8-megapixel rear-facing camera;
64GB internal memory
The Toshiba Encore is a £250 8-inch tablet that runs on Microsoft’s Windows 8.1 Pro operating system, giving you access to Microsoft Office, the Windows Store and the more familiar Desktop version with Start button now reinstated.
Joining the Dell Venue Pro 8, the Acer Iconia W4 and Lenovo Miix2, the Encore runs on Intel’s Bay Atom processor, which means it's capable of handling a the full version of Windows, not the RT version seen in the likes of the Surface 2. But having spent time with a buggy pre-production model earlier this year, and two review units, it's clear Toshiba has still not ironed out all of its niggling issues.
Toshiba Encore: Design
Bigger than the 7.9-inch iPad Mini 2 Retina and the 7-inch Nexus 7 2, the Encore is a pretty uninspiring thing to behold. Its predominantly plastic body lacks the same slim and sleek feel of Apple's smaller tablet and lacks the more comfortable soft touch back of the Nexus. The Encore measures in at 10.68mm thick, so it’s not as slim as the iPad mini 2 Retina (7.5mm) or the Nexus 7 2 (8.65mm) and at 450g it's heavier than both, too.
A single capacitive Windows Home button sits alone below the screen to flip between desktop and tablet mod, with stereo speakers situated on the bottom edge of the tablet. The volume rocker and on/off button sit on the right edge of the device. and up top is a micro HDMI, micro USB port and headphone/mic jack. Over on the left, there’s a Micro SD card slot to expand storage beyond the 32GB on board.
The dimpled grey plastic back houses the 8-megapixel camera and to make the most of Microsoft’s Skype integration, Toshiba has also included a 'Skype certified' 2-megapixel front-facing web camera with dual mics to help audio in video calls to come out nice and clear.
Despite its size, the Encore's chunkiness makes it a little uncomfortable to hold in one hand in portrait mode -- it's much better in two hands. In landscape mode, meanwhile, it’s all too easy to hit the on/off button instead of the volume rocker as well. Both these facts make the Toshiba Encore a cumbersome tablet, which it really shouldn't be given its size. It feels sturdy and well-made, but it's not that nice to handle.
Toshiba Encore: Screen Quality
The Encore features a reasonably bright 1,280 x 800 LED display, effectively matching the original Nexus 7 and the Dell Venue 8 Pro (full review coming soon) for resolution and detail. This is fairly underwhelming in comparison to the second generation Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HDX 7, both of which feature 1,920 x 1,200 IPS displays. Both are cheaper, though smaller screen tablets, but for an extra £50 it's not unreasonable to expect a little more.
Still, it’acceptable for reading web pages and video streaming. Video is sharp and viewing angles are decent, but it lacks the vibrancy, colour accuracy and ability to capture more natural tones the way similarly priced tablets are able to. The 189ppi pixel density means you shouldn’t expect exceptional clarity, either. It’s suitable for the tiled, tablet-optimized user interface and reading web pages, but the desktop mode isn't quite so forgiving.
But the real problem with the Toshiba Encore's screen if its responsiveness, or lack thereof. At times just selecting apps or trying to skip back a web page proves problematic. Even the lock screen struggles to register screen presses at times. It's a tablet that will test your patience and by this point our patience was already running thin.
Toshiba Encore: Software
So the design and screen look and feel a little below what you might expect of a £250 tablet. But you begin to claw back some value given the Encore runs a full version of Windows 8.1 and not the flop of an operating system, Windows 8 RT. This means you can actually install applications like Adobe Photoshop and Spotify to make up for the still disappointing showing in the Windows Store, and even plug the tablet into a large screen to use it like a desktop PC.
Consequently the Encore will feel familiar to anyone who has used any Windows 8 laptop or tablet. The core tablet apps like Skype, Xbox and Bing powered hubs for sport, weather and health are all here, as is the charm bar when you swipe inwards from the right side of the screen and the ability to have apps 'snap' to one side of the screen so you can browse the web and have a Skype conversation at the same time.
All this sounds promising and unlike most Windows 8 laptops and tablets, the Toshiba Encore comes with a full version of Microsoft Office Home and Student 2013. This makes it a potential desirable tablet if you are student and looking for something portable to carry around to lectures, especially as you can connect to a monitor, mouse and keyboard when you get home.
Indeed, this is a necessity really as using Office with the virtual keyboard and touchscreen controls on the tablet this size is very awkward -- a Bluetooth keyboard is a must if you want to type on the move. This is the same in other desktop-based applications. You can run and use desktop apps on the move, but you probably won't want to.
While Windows 8.1 works a treat on larger hybrids like the Asus Transformer Book T100, it's a very different story on an 8-inch tablet like this. We'd add that Microsoft could do with making Windows easier to setup for first time users as there's an awful lot of faffing about obtaining authorisation codes that means it takes longer than it ought to.
Toshiba Encore: Performance
The Encore is powered by an Intel Atom Bay Trail, a quad-core chip clocked at 1.7GHz with 2GB of RAM to help. The Intel chips are designed specifically for Android and Windows tablets and hybrid devices to provide better performance and battery life than its Clover Trail predecessor, and to help keep the tablets prices low.
Bay Trail is a serious step forward for the Atom processor range and it copes fine with everyday use, but there are still times when it seems like it struggles. Swiping through the tiled interface is fluid enough and it handles snap to multitasking running YouTube and Rayman Fiesta Run on the same screen, but launching apps and web page loading times can be painfully slow at times -- it even hangs on occasion.
Performance in games is mediocre, too. There’s some noticeable framerate drops in more demanding games that suggests that the GPU on board falls short of the GPUs in the best phones and tablets. In 3D Mark's Ice Storm Extreme gaming benchmark it racks up a 14,024 score, putting it someway behind the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 powered Nokia Lumia 2520 (16,123), although it outperforms the Microsoft Surface Pro 2 (13,557). It will handle much of what the Windows Store has to offer, it just won’t blow you away for speed and smoothness in every corner.
It's also worth noting we've come across more than a few bugs in our time with the Encore, so much so we had to request a second sample and perform a complete refresh on one occasion due to the screen becoming totally unresponsive.
Toshiba Encore: Camera
To take care of picture-taking duties, there's a 2-megapixel front-facing Skype-certified camera and an 8-megapixel main camera with 1080p Full HD shooting abilities to play with. The camera UI itself is on the basic side, leaving you take your pick of still or video shooting and swiping up from the bottom of the screen to add some extra options like changing exposure, setting the timer and picking front or the rear-facing camera.
Up front, the 2-megapixel camera captures images with a good level of detail compared to smaller tablets like the Nexus 7 2 and the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 7. Colours are not as vibrant as we would like, but crucially it's more than adequate for making Skype video calls and that's going to be the best use for it.
Despite the limitations of the UI, the main camera manages to produce suprisingly sharp, colourful images. Photos taken up close in well-lit surroundings are the most rewarding because as soon as you attempt something a little further back the drop in quality begins to show and image noise is more noticeable. There's no flash on board, which makes night-time shots a tall order, although in dimly lit conditions images are reasonably detailed even if the colour accuracy is a lacking.
Likewise with shooting video, detail is very good until you try to get more adventurous and the lack of any kind of image stabilization means video can struggle for smoothness.
Toshiba Encore: Speaker quality
Don't be fooled by talk of Dolby Digital Plus and any of the other audio-enchancing features mentioned with the Encore as it does a good but not amazing job churning out sound for watching films or playing games. The pair of stereo speakers at the bottom of the tablet are distinctly average for listening to music and lack the power, detail or richness to make good use of that six month free Xbox Music subscription. It’s the same for gaming and watching video, it’s loud but an underwhelming performance.
Toshiba Encore: Battery Life
Where the Encore doesn’t disappoint is battery life. Packing a 2-cell Lithium-ion you can expect up to seven hours on a full charge and we actually got closer to eight hours running a TV series continuously on Netflix. In more intensive daily use, you will need to charge it up, but it will definitely make it through the day. If you've forgotten to charge it overnight and it's on critical battery life it doesn't have tremendous recovery ability. In our numerous tests from a 5% battery level it jumped up by around 4% over half an hour connected to the USB charger supplied with the Encore.
Should I buy the Toshiba Encore?
In theory, the Encore at £250 has much to offer. It’s an affordable 8-inch tablet with all-day battery life and has access to a full version of Windows 8 including Microsoft Office. In reality, certain aspects of Microsoft’s operating system just don’t work on such a small device. Trying to use it in a traditional Windows way is far too frustrating and buying a Bluetooth keyboard is the only way you will get great use of having Office access. The buggy, unresponsive performance we endured did not disappear even with our second review model, so it makes it difficult to recommend.
For less than £250 you can buy a Nexus 7 2, albeit without Microsoft Office, yet it’s still the best 7-inch Android tablet out there. You can download the Office Mobile for Office 365 app, but you will need to have an Office 365 subscription to use it on the tablet. The iPad mini 2 Retina costs £319 so there’s a £70 difference. For the extra spend you will get an easy to use tablet with access to Office in the same way you can with the Nexus 7.
The real and obvious alternative, however, is the Asus Transformer Book T100. It's larger and more like a laptop-tablet hybrid, but that also makes it great deal more practical and useful. The Toshiba Encore feels like a product looking for a problem to solve, and whatever that is it doesn't achieve its goal.
The Toshiba Encore is a Windows 8.1 tablet with more bad points than good so the search for a great small, standalone Windows tablet goes on.