This isn't the first time Toshiba has showed up fashionably late to a party. Back in 2009, long after most every other consumer electronics maker big and small had jumped on the netbook bandwagon, the company belatedly released its first mini, the NB205. And it was fantastic. So we were optimistic when the outfit finally got around to releasing the Thrive, its first Android tablet for the US market. Surely, we thought, it's learned a thing or two from everybody else's mistakes.
And in that regard, at least, this 10-inch tablet doesn't disappoint. It has full-sized USB and HDMI ports, an SD card slot, and a removable battery -- all features you'd sooner find on a laptop. It comes with a raft of practical apps already installed, so that you don't have to go hunting for them in Android Market. It's one of the first out of the gate with Android 3.1, an undeniably improved version of Honeycomb. Oh, and it starts at $429, undercutting many of its competitors. Right there, in less than a paragraph, we've laid out why you might want this over any of the other umpteen tabs crowding the market. But should you get one? Well, folks, we'll need more than a paragraph to tackle that. Join us after the break, won't you?
If the Thrive were a person, it'd be weeping on the couch with a pint of Ben & Jerry's right about now. Even before it went on sale earlier this month, it was fielding taunts for being something of a fatso. It's a shame, really, given that most of the bullies haven't seen it in person. That's not to say the Thrive is skinny -- at .62 inches thick it is, indeed, chunkier than other slates on the market. Why, that's nearly double the thickness of Samsung's Galaxy Tab 10.1, which measures 0.33 inches deep. And at 1.66 pounds, it's a touch heavier than the first-generation iPad, which has since gone on a diet.
The thing is, it's not a big deal. In fact, you might even find it feels lighter than you'd expect. Now it's true, after getting some hands-on time with Sony's forthcoming S2 slate, we were reminded that the Thrive is heavier than most. Still, it doesn't feel as dense as the Motorola Xoom, even though the Xoom weighs a whole tenth of a pound less. All told, it's still light enough that we didn't think twice about tossing it in our tote bag and walking around with it all day. And when it comes to web surfing on your couch with it propped up against your leg -- a likely scenario with a WiFi only tablet -- the Thrive's plump derriere makes zero difference. If anything, we take issue with the Thrive's dimensions. At 10.97 x 6.97 inches, it's about as narrow as other 10-inchers such the Galaxy Tab 10.1, but longer. That doesn't make a difference in portrait mode, but it does make holding it in landscape that much more unwieldy.
Even after a week of testing, we had a hard time coming to terms with the Thrive's decidedly inelegant design. The back side is decked out in a rubberized finish that makes it look somewhat cheap (the flimsy port covers don't help). To its credit, though, that soft material makes it near-impossible for your fingers to slip off. The lid's textured pattern reminds us of Toshiba's netbooks, except the lines cross the back side at symmetrical diagonal angles. That lid, too, is removable, as is the battery -- something we'll touch on more in a bit. Although the Thrive comes in black, you can buy swappable, colorful covers in "Blue Moon, "Raspberry Fusion," "Lavender Bliss," "Silvery Sky," and "Green Apple" for $20 a pop.
Unlike most tablets, which require you to hold them in landscape mode to take photos, the Thrive placed both cameras along one of the shorter edges, so that you can hold it comfortably in portrait mode while you shoot. As you can see, Toshiba framed them with a metal piece that drapes over the edge of the tablet. On the outward-facing side, you'll find some prominent "With Google" branding, along with the rear camera's 5 megapixel resolution, spelled out. When we previewed the Thrive last month, we noticed more than a few commenters say this metal flourish alone would be a deal-breaker. We disagree, though we think the branding is especially unfortunate-looking. It calls to mind something you'd pick up at a hardware store -- an odd, faux-industrial flourish for a tablet that otherwise feels like a toy.
Normally, we don't have much to say about ports when we review tablets, but in this case, they're the star of the show. Starting on the side with the cameras, you'll find a lock switch for the locking down the removable lid. Moving clockwise to the right side, there's a power button, volume rocker, and lever to lock the screen orientation, with the full-sized SDXC slot sitting at the other end. On the bottom of the tablet (this would be the edge opposite the cameras), there are open headphone and mic ports, along with a covered door behind which you'll find full-sized USB and HDMI ports and a mini-USB socket. Finally, on that last long edge you'll find a covered 30-pin docking connector flanked by small speakers. So, just to re-orient you, if you were holding the tablet in portrait mode with the cameras sitting up top, the docking connector would be on the left side. Given that we occasionally see USB ports on tablets, it's the combination of all these sockets and slots that's really bowling us over.
The Thrive is reminiscent of a laptop in one other, more unfortunate way. It has three LED lights built into the bezel so that you can see white-and-orange sparkles when the battery is low, when Bluetooth is on, and, at the very least, when the power is on. Even on our laptops, we like our LED lights hidden, and we feel even more strongly about it with tablets, where we've just come to expect a cleaner design.
Display and Sound
The 10.1-inch display crams in 1280 x 800 pixels, matching the Galaxy Tab 10.1 and other identically sized slates. Though it's plenty bright, the viewing angles aren't particularly wide. We had an easy time watching a movie with the tablet placed face-up on a table in front of us, and we were also able to make out the screen while watching from an off-center position. But as we moved further to the side and tried watching from more oblique angles, the contrast ratio started looking more severe. As a bonus, Toshiba threw in the same Resolution+ technology it uses to clean up and upscale video on its laptops, but you'll be hard-pressed to notice the difference on such a small display. If you like, you can disable this feature, though we didn't feel the need to.
The small stereo speakers are loud, but never too loud. While watching a movie alone indoors with a noisy air conditioner whirring in the background, we kept the volume cranked to the max, and didn't really feel the need to turn it down. At some point during our testing, a friend joined us while we ran the benchmarks Nenamark 1 and 2 in the background. Ultimately, the sounds emanating from the tests were just loud enough to be distracting, but not so deafening that we couldn't carry on a conversation over them.
Aside from volume, Toshiba also included software designed to enrich audio quality -- a feature that doesn't come enabled out of the box. Back when we previewed the Thrive, we said even with this enhancement, we could still detect some tinniness coming out of the small speakers. After a week of testing, we stand by that -- the sound quality doesn't stick out as terrible; it's just not extraordinary.
We must have looked pretty silly the first time we tried to remove the back cover. The thing is, it's much easier to pry the lid off a phone, when you can cradle it, and bear down on the back cover with your thumbs for leverage. Try doing that with a 10-inch tablet and see how far you get. After much fumbling, we figured out the best way to go about this is to first open the door covering all those full-sized ports. Then wedge your fingernail into the crack underneath that compartment, and pull the lid toward you until the whole thing falls away with a discomfiting snap. (Digging your fingers into the openings near the speakers also works.) Once we got past that learning curve, removing the lid was a cinch. Hopefully, we just spared some of you a bit of frustration.
Battery life and power management
Apple iPad 2
Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1
RIM BlackBerry PlayBook
Samsung Galaxy Tab
The Thrive has a 23Wh, 2,030 mAh battery that's rated for a max of eleven hours. Should you want to carry around a fresh one to swap in, Toshiba sells spares for $80 each.
And depending on your lifestyle, you might want to think about getting one. Compared to other products, the Thrive's small battery craps out pretty quickly. It lasted six hours and twenty-five minutes in our test (movie looping, WiFi on, and Bluetooth off), trailing far behind the iPad 2's nearly ten-and-a-half-hour run and the 10.1's roughly ten-hour spin. Even tablets whose battery live we'd call mediocre largely manage to land somewhere in the seven to eight-hour range.
That said, with lighter usage patterns we found we could get away with not charging it every night. After an hour of checking email, watching an HD YouTube trailer, tweaking the tablet's settings, glancing intermittently at Engadget and Google Calendar, and downloading three apps, we still had 87 percent charge left. We did notice that web surfing (including some Flash sites), drained the battery life faster than any of those other activities we mentioned earlier. After just ten minutes of browsing, our battery life rating fell five percent. On the bright side, the Thrive sips little power when it's sitting idle: after two hours and forty minutes, its battery life rating fell just two percent.
Nonetheless, the Thrive is far from perfect in the power management department. While testing it, we saw reports that the tablet doesn't always wake from sleep mode -- not unless you perform a cold boot, that is. At first, we said to ourselves, "Sweet! We must be one of the lucky ones." Not so fast. Soon after, we tried to wake up our sleeping tablet, but were left pressing the power / lock button in vain. This always happened after we recharged the Thrive using the bundled AC adapter; it hasn't been an issue when we've left it sitting around unplugged.
As of this writing, Toshiba has at least acknowledged the issue and said it'll push out a fix through the Toshiba Service Station app that comes pre-loaded on the tablet. Alas, though, it's unclear when we can expect Toshiba to pull through. Suffice it to say, we see this not as an excuse to ignore the Thrive, but more of a reason to hold off on buying one right now.
Like so many other tablets on the market, the Thrive runs on NVIDIA's Tegra 2 SoC. A cold boot took about 20 seconds, matching the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, which packs the same 1GHz chip. Once we swiped through the lock screen, the tablet took less than two seconds to bring up Honeycomb.
For the most part, the Thrive responded snappily to our taps and swipes, as well as multi-touch gestures like pinching and zooming. Occasionally, though, we noticed a slight pause when we pressed the home button to abruptly minimize applications. All told, we saw the biggest performance drops while browsing websites built on Flash -- an area where we've seen other Honeycomb tablets stumble. The New York restaurant Lattanzi, for instance, only displays four items on its menu at once, forcing you to press a "Next" button to see more. The Thrive struggled with that, leaving us jabbing blankly at the screen before our taps finally took. In another instance, we were perusing Uniqlo.com, and found that when we pulled up an item of clothing to get more details, scrolling suddenly became choppy. At least the Thrive loaded those Flash sites quickly, even if its performance suffered once we started poking around. In any case, we're more inclined to say that Google -- not Toshiba -- could still stand to enhance the Flash experience.
On the bright side, typing on the stock Android keyboard felt consistently breezy, with few spelling errors to report after a week of testing. Really, the speed is limited only by your ability to peck out letters. Incidentally, the tablet is narrow enough that typing in portrait mode is easy, even if you do have dainty hands (like some of us). Incidentally, the tablet also comes with Swype installed, if you think dragging a line between letters would be a more ergonomic experience than tapping away with two fingers. Personally, we remain dubious -- after all, isn't the beauty of Swype that you can hold a device with one hand and use those same fingers to type? Still, it's nice that folks have the option of using it.
If you're looking for some hard numbers, we ran the Android-compatible benchmarks Linpack, Quadrant, and Nenamark 1 and 2. As you can see, its Quadrant score of 1,584 matches the 1,546 the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 notched after an update to Android 3.1. But Quadrant, of course, is just one piece of the benchmarking puzzle, though we think it's meaningful that the two tablets share the same chip and also happen to be well-matched in real-world tests, such as cold boots. If you're a benchmark junkie, though, you'll find a handful of other scores in the handy chart below.
In the grand tradition of tablet cameras, the Thrive's 5 megapixel rear-facing one struggles in low light and in situations where your subject is moving. The Thrive does other tablets one worse, though, by casting a bluish tint over pictures. We also found grainy bits in many of our photos, even if we took them with ample lighting, and even when we viewed them in their shrunken, resized form.
To boot, this isn't the smoothest picture-taking experience you'll get on a tablet. Remember how we said Toshiba stuck the cameras on one of the shorter edges, so that they'll be on top if you shoot in portrait mode? That's all well and good if you want to frame shots vertically, but if you start snapping pics in landscape, you might find that your mitts accidentally obscure the lens. Not exactly a problem we've had with other slates whose cameras sit on one of the two longer sides.
In terms of unwanted tints, we had better luck with the 2 megapixel front-facing camera, though as you can imagine, the sharpness and level of detail aren't good enough for actual, you know, photography. But for video chatting the bright image quality should do just fine.
The Thrive also records 720p video, though, any movies you make will be just as susceptible to that faint, blue overcast. You'll also see that motion in these videos isn't very smooth. The clips we shot with the HTC Flyer were much fluid, though to be fair, that camera presented an entirely different set of problems (read: roaring background noise).
File storage and transfers
Far be it for us to tell you how you should use that full-sized USB port and accompanying SD slot, but suffice to say it'll come in handy for moving files on and off the tablet. Happily, Toshiba made this almost foolproof by bundling its own file manager app dubbed -- wait for it -- Toshiba File Manager. Believe us when we say it's one of our favorite of the Thrive's features, and one of the clearest reasons you should consider this alongside the scads of other Android tablets on the market. Using the app's tabbed interface, decide if you want to poke around the tablet's 8GB to 32GB of internal memory, an SD card, or a USB hard drive. Once you do that, you'll see all the files displayed in a grid, as you would if you were trying to locate something in Windows Explorer or Finder in OS X.
Selecting a file to copy, cut, paste, or delete is also idiot-proof. If you just want to work with one file, you can tap and hold it with your finger to see a list of options. Or, if you want to handle a batch of 'em, tap the "Select File" button at the bottom of the screen, at which point each file will be overlaid with an empty box that you can "check off" by tapping it with your finger. If you go that route, options like cut and paste won't pop up onscreen, but will rather appear as boxes in that lower pane. We just walked you through it but really, the app's intuitive enough that anyone can figure it out in about five seconds.
As for speed, this is hardly the fastest drive you'll encounter, but it shouldn't keep you waiting too long either. Transferring a batch of photos totaling 951MB in size took about ten seconds. That's not exactly lightning-fast, but given how seldom we take the time to remove clumps of photos from our handset, we don't expect we'd do it that often with a tablet either. Even if you do so more often, you might agree that's fast enough for a $429 plaything.
Right off the bat, there are two reasons to get excited about the software on this thing. One, Toshiba didn't muck around with Honeycomb's standard UI, so if you're the kind of person who always chooses vanilla Android over, say, Sense, the Thrive will be a slate after your own heart.
Secondly, this isn't just a Honeycomb tablet, but one of the first to ship with Android 3.1, the latest tablet-friendly version of Android that brings goodies like resizeable widgets, a new host mode, and Google's new Movies app. If you haven't yet handled a tablet running the OS, you'll find that those resizeable windows are a joy, and make the stock Gmail and calendar apps, among others, a whole lot more useful, even at a glance. The thing is, it's up to developers to bring their apps up to speed, so at this still-early stage you'll find plenty that don't resize. Still, even being able to enlarge the standard Google-made ones is helpful.
Oh, and we haven't even scratched the surface on third-party apps. First off, you can download 'em from "unknown sources" (read: places other than Android Market). And, Toshiba pre-installed a whole bunch of popular ones -- some of which are just too useful to be dismissed as bloatware. These include some you'd normally have to pay for, including LogMeIn Ignition ($29.99), Quickoffice ($24.99), and Kaspersky Tablet Security ($19.95 per year). The outfit also tossed in a handful of free favorites such as Angry Birds, and The New York Times. Missing, however, are any Facebook and Twitter clients. Some, meanwhile, do indeed smell like crapware. These mostly include a raft of games, which includes NFS Shift, Backgammon, Euchre, Hearts, Spades, and Solitaire. Then there's Toshiba's bland Start Place for news headlines. We're happy never to open it again, and just stick with standalone apps from The New York Times and other favorites.
The company also threw in its own e-reader app, dubbed Book Place. It's actually the second reader application that comes bundled on the Thrive, with the second being Google Books. We get what Toshiba is after -- giving low-tech folks like our parents enough apps so that they don't need to download anything or (heaven forbid) ask for help. But we're guessing most of you are a teensy bit more independent than that, and we think you'll enjoy a better selection if you just download Amazon or Barnes & Noble's apps, since they're backed by enormous libraries with lots of current, popular titles..
Perhaps our favorite app -- second only, perhaps, to File Manager -- is PrinterShare, an app that allows you to find nearby printers and print documents, photos, and webpages over WiFi. We fell in love as much with its ease of use as its utility. Just open the app, select an application from which you might want to print something, and then find a list of printable documents (or, in the case of the Gmail app, messages). We wish every tab came with something like this out of the box.
In addition to all this, Toshiba threw in its own app store, though it's pretty useless. Although the categories are comprehensive, we counted a max of six apps per section (often, there was just one), and we noticed certain titles appeared in multiple sections -- say, Office and Productivity.
Configurations and the competition
Don't be scared off by that $579 price listed at the top of this review. That's just for the 32GB version, the highest-end that Toshiba has to offer. The Thrive actually starts at $429 for 8GB and is also offered in a 16GB flavor for $479. For now, it's a plain-Jane WiFi-only tablet, but Toshiba has said it plans to release a 3G version later this year.
However you slice it, that's some aggressive pricing. Both the 16GB and 32GB versions undercut the iPad 2 and Galaxy Tab 10.1 by $20. We use these as comparisons because they're our two favorite tabs at the moment. The 10.1, in particular, has the exact same screen size, packs the same Tegra 2 chip, and is also one of the first tablets to ship with Android 3.1. Both are slim and sexy -- something the Thrive simply isn't. To weigh the Thrive against these is to evaluate your priorities: how much are you willing to pay for beauty? And if you had to choose, would you rather go for full-sized ports or a featherweight design?
But let's not count out the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer. In a market full of lookalike slabs, the Transformer and the Thrive both try their darndest to be different. In the case of the Thrive, the full-sized ports are the hook. For the Transformer, it's the docking station replete with a full keyboard. It's an interesting comparison, because if you buy the Thrive, you might be keen on plugging in a USB keyboard.
We have to say, we'd be pretty tempted to have a more integrated keyboard solution, especially while we're traveling. The problem is, convenience doesn't come cheap. At first glance, the Transformer is cheaper, since the 16GB and 32GB models cost just $399 and $499, respectively. But, if you want to, you know, transform it, you'll have to spring for a $150 dock, rendering any price-saving delusions moot. The point is, the idea of plugging a keyboard into the Thrive should still appeal to people who'd rather not invest that much money in the Transformer. Not to mention -- the Thrive's USB port is good for things other than keyboards, such as connecting external hard drives.
For the purposes of this review, we're not going to go on a long tangent about our favorite 7-inch tablets, even though some, such as the Flyer, count among the better ones we've tested. We figure, if you've decided 7 inches offers the perfect compromise between portability and big-screen goodness, the Thrive simply isn't right for you.
Inevitably, whenever a new tablet comes out, we find ourselves asking, "Why would you choose this over everything else?" And to be honest, in a marketplace with so many forgettable options it's not always an easy question to answer. In the case of the Thrive, at least, you've potentially got enough built-in reasons to count on both hands. It's got full-sized USB and HDMI ports, not to mention an SDXC slot allowing you to make good use of one of the memory cards you've no doubt accumulated over the years. It comes with lots of useful apps -- some of which cost money -- which means if you'll be up and running immediately (and so will any low-tech person you give this to as a gift). It runs Android 3.1 at a time when most tabs don't. Oh, and it's priced to sell. It starts at $429 for 8GB, making it stand out in a market that absolutely does not need another $500 or $600 slate. We say, get the 8GB version, pair it with an old SD card, and have yourself a party.
That doesn't mean it's for everyone. Some of you decided when this thing came out that it was too fat, too ugly. We're sure some of you (no, not you) skipped this review and jumped straight to the comments to reiterate how oogly this thing is. And if that's a deal-breaker, we wouldn't blame you -- it's true, the Thrive does a better job making up for its heft than other tabs (we're looking at you, Touchpad). But why settle for a chunky tablet if you don't give a hoot about the USB port and SD card slot? It's a fair point, and we'd agree that anyone who buys this needs to be enamored with either the price or the port selection. And even then, this is best for people who want the USB socket for storage, in particular; after all, the excellent and ever-popular Eee Pad Transformer renders USB keyboards moot -- assuming you're down with spending $150 on a docking station, of course. All told, there are plenty of thinner, sexier, longer-lasting (and yes, pricier) tablets to be had, with the Galaxy Tab 10.1 and iPad 2 coming to mind first. Still, we suspect there are some folks out there who've been waiting for something just like this.