Upon switching on the Toshiba Encore 2 tablet, the company's "Leading Innovation" brand strategy slogan pops onto the screen. But does the second-generation tablet truly innovate within the entire market, or does it merely represent progress within Toshiba's own tablet confines?
Unlike the original model the Encore 2 comes in both 8-inch and 10-inch sizes - the newer, larger 10-inch model being the focus of this particular review. Larger size, yet slimmer than the original model, but with a plasticky construction to match its affordable price point - is the Encore 2 a Windows 8.1 tablet worthy of a centre stage position, or a device lacking that unique voice and self-proclaimed innovation?
We've been using the Toshiba Encore 2 for three weeks prior to penning these words, and we've had moments of love, moments of hate, and moments of nonchalance.
To look at the Encore 2 is a fairly standard looking product, which may sound like a cop-out, generic way to describe it - but then that's how it comes across. It's the thumb-width bezel (we measure it at approximately 18mm all around) that lacks the more compact form factor of many more recent tablets, although it does make for a comfortable edge to hold the device.
Measuring just shy of 9mm thick, this Toshiba can't be considered in ultra-slim terms of the 7.5mm iPad Air or 6.5mm Samsung Galaxy Tab S tablets of this world, but it's a considerable reduction over the 10.7mm original Encore model. A millimetre here and there won't always make a drastic difference to all users, though, and let's not forget those particular iOS and Android comparisons each cost at least £170 more than the £230 asking price the Encore 2 demands. This is unashamedly affordable, and there's nothing wrong with that.
We've carried the Encore 2 around with us extensively too - the 550g weight is light enough to hold in a single hand and not a burden in a bag over the shoulder - but this is where we've had a mixture of that love and hate. It's visited Europe and America as our travel and work companion, with that 10.1-inch screen coming in handy for long-haul train and plane journeys when watching movies and TV shows.
But after even such a short amount of travel the budget build of the Encore 2 reveals itself: the "satin gold" rear plastic panel has already rubbed down to the white plastic beneath in some areas, or is marked with grey buffs elsewhere. That's the penalty of a budget build and repeatedly pulling it in and out of a bag. Not good.
Some button placement is bizarre too, namely the Start button appearing on the top edge towards the centre. In almost all Windows 8 devices this button is housed front and centre, so it feels alien to use in this instance. No such problems with the neighbouring power and volume buttons also arranged along the top edge.
Despite the odd scuff we've found the Encore 2 has done a generally good job overall. That 10.1-inch screen size may only have a modest 1280 x 800 pixel resolution - and we'd have loved a 1920 x 1200 pixel panel, given that's something even the smaller Nexus 7 from 2013 can muster - but it handles the viewing angles, brightness and reflections well.
We've used some other tablets where the reflective screen coating can render a device almost useless in some situations. Fortunately with the Encore 2 10-inch we needn't stare back at the mirrored reflection of our own face during use. Viewing angles are also decent for an easy view irrelevant of the angle you hold the device, and although brightness isn't class-leading it's more than ample.
One of the oddities we found with the original Encore was its touchscreen sometimes lacked responsiveness. That's a thing of the past in the Encore 2, as we've had no issues with swiping, tapping or pinching our way through various applications.
The only real criticisms in the screen department come down to that so-so resolution and an off-white colour cast present in our particular review model.
Windows 8.1: Like a mini laptop
For the duration of our review we've been using the Toshiba Encore 2 as a standalone tablet. However, an accessory keyboard with built-in stand is also available (sold separately) that may well be worth the investment if you're thinking of running the device like a mini laptop replacement. There's sense in doing so as it offers a better screen than a Chromebook would around this price point.
After all, the Encore 2 has full Windows 8.1 is on board, meaning you can download and install anything you care to from the Windows Store or the full breadth of other available executable files. A year's subscription to Microsoft Office 365 Personal (Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Publisher, Access) is included too, but that will mean a £51.99 top-up each year thereafter if you want to keep it running. By definition the software is available for "1 PC or Mac and 1 Tablet" - meaning you could utilise the second licence for a separate machine we should think.
If you do want to use the Encore 2 more like a laptop then remain mindful of its limitations. We love the microSD port on the side to supplement the 32GB on board - which has been an essential to transfer files from Mac to Windows - but other than the mini HDMI output that's all you'll get. No full-size USB ports to be found here, but that's no surprise given its tablet form and hardly a criticism.
With our review device, and even after resetting it to get the full out-of-the-box experience, we didn't find there to be too much bloatware on board. Which is always a relief. Only McAfee Vulnerability Scanner popped up from time to time seeking updates, with minimal impact to use.
Split the Atom
The Encore 2's core power comes in the form of a 1.8Ghz Intel Atom processor (Z3735F), paired with 2GB of RAM. Scores on the boards won't see this Toshiba excel past some of its rivals, and yet for all the browsing, word processing, video-watching and casual gaming we've thrown at it there have been no major problems - just the odd glitch. Things like waiting for apps to load, slow screen auto-rotation, or text not appearing in search boxes immediately being some of the operating system oddities we've spied.
Camera-wise there's a 5-megapixel rear and 1.5-megapixel front-facing secondary for snapping pics to share or for use in video calls. Don't expect the world from them as a dedicated quality camera, but they have their uses in workflow so couldn't be done without.
However, some aspects of Windows 8.1 aren't always the most stable in our view. Small but important things, such as a less stable VLC beta (video player) crashing and failing to load again in the middle of a flight, or a once-off situation when the Wi-Fi refused to connect to any network due to requiring a software update - that was only available via download, i.e. not accessible - being two such issues. The latter led to a full device reset after an hour of tinkering and getting frustrated.
Toshiba doesn't provide full battery specifications beyond anticipated life per charge, which we've found to be ultimately similar to its predecessor. A long haul flight pushed its way through eight hours of video no problems (not the outward leg, where VLC player crashed out - needing a second download to remedy) with a third of battery power left in reserve. It's a reasonable performance overall.
However, the Encore 2 can run hot for no discernible reason. We've left it sat idle doing nothing and found the rear - particularly towards the lower left - to be warmer than we would expect, which doesn't make it especially nice to hold. Give it some more serious tasks to crunch through and that temperature increases even more.
We arrive in conclusion feeling that the Encore 2 is an echo of its predecessor. Or, daresay, a kind of extended encore. How apt.
In terms of an affordable 10-inch full Windows 8.1 tablet there's plenty of good to be taken away from the Encore 2, making it a genuinely viable purchase. The screen provides good angles of view with limited reflective qualities, while the new slim build is a step forward for the series. Add microSD expansion for easy file transfer between devices, Microsoft Office and - should you want to buy one - an optional keyboard and the Encore 2 would be our preference ahead of a Chromebook. But it's not a leap forward in the way it could have been - and budget Chromebooks are short of the mark, so hardly shining praise.
There are a fistful of negatives that eat away at the positives though. The large bezel surround, poor quality of the rear panel, limited screen resolution, odd Start button placement and the occasional glitch or slow response all work against the Encore 2. In context it's not "Leading Innovation" by any measure, it's happily sat in the middle ground in that balance of price to performance.
But there's nothing necessarily wrong with that. Even the best bands use backing singers, but they're not the reason you go to a gig and hope they'll step out on stage for that extra final tune. It's the same story with the Encore 2: it's an eminently usable Windows 8.1 tablet that makes improvements compared to its predecessor, but fails to truly excel or be the shining star in among a bustling tablets market.