Sony and Apple have made a real commitment to industrial design -- just read any recent review of either company's mobile products and you'll find effusive praise. The same can't be said for Toshiba. The company isn't really on US consumers' radar, especially people shopping for tablets. You'd think, then, that to attract eyeballs and wallets, Toshiba would go for the glitz. But it hasn't. The Excite Write (we cringe with every typed utterance) comes wrapped in a textured plastic shell. Its color is silvery gray and, though we're not the type to use and abuse our products, that paint job looks like it'll chip off or scratch easily, but so far it's held up well. The backplate also feels somewhat hollow, as if there's empty space beneath it. Tapping on its center will corroborate this assumption.
The Excite Write's rear 8-megapixel camera is located off to the upper-right corner and is smartly recessed, shielding it from scratches when the tablet is lying face-down. To its right is an accompanying LED flash. Other than that, Toshiba's branding, the FCC label, Harman Kardon logo and speakers are all splayed across the bottom. The choice of speaker placement is woefully at odds with how users will naturally grip the tablet. They're situated at the exact point where your palms will hold the backplate and, consequently, suffocate sound. Again, this is glaring evidence of Toshiba's lack of design finesse. Tablets are no longer a new and untested product category; common sense dictates a different speaker arrangement.
All three of the Excite Write's ports (microSD, mini-HDMI and micro-USB) are housed beneath a loosely secured flap that's tenuously connected to the frame. Carelessness or a slight mishandling could cause it to break off all too easily. Flanking either side of this is the DC charging port below and, near the top-left edge, a volume rocker and 3.5mm headphone jack. The uppermost edge of the device is reserved for the power button and nothing else.
Its front face looks much the same as most other 10-inch tablets. There's a generous bezel all around the screen, a 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera module up top and branding for Toshiba and Harman Kardon below. The Excite Write's edges are smooth and rounded, so your palms won't hurt from holding it -- in fact, its 0.4-inch (10.1mm) thickness means there's plenty to hold, but its 1.48-pound weight (671.3 grams) will eventually tire you out.
We need to talk about the Excite Write's screen. In theory, its 10-inch, 2,560 x 1,600 IPS display should sear away our retinas with its splendor, but actually, the opposite happens. Oh, you won't find fault with its clarity and crispness; the pixel density here (300 ppi) is plain fantastic. So much so, that we were even able to notice a difference in Amazon's app icons -- the Amazon MP3 app shortcut appears blurrier, as it wasn't optimized to be viewed on a screen this sharp. No, our beef has to do with the panel Toshiba employed, something it calls a PixelPure display. Whatever snazzy marketing name Toshiba's slapped on it, its colors lack the pizzazz we expect from something so high-res. Take the Google Chrome logo, for example: the yellow has a muted, brownish hue. Further, whites, like on the Gmail or Play Store icons, appear somewhat grayish. It's disappointing, but not a dealbreaker by any means.
If it was a Note 10.1 clone Toshiba intended to create, it didn't entirely succeed. The tablet incorporates a Wacom digitizer that, when used in conjunction with the pack-in stylus (sorry -- TruPen), mimics handwriting excellently. Users are presented with two options to enjoy this feature: Stylus Mobile or TruNote. Stylus Mobile appears as a separate app within the Excite Write's drawer, but it's really just an input option. Setup for this is not user-friendly. In fact, we stumbled upon it by chance days after using the tablet.
TruPen input can be enabled either from within the app itself, from settings or even by long-pressing on the space bar when in a text-based app. When a user selects it as the primary source of input, options will be displayed for text size, color and ink thickness, as well as scrolling speed and the baseline position for the handwriting recognition box. There is a tutorial, but it's not automatic and users will have to seek it out to make the most of Stylus Mobile. Unsurprisingly, many of the gesture commands employed by the likes of Samsung's Note line are used here, too. Strikethroughs or cross-outs will delete a word or portion of it; a curved underscore will join word fragments together; while a straight line drawn down between letters will add a space. Users can even overwrite on a word to correct misspellings. The TruPen can also be flipped around and used like an eraser -- the tablet will automatically recognize this -- or switch pen styles via hard key.
In practice, my finely honed cursive (which is more like illegible shorthand) appeared on screen with little lag and, more often than not, was correctly recognized when translated into text. It's not the most efficient option for banging out an email, but for users that want to rely on the TruPen, it's at least reliable. Resting your palm on the tablet while you write is thankfully not an issue. I leaned my hand heavily on the Excite Write and still it carried on relaying our scrawl unhindered. There's even an option, buried in the settings menu, to enable a hovering pointer and calibrate alignment. But, regardless of how well it works, the Excite Write's stylus-oriented software suite just isn't as robust or compelling in its gimmickry. And by that I mean, there's just one TruPen app: TruNote.
TruNote is a barebones imitation of Samsung's S Note and S Memo, and its interface is utterly baffling. TruNote's UI is bereft of any indication of what onscreen options are available -- there's no helpful captioning to guide users, just a haphazard arrangement of notebooks, the most recently taken screenshot and a pen that does nothing. Tap on any of the assorted books and you'll be taken through a two-step process that leads to the actual editing page. There, only three pen color options are on offer, plus eraser and crop tools. Or so it would seem. Long-press on any of the pen options and a window will appear allowing you to specify pen type, color (10, in all), thickness and transparency. Jump out of the note and you'll be afforded the ability to add a label, pages, view properties or page lists, edit, search or delete. Like we said, it's pretty basic stuff. You won't find templates here or the ability to share what you've created.
The Excite Write's camera is a mixed bag of pleasing performance and confusing implementation. The UI, at first glance, appears to have zero options -- just soft keys for camera, video, panorama, shutter and flash. Again, it was only by accident that we discovered the fuller settings wheel, accessible by holding your finger to the screen. At that point, a wheel will surround your finger with options to set the exposure, white balance, HDR, scenes modes, flash and switch cameras. It's neat to look at, but we would've preferred a more traditional arrangement. This is just not that user-friendly.
Focus can be set by touching anywhere on the screen, but once this locks, it doesn't follow up with a shutter snap. You still have to manually tap the shutter key for capture. As for the photos it produces, generally we came away with decent shots. Oddly, though, colors seem to be slightly overexposed and also artificially enhanced -- the sky in New York is not that blue. Detail also seems to drop off outside of the focal point and zoomed-in images are mostly unusable due to excessive noise.
The Excite Write's 1080p video recording is pretty solid. The frame rate in our sample held up well and it appears the noise-cancelling powers of the Excite Write are strong enough to block out the ambient noise of downtown New York City. Go ahead and watch the sample, it sounds like we recorded it in a vacuum.
||Toshiba Excite Write
||Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 10.1
||Sony Xperia Tablet Z
|Vellamo (v2.0 HTML5)
|SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms)
|GLBenchmark 2.5 Egypt 1080p Offscreen (fps)
||N/A (wouldn't run)
||N/A (wouldn't run)
|Battery life (rundown test)
|SunSpider: lower scores are better
Tuck in for another uncomfortable revelation: the Tegra 4 chip here is not used to good effect. It's almost as if the Excite Write is suffering from a pervasive performance hiccup -- nothing works as smoothly as it should despite our enabling Tegra 4 optimization. Perhaps it's just the Tegra 4 that's taking time to cycle back up to a productive state, but even so, never once were we treated to a brisk experience, as we were on the NVIDIA Shield. Animations here have the distinct sensation of chugging along; app launches take far too long -- even accessing the app drawer; the most basic of tasks are slow and inelegant.
It almost goes without saying that tablets are a lean-back experience. We use them primarily when we're sitting on our couches, as receptacles for our splintered attention spans. While that means the tablet is typically a second screen, it can also sometimes be the sole option for streaming media, like Netflix. The Excite Write's full HD screen makes for a great viewing experience and with an audio company like Harman Kardon on board, you'd think the sound would be ace too. (Cue the sad trombone.) Maximum volume output is just too low to be sufficiently audible in a moderately noisy environment, although it works fine if you're in quiet surroundings. Additionally, and as we mentioned previously, there's just no way around not covering the dual speakers with your palms. And even if you do manage to avoid muffling the sound, it's still being directed away from you because of the speaker placement.
Standardized benchmark testing proved to be a clean sweep for the Excite Write and its Tegra 4 processor. Pitted against the Nexus 10, which features a similarly high-res display; the Xperia Tablet Z, with its 1080p resolution; and the comparatively lesser Galaxy Tab 3 10.1, Toshiba's tablet is the clear winner in raw performance. That's not something we've seen spill over into real-world usage, but with the recent news that manufacturers are gaming benchmark results, we're not giving much weight to these numbers.
|Toshiba Excite Write
|Apple iPad mini
|Apple iPad (late 2012)
|Apple iPad 2
|ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime
|Apple iPad (2012)
||9:52 (HSPA) / 9:37 (LTE)
|Nexus 7 (2012)
|Microsoft Surface for Windows RT
|ASUS Transformer Prime Infinity TF700
|Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1
|Sony Xperia Tablet Z
|Hisense Sero 7 Pro
|Lenovo IdeaTab S2110
|Galaxy Tab 2 7.0
|HP Slate 7
|Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0
|Nexus 7 (2013)
|RIM BlackBerry PlayBook
|Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 10.1
Don't expect to get a spectacular run out of the Excite Write's 4,380mAh battery. After six days of casual use, including light browsing and tweeting, battery life remained at 60 percent. Thereafter, though, as we ramped up our usage, especially by watching video, that number plummeted to 28 percent in a matter of hours. WiFi and the display itself are the two most energy-hungry culprits, so if you actively manage brightness and toggle WiFi on only when needed, you'll be able to significantly extend performance. We should also note there are three power-management options available within settings: default, power save and custom. Our tablet is currently set to the default. Formalized testing puts the Excite Write's 4,380mAh cell at eight hours and 13 minutes -- that's with brightness at half, Twitter syncing every 15 minutes, WiFi / GPS enabled and one push email account active. That's three hours less than the current 9.7-inch iPad, but still significantly better than the new Samsung Galaxy Tab 3.
Unblemished Android Jelly Bean -- that's what you'll get when you fire up the Excite Write. That is to say, there's no UX overlay, so Android purists, this is your cue to rejoice. Just to be clear, Toshiba has made some tweaks; you can see this in the arrangement of the home screen (a screenshot shortcut is included on the navigation bar) and the Power Management, Image Stabilization and 3D output options available from within settings. Otherwise, though, it's Android 4.2.1 as you've always known and preferred it. Kudos to Toshiba on that front.
Unfortunately, Toshiba didn't exercise the same restraint when it came to the app bloat. Sure, there are some useful, major third-party apps pre-loaded, like Hulu Plus, Amazon Kindle and Evernote / Skitch, but the rest -- GApps, excluded -- are just filler. Six games are pre-installed on the device, in addition to the likes of Amazon Shopping, Amazon MP3, Adobe Reader, App Place, Book Place, Crackle, eBay, Toshiba File Manager, iHeartRadio, Toshiba Media Player, News Place, PrintHand, Rdio, Toshiba Service Station, Stylus Mobile, Tablet Security, ThinkFree, TruCapture, TruNote and Zinio. And not all of these can be uninstalled -- mostly just disabled -- which eats into your allotted 32GB of internal storage.
Of Toshiba's own apps, TruCapture is a curious addition. Its sole purpose is to snap photos from notebooks or dry-erase boards and then render the most legible image. It's a fairly straightforward process, though the initial tutorial page is so crammed with instructions as to be off-putting. The process works like this: launch the app, choose whether or not to enable Reflection Reduction (which does what it says and requires two separate photos for image processing), snap your pic and then crop or enhance the background whiteness as you please. It's probably a useful tool if you're in boardrooms all day, but most anyone else using this tablet will skip right past it.
So what if you like the idea of a high-resolution display, but you're not entirely sold on the Excite Write's execution? Lucky you, there are alternatives, but all come with specific trade-offs. Of the bunch, only Apple's 9.7-inch iPad matches the Excite Write in price and storage, but, take note, its 2,048 x 1,536 screen, which works out to 264 ppi, is comparatively less pixel-dense than Toshiba's 300-ppi panel. Or you can go the Android route and opt for Google's Nexus 10 for $499 -- already a cheaper option. That'll get you access to the latest Android updates, 32GB of storage and a 10-inch, 2,560 x 1,600 screen to rival the Excite Write. If you're willing to sacrifice the super-sharp display for a more stylus-oriented experience, it might be worth considering Samsung's Galaxy Note 10.1 for $499. Again, its 10.1-inch, 1,280 x 800 display won't wow, but the tablet's at least made with the S Pen in mind and, for the lesser price, you're getting the same storage.
On paper, the Excite Write comes off like a premium product loaded up with top-shelf specs that more than merits the $600 price tag. How it fares when it's actually in hand, however, is another matter. Turns out, Toshiba's asking price is more of a warning sign than a high-end designation. The Tegra 4 chip inside should provide a blisteringly fast experience, but the reality is the opposite; it's faltering, if anything. The Excite Write's TruPen features should help it to stand out and even best Samsung's own pioneering Note products, but again it fails to hit the mark. TruPen applications are sparse -- there's just the one -- and there's no place to actually stow the stylus on the device. Meaning, you'll lose it pretty easily. Even the 2,560 x 1,600 PixelPure display is a letdown, with colors that muddy rather than shine. And all this can be yours for $600? We think not.