8-on-8: Toshiba Encore 8 Review (An 8-inch Windows 8.1 tablet)
I plan to continue my 8-on-8 series with thoughts and reviews on Windows 8.1 applications, and how they behave on an 8-inch Windows tablet. But before doing so, I want to pass along my thoughts on the newest device… the Toshiba Encore 8. Check out my quick and dirty unboxing released on the SurfaceGeeks YouTube feed here.
The Toshiba Encore 8 has a MSRP of $329. However, many retailers like Amazon and the Microsoft Store have it for $299. The Microsoft Store is bundling a $25 Windows Store Gift Card as well. Even Toshiba direct is offering it for $30 off. You’ll probably find the Dell Venue Pro 8 at lower price, but the Encore’s pricing is at least on par with the Lenovo Miix 2. The higher MSRP is a sign of higher production costs, and it definitely appears to be the case.
The build quality of the Encore 8 handily beats that of the Venue Pro 8 and Miix 2. The Miix 2, being so thin and light, was very flexible and creaky. The Encore 8 has a build quality near that of a Surface 2. Although some slight creaking can be heard near the top of the device, you really have to try to make it happen, and struggle to hear it. The ports are solid compared to the others, as I don’t feel I’ll break the ports nor my cables when inserting and removing them. In general, it feels easier to use all the ports and buttons on the Encore 8 than I expected. The micro SD card slot is not covered by a flimsy door, so it might collect dust/debris, but it is much easier to access. The volume and power buttons have a nice feel to them, and the micro HDMI is a welcome addition. Using the Encore 8 in extended desktop mode works like a champ. However, mirroring has not been enabled yet. The Start Menu won’t appear on the the TV, but the desktop looks great, as pure 1080p 60Hz is being transmitted. I didn’t see any artifacts or flickering. Audio pass through works as well, with clear sound passing through the HDMI cable to the TV.
Even the microphone and speaker experience is solid. There are dual mics on the top of the device, and dual speakers on the bottom. The mics apparently don’t record at a high volume, but what they do record is clear. Skype works just fine, as they are apparently optimized for that. Although the low end is clearly lacking, volume is loud without being jarring or tiny. Some, although minimal, distortion was witnessed on my unit. The rear camera is an 8MP shooter, with a 2MP camera on the front. Both are superior to the competition in my short testing. All of the advantages from the higher build quality and component costs mentioned so far, comes with a price. At nearly a full pound, it is a weighty and dense feeling device. It is the weight of an iPad Air in the form factor of an iPad mini. Landscape usage is fine, but one handed portrait use takes some getting used to. It is doable, but your arm will tire quicker with the Encore than with the others. The weight does have another advantage, a slighter larger battery. Toshiba states up to 14-hours of usage. Although too early to judge, I can say that I am on track to hit 12-15 hours of usage per charge. More testing is needed.
Although no official cases are shipping yet, I found a perfect fit. The Case Logic SureFit Folio for 7-8” tablets is currently available direct from the manufacturer and from Target stores. Details can be found here. Although the “fits devices” section of the description does not match the Toshiba Encore 8, the specs on the case’s packaging differ. The Toshiba Encore 8 is a perfect fit. Although not easy to get on, once it is locked in, it stays put and the case functions as expected. I mention the case as I feel it makes this dense tablet easier to both hold and use. My mind associates the case with the extra weight, as some how it all becomes more acceptable. Knowing things like GPS, HDMI and dual speakers are all on board helps as well.
Although I lusted after the Lenovo Miix 2’s thin and light design, it appears to not be practical. It is both flimsy and creaky, and appears as if any drop would split the device in two. Although heavier, the Toshiba Encore 8 is built like a tank. In or out of the case, it feels it can take a drop. Every component screams higher quality in both touch and usage. I will add that I feel the internal components are functioning better as well. The Lenovo Miix 2 has issues with the on screen keyboard responsiveness, and my last device would freeze multiple times a day after the latest round of Windows updates. Those may be resolved by firmware and driver updates, but I have yet to experience one hiccup or glitch with the Toshiba Encore 8. It appears Toshiba is shipping the device with drivers from this summer versus the fall/winter updates, and although some features (like display mirroring) are missing, stability is above and beyond expectations. Even things like the capacitive Windows key seem more consistent than on other devices, and I believe fully vetted and stable drivers (and firmware) help with things like this.
Not too much to add here. I did not allow anything to sync from previous Windows 8.1 devices, as I deleted all settings and backups from the cloud. I mentioned the relatively older drivers above, but I will take being a few versions behind for the level of stability I am seeing. The Start screen and Modern UI apps feel more responsive, and multitasking is probably faster than any similar device I have tested, including the Surface 2 and Lumia 2520. I reiterate that Windows 8.1 seems better optimized for the Bay Trail x86 Atom than the ARM-based SoCs used inside Windows RT devices. Everything is fast, fluid and super responsive. Apps stay running in the background, and resume in seconds or less. 3D Mark scores are slightly lower than the Dell Venue 8 Pro and Lenovo Miix 2, but I still feel the user experience is snappier.
Some bloatware was pre-loaded, with Norton AntiVirus being the biggest culprit. It definitely impacted system performance, and was tricky to remove. However, if you pay attention to the uninstaller, it can be wiped from the system. Toshiba bundled apps to help register the device, obtain service and support, and an app to keep you up to date with Toshiba specific software, driver and firmware updates. It auto loads on startup, but can be quit easily. I don’t mind it loading, as whenever I restart, I know it’ll check for updates before I manually kill it. Thanks to the stability of the device, I don’t expect to restart often. Other bundled apps are useful Windows Store apps like Netflix, Kindle, and Xbox Smart Glass. This was the first time I saw Xbox Smart Glass advertised on the packaging and preloaded with a device like this. If you do purchase this device directly from Microsoft, you’ll likely avoid having most or all of these applications preloaded, thanks to the Microsoft Signature experience program.
I will add that although being a 32GB model, the Toshiba Encore 8 had the most available disk space out of any similarly equipped Windows 8.1 device. Once the recover partition was moved to a USB stick, over 15GB were available, with others seemingly having 10GB or less. Even with all my apps installed, configured and loaded, I have nearly 12GB free. Toshiba included an application to assist with copying and removing the recovery partition. It made the task a bit more user friendly than the standard Windows 8.1 method of searching for Recovery from the charms menu.
I laughed when I saw the weight of the Toshiba Encore 8. Why would I want the heaviest Windows 8.1 8-inch tablet? Well, I didn’t realize how much better it would be than the rest. It is not perfect though. There is a gap between the glass and the LCD, and although not a problem, I believe it doesn’t help counter glare as much as Acer’s Zero Gap technology (based on LG’s designs and Apple’s iPhones) is rumored to. The glass seems to hold onto smudges longer than others as well. Most things both feel and function better than any other 8-inch device on the market. Dell Venue 8 Pro enthusiasts enjoy having a fully functional bios available to them, to both customize and tweak their tablet. The Encore has a simplified user accessible bios with no meaningful options. The weight, even with all the pros mentioned above, can be troublesome if one hand consumption trumps landscape productivity tasks. I’m excited to continue using the Toshiba Encore 8 in the Case Logic SureFit case both around the house and in the office. Hopefully everyone finds a tablet so compelling this holiday if they haven’t already.