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Toshiba Excite hero (1024px)
Toshiba Excite hero (1024px)

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Toshiba Excite review: 13, 10, and 7.7-inch tablets

Will everyone find something to love in Toshiba's three-tablet lineup?

Toshiba's first few tablets didn't exactly conform to what we expect from a slate. First there was the Thrive, which was enormous and thick but came with a full laptop-like load of ports and options. Then came the Excite 10 LE, which eschewed anything and everything to be thin. The Thrive made little sense as a tablet because it was so big, and the Excite 10 LE made little sense... well, because it was terrible. Both attempts left us wondering if Toshiba, well-respected as a PC manufacturer, was actually capable of competing in the tablet space.

Toshiba's back with three new models, and a decidedly more mainstream take on the tablet. With two of the new devices, anyway. The Toshiba Excite 7.7 and Excite 10 are Tegra 3-powered tablets with good screens, solid internals, a near-stock version of Android 4.0, and a body that's supposedly neither insanely breakable nor as thick as your laptop. Then there's the Excite 13, which puts all of those features into a 13-inch body. Really. How does the company fare this time, and could your next tablet have a 13-inch display? Let's find out.


Video Review

Video Review

Hardware / design

Hardware / design

The Excite tablets are quite the Russian doll situation. From a pure hardware standpoint, they're all virtually identical, just stretched or compressed into various screen sizes. All have super-slim aluminum shells, with dimpled silver backs that feel a bit like a golf ball underneath your fingers. The displays are raised slightly above the silvery edges, so the screen feels like it's popping out at you rather than recessed into the body. Their flat edges and rounded corners are comfortable to grip, even in one hand.

They're attractive tablets, simple yet elegant; fortunately they're also relatively well-made, something that can't be said for the Excite 10 LE. The tablets don't creak or bend in any worrisome way — they do still give a bit to pressure, but not nearly like the LE. The 13 also bends a bit, but I'll forgive that because it's enormous and because it never feels like it's going to break. One holdover from the Excite 10 LE, though, was that with some work I was able to get my fingernail underneath the tablets' aluminum shell. That's a little disconcerting — if my finger can get under there, so can sand or dirt or water, and that spells doom for any tablet. The Excite models are definitely a step forward, but Toshiba's not yet up to par with the high-end feel of the iPad or the Transformer Prime.

Toshiba finally figured out how to build a tablet
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Small, medium, massive

Excite 7.7

The Excite 7.7 is one of the nicest-looking 7-inch tablets I've seen, on par with the Galaxy Tab 7.7 and few others. At just 7.6mm thick it's probably thinner than your phone, and it slides easily and unnoticed into a jacket pocket or a bag. At 5.3 x 8.1 inches, it's also really easy to hold in one hand, or to type on the screen in portrait mode.

The super-slim body still has a handy selection of ports: there's a microSD slot on the right side as you hold it horizontally, next to a Micro USB port and a 3.5mm headphone jack. On top are a power button, rotation lock, and two-button volume control; all the buttons feel a little cheap but work fine. On the bottom, two stereo speakers flank Toshiba's gigantic proprietary dock connector, which looks comically enormous on the Excite 7.7. The speakers are decent, though they don't have much in the way of a stereo effect — it's just nice to have double the volume. The speakers get pretty loud, but since they're sticking out of the bottom they're more likely to get muffled by a table or your lap as you hold it. Toshiba does add SRS sound enhancements, but the software tweaks don't change much.

EXCITE 10

A super-thin 7-inch tablet is one thing, but the fact that the Excite 10 is only a hair thicker than the 7.7 is quite the feat. Indeed, the 0.35-inch deep tablet is among the thinnest I've used, even a bit thinner than the current-generation iPad. At 1.32 pounds it's also among the lightest, and between the two the device feels quite portable and is almost usable in a single hand.

Along with the extra screen real estate, you also get a few extra ports by choosing the Excite 10 over the 7.7. The 10-inch model has a full SD card slot, along with a micro HDMI port and a micro USB port. Of course, there's also the large dock connector on the bottom, flanked by identical speakers to the 7.7. One of the big advantages of Toshiba's Thrive lineup was how many ports the devices had, and with the unfortunate exception of a full-size USB slot the company's crammed the same ports into a far smaller device.

EXCITE 13

It's huge. It's massive. It's gigantic. It's humungous. I can't overstate how much bigger a 13-inch tablet feels than a 10-inch tablet. At 0.4 inches the Excite 13 really isn't thick at all, and since the weight is spread over such a large area it doesn't feel quite its 2.2 pounds. You'll certainly feel it in a bag or backpack, but let's be very clear: don't buy this tablet if you intend to take it anywhere. Hell, at 13.5 x 8.4 inches it might not even fit in your bag in the first place.

Aside from the utterly gargantuan proportions (did I mention it's big?), there's not much difference between the Excite 10 and the 13. The volume controls and rotation lock have been moved to the top, which is odd — they're much harder to reach up there. You still get a full SD card slot, along with Micro HDMI and Micro USB. The other odd thing is that the Excite 13 has a different charger from the other models: it's a laptop-like brick with a small circular connector rather than the huge dock connector. Surely that's done to provide more power to the battery more quickly, but having to carry a big charger around with your big tablet adds a bit of insult to injury.

Display

Display

Two decent LCDs, one gorgeous AMOLED
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The Excite 10 and Excite 13 use the same display, at different sizes and resolutions. Both are Gorilla Glass-coated LCDs — a 10-inch, 1280 x 800 panel for the Excite 10 and 13.3 inches at 1600 x 900 on the Excite 13. Both look okay, but not great: colors are a little washed out, and blacks aren't as dark as I'd like. They're both a little dim, usable at max brightness but definitely not as bright as I'd like. There's some definite backlight bleeding, too — the screen's not always dark even when it's supposed to be, and it makes everything look even more overexposed and washed out. You can easily make out individual pixels on both the 13 and 10-inch models — the Excite 13's 138ppi pixel density is slightly lower than the Excite 10's 149ppi, but they look about the same to my eyes. The screens are responsive and have great viewing angles, but they're nothing to write home about.

In fairness, part of my distaste for the LCDs on the larger Excite models is surely due to the fact that the Excite 7.7's display blows them out of the water. It uses a 7.7-inch, 1280 x 800 AMOLED display — again the same as the Galaxy Tab 7.7 — and it looks fantastic. AMOLED displays have much blacker blacks and whiter whites, colors are amazingly vibrant, and 1280 x 800 is very sharp on a 7.7-inch screen. It's not quite as crisp as the iPad's Retina display, but colors look better, and for movies and images I actually prefer the Excite 7.7's display to the iPad's. Of course, the AMOLED panel is a big part of the reason the Excite 7.7 is so expensive, but it might just be worth the extra outlay.

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Cameras

Cameras

Good luck taking pictures with your 13-inch tablet
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5-megapixel cameras stick out the back of all three tablets, and much though it tires me to both test and write about, it's exactly what you expect. Pictures are soft and washed out, but they'll certainly do in a pinch if you have good lighting and you're not trying to print billboards. In low light, forget about it. The front-facing camera leaps the competition by offering all of two megapixels of resolution, but I can't say I noticed the difference — I could still check my teeth or video chat, but that's about it. There is a nifty panorama mode, but it's only cool functionally; results are pretty unimpressive.

All three also shoot 1080p video, and once again prepare for aggressive mediocrity: footage looks okay in good lighting, but colors are washed out and video is noisy and grainy even in the best of situations.

Toshiba's placement of its tablet cameras belong in the "design quirks that make no sense" files. The rear-facing lens is in a different spot on each model, and it's only in the right place on one: both front and rear-facing lenses are in centered above the display on the Excite 13, which is incidentally a ludicrous device to try and use as a camera. On the other two Excite models the lenses are banished off to a corner, making it awkward to try and frame a photo with either camera in any orientation.

Odds are good that whatever phone you currently own shoots better video and photos than any of the Excite tablets, so don't expect an upgrade here.

Software / performance

Software and performance

The three Excite models vary a bit in their hardware, but in use all three tablets are virtually the same. They all run Android 4.0.3, and Toshiba didn't do much to change the operating system at all. The settings menu has been redesigned a bit and a few options were added, but beyond that and the ability to take a screenshot by pressing the power and volume up buttons simultaneously, you're looking at very near-stock Android.

It's increasingly clear that the Android tablet market has figured out how to run the OS as well as it can be run. There are a few problems, sure — rotating the device takes a bizarrely long time, and browser scrolling isn't very good — but those problems are true on every Android tablet and are more Google's doing than any manufacturer's. In general, though, Android is fast and responsive, and it's stable and intuitive on a tablet thanks to Ice Cream Sandwich.

Tegra 3 and Android 4.0 get along famously

There's always a "but" with Android tablets, though, and it shows no signs of changing — there just aren't enough good tablet apps for Android. Most phone-optimized apps look okay on the Excite 7.7, but expanding elements designed for 4-inch screens to 10-inch displays looks pretty bad, and any phone app becomes absolutely unusable on a 13-inch display. Apps that are optimized, look and work great — but they're mostly games, and remain few and far between.

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Toshiba preloads a bunch of apps onto the Excite tablets, but it's a relatively meager portion. A few are Toshiba's re-imagining of Google apps like the music and video players, plus a couple of third-party apps — most can be uninstalled, and none are particularly obnoxious save for the odd collection of card game apps, which have identically terrible-looking icons that make them stick out.

Nvidia's Tegra 3 processor powers all three tablets, to pretty much the same effect. It's the same very fast, very powerful processor that powers everything from the Transformer Prime to the HTC One X, and we've really never had issues with its performance. It's a great gaming processor, too, and there are a number of Android games that have been optimized for use with the chip. Shadowgun is smooth and playable, but download the Tegra-optimized version (which you'll have to pay for separately, sadly) and it jumps to a new level of fluidity and detail. As I mentioned, Android's software quirks are clearly the limiting factor in the performance of an Android tablet — the internals are plenty powerful at this point in the game.

Nvidia loves to talk about its 4-plus-1 core system in the Tegra 3, which makes the processor able to use very little power except for when it's called upon to do some heavy lifting. It works, mostly: all three Excite models have solid battery life. I got a full two days of heavy use from the Excite 7.7 — lots of tweeting and web browsing, a couple of Netflix movies, and an hour or so of Shadowgun each day. That's good, without being noteworthy. Since the internals on the larger models are largely the same, that means there's lots of extra space for battery, but it's clear that powering a larger screen also takes its toll: the Excite 10 and Excite 13 both lasted a bit longer than the 7.7, but not much. Also worth noting: the chargers may be large and cumbersome, but they seem to work. All three tablets charge quickly, only needing a couple of hours to go from dead to full.

Sizes

What's the right tablet size?

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The fun thing about reviewing the three Excite tablets together was how clearly they crystallize the use case for a tablet. When I first picked up the 13-inch model, it seemed utterly ridiculous, but here's the thing: it's really not. If you want to just sit on your couch and watch a movie, or place it in a stand (there's one available) and set it on your kitchen counter or bedside table, it really makes sense. Of course, if you ever want to take your tablet anywhere the Excite 13 is a terrible choice, but for some users and use cases it could be just right.

The Excite 7.7 is similarly a niche product. It's not big enough to be particularly immersive for gaming or watching movies (though the AMOLED display helps a bit in those departments), but it's totally usable in one hand, and you won't notice it in a bag or a pocket. I'd rather read on a 7-inch tablet than a 10-inch device (there's a reason the Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire are both 7 inches), and the Excite 7.7 is one of my favorite reading tablets ever.

If seven and 13 inches are specialty sizes, 10 inch models make up the one-size-fits-all market. The Excite 10 is portable enough to carry around without breaking your back (the Excite 13 might rip a hole in your backpack), but it's still large enough to be meaningfully better than your phone for watching movies or playing games. The biggest problem here is the 16:9 ratio, which makes the Excite 10 great in landscape mode and great for watching movies, but awkwardly tall and too thin in portrait mode. Still, it's not a bad middle ground between size and ease of use.

Toshiba's come a long way in the tablet world. The Thrive line was filled with huge, clunky devices, and the Excite 10 LE sacrificed everything (and I mean everything) to be as thin as possible. The new Excite tablets find a much better middle ground, combining great internals and solid performance with up-to-date software, all in a body that looks and feels good.

The case for the Excite 13 is a simple one, and to some people will be really compelling. If you want a tablet that only travels as far as the distance between rooms in your home, that's great for watching movies, playing games, looking up recipes, or using as a serving tray, the Excite 13 is a pretty great device. All the extra screen real estate does cause a few problems, especially in games, but for relaxing on the couch and doing some light web surfing or plowing through a queue of YouTube videos, it's a pretty great device.

Plus, if you're in the market for a 13-inch tablet, what choice do you have?

Compare this: Toshiba's Excite tablets vs. Apple iPad, Samsung Galaxy Tab

Toshiba's come a long way in the tablet world. The Thrive line was filled with huge, clunky devices, and the Excite 10 LE sacrificed everything (and I mean everything) to be as thin as possible. The new Excite tablets find a much better middle ground, combining great internals and solid performance with up-to-date software, all in a body that looks and feels good.

Is it enough, though? With the $449 Excite 10, I'm not sure. The competition in this screen size is steep, thanks to solid offerings from Asus, Samsung, Acer and others. The Excite 10 is a nice option, but it doesn't offer anything that sets it apart. Its screen isn't great, and though its performance is solid it's equalled by devices like the Transformer Pad and Transformer Prime, both of which also offer the excellent keyboard dock. Of course, there's also the iPad, which continues to rule the tablet world thanks to an incredible screen and an unparalleled selection of great tablet apps. The Excite 10 is a nice device, certainly Toshiba's most compelling 10-inch tablet so far, but I'm left wanting more.

Compare this: Toshiba's Excite tablets vs. Apple iPad, Samsung Galaxy Tab

Toshiba's come a long way in the tablet world. The Thrive line was filled with huge, clunky devices, and the Excite 10 LE sacrificed everything (and I mean everything) to be as thin as possible. The new Excite tablets find a much better middle ground, combining great internals and solid performance with up-to-date software, all in a body that looks and feels good.

The Excite 7.7 makes a pretty compelling case, at least on paper: its screen is fantastic, its performance solid, its body attractive. The price is the limiting factor here, and it's probably a deal-breaker. At $499, it's twice the price of Samsung's Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 and more than double the price of the Kindle Fire, easily the most popular 7-inch tablet out there right now. The Excite 7.7 has some distinct advantages over those devices, but I'm not sure it's twice as good to justify twice the outlay. If you're in the market for a premium 7-inch tablet, though, and were initially put off by the Verizon contract you'd have to sign to get the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7, look no further: the Excite 7.7 will serve you every bit as well and with none of the paperwork.

Compare this: Toshiba's Excite tablets vs. Apple iPad, Samsung Galaxy Tab

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