Toshiba Encore Gizmodo Reader Review: Michael Dolley, Database Developer

Michael Dolley is a Queensland-based database dev creating custom solutions for his clients. He's also one of three winners in our recent Toshiba Encore competition. Michael has had his new 8-inch Windows 8.1 tablet for over a week now and this is his road test experience...

I was interested in the Encore for both business and personal use. At work, I deal with a variety of clients: some exclusively via remote access, others I regularly visit. I'm also in charge of administering three different Windows servers used to provide a database hosting service. (My job technically isn't a tech support role, but I do have to occasionally help clients with their minor computer related problems, whether they be PC or Mac users.)

I'm also getting stuck in to the complicated process of building my first house. So far it's a process with a million different things to consider and I am trying to use my love of technology to make that process as easy as possible. When it comes to leisure time, I don't want to deal with all of the little hassles that can come with computers. I want to sit back and relax with a device that works well. Before receiving the Toshiba Encore that device was an iPad Air. I have been an iPad user since the first model, and only recently upgraded from an iPad 2. Being an iOS user for so long has shaped my expectations when it comes to tablet devices. I want a device that just works well.

I have always used my iPad for both work and play, in fact I am perhaps in a somewhat unique position. I am a certified FileMaker developer, and FileMaker is completely cross platform — including an iOS app. The iOS version of FileMaker is a free client, but it doesn't provide any development tools at all. While that is great for my clients who just want to access their databases on the go, I am a developer and the potential ability to actually build databases on the device intrigued me.

While the software that I develop with is completely cross platform, I personally use Windows PCs at home and at the office. Despite growing up with Apples I just prefer to actually work with Windows machines...

With Intel's speedy fourth-gen Z3740 quad core processor, the Toshiba Encore provides up to 14 hours of battery life and weighs just 445g. Perfect to watch movies, check email, Skype and browse the Web on its 8-inch multi-touch HD display (1280x800; 16:10 aspect).
The Encore also ships with full Windows 8.1 and a full license version of Office Home and Student 2013 — connect a Bluetooth keyboard and you've got everything you need to survive the day.
That includes an 8-megapixel rear camera (2MP front), micro HDMI output, micro SD card slot and 64GB solid-state storage. (A 32GB version is also available).

Toshiba Encore: First Impressions

I was really excited about getting an 8-inch tablet device. The smaller form factor has always appealed to me, mainly because I use a full PC at home.

On opening the box you are immediately greeted by the device, and a big yellow IMPORTANT INFORMATION sticker. Having the device proudly displayed when opening the box has become somewhat of the norm with product packaging, so a copyright sticker was a little unexpected.

When I first picked up the device my first impression was that it feels a little bulky. It would be an absolute stretch to say that the device is heavy, but it certainly has a bit of heft to it. Part of that reaction may have come from having just put down an iPad Air. The Encore is 24g lighter than the iPad Air, but the iPad's weight is spread over a larger area. It's one of those tricks of perception — holding the Encore and the Air at the same time I always felt the Encore was heavier. I very quickly forgot about the weight after using the Encore for an extended period.

The textured back of the device feels great in the hand. That little extra bit of grip really comes in handy when using the device one handed. I never felt like it was going to slip out of my hand, which has happened with my iPad.

The physical appearance of the Toshiba Encore will most likely polarise people. It isn't as sleek and minimalist as other tablets but I personally find the device to look quite stylish. The silver frame around the bezel evokes the aesthetics of the original iPad and I believe restores a little flair to the boring black slab tablets have become. If I could change one thing it would be removing the word "Toshiba" from the front of the device. It just doesn't seem necessary.

The device is well put together and feels sturdy and solid. I did notice an occasional creak when using it, but nothing that made me feel like it was fragile.

The capacitive home button is responsive and I really appreciate the subtle haptic feedback which negated any misgivings I had about the lack of a physical button. The right side features a physical power button and a volume rocker. I personally would have liked and additional mute toggle as this is something I use frequently on my iPad. Being able to quickly turn off sound during a meeting is something that I find useful.

Getting Started

I received the Encore during the second week of my Christmas holidays. I had absolutely switched off for the year, and would have probably got frustrated easily if the setup process was difficult. It couldn't have been easier.

I set up the device with the same Windows Live ID that I use on my work machine. After entering the details I was surprised the first time I switched to the desktop; "that wallpaper looks familiar". It took me a solid 5 minutes to realise it was the same wallpaper I use at the office (in my defense I hadn't looked at my work screen for over a week).

Even more surprising than a synced wallpaper was firing up the Windows 8 email app. The five different email accounts that I had previously set up were configured and ready to go. Having only used one Windows 8 device previously, I wasn't expecting the syncing of settings to be such a useful feature.

After setting up the device you will discover the reasoning behind that big yellow copyright sticker I mentioned earlier; it comes pre-loaded with third party bloatware. Coming from an iOS device the last thing I expected was a prompt asking me to activate a suite of Norton utilities. Pre-installed antivirus software doesn't fill me with confidence about the security of the platform, and takes up valuable space on the 64GB internal storage.

Apart from the Norton tools the device also has several other pre-installed programs; Kindle, which I could have installed myself if I wanted it; NeroKwik, a mysterious login screen and no explanation of its functionality (it seems to be a photo backup service); Rara music, an unnecessary alternative to the pre-installed Xbox Music; and TruCapture, A Toshiba app designed for taking pictures of printed material and whiteboards.

Storage space is always a limited resource on tablet devices. The pre-installed apps may be useful, but I'd much rather be given the opportunity to install them, rather than having to uninstall them if I don't want them.

The bloatware sort of smacks you in the face and says "this is a Windows machine". I don't know if the same issue exists on Android tablets, but it's not something I have experienced with iOS.

Using It

As I mentioned, I received the Encore while I was on holidays and work was the furthest thing from my mind. The first test was going to be how well the device worked for entertainment and personal use.

One big advantage Microsoft has over Apple is the Xbox brand, and it shows when you are looking for something fun. The first app I downloaded was Jetpack Joyride, one of my favourite mobile games. Xbox Live achievements help give the illusion that you might actually be accomplishing something.

I was quite surprised by how far the marketplace had come since I last looked. I don't use the store much on my work machine, but I was able to find plenty to entertain myself while on holidays. I spent far too many hours playing Shuffle Party, and my young nephews quite enjoyed the Peppa Pig memory game I found.

The marketplace also includes all of the big essentials, like Twitter and Facebook.

Unfortunately, all holidays come to an end. On returning to work I was keen to test out how the device worked for business use. I very rarely use my iPad at work for anything other than taking notes during meetings.

Having a full version of Microsoft Office Home and Student 2013 (included with the Toshiba Encore) significantly increases just what I can do with the device. I use office for a variety of tasks. All of my quotes are written in Word, I record the time I spend on each project in a OneNote document and I regularly get data to import into databases in excel format. I am now able to do all of these on my Toshiba tablet.

As this is a full Windows 8.1 (not just RT) machine, I was able to install a full version of FileMaker Pro Advanced, the developer version of the software I use to build databases. This wasn't just a client, I was using the full software. I could create databases, modify layouts and write scripts. This device isn't just for consumption, and for me that is meaningful.

The biggest advantage of full Windows 8.1 becomes apparent when you plug in an external monitor via the Micro HDMI port. Despite having issues getting mirroring to work (it seems to be a known issue with Windows 8.1), I was able to plug in an HDMI cable and set the device to use only the external monitor. With a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse connected the Encore transformed into a full PC running on my full HD monitor. If I couldn't see the tablet on the desk beside me I would be easily convinced that there was a regular old PC case hidden away somewhere.

Connected to an external monitor the Toshiba Encore essentially becomes a full PC

Performance

Outdoor camera sample: A quick shot of my front garden.

The Encore features an 8-inch 1280x800 pixel screen, which looks good, but in pure pixel terms trails the Retina iPad mini (189 pixels for the Encore vs 326 PPI on the new Mini). The Encore's screen also has great a viewing angle, I found text was clear and readable, and images looked good. The screen is also bright. I set the screen to 60% brightness and found that bright enough for everyday use. Brightness can be set automatically based on the light sensor, but I found that to be a little buggy.

Touchscreen responsiveness seems to be on-par with other devices that I have used. If there was noticeable lag it was when playing certain games, while apps such as Fresh Paint accurately captured all of my strokes and taps.

The dual speakers on the rear of the device suffer the same minor issue as the iPad; the sound can be muffled when holding the device. I say that this is a minor issue because it really is just a matter of holding the device correctly, and I don't think an alternate speaker arrangement would be better anyway. I am not much of an audiophile, but I found the sound output to be clear and loud at full volume.

The rear camera yields impressive results for a tablet, and the smaller form factor means you look less like an idiot using it for taking pictures. Both cameras certainly appreciate having a lot of light to capture, and low light produces a lot of noise. I think the low light photos are still usable, they just aren't as clear as daylight photos.

Indoor camera sample.

The front facing camera is good for the occasional selfie (if you are in to that) and works well for video calls via Skype. The biggest problem I encountered with using Skype was that the microphone is way too quiet. I had to essentially shout in order to be heard at the other end of the call. I bumped the microphone boost setting to the maximum of +36dB in the control panel and it improved the problem but was still far from clear.

Tapping the Windows button instantly brings the screen to life from standby mode. Even a complete restart is remarkably fast. I haven't timed it but I wouldn't be at all surprised if the Encore restarted faster than an iPad. I am used to Windows Machines taking a lifetime to start, but I am pleased that isn't the case with this device.

Battery life of the device is respectable for an 8-inch tablet. I didn't perform a timed battery rundown test, but I was always able to get a full day's use out of the device. When using the device alongside my work or home PC I didn't have any problem making the battery extend over multiple days. I got in to the habit of charging the device overnight, just so I knew I had a full battery to work with.

I don't have excessive demands when it comes to performance of a device such as a tablet. I am not really interested in how many cores it has and what it's benchmark scores are. My performance concerns are pretty simple — will the device run the things I want it to? I never felt like I was unable to do what I wanted on the Encore. The few games I tested all played smoothly, I was able to run the software I use every day. Video performance was also great. I was able to output 1080p videos to an external screen with no problems.

Multitasking: Play a game and create an Excel document at the same time. Your move Apple.

Should You Buy It?

Going into this review was I half expected that I was going to be disappointed with the Encore. I have not always been the biggest fan of Windows 8, and I am pretty heavily invested in the iOS ecosystem. My expectations were more than met; this little device is magnificent. All of the things that I hated about Windows 8 make perfect sense on a tablet. Gestures that seem counter-intuitive with a mouse (e.g. dragging metro apps down from the top to close them) are logical here.

"The Encore fits perfectly into my lifestyle...it made what I was doing easier, and that makes me happy."

Then there is the multitasking. Somebody needs to take a Windows 8 tablet to Apple and show them multitasking, because after using a Windows 8.1 tablet it is clear that they have no idea. Windows 8.1 multitasking elevates the productivity possible with the device to new levels but productivity isn't what I love most about the multitasking — it's the little things. I split my screen between Internet banking and a calculator so I could plan out a few upcoming expenses. That example isn't going to make Microsoft marketing materials, but it made what I was doing easier, and that makes me happy.

Some people may view the 8-inch form factor as too small for a Windows tablet, and prefer to go for something like the Surface. After living with the Encore for a few weeks now, I completely disagree. The not-officially-called-Metro interface is well suited to smaller screens. On a larger screen I feel there is too much empty space, but here it works. In some ways I viewed the Encore as a big Windows Phone device that I could turn into a Windows PC when I needed it. That is perfect for me.

The Encore fits perfectly into my lifestyle. My tablet requirements are pretty basic tasks like taking notes during meetings, but I often find times where I need to put down my tablet and use a client's computer to change what a button does in their database or configure IIS on their server. The Encore is capable of handling those tasks when I need that power. If there is ever anything I can't do on a touchscreen I just need a Bluetooth keyboard, mouse and monitor.

The 64GB of solid state storage gives plenty of rooms for your content and the Micro SD card slot allows you additional storage capacity. The inclusion of Micro HDMI allows the device to easily connect to external displays and Micro USB allows for plenty of other accessories to be added.

If you are looking for an 8-inch tablet device I highly recommend the Toshiba Encore.

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