Toshiba tells us "smaller is where it's at" as it introduces its small Encore tablet at IFA today. Developed in "close collaboration" with Microsoft, the 8-inch tablet is one of the first to use Intel's new Bay Trail Atom processor alongside the Windows 8.1 update. Bay Trail promises to deliver better performance alongside great battery life. This hardware and software combination should be promising for Windows, but is Toshiba's new 8-inch tablet a match for the competition?
A little too chubby for this form factor
While the only other 8-inch Windows 8 tablet, Acer's Iconia W3, has a shockingly bad display, Toshiba has opted for an IPS panel running at 1280 x 800 resolution. The display has better viewing angles than the W3, but they're still not that great. Even though the iPad mini runs at a lower resolution, side-by-side it's clear that Apple's display still beats the Windows competition. At 479 grams and a thickness of 10.68mm it's also bigger than the iPad mini, but you don't notice the weight too much thankfully. However, the bulkiness is obvious, and when you place it alongside the iPad mini it's even more clear. Like the W3 before it, Toshiba's Encore is a little too chubby for this type of form factor.
While Bay Trail promises better performance for Atom processors, on the model I got to use the device was less than usable. Toshiba assures me that the unit isn't final and that driver optimizations and even slight hardware tweaks will be made before it ships. It certainly needs these as the usual speed of Windows 8 animations was noticeably slow. It was hard to tell whether this was down to the Bay Trail CPU or the GPU, but I suspect the lack of optimized graphics drivers was to blame.
As the Encore runs on Windows 8.1, there's some new additions that let you snap apps side-by-side in the horizontal orientation. Microsoft has also optimized its portrait tablet support for these 8-inch tablets, and is working with app makers to ensure key apps run well with its new multitasking support. A new Reading List application is built-in to let Windows 8.1 users bookmark parts of apps of web pages for reading later on. Internet Explorer 11 also includes a reading view optimized for tablet use.
Desktop apps and Office on an 8-inch tablet seems crazy, but is it?
The Encore also includes a free copy of Office Home & Student 2013. The choice might seem odd for an 8-inch tablet, but since this particular device is running Intel's Bay Trail processor you also get access to full desktop apps. That's not very appealing for use on such a small device, but the Encore has a Micro HDMI port so you could easily connect an external monitor and use this as a full PC if you wanted to. The performance might not match one of Intel's i5 or i7 processors, but that's the trade off for mobility. Although a desktop mode and Office on an 8-inch tablet seems crazy at first, these types of devices could well be our future PCs that simply hook up to a mouse, keyboard, and display.
We're still searching for an iPad mini Windows competitor
Toshiba says its Encore tablet will be made available in November, slightly after the Windows 8.1 launch on October 18th, at a price of $329.99. For 32GB of storage that's $100 less than a comparable iPad mini, and it's one of the cheapest Windows 8 tablets yet. If others can follow in Toshiba's footsteps on price, and match Apple's slender and well-constructed tablet, then maybe the iPad mini might finally have some Windows competition this holiday. For now, we're still hunting for the best 7- or 8-inch Windows 8 tablet.