Toshiba Encore: The Windows 8.1 tablet that might catch on
Don't be fooled by the fondleslab's feel...
Review Windows tablets have hardly set the world on fire. Limp processors, confusion in the mind of Joe Public over the difference between Windows proper and Windows RT, plus a lack of apps for the user-interface-once-known-as-Metro have all combined to dampen enthusiasm.
Mighty Atom: Toshiba's Encore 8-incher
The list of reasons is a long one. But with the arrival of Intel’s new Bay Trail Atom CPUs and Windows 8.1 several OEM’s including Dell, Asus and Toshiba are taking another stab at the idea. In my paws at the moment is Toshiba’s effort, the £299 64GB Encore 8-inch tablet.
Initial impressions are frankly not that good. The design is solid enough, but there more than a faint whiff of the budget about the rounded, plastic faux aluminium back and the overall thickness of the thing. At nearly 11mm, it's much more chunky than the competing iPad or Nexus kit and weighing in at 450g too, it’s hardly what you’d call light either.
If you covered over the Toshiba branding you would suspect it was made by Archos and commanded a price well south of £200. Take a look around the sides of the Encore and you’ll discover that the microSD card slot is exposed to the elements. To be fair, a card will slot in far enough to make accidental ejection fairly unlikely.
Don't be fooled, that's not a metal casing, it's plastic
The power and volume controls are not exposed enough though. You have to search for them and the push with rather too much deliberation for my liking and the fact that the Windows home button below the screen isn’t illuminated or profiled can make it difficult to work out which way up you are holding the thing in the dark.
The screen goes some way to redeeming things. It may only have a resolution of 1280 x 800 – equivalent to 189 dpi when stretched across an 8-inch diagonal – but it’s a IPS affair with broad viewing angles, plenty of brightness and good colour saturation.
The 8MP camera and 2Mp webcam are a cut above what you'd find on most tablets too, with image quality through both components appearing fairly impressive. When I first launched the main camera, the app crashed and Windows restarted itself to install an update which was a little worrying but everything has been reliable since then.
HDMI, microUSB and 3.5mm audio I/O all line up at the top
The Toshiba Encore is quite well connected too, with a micro HDMI port to partner the usual micro USB 2.0 socket. The Bluetooth 4.0 radio is bang up to date but the 802.11n Wi-Fi card only supports the 2.4GHz wavelength. A rather less common addition for a Windows tablet is the GPS receiver to pinpoint your location on Bing maps. The stereo speakers on the bottom of the Encore aren’t too shabby but a little more volume would be nice.
I suspect the most common version of the Encore to be found at retail will be the 32GB version but I’d strongly suggest forking out the extra £50 for the 64GB machine. Windows 8.1 is many things but small is not one of them and my Encore showed only 52GB of nominal storage and even before I started loading it up that only equalled just under 40GB of usable free space.
If you have only 32GB to start with, then things will get very tight, very fast. Sure you can use the up to 32GB capacity micro SD to pick up some of the slack but I’m always happier with a decent wedge of built-in storage.
Stereo speakers are good for a tablet but could be louder
Hauling the coal inside the Encore is a quad-core 1.33-GHz Intel Atom Z3740 Bay Trail processor with 2GB of RAM and thanks to that – and the 32-bit incarnation of Windows 8.1 that runs this Tosh tablet – it can do everything a regular Windows laptop can do and subjectively it always felt pretty fast and fluid. Indeed, much more so than any Windows tablet running on previous generation Atom chips that I’ve tried.
Since, in my book at least, half the reason for buying an Encore is that it can be used as a fully fledged Windows PC, it made sense to test it as such. So I gave PCMark8 a spin to get an idea of its underlying performance and of the durability of the fixed 2-cell 20Wh battery.
The PCMark8 result of just over 1200 wasn’t a stunning score, but it’s not far below what you’d get from some Core i3 laptops. It certainly shows this to be an Atom processor with, at last, some serious grunt.
PCMark 8 score for this Atom matches some Core i3 models of old
Looping PCMark8 drained the battery in a little over six hours. Used for a continuous mix of web browsing, writing this review on Google Docs and watching a few 720p mp4 videos, it lasted for a few minutes shy of eight-and-a-half hours.
With graphics being handled by the Intel Atom’s HD IGP this clearly is not a platform for even semi-serious PC gaming but it managed to return a 3DMark Ice Storm gaming benchmark score of just under 16,000. I’d say this is par for the course for most similarly priced tablets or laptops.
If the Encore was running a Linux distro then the tablet would perhaps perform even better but I couldn’t get the system to boot off a USB stick so that will have to remain a matter of conjecture.
Windows desktop, anyone?
Some will lambast Windows 8 tablets for even having the "old fashioned" desktop but I see it as the ace up the Encore’s sleeve because you can use it for real PC stuff and run all your – or rather my – favourite Windows programs like Thunderbird, VLC and Gimp. Lest we forget Microsoft’s Office Home & Student 2013 which comes pre-installed. Well, in retail packages at least, it was missing from my review unit, but LibreOffice worked a treat in its place.
Of course, to use the Encore as PC you really need a good Bluetooth keyboard along the lines of Microsoft’s Wedge, which comes complete with a handy universal tablet stand.
That said, using the Windows desktop with your fingers and the virtual keyboard isn’t an entirely hopeless undertaking - I managed to use Thunderbird with no real problems - but there’s really no point in trying to touch your way through a user interface that is clearly designed to be used with a mouse and keyboard.
Windows home button is smooth and is not illuminated, which can cause orientation issues in dark
Away from the Windows desktop if all you want from your tablet is to listen to music, watch movies, read books and keep up with your social network, then the Windows touchscreen interface has you well covered and the Encore can do all those things with ease.
Say what you like about the Windows touch UI, it’s almost insultingly easy to use. I’m also developing a soft spot for some of the primary Windows 8 apps like news, weather and email while the ability to sign into your SkyDrive/OneDrive account and synchronise content between your various Windows machines is a feature that shouldn’t be overlooked. Ditto, the various Xbox-branded cloud features, like Music.
Having genuine DropBox/Box/GDrive folder sync on a tablet has its uses too. I use DropBox to sync all my Thunderbird folders across my laptops and I quickly got used to having my desktop email environment replicated in toto on my tablet.
A decent web cam and the full Windows desktop experience
Finally, Toshiba also deserves a mention in dispatches for not loading the Encore down with bloat. Other than Spotify and McAfee – both uninstalled in a trice – what you have here is a pretty much a vanilla version of Windows 8.1. I would say that it's a bit of shame there isn’t a version of the Encore available with a cellular radio though.
The Reg Verdict
As a pure tablet, the Encore leaves a few things to be desired. Physically it’s heavy, thick and a bit ugly when compared to the likes of the Nexus 7 and iPad mini. Furthermore, the paucity of touch-optimised apps in the Windows store, compared to to iOS and Android, is still an issue.
On the other hand the baseline performance from the new Atom chipset has at last reached an acceptable level, the screen and cameras are pretty good, the battery life is respectable and, of course, you can hook it up to an external monitor, keyboard, printer et al for a fully fledged PC experience.
Certainly, if Toshiba forgot to ask for this one back, I could see it quickly replacing the HP Pavilion dm1 as my backup and travel PC and my Nexus 7 as my go-to tablet. With my Android Moto G and a Windows 8.1 Encore, I’d be covered for all eventualities. ®