Toshiba Encore review: an 8-inch Windows tablet that struggles to stand out

Toshiba is no stranger to Windows tablets, but what we've seen to date has typically been targeted at businesses or has otherwise been... limited. In that sense, the Encore is something special. It's not just the company's first 8-inch Windows tablet -- it's the first aimed at a truly broad audience. That said, it faces stiff odds. Acer, Dell, Lenovo and others have comparable slates on the market, in many cases with similar features. Toshiba would have to do something truly out of the ordinary to stand out. And frankly, it doesn't. While the Encore is a worthy device, you'll have to be particularly enamored with its design to ignore its rivals. Read on to see what we mean.

Gallery | 20 Photos

Toshiba Encore review

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Toshiba

Encore

Pros

  • Comfortable to hold
  • Bright display
  • Includes a micro-HDMI port -- a rarity on 8-inch Windows tablets

Cons

  • No clear edge over the competition
  • Finicky hardware buttons
  • Terrible rear camera
     
Summary

The Encore is a jack-of-all-trades, and master of none; while there are few things it does badly, it's not so good in any one area that you'd choose it over other small Windows tablets.

Hardware

With certain exceptions, the design language of Toshiba's mobile devices has typically been plain -- a textbook example of form chasing function. That's undoubtedly true for the Encore. Its "sunray silver" plastic back is reminiscent of the company's lower-end Satellite laptops, and it neither feels nor looks premium -- even Acer's Iconia W4 seems upscale by comparison. The Encore makes up for this in sheer practicality. It's comfortable to hold, and the textured back adds just enough grip that you won't get nervous using it one-handed. The surface does a good job hiding fingerprint smudges, too. The Encore is also one of the heavier 8-inch Windows tablets we've seen at 0.97 pounds, although it's not much thicker than Dell's Venue 8 Pro, at 0.42 inches. Indeed, we had no objections to the added weight during prolonged browsing or gaming sessions.

The rest of the Encore's design mostly checks the right boxes, delivering extras that you don't always see on its peers. At the top, you'll see micro-HDMI video output (not present on Lenovo's Miix 2 or the Venue 8 Pro) alongside the usual headphone jack, a micro-USB port and one of two microphones. Meanwhile, there's a microSD card slot on the left for extra storage, stereo speakers on the bottom, a 2-megapixel camera in the front-right corner and a sharper-than-average 8-megapixel shooter at the back. You'll get either 32GB or 64GB of flash storage inside, much like other tablets in this class.

Toshiba Encore ports

Toshiba could stand to improve the hardware keys. The power button and volume rocker at the upper right are easy to reach in most orientations, and they're particularly well-suited to a portrait view. However, they're almost flush with the body; it's difficult to identify them purely by feel. There were a few times where we accidentally cranked the volume instead of putting the tablet to sleep. And the capacitive Start button can be frustrating -- it occasionally ignores input, forcing you to either poke the key multiple times or use the on-screen task switcher. The button isn't a dealbreaker, but we'd rather have the more conventional (and more reliable) buttons from Acer and Dell.

Display and sound

Toshiba Encore display

Stop us if you've heard this one before: The Encore has an IPS-based, 1,280 x 800 LCD screen that offers rich colors at virtually any viewing angle. Yes, Toshiba is closely following the template for screens in 8-inch Windows 8.1 tablets. And that's mostly a good thing. It's a delight to browse photos and videos on this device. There are a few differences that separate the Encore's visuals from the rest of the pack, however, and they're not all for the better. This is one of the brighter displays we've seen in the category, and it's easily visible in most lighting conditions. There isn't support for active styluses like on the Venue or ASUS' VivoTab Note 8, though, and Acer's optically bonded display is better at cutting out unwanted glare.

We also can't help but wish Toshiba had sprung for a higher-resolution panel, if only because we've seen the difference it makes elsewhere. The 1080p screen in Lenovo's ThinkPad 8 is noticeably sharper, let alone the greater-than-HD displays in mobile OS tablets like Apple's iPad mini with Retina display or Samsung's Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4. It's not terribly likely that you'll consider these $400-plus models if you're looking at the much cheaper Encore, but it would be nice to see that higher-end technology filter down to lower-cost equipment.

You probably won't be yearning for better audio quality, though. The speakers can't replace a good set of headphones, but they're loud enough to be heard clearly in a moderately noisy environment. Still, they're unmistakably louder than Acer's reedy-sounding equivalents. We didn't detect much strain at full volume, either. We haven't had the chance to directly compare the Encore's output with that from the Venue 8 Pro, but having two speakers versus Dell's one can only help with audio clarity.

Software

Toshiba Encore's default apps

We've said it before, but it bears repeating: Windows 8.1 is virtually tailor-made for small tablets like the Encore. It lets you shrink Live Tiles to save you from scrolling, provides more thumb-friendly keyboard shortcuts and gives you quick access to the camera from the lock screen. While we can't say that everyone will like Windows' heavily gesture-driven interface, we felt at home before long. This is certainly the platform of choice if you want to run two apps at once, such as a chat client and a browser. You can do that with a few Android tablets, but it's a bit more elegant here -- many Windows 8 apps are designed to run side by side with others.

You'll also have a solid (albeit not outstanding) selection of programs to choose from. Many media apps come in touch-native Windows versions, including those from the big TV networks and music-streaming services like Pandora. Some of the most tablet-savvy apps have only shown up relatively recently, such as Flipboard's curated reading app and Nokia's Here Maps. You won't find some mobile titles (notably Instagram and Vine), and developers like Apple, Mozilla and Valve aren't porting existing software to the modern Windows environment. Still, we haven't been hurting for app choices in a while.

Having Windows 8.1 also grants access to the classic Windows desktop, which is useful if you absolutely, positively have to run a legacy app on your tablet. It's not a panacea, mind you. As we've stressed before, the older interface just isn't intended for an 8-inch screen. Many buttons and scroll bars are too tiny, and you can't assume that your favorite release has been optimized for touch. We'd rather have the option than make do without it (as with Windows RT), but it's best reserved for those moments when you have both a keyboard and mouse close at hand.

Toshiba Encore running Flipboard

Toshiba has largely resisted the urge to load the Encore with extra software. There are just a handful of modern Windows apps beyond what Microsoft normally supplies, most of which are big-name titles. Amazon's Kindle and shopping apps are here, as are BookPlace, eBay, iHeartRadio, Netflix, Symantec's Norton security suite, Toshiba Central (for support), Toshiba TruCapture (for recording whiteboard notes), Xbox 360 SmartGlass and Zinio. The highlight on the traditional desktop is clearly the full copy of Microsoft Office Home & Student, although you will have to activate it. Besides that, you'll only get a smattering of Toshiba support apps. It's a very reasonable mix, although we quickly grew tired of the Norton bundle's out-of-the-box tendency to nag about protection.

Performance and battery life

Tablet PCMark7 3DMark06 3DMark11 ATTO (top disk speeds)
Toshiba Encore (1.33GHz Intel Atom Z3740, Intel HD graphics) 2,479 2,068 E339 / P210 178 MB/s (reads); 68 MB/s (writes)
Acer Iconia W4 (1.33GHz Intel Atom Z3740, Intel HD graphics) 2,538 2,089 E340 / P211 173 MB/s (reads); 48 MB/s (writes)
ASUS Transformer Book T100 (1.33GHz Intel Atom Z3740, Intel HD graphics) 2,461 2,113

E338 / P209

123 MB/s (reads); 58 MB/s (writes)
Dell Venue 8 Pro (1.33GHz Intel Atom Z3740D, Intel HD graphics) 2,343 1,986

E299 / P164

86 MB/s (reads); 45 MB/s (writes)

The Encore doesn't deviate from the script when it comes to hardware. Much like other budget Windows tablets, you'll find both a quad-core, 1.33GHz Atom Z3740 processor and 2GB of RAM under the hood. That doesn't sound like much, but don't let the modest numbers fool you -- the Atom chip's Bay Trail architecture gives Toshiba's slab plenty of power for the interface and lightweight apps. There isn't any noticeable dip in performance when running two apps at once, for that matter.

Intensive tasks like desktop-oriented 3D games are generally off-limits. We could play Half-Life 2 well at low-to-medium detail, but BioShock Infinite just wasn't an option. The Encore is far more adept with mobile-oriented titles like Halo: Spartan Assault, which are silky-smooth. Whatever you're doing, you won't scorch your lap; the Encore got warm when we pushed it hard, but nothing more.

Toshiba Encore tablet close-up

Not surprisingly, there's no clear performance edge over other recent entry-level Windows tablets. The Encore was largely neck and neck with its competitors in processor-focused tests, including the 416ms score we saw in the SunSpider browsing benchmark. The flash-based storage is about as speedy as it is on the Iconia W4, but we did observe a slightly pokier nine-second boot time. We won't grouse too much about the similarity in results, since you're still getting a pleasantly hitch-free tablet experience.

The middle-of-the-road battery life may be a tougher sell. We got eight hours and 45 minutes of runtime from the Encore while looping a video at half brightness (lower than on Acer's tablet, to get comparable illumination), with WiFi retrieving email and social network updates. That's better than the Miix 2 and Venue 8 Pro, but a full hour behind what Acer can manage. It's also well below Toshiba's official 14-hour estimate, which is based on a mixture of browsing, video and standby time. The company's figure is realistic; we managed two days of real-world use before having to recharge. Even so, it's proof that you need to read the fine print for official claims like these. The Encore's battery is good, not great, under a heavy load.

Tablet Battery Life
Toshiba Encore 8:45
Microsoft Surface 2 14:22
Apple iPad Air (LTE) 13:45
Nokia Lumia 2520 13:28 (tablet only) / 16:19 (with dock)
Apple iPad mini 12:43 (WiFi)
Apple iPad mini with Retina display 11:55 (LTE)
Apple iPad (late 2012) 11:08 (WiFi)
ASUS Transformer Book T100 10:40
Apple iPad 2 10:26
Samsung Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 10:04
Apple iPad (2012) 9:52 (HSPA) / 9:37 (LTE)
Acer Iconia W4 9:50
Nexus 7 (2012) 9:49
Microsoft Surface RT 9:36
Apple iPad 9:33
ASUS Transformer Prime Infinity TF700 9:25
Acer Iconia W3 9:21
Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 8:56
Sony Xperia Tablet Z 8:40
Toshiba Excite Write 8:13
Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 7:38
HP Slate 7 7:36
Nexus 10 7:26
Dell Venue 8 Pro 7:19
Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 7:18
Nexus 7 (2013) 7:15
Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 7:13
Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 10.1 6:55
HP SlateBook x2 6:34 (tablet only) / 8:49 (keyboard dock)

We'd add that the 8-megapixel rear camera isn't the upgrade it appears to be over the 5MP units in the Iconia W4 and Venue 8 Pro. If anything, it's a step backward. The Encore's sensor produces more noise in low light than Acer's, and blown-out scene highlights (such as bright windows) are more conspicuous. The rear camera probably won't be a make-or-break factor in your purchase unless you're one of the precious few people who buys a tablet with photography in mind. Even so, we'd prefer that Toshiba had focused on image quality over resolution.

Gallery | 15 Photos

Toshiba Encore camera samples

Configuration options

Toshiba Encore on our favorite website

As of this writing, you only have two choices among Encore tablets. A 32GB model will set you back $300 if you buy from Toshiba, while its 64GB sibling costs $350. If you're a savvy shopper, you can pick up the 32GB variant for less; it currently goes for about $280 at Amazon. At any rate, we'd strongly suggest that you get the 64GB edition if you can --we were down to less than 4GB of space (out of 23GB available) on our 32GB test unit within a matter of days, and that's without a significant media collection.

Moreover, there aren't any major first-party accessories to speak of; we could only track down a basic snap-on case. Unlike Acer, Dell or Lenovo, there are no docks or keyboard cases to turn the Encore into a miniature workhorse. Third-party peripherals thankfully exist to pick up some of the slack, but this does mean you'll have to search around if you're bent on getting a keyboard or protector.

The competition

Toshiba Encore showing its main rival

If you look at specifications alone, Toshiba's slate does little to distinguish itself. It has the same processor, the same storage and the same underlying technology as much of its competition. It even starts at a similar official price these days (Toshiba originally charged $330).

Look closer and it gets more complicated. The Encore fares best against the Miix 2 and Venue 8 Pro, with the healthy battery life and micro-HDMI video that its rivals lack. Dell and Lenovo mostly rely on sales pricing to lure you away; it's common to find either of their tablets selling for less than $250, making them great bargains when every dollar counts. The Venue and VivoTab Note 8 both have pen support in their favor, although ASUS' $330 asking price hurts the VivoTab's chances.

As you may have gathered by now, it's Acer that gives Toshiba the real thrashing. The Iconia W4 has tangibly longer battery life, and it's easier to find at low prices (it's $250 at Amazon as we write this). While the Encore does have a brighter display and an easier-to-hold design, the Iconia counters these with reduced glare, better mechanical controls and a higher-quality rear camera. If the tablet industry narrowed down to just these two devices, Acer would emerge as the winner more often than not.

Don't be quick to balk at paying $400 for a ThinkPad 8, either. It's one of the few Windows tablets this size with a 1080p screen, and it has options for both 4G and 128GB of storage. That said, it doesn't claim a decisive victory over the Encore. We're in the midst of reviewing Lenovo's tablet, and we've found that it has both a mediocre six-hour battery life and a scratch-prone chassis. All told, you may prefer Toshiba's machine simply because it can take some abuse.

Wrap-up

Toshiba Encore on a stack o' books

You might think we're down on the Encore based on the complaints littered throughout the review, but that's not true. We genuinely enjoyed our time with it, and it's safe to recommend if you can snag one at bargain-basement pricing. The battery life and performance are up to snuff, and there are no cavernous holes in the feature set -- so long as you weren't expecting an imaging powerhouse, anyway.

For us, the real problem is that there are few reasons to pick the Encore over something else. It's not the best at anything, unless you're in love with its silvery shell. If you want extended battery life, you should turn to Acer; if cost matters the most, go with Dell or Lenovo; if you like to jot down handwritten notes, choose ASUS or Dell. Toshiba has done a fine job with its first foray into 8-inch Windows tablets, but not the exceptional job it needed to rise above a sea of competitors.

Daniel Orren and Edgar Alvarez contributed to this review.

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Toshiba Encore review: an 8-inch Windows tablet that struggles to stand out