Toshiba Encore Win8.1 Tablet Review

A fatal flaw can kill even the greatest.

Last year I did a review of a Windows 8 Atom tablet from Lenovo – the ThinkPad 2. On the whole I sort of liked it, but the Atom CPU was borderline useless for anything to do with desktop apps. Even some other things, like trying to watch Hulu, would cause the tablet to struggle. But what it did do right was the form factor – although it was a fairly large tablet, it was very thin and weight a hell of a lot less than the Surface Pro. My Surface Pro 2 is by far the best mobile device I’ve owned, but it’s impractical to hold as a tablet for things like reading ebooks (which I do a lot, most of my textbooks are ebooks). The Atom line of CPUs descend from the dark days of netbooks – those teeny-tiny, woefully underpowered laptops that would take six years to boot into Windows XP. We have a new line of Atom CPUs – codenamed Bay Trail, these low-power devices are actual x86-64 quad-core CPUs, aiming to bring adequate performance with the insane compatibility of an x86 processor. Have they cracked it? Is the next true challenger to the iPad for business users upon us? Mein gott, they might have managed it.

 

Overview

Toshiba’s Encore tablet is one of a number of new 8” Windows 8.1 tablets – Lenovo and Dell have also thrown their hat in the ring. They all have the same sort of specs – a 1280×800 8” screen, the new Atom Bay Trail Z3740 CPU, 2GB of RAM, and either 32GB or 64GB of internal storage which can be expanded via a microSD card slot. They all run Windows 8.1 and most of them come with Office Home and Student Edition for free. They all charge by a micro USB port. So with all of that in mind, what separates them? Largely it’s in little additions. Dell’s Venue 8 Pro includes a digitiser screen made by Synaptics, and by all accounts it’s terrible and Wacom have nothing to fear. Lenovo has one of the thinner builds. Toshiba’s offering (I have the 64GB version) tends to run a bit thicker than the others, but crucially it includes a micro HDMI port. The others do not – so consider that if it’s a big deal for you. Since the device charges via a micro USB port you’re limited to either charging the device or plugging something into it – I recommend getting a micro USB to full sized USB adapter. The 64GB version I have here retails for about $456 AUD – cheaper than an iPad Mini with Retina display, and arguably a lot more capable. Most of these kinds of tablets will cluster around this price point.

In terms of bundled software, Toshiba keep things relatively Spartan – which is something I strongly approve of. What I didn’t approve of was bundling Norton Internet Security – this resource-hog of a problem doesn’t need to be included anymore. Windows Defender and Windows Firewall is enough protection, and given that this little tablet doesn’t have the resources to spare, it’s not worth keeping. You do get a free version of Office Home and Student though – which includes Excel, PowerPoint, Word and OneNote. That’s a decent bundle. There are also options which include a case and a touch-pen, but I wouldn’t bother with the pen.

The screen itself is quite bright and looks very good – it isn’t iPad level of pixel density, but it’s enough that you won’t be distracted or straining your eyes. In the hand (and I mean single-handed, which is how these devices should work) it feels great. It’s heavier than my iPad Mini, as well as quite a bit thicker (about double the thickness) but it’s not uncomfortable at all. You could hold this for quite a while without too many problems. The only thing I don’t like about it is the thickness – it’s a bit too thick when compared to an iPad Mini, but in saying that all of that tech has to go somewhere, and this is a far more capable device. The device is designed to be used primarily in portrait mode, although it maintains the 16:9 aspect ratio that all Windows 8 devices have.

 

Using it

Although this is a full x86 PC, the small screen size and lack of digitiser means that you won’t be doing much when it comes to desktop operations. We’ll get to that in a minute. Modern UI (Read: Metro, which I’ll use from now on) apps, which are going to be your main apps when it comes to using this thing, work exceptionally well. They’re much, much faster than any Windows RT device, and you can use any of the x86 Metro apps as well (like Chrome). The device is snappy and doesn’t exhibit any sort of sluggish behaviour from any of the apps I tested, which included the various mail and calendar apps, Skype, Kindle (reading a medical textbook with many images) and the video app. I tested Win 8’s Video app with a 720p mp4 (1080p is pointless on this screen after all). The Video app worked fine – no skipping or dropped frames. All of the apps I tested performed exceptionally well – they all started up quickly, they weren’t sluggish in operation, and I really had no complaints.

On the desktop front, I tested Chrome, Office, and VLC Media player. VLC played a 720p MKV file flawlessly – no skipping, no dropped frames, no problems at all. Chrome works fine too, including the Flash player. Performance in MS Word was a bit hit and miss – on smaller documents, it was flawless. On a larger document which had a lot of images, it seemed sluggish – to the point where I wouldn’t even consider it useable. Curiously, other long documents, and the various image-heavy PowerPoint presentations I tested, seemed to work perfectly fine. So I don’t really know what’s going on there.

I have run into one massive issue though – the wireless connection is remarkably unreliable. The signal strength meter fluctuates like an indecisive cat faced with two food bowls. I’ve narrowed this down to antenna placement – if you put it flat on a desk with the bottom edge (bottom being the edge with the Start touch button) obscured, the signal will drop dramatically. Holding it by the bottom edge doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. Honestly, I can’t reliably get it to drop unless it’s lying face-up on my desk. Even then sometimes it’ll suddenly come good again. So what’s the problem? I have no idea. The connection’s drop-out seemed to be random, and would occasionally occur regardless of how I was holding it or what it was resting on.

This problem with wireless activity is enough to kill this tablet. It has great performance, it’s a full x86 tablet, Atom doesn’t suck, and the praise keeps coming. But the wireless issues made it entirely useless for my purposes. These tablets rely a lot on internet access, and one of their principal functions is internet-browsing. If you can’t maintain a reliable connection to a wireless router less than 5 meters away, then something has gone seriously wrong. Maybe it’s a problem with my unit, but whatever the cause, it effectively turns it into a useless device.

 

Verdict: Mixed

I’d give this a major seal of approval and label it the best competitor to the iPad… if it didn’t have such a crippling problem with its wireless adapter. The new Atom tablets effectively atone for the sins of the Dark Days of Netbooks – the woefully underpowered, laughably inadequate Atom line is dead. In its wake emerges a new CPU which delivers on its promise of low energy consumption x86 compatibility. These tablets make devices like the Surface RT entirely irrelevant and pointless. These devices demonstrate that Windows 8.1 in an 8” device can actually work (and work remarkably well). These devices are the true challengers to the iPad – they eclipse the iPad (and by extension the Android tablets, which are a real mixed bag) in terms of functionality and power.

But I can’t recommend the Toshiba’s efforts here – it’s a bit bulky but I can forgive that. What I can’t forgive is the wireless performance – it’s abysmal, and I can’t have a device that drops every 3 minutes. Some people don’t have any issues, and maybe it’s something with my setup (but no other wireless device in the house has these problems), or maybe it’s a faulty unit. But the experience I had with this device meant it wasn’t worth it. Caveat emptor.

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