The first popular tablet, the Apple iPad is nearly four-years old, and in this time the concept of tablet computing has become so well-known, and the sight of a tablet so ubiquitous, that the word itself is nearly enough to conjure up a yawn. In short, a new tablet has to do something special to grab our attention. Luckily for Toshiba, the Encore has an ace up its sleeve.
This ace is not the tablet’s design, however. Toshiba serve up a serviceable tablet design for the Encore, but it is completely without flair or inspiration. Sort of like a Google Nexus 7 but with a textured metal-look plastic backplate, the Encore looks exactly the way someone would draw a tablet from memory if you gave them paper and pencil.
The plastic is in a drab steel colour, with a slight golden hue, to our eyes. On the front, the tablet’s 8-inch screen is surrounded by a thick, glossy black bezel — again, like the Nexus 7.
The Encore has a few more ports and plugs than we tend to see on a tablet, and this is a good thing. It has a micro-USB port for charging and connecting with a PC, a micro-HDMI port for sharing the display with a big screen monitor and a micro-SD card slot for expanding the storage by a possible 64GB. This is on top of the 32- or 64GB storage that the tablet comes with, depending on the model you choose.
Matching the lower numbers in its price tag, the Encore has a lower resolution display than you might expect in a product like it this year. With a 1280x800 pixel resolution, the 8-inch display is made up with about 190 pixels per square inch. When you compare this with the 326 ppi you can expect from an iPad Mini (with Retina display) you can see one of the key areas where Toshiba is saving money.
But can you really notice the difference? For most people, nine-times-out-of-ten you really won’t spot the pixels. Microsoft has done an excellent job of designing Windows 8 in such a way that you don’t need a bleeding-edge display to see it all clearly. The colourful Metro UI tiles look fantastic on the Encore.
Likewise, internet applications, like YouTube, look fine on the tablet’s screen. Viewing angles are decent, supporting a range of angles enough to cover the different ways you might hold the Encore to view it.
The touchscreen is responsive, and works well with the Metro half of Windows 8. If you switch over to the Desktop side you will find it more difficult to use. The lower-resolution means that buttons and options can be difficult to press with a figure on the first try.
The ace up its sleeve
What differentiates the Encore from the vast majority of tablets you find it sitting beside at your local electronics shop, is that this tablet runs full Windows 8.1. It isn’t a mobile platform like iOS or Android, and it isn’t watered-down Windows RT like you’ll find in the Microsoft Surface. Instead, this is like a mini All-in-One computer that you can use as a tablet.
This means you can install all of the programs you are used to running on a Windows PC. Beyond basics like Microsoft Office, you can install your favourite video players, cloud storage services like Dropbox, and any applications that you use for work.
The only limitation to this is the power of the machine, and while it is technically possible to install complex photo or video editors, or the latest 3G games, the Atom processor inside the Encore isn’t be up to the task.
To get best use of these tools, you can connect a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard to the Encore, and plug in any monitor with HDMI, and turn the tablet into a mini desktop PC.
This isn’t a perfect solution, unfortunately. We’ve found that there is quite a bit of lag when using a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard, and though it gets the job done, it is far more frustrating than we think it ought to be.
Central to whether or not a tablet will suit your purposes is whether you can download the apps you want to you. As they said in the movie Forrest Gump, a tablet without apps is like a box of chocolates without the chocolates inside — or something like that.
In this regard, a Windows 8 tablet is a strange beast. For productivity purposes, you are endlessly better off than owners of an iPad. You have access to full Microsoft Office, and anything else you use to keep your life in order. But the apps we all know and love live on mobile platforms, and these are the tools you will have trouble to find substitutes for.
Social network might be the toughest sub-category in this regard. Services like Instagram and Pintrest don’t have official apps, leaving you to find inferior 3rd party efforts, which often charge you a few dollars for the privilege.
A lot of your favourite mobile games are also missing, like Candy Crush Saga, Plants Vs Zombies and Words with Friends. This is offset by the fact that you can download a multitude of Windows games in Desktop mode, but then these Windows games are not designed for tablet use.
Intel’s Bay Trail update for mobile processors is a significant one. The chips, like the one in the Toshiba Encore, run on a 64-bit architecture, are quad-core, include Intel HD graphics and — most importantly — are designed for low-power use.
All of these attributes are evident when using the Encore, and yet, it still isn’t a computer than you would gladly throw away your notebook for. For 90% of the time we spent using the Encore, we enjoyed smooth, iPad-like performance, but then it would suddenly reach a performance bottleneck and we would find ourselves tapping firmly on an unresponsive screen and sighing like disappointed fathers. We even experienced a dreaded ‘blue screen of death’ at one point while testing.
We also had some difficulty using a paired Bluetooth keyboard and mouse. As we described before, sometimes typing using a keyboard was fine, but then other times we’d look up and find an array of repeated letters, and large spaces between words — evidence of lag between the input tools and the computer.
Ultimately, the Encore worked best as a tablet in the colourful Windows Metro UI, but this is also the least interesting part of this device.
That said, we did have success playing Surgeon Simulator 2013 on the Toshiba Encore — with a mouse and keyboard. This game is advertised as requiring a 2.0GHz CPU and an Nvidia graphics card, yet the Encore handled it without breaking a sweat.
Battery life is pretty good, but not outstanding. We saw about a day’s worth of battery between charges, which is OK, but while you get good usage battery life, the Encore drains too much battery in standby. This is a tablet you will have to charge daily.
Whether the Toshiba Encore is right for you comes down to whether you are looking for a tablet or for a mini computer. If you want something to browse the web in front of the TV, then we recommend you stick with a comparably priced Android tablet or a cheaper iPad. The Encore does these things, but not as well as the competition, especially without the multitudes of apps that you won’t find in the Windows Store.
If you are looking for something a little bit more like a Windows computer, something that connects to your networks with ease, something portable but productive, the Encore is a great choice. You’ll need to add at least a mouse to your purchase — Desktop mode is troublesome without one — but it is definitely a step up from an Android machine for traditional computing tasks.
And, it is hard to argue with the price. Whether you buy the base model or pay extra for the bump in storage, the Encore is a bargain.