes. The MacBook Air rates over six hours on the same test.

Overall, the Toshiba Kirabook is a very nicely built PC, but for its premium price, it ought to have the latest components, more distinctive design and better battery life.

Email Walt at mossberg@wsj.com.


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