Hands on with Toshiba's JournE

The home multimedia tablet has a relatively low price but will require a good Internet connection to work well

Perhaps one of the most interesting products to come out of the first day of this year's IFA electronics fair in Berlin is Toshiba's JournE Internet and multimedia tablet.

The lightweight device sports a 7-inch touch screen and Wi-Fi connection for quick access to the Web and popular social networking and sharing applications like Facebook, Flickr, MSN Messenger and Picasa. It also has a media player for viewing pictures, listening to music and watching videos. But the best thing about it might be the price: €249 (US$356), which is considerably less than many competing products.

But what's it like to use? Toshiba has several demonstration models on its IFA booth and I took it for a test drive.

When the device is first switched on it takes a few seconds for the Windows Embedded OS to boot up and a Windows desktop momentarily appears before being replaced by a much smarter looking page that was developed by Toshiba. It has 15 icons per page in three rows of five with each providing a shortcut to an application or service.

Performance was unfortunately difficult to evaluate because of the slow wireless connection at the Toshiba booth. The device is supposed to provide a gateway to Internet services so a slow connection gives an appearance of sluggishness but a few times the connection appeared to speed up and at those points the device felt faster.

It's relatively light at 450 grams so doesn't really become tiring to hold. It's 14 millimeters thick, which is about the same as a cell phone.

The prototype offered access to several sites including The Weather Channel. Accessing that site required input of a city name and provided a chance to use the on-screen keyboard, which takes up about a third of the screen when it appears and is big enough to finger type without hitting neighboring keys.

Toshiba is playing down the detailed specifications of the device and its operating system saying they're not the point. It's supposed to be orientated around Internet services so the underlying hardware shouldn't really matter, be it Windows Embedded or another OS. Toshiba chose Windows Embedded because it has a wide range of applications available. However, future models might be based on other software, hinted Marco Perino, general manager of EMEA digital products and services at Toshiba.

One of the desktop buttons has direct access to a Toshiba Store where the company is planning to offer free and pay content and widgets for the device, Perino said. There's already a wide range of Windows Embedded software available so the store should fill up fast with applications, he said.

Perino is keen to get services like the BBC's iPlayer streaming and on-demand TV service on the device. It's starting out as a gadget to provide Internet access in the living room perhaps while people are watching TV, but with access to iPlayer or other national equivalents it would also become a gateway to on-demand and live TV entertainment.

Like many smartphone makers, Toshiba has done much to disguise the old-fashioned Windows user interface but Windows dialog boxes do pop up a few times. They'll be gone when it ships in Europe later this year, Perino said.

And that probably is going to be the key to the success of the JournE touch. The price is right but if the user interface is slick and smooth enough then it will satisfy the needs of most people for casual Internet access and multimedia and could become a hit. If the interface is excessively difficult to use or bogged-down in Windows dialog boxes and other quirks then users might stay away.

After it launches in Europe it will be rolled out to other markets, he said.

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Martyn Williams

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