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 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
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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.