Saturday, December 07, 2013

Toshiba Encore review

The good

Compact – it’s a little thicker than other 7-8 inch tablets, but it is a good size for one handed use, with enough bezel surrounding the screen to get a secure grip. And as far as full computers go, this is probably as compact as you want to get and still have a useable experience.

Win 8.1 allows split screen multitasking on smaller devices – prior to the point upgrade, win 8 required a minimum resolution for the dual screen multitasking ability (1366x768), which would rule out this device. Fortunately with 8.1 you can now get that feature is the smaller screen resolutions such as 1280x800, and it is quite handy, with most if not all tile interface apps I’ve tested working well.

Battery life – I haven’t performed any testing, but in my general use (youtube videos on one pane, twitter/browser on the other) battery drain has not been alarming, and I haven’t had a low battery warning yet – once I’ve drained the battery up to about 20%, I’ll be testing the recharge rate as well.

Micro HDMI port – as nice as having a computer that is portable is, I appreciate the option to be able to connect it to a larger screen if the need arose. Certainly if I was going to be doing lots of text entry on the supplied (and full) copy of MS Office 2013, I would find the experience a lot more pleasant on a larger screen, especially since the on-screen keyboard effectively halves the viewable screen in landscape, and takes up approx.. a third of the screen in portrait.

SD card – Although the Encore does come in 32Gb and 64Gb sizes, only the former was available in stores at the time, and the only one to come under the $400 mark. Out of the box 13Gb are available for use, so having a microSD slot for storing media and larger files is a good feature to have, leaving the built in storage for apps.

Price – as alluded to above, the 32Gb model I bought came in under the $400 mark, which brings it into the realm of the ARM based tablets. Plus, with the promotion that Dick Smith was running at the time, it came with a $50 gift card which clinched the deal for me.

Performance of new atom processor – Apart from this device, I also have the Acer W510, a 10 inch tablet running the previous gen atom (clover trail) processor, which was no number crunching powerhouse, but was adequate for everything I threw at it. Running the Geekbench 3 benchmark software, the performance of the Encore returned a score of ~2600, which was over twice the score of the W510 (~1100)…so based on this, I shouldn’t have any issues with getting things done on this device, which aligns with my current experience.

USB port – although it requires an OTG cable to convert the microUSB port to a full size USB 2.0 port, it allows for accessing files in USB flash drives, and even outputs enough power to be able to run external portable drives (something which is not possible on its nearest rival, the Dell Venue Pro 8)

The bad

Build quality – maybe I’ve been spoilt by products such as the iPad mini and the current Nexus 7 (which hovers around the same price range), but the Toshiba just doesn’t look and feel as well put together, with uneven gaps in the seams between the plastic silver plastic trim around the screen and the plastic silver back, and noticeable creaking of the device when I pick it up. If you want to compare like for like, the identically spec’d and priced Dell Venue Pro 8 feels a lot more solid, using better feeling materials, and more in line with the other competing tablets in its price range.
Above: Uneven seam between plastic frame around screen and rest of chassis (red arrow)

Windows Key only works in portrait – The location of the capacitive Windows key on the bezel is on one of the shorter sides, and along with the orientation of it and the Toshiba branding implies that the tablet is intended to be used primarily in portrait mode. Indeed, if you did use the tablet in landscape, your thumb inevitably rests near/on the Win key, so in that way it makes sense that Toshiba would disable the key in that orientation. Unfortunately, the tablet seems to be inconsistent in when it disables this key, which makes it feel more like the key is broken. It’s almost as if the win key uses a different accelerometer to the OS, or perhaps has a lower threshold for determining when the tablet is in portrait/landscape. I’m hoping this can be resolved by a software update, or at the very least, provide the option to always have the win key permanently on or off. (Update - I don't think any disabling of the capacitive windows key when in landscape actually occurs, I think that there might be something wrong with my device)

Charges via same microUSB port as for USB input – This is probably not that much of an issue for the main use case for this device (ie as a standalone tablet), but if one were to “dock” the device to a screen and an external keyboard and mouse, then you wouldn’t be able to do that AND keep the device powered. Again, the solid battery life promised by Toshiba and the power efficient next gen atom processor possibly makes this issue moot, but it is something to think about.

Speaker is a bit weak – Two speaker holes are present on the “bottom” (in portrait mode), and are adequate for watching YouTube videos in a quiet room, but struggle with distortion at higher volumes when you want to be able to watch videos while having the tablet on a stand.

Key Win 8.1 feature doesn’t work in portrait – what I mean by that is that the killer feature of Win 8 (multi-screen multitasking) is disabled in portrait mode. Furthermore, if you switch to landscape mode, snap two screens/apps together and switch to portrait mode, the screen simply refuses to reorient – which caused me to check more than once that I haven’t accidentally engaged the orientation lock. Now I’m no UI expert, but not having a visual queue to tell me that the tablet has acknowledged but actively ignoring the request to reorient the screen just makes me think that something is wrong.

Overall, I’m actually quite happy with the Encore despite the bad points I’ve mentioned. For the price, you certainly get a lot of bang for your buck, since you are getting a full computer for $400, along with a full copy of MS Office 2013 (home and student) and with performance and battery life far superior to the netbooks of old.
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