Shaun Warnock is a Perth-based procurement officer for one of the larger mining contractors in Australia. He's also one of three winners in our recent Toshiba Encore competition. Shaun has had his new 8-inch Windows 8.1 tablet for over a week now and this is his road test experience...
I do my very best to keep everything balanced — I play amateur level AFL for fitness and stay in touch with my friends by Facebook, Viber, Text or Google circles.
At work I have a brace of 24-inch HD screens. One is exclusively reserved for email while the other cycles between a variety of applications and our management software. Away from work I’m rarely parted from my Nokia Lumia 920 as it is my people hub. Appointments, conversations and photo sharing all happen through it, while Nokia’s Mix Radio app takes care of all my audio needs. I don’t currently own a tablet. I used to have an Android tablet but it was sold due to frustration at its limitations and ecosystem.
That’s why I’m excited to see if the Toshiba Encore can complement my current lifestyle. I also like to get away and take road trips on my motorcycle.
I’m keen to test the Encore’s minimal form factor married to the full Windows 8.1 suite compared to the phone/laptop combination when out on the road...
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
This is interesting. The box almost looks like a postage parcel: plain brown cardboard with a very flat and uninteresting Toshiba logo and not a lot else. Honestly it looks like it could contain an old school wired mouse or a video card. There is very little embellishment to the packaging that screams "I’m special, pick me up and take a look!". Perhaps Toshiba is trying to let the tablet do the talking but honestly it looks like an oversight to me.
I open the box... is this really it? I’m trying to remember how large my previous (and long since sold) 10.1-inch tablet was because this doesn’t really look like a full 8-ich device. Because I’m fussy, I grabbed my measuring tape and checked. Yep, a full 8-inches of screen real estate. I can hardly feel cheated about that. Handling the Encore made it feel larger that’s for sure, this thing is heavier than it looks. 445 grams doesn’t sound like much; it’s slightly less than a Wi-Fi iPad (468G). It’s not heavy so much as it just feels a lot more solid than I expected. That probably reflects the generous battery and Toshiba build quality. There is almost no flex to the device whatsoever.
The back case is plastic but it feels really nice in the hand. The dimpled surface gives a nice amount of grip.
I’m going to preface this by saying that apart from Windows Phone 8, I have absolutely no experience with the current Windows 8.1 ecosystem. So this is a learning experience for me.
Starting up the device from dead cold took about 20-25 seconds which wasn’t unexpected. The Encore boasts InstantGo certification so once it’s on it can wake from standby in a third of a second. Useful if you need to make a quick note or check on something. Signing in was easy enough: pair it to a wireless network and sign in using a Microsoft account. I luckily had a live.com account left over from a while ago so I was able to breeze through the initial set up.
Once you’ve been through the setup process — including a nifty little animation that outlines the basics of tough control — you're taken directly to the start screen. It took me around 40-seconds to find the “new” (old) Start button but that was the only real hiccup. Accessing the app store was easy as pie from the Start Menu and I quickly had the essentials (Skype, Viber, SmartGlass, Facebook) downloaded and installed.
Initially I was sceptical about the full Windows suite in a smaller device, and unfortunately this concern reared its ugly head in full desktop mode. I found that much of the time radio buttons, text boxes, links in emails and even excel cells were just too small to accurately hit regularly. On these occasions I think my strike rate was somewhere around 60%. A stylus would help a great deal with this problem but unfortunately that’s something you’re going to have to source out of your own pocket as you don't get one included.
Being a WP8 and Android user I’ve become accustomed to having a back button so there were a few moments of frustration when trying to stab at a haptic button that just wasn’t there. Once I had learned to embrace swiping and the hardware home button I was flying through menus and screens.
The keyboard is quite well laid out especially the secondary keyboard, which includes a very useful numper pad. There is one unwelcome feature of the Windows ecosystem — you can use any keyboard you like, as long as you like “default”. There are no trace keyboard apps available. No keyboard apps at all actually. Those of you who are heavy users of Swype or SwiftKey will have to re-learn the old fashioned “stab stab” typing method.
In desktop mode the keyboard acts as another window, you can manually maximise/minimise it but it wound automatically pop up when you click into a text box. This can be both good and bad depending on your point of view. Personally I prefer the manual method as you don’t bring the keyboard up every time you accidentally click on a text box.
The rest of Windows 8.1 is as it says on the tin — and has been optimised for touchscreens. To be honest, I’m a big fan. Gesture controls may take a while to get used to and some things aren’t exactly intuitive at first but I found that with a bit of effort I had the knack of it within a day. On a screen that isn’t touch enabled that would be a different story but on the Toshiba it fits just fine.
One night on a flight of fancy I thought of attempting to install Steam on the Encore and seeing if I could get a useable session of Borderlands happening. Unfortunately my lack of a Bluetooth enabled keyboard/mouse meant that I couldn’t test it in time for this review.
AUDIO: Streaming audio apps are all the rage, and for good reason. You can plug in your favourite artists and groove all day to funky beats without a single repeat or obnoxious announcer ruining your buzz. Pandora, Spotify and their ilk are all available in the Windows store and the Encore also comes pre-loaded with Toshiba’s own Rara music as well as Xbox music.
If you do end up listening to music on the Encore you will need to pack some decent headphones. The stock speakers are tinny, washed out and with no bass to speak of. There really is no option other than to plug in some headphones or (powered) external speakers. For sharing music or videos with a group of people the Encore’s tiny speakers just aren’t up to the job. Anywhere approaching maximum volume, say 75% or higher and the distortion is dominant as the tiny drivers struggle with the load. To be fair, on an 8-inch device space is at a premium, so it may have been a lower priority than battery life or thickness. A better idea is to use the headphone jack or built in Bluetooth 4.0 to pair it to an external speaker and enjoy your cool tunes that way.
SCREEN: Out of the box the screen felt dark, colour reproduction seemed off slightly, and everything was drab and awful. Once I had dived into settings and turned the brightness up a few notches (default is 40%) it was much, much better — but I think it still loses out slightly to its 1080p competitors. At 1280x800 is not as pixel dense as a retina iPad, or even a Kindle Fire HD. So the Encore loses some polish on the finer details noticeable in desktop icons and Word documents.
The screen was actually very good in terms of responsiveness. Touch and gestures registered immediately. Games reacted swiftly to actions and movements, and there was very little lag. There was one occasion where I needed to resize Explorer with a few other windows open (including YouTube) in the background when it started to lag slightly, but I couldn’t replicate the issue a second time.
BATTERY: Battery life is important to me. Six hours from a conventional laptop or Ultrabook just doesn’t cut it in my line of work. If I have 2 or 3 consecutive meetings with vendors, then I can kiss my laptop goodbye. It will be flat before lunch.
I've also often found that manufacturers tend to be overly generous with active/standby estimates. Fortunately, Toshiba's claim of 14 active hours from the Encore seems to be pretty much spot on. If you were so inclined you could watch the entirety of the Lord of the Rings extended editions back to back, and still have enough battery time to check your email and jump on Facebook for an hour or so.
With normal use it was four days before I was encouraged to look for a charger. This included a lot of email, light document editing, near constant Facebook checking and a few YouTube sessions thrown in. I wasn’t timing my use to the second but it would have been very close to the 14 hour claim.
Should You Buy It?
In terms of where the Encore sits in the market, you get a decent amount of kit for your dollar. This is no RT tablet — you get a 4th-gen Atom CPU and the full windows 8.1 suite all designed for productivity in a more manageable form factor. Windows snap quickly and there was very little lag to speak of, so the hardware is definitely up to scratch. I find it hard to justify picking up my laptop or phone when the Encore is within reach. It really is a convenient little device.
The Encore tries to strike a balance between a traditional laptop and a tablet. However, that in itself can pose problems. The screen size makes productivity haphazard at times and can take some getting used to. Throwing in a stylus would have made things a lot easier in my opinion.
There is a lot to like about the Encore, though. The HDMI-out port makes presentations a snap and the device is super easy to handle. For its intended purpose, the Encore presents a decent alternative to a dedicated netbook while giving you much more scope of use than less functional tablets.