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.