Gaming laptops are traditionally full of compromises.
Toshiba Encore (64GB) Windows 8.1 tablet
Toshiba's 8in Windows 8.1 tablet offers a very good overall user experience
- Swift performance
- Feels good in the hand
- HDMI output and microSD card storage slot
- Good battery life
- Buttons are a little too shallow
- Brightness didn't always work well
- Tight microSD card slot
- Awkward to charge
Toshiba's Encore offers a much better experience than previous low-power, Windows 8 tablets we've tested, and we recommend it if you're in the market for a Windows-based tablet device. At 8 inches, it can be a little awkward to use, especially when thick fingers are pointing a tiny icons in the Windows Desktop, but it should be fine once you get used to it.
Price$ 459.00 (AUD)
Toshiba's little 8in Encore tablet is perhaps the best alternative there is to an iPad or Android device — especially if you've never really used a tablet before and you're coming from a Windows background.
The tablet is small enough to be palmed in one hand by some people, and its 433g weight should make it comfortable to hold for most people. But, most importantly, this thing is a standard Windows 8.1 computer and it has enough processing power to provide an enjoyable user experience.
Physically, the Toshiba Encore doesn't look all that pretty or innovative. It's just a regular slab with a glossy screen, front and rear cameras, a few buttons and ports along the sides (you get micro-HDMI, microUSB, a microSD card slot and a headset port), and it has a patterned back that makes it fairly easy to grip. However, it's when you start using this tablet that you realise it's better than many that have come before it in the Windows world.
We have often criticised Intel Atom-based Windows 8 tablets for being too sluggish and offering a downright poor user experience because of that. However, Toshiba's use of Intel's latest generation Atom Z3740 means that the Encore tablet doesn't suffer the same fate. In fact, we can recommend it to anyone who wants to try out a Windows 8 tablet. It's a tablet that felt responsive in every facet, whether we were in the Modern UI or the plain old Windows Desktop. We could easily watch videos that were either stored locally or streamed over the Internet, and when using Modern UI apps, switching between them was a very smooth experience.
That combination of performance, plus a good screen and solid build quality, in addition to a better selection of Windows apps since the last time we tested a dedicated Windows 8 tablet, made this a go-to device during our test period. In fact, when all we wanted to do was browse the Web, check email, use Twitter, and catch up on sports highlights, we went for this rather than one of the many laptops we had on hand for testing.
The Intel Atom CPU has integrated graphics that are an improvement over the previous generation Atom technology, and the rest of the configuration includes 2GB of RAM and a 64GB solid state drive (SSD). In our Blender 3D rendering benchmark, which we run on everything just to get a feel for what the CPU can do, the Encore recorded a time of 1min 49sec. A tablet with a previous-generation Atom CPU, such as the Acer Iconia W3-810, performs the same task in 3min 16sec.
Right off the bat we can see that the Encore's performance is better than the previous generation of Windows 8, low-power tablets, and the graphics performance in 3DMark's Ice Storm test is another indicator of the latest CPU's power; the Encore recorded 16045 in this test, whereas the Acer Iconia W3-810 with the previous-generation Intel Atom recorded 3508. In general, we found the graphics performance to be swift during everyday usage, with no problems rendering high-resolution photos, and no sluggishness when loading and running games through the Windows 8 Modern UI.
Its storage performance wasn't anything out of the ordinary, though. In CrystalDiskMark, the Encore's 64GB SSD recorded a read rate of 83 megabytes per second (MBps), and a write rate of 35MBps. These are merely expected results. If the 64GB of space isn't enough for you, it can be expanded by adding a microSD card through the slot on the left side of the device. In our tests using a 16GB SanDisk Extreme SDHC card, the Encore read large files from it at a rate of 21MBps, and wrote them at a similar rate of 20MBps. The slot supports 64GB SDXC cards, and we tested with one from Samsung, which recorded almost identical read and write rates.
We should point out that the microSD slot on our test unit was horrific when used with the slightly thick SanDisk card. Its spring mechanism didn't work properly to eject the card, so once the card was in (it goes in with the label facing up), it didn't spring back out. We had to use long fingernails to get the card out by moving it away from the sides of the slot while pushing it in another couple of times to make sure the spring was in release mode. The slightly skinnier 64GB Samsung SDXC card came out with a little less effort, but it still wasn't a smooth ejection process. Beware of this when you use the microSD slot, especially if you plan on swapping cards out regularly.
Because of the low-power Intel Atom CPU, the battery life of the Encore is long; in fact, considering that the Encore is a fully operation Windows 8 computer on which you can even run Microsoft Office if you so desire, it's battery life can be considered very good. In our rundown test, where we loop a video file in Windows Media Player while using the maximum screen brightness and with Wi-Fi enabled (it's dual-band, and we used the 5GHz band for our testing), the Encore lasted 7hr 8min. It's just over 40min better than what the Iconia W3-810 achieved with a previous-generation Intel Atom CPU at the same screen size.
Design, and user comfort
The low-power Intel Atom CPU doesn't only supply long battery life, it also allows the Toshiba Encore to be slim and light, and, perhaps most importantly, to run silently. It won't make any noise, even if you stream Flash-based video through a Web browser, so it's perfect for use in quiet environments. It gets a tad warm on the left side when it's under a heavy load, but it never got hot enough for us to feel uncomfortable while holding it.
Toshiba has designed the Encore to be used in portrait mode. The capacitive Windows key is located at the bottom when holding the tablet in this mode, which means that holding the tablet in landscape mode re-orients this button to the side. This can lead to inadvertent presses of that button while the tablet is being held, or when gestures are being performed. We ended up back at the main page of the Modern UI screen many times when all we wanted to do was perform a swipe-in gesture from the right side to access the Charms.
Speakers are located along the bottom, and they get muffled easily if you are holding the tablet in your hands while watching videos. The speakers are decent for listening to something in a pinch, but headphones are a must for prolonged music and video playback. The headphone jack is located at the top of the tablet.
Along the right side, the power button and the volume buttons are also hard to press. These buttons are small and they sit low against the chassis. They are hard to feel for if you don't know exactly where they are. On the bright side, it means that they can't be inadvertently pressed.
Good for Bluetooth music streaming
Bluetooth 4.0 is also present, which means you can easily connect the tablet to a set of supported speakers without using wires. During our tests, one of the main tasks we assigned to the Encore was to stream Google Play Music to our Bluetooth-enabled stereo system. It performed this task very well — even while streaming music live from the Google Play Music service, the audio via Bluetooth never stuttered or clicked. We can recommend the Encore if you're after a device that can act as an interface for Bluetooth music streaming. The good thing is, because it's just a Windows tablet, it's easy to browse a local network to play music and video off a media server, not just over the Internet.
Screen quality and touch performance
The 8in screen has a native resolution of 1280x800 (or 800x1280 when used in portrait mode), and it supplies decent brightness and contrast, as well as wide viewing angles. We found the brightness control to be a little unreliable, though. There were times when it didn't work at all, even when we disabled the automatic brightness adjustment in Windows, unless we restarted the tablet. When it did work, the level of change between brightness from around 20 per cent to 100 per cent wasn't great.
Because of the small screen, it can be difficult to navigate the traditional Windows 8 Desktop environment comfortably. We often tapped on the wrong thing by accident, and many times we had to repeat our taps in order for them to register. It's a criticism that we also levelled at the Acer tablet. Conversely, we had only few instances of miss-hits while using the Modern UI. In fact, we recommend using the Encore primarily in that environment, especially if you don't mind using Internet Explorer, and if there are apps available that perform all the tasks you require. That's not to say that you can't use the Desktop effectively on this small tablet, it's just that text items and small icons will sometimes be a pain to select with your fingers.
If you want to connect the Encore to a TV, you can do so by purchasing a micro-HDMI to full-sized HDMI adapter (or a cable with micro-HDMI on one end and full-sized HDMI on the other). The HDMI port is located too close to the USB charging port, though, which means if you want to use the Encore for prolonged periods of time while it's plugged in to a power source, you'll have to make sure you don't use an adapter or cable that encroaches on the USB port's space.
Since it's a touchscreen, you can't easily extend the screen to a TV (not unless you use a Bluetooth mouse to drag stuff over to the second screen), but it will work just fine to duplicate content on a big screen, or to use a big screen exclusively. We used the Encore to stream video from the Internet (using the NBA League Pass service) to a Full HD TV and this resulted in smooth playback.
The bottom line is this: if you'd written off thin and light Windows 8 tablets based on previous experience, the current generation Intel Atom-based models such as this Toshiba Encore should make you reconsider. The Encore is much zippier than any of the low-power Windows tablets we have seen previously, and it can be used perfectly as a consumption device, or even as a tool to get some writing done.
The performance of the tablet was always top notch. We never felt like it was struggling to keep up with what we wanted to do. We used Modern UI apps, viewed some high-res photos, did a bunch of Web browsing through Firefox, watched YouTube videos, streamed Internet video, and flicked between all those tasks by swiping in from the left edge of the screen.
Read more: 20 best Windows 8 apps to get your hands on
With a wireless keyboard and a case to make the tablet sit upright, the Encore can be used to run Microsoft Office, making it a good option for writing documents and responding to email while on the road.
Some of the things that annoyed us were the shallow power and volume buttons, which we found hard to press, the sometimes hard-to-adjust screen brightness, and the too-tight microSD card slot. We wish there was a built-in kickstand, and also that the capacitive Windows button was located on the long edge of the screen, rather than the short end. We also wish there was a better charging solution for it because the USB cable that plugs into the charger is way too short for most power outlet locations.
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