When Microsoft made its announcement of a new Surface earlier this year, most were expecting a 7-inch Surface Mini. But instead, we got a larger Surface Pro 3. Other manufacturers are making their own mini tablets that run full versions of Windows 8.1, and one of them is the 8-in Toshiba Encore 2 with a price tag starting at US$199.
This tablet proves that the Windows 8.1 touch-first Modern environment can run smoothly with basic hardware. To be more precise, it runs "Windows 8.1 with Bing." All that means is the manufacturers of smaller, more affordable tablets get the OS at virtually no cost. The only caveat is that Microsoft requires the default search engine be set as Bing for IE – although users can change it to Google (or any other search engine of choice) if they want.
There are no technical or license limitations to this version of Windows 8.1 and the Encore 2 is one of the first "budget" Windows 8 tablets that we'll undoubtedly start seeing more of. Actually, several have been introduced at this year's IFA event, including an Encore 2 Mini with a 7-in display for $119.
But I have to say, putting a full version of Windows 8.1 on a tablet this size is a bit baffling since the desktop experience is less than stellar. It's the same issue that has plagued Windows 8 since it was released: the Modern environment doesn't belong on a non-touch laptop or desktop PC, and on a tablet there's little use for the traditional desktop environment.
Under the hood, the Encore 2 packs a 1.4 GHz quad-core Intel Atom Z3735F processor, 1 GB of RAM, 802.11n Wi-Fi and a Micro USB 2.0 port for charging and connection of external devices. Onboard storage comes in at 32 GB with a 64 GB version also available. This is more than the 16 GB or less that you'd expect from a device at this price point. Storage can also be easily increased through the addition of a microSD, microSDHC or microSDXC card of up to 128 GB.
Toshiba also includes a free one year subscription to Office 365 Personal, (usually $69.99/year), which includes 1 TB of One Drive storage. You can install the Personal Edition of Office 365 on one tablet and one PC or Mac.
The 8-in LED back-lit display packs 1280 x 800 pixels at 189 ppi, with the unit itself measuring 8.3 x 5.2 x 0.37 in (211 x 132 x 9.4 mm) and tipping the scales at 13.4 oz (380 g. This makes the Encore 2 fit into one hand nicely. There's a hardware Windows Key button at the top (or left side when holding it in landscape mode), and the volume rocker and power button are located on the right. The buttons are flush with the body, but they do require applying a good amount of pressure to be responsive. The microSD card slot is also on the right hand side.
The screen is by no means high-definition – in fact it's only 720p, but I suppose it does the job. The front and rear facing cameras are adequate, but nothing spectacular either. The front-facing camera is 1.2 MP and the rear camera is 5 MP and they suit a tablet at this price point just fine.
Toshiba claims battery life of up to 10 hours, but during my regular day to day use (web browsing, checking email, playing games, and watching YouTube videos), I was getting closer to eight hours. If you do want to get more from the battery, turn down the screen brightness as it's set to the brightest setting out of the box.
The tablet comes with Dolby Digital Plus, with the two small speakers pointing out of the back plate of the tablet. This makes it easy to cover them with your fingers, which I found to be rather annoying, but headphones are generally the better option for listening to audio on tablets anyway. Another thing that might turn some people off is the fact that there's no HDMI out port for connecting to a larger display.
I should point out that Toshiba also offers a 10.1-in model, with the only differences being 2 GB of RAM instead of 1 GB, a bump in dimensions and weight (an extra 4.4 oz/95 g) and a price tag of $269.99.
The Encore 2 is mainly designed for use with the Modern UI and apps, with the desktop there if you absolutely need it. Since it has Windows 8.1, you can snap two Modern apps side by side and use them at the same time. However, the Modern UI does tend to slow down if too many apps are running at the same time. I suppose that Atom processor can only handle so much multitasking.
You'll be getting your apps from the Windows Store, and because I find the best use of this tablet is for media consumption, I would load it up with Video and Music apps, as well as some games.
While the Modern UI is simple and straight-forward to navigate and usually flows smoothly, the desktop environment is a different story. The Windows desktop doesn't downsize well, with the target icons too small for stubby fingers and making selections is next to impossible with such tiny menus.
One way to somewhat alleviate the problem and make the desktop more touch-friendly is to make the desktop items larger. You can do that by going to Display Settings and increasing the size of all items. In the shot below, I increased the desktop items 150 percent, which makes it easier to navigate with the digits.
After making that adjustment, the desktop experience still leaves a lot to be desired – even when using a stylus – but at least it's an improvement. There's no add-on keyboard cover for the Encore 2, and the lack of Bluetooth means you'll be relying on the cramped onscreen keyboard which can make for slow going. If you need to do anything productive in Office, you're not going to get it done using the desktop on this small screen. However, Toshiba points out the 10.1-in model is more suited to working on documents, with the 8-incher more for reading, gaming and watching videos.
While it might sound like a great deal to get a a full version of Windows 8.1 on a $199 tablet, it's not as great as you'd think (the "full version" loses something when the desktop is practically unusable). We'd only recommend buying this tablet if you're content to spend the vast majority of your time in Modern apps and you might be surprised how well the Modern UI works on this type of low-end device.
Of course there are other tablets in this price range, including the Nexus 7 and the 7-inch Kindle Fire HDX. But the Encore 2 offers you something different, and that can be refreshing. For instance, the Nexus 7 is tied deeply into the Google ecosystem, and the Fire HDX OS is (almost annoyingly) associated with Amazon. There are fewer apps available for Windows 8.1 compared to the Google Play Store, so that is another thing to keep in mind.
If you're already invested in the Windows ecosystem, or just want to get a feel for the Modern UI, this is a device to consider. Overall it's an affordable Wi-Fi-only tablet for media consumption, web browsing, and playing games. Just keep in mind that you won't be productive with it ... but then again, how productive are we with tablets anyway?
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