Window 8 tablets have had a short and troubled life. Complicated devices, gimped operating systems and confusing advertising have all made buyers understandably wary since the operating system's launch 18 month ago. There's a light at the end of the tunnel, though; Toshiba's Encore tablet runs proper Windows, and it's small enough to be easily portable.
The Toshiba Encore is an 8-inch tablet; we think this is genuinely the sweet spot for everyday tablet use, since it's just small enough to fit into a jacket pocket, but large enough to be easy to use for watching a movie or typing out a quick email. The screen's surrounding bezel is maybe a little large for our liking -- we would have appreciated a slightly larger screen with a slightly smaller bezel, like LG's G-Pad 8.3, which also has a better resolution than the Encore's middling 1280x800 pixels. The 16:10 screen ratio means you'll get thin black bars on your widescreen movies, but we think it's better for Web browsing and productivity tasks.
The overall package is an attractive but uninspiring one. The tablet only weighs 450g, and at 213x136x10.7mm it's reasonably compact -- a slimmer profile would have been nice, but we're not complaining given the claimed 14 hours of battery life. The glossy finish on the screen's glass does tend up to pick up a few fingerprints by the end of the day, though, and there's only one colour option: a bright silver paint job with a hint of gold to it.
Our test unit had a slight creak in its plastic rear shell. We haven't tried out other retail Encore units to see whether this is a common occurrence, but ours felt a little hollow inside the casing; Microsoft's own Surface 2, and the new 8-inch Samsung Galaxy NotePRO, by comparison, feel rock solid. In any case, the Encore's body is flush with ports and buttons -- there's a power button, volume, SDXC-capable microSD card slot, dual downward-firing speakers, headphone, microHDMI and a dual-purpose USB 2.0 and charging port.
There was only 32GB of internal storage in the Toshiba Encore we tested, although it's possible to buy a more expensive 64GB version at a $60 premium over the $399 standard Encore. 128GB would be better, but if you're willing to stream your music and movies online, this won't be a problem. Intel's latest generation of mobile-friendly chipsets makes an appearance; the quad-core 1.86GHz Intel Atom Z3740 inside the Encore is famously easy on battery life without sacrificing performance. 2GB of low-power RAM is included, as is a duet of cameras -- 2-megapixel at the front, and 8-megapixel at the rear.
We did notice that the Encore's speakers, which fire 'down' when you're holding the tablet it in its portrait orientation -- better for Windows 8.1's touchscreen apps, but not for the desktop -- aren't great. They don't have a huge amount of high volume extension, and especially struggle with bass notes. They're adequate, but headphones are a must if you want to listen to music or watch a movie.
The cameras aren't great either, but they get the job done for video-conferencing and photos where image quality isn't too important. It's in battery life where the Toshiba Encore really shines. We loaded up a 720p MKV file in VLC and set it to loop playback, with screen brightness set to full and Wi-Fi enabled on Toshiba's standard Balanced power policy. We recorded a run-down battery life of 7 hours and 46 minutes, which is an amazingly good result from a tablet that seems so generic at first glance.
If you want to get some work done, the Intel processor inside the Encore is adequately powerful. Navigating around the Windows Modern interface is quick, and there's no perceptible lag when switching to an app, tapping on a text box and bringing up the on-screen keyboard. We did notice the slightest delay when using a Bluetooth keyboard from Microsoft to type out a few emails, but it's an extremely minor quibble and we've known full-size laptops that have far worse issues.
Once you get past the Toshiba Encore's design and features, the rest of the tablet is pure Windows 8.1 -- just the same as you'd use on your laptop or desktop PC. This is one of the big appeals of the Encore -- it's using the only legitimate operating system that can somewhat bridge the gap between touchscreen and traditional keyboard-and-mouse use. With a Bluetooth keyboard and travel mouse hooked up, and the Encore sitting on its optional desk stand, it could very well be a Surface Pro 2 or any other Ultrabook-class device hit with a shrink ray.
If you're used to using Windows' Desktop mode, then the Encore makes the job easy; if you're new to 8.1, the Modern interface is the default choice anyway. Where an Android tablet or convertible or an iPad requires that you learn to drive an entirely new operating system, staying in the Windows ecosystem (without falling prey to the cut-down Windows RT) is a smart choice.
That's what impressed us most about the Toshiba Encore. It's a relatively cheap tablet that also makes a capable everyday PC. Hook up a keyboard and mouse and external monitor and you'd hardly realise that you were using a tablet to browse the 'net or send your emails. It's not built to stand up to serious gaming or photo editing or number-crunching tasks; it's a PC that you could easily use at home and on the go.