(Pocket-lint) - Toshiba is, as it so often is, late to the tablet game. It was late to Blu-ray, because it was pushing its own - excellent - format, HD DVD. And it has been slow on the uptake in 3D and smart TV introduction too. All of that is understandable, as it's an immensely cautious company, that likes to look before it leaps.
So its new tablet, the AT100-100, represents a toe in the water for the Japanese firm. A look around to see if there's money to be made, and a product that every major electronics firm needs to have on its books. The question is, can this tablet impress us, or is as insignificant as it is late?
The AT100 is one of the most tedious, uninspired designs we've ever seen on a tablet. In every way, it's disappointing. The back is made from a cheap-feeling plastic, which has a large Toshiba logo centrally, and a grooved pattern across its entire surface. This plastic bends too, giving the tablet a very budget feel.
On the front, there's a standard looking screen and not much else. As with all Honeycomb devices, there are no physical buttons any more, just on-screen controls. The only feature on the front of the tablet is around the camera at the top. It's surrounded by what Toshiba no doubt considers to be classy silver, but in reality makes it look even more generic and cheap.
All around the device there are sockets. This is a good thing, and the AT100 has some incredible connectivity options. There is a full-sized USB socket, to connect memory sticks to, allowing you to read documents, watch video and look at photos. There's also an HDMI output, to mirror the screen on your TV. And there's also a Mini-USB socket, to connect the tablet to your computer for file transfers and such.
There are also proprietary dock and power connectors and a standard 3.5mm headphone jack. Toshiba thoughtfully includes a full-size SD card slot too, to allow users to view their photos straight from a camera on their tablet. All good stuff, and this is the device's strength.
Again though, these sockets are mostly hidden under plastic flaps or with stoppers to keep dust out. These are bound to get torn off, or lost, and it all adds to the slightly unsophisticated look of the device. It could be the best tablet in the world, but with looks like this, it's going to get judged as inferior long before anyone actually manages to buy one.
Now it may seem that we've been unkind to Toshiba here, and to some extent, we have. But here are the facts. The Toshiba isn't really any cheaper than its competition, but it's significantly uglier and bulkier. It may not be a bad tablet, but it was not designed with the love and passion the Galaxy Tab or iPad were. None of those things make it a failure, but we have to say it makes us very cross that Toshiba doesn't try harder to compete with the other brands.
Plenty of power
In theory, the AT100 has a decent amount of power. It's a Tegra 2 T20 chipset, with a Cortex A9, dual-core CPU running at 1GHz. In practice though, we didn't find it to be especially snappy. Unlocking seemed slow and unresponsive.
The AT100-100 is running Android Honeycomb - 3.1, if you're counting - which means it's well-suited to the large-screen activities that tablets are useful for. Users of earlier versions of Android might take a little while to get used to it. On the whole though, this OS is ideal for tablets. Toshiba has yet to announce update plans to the latest version of Android: Ice Cream Sandwich. Although it seems likely it will happen, it's certainly not a done deal.
During our tests, we also found that video playback sometimes juddered and was a long way off what we'd expect from a modern tablet. And given how silky smooth the likes of the Asus EeePad Transformer and iPad are, it makes us feel that we're being short-changed slightly.
More useful than most
The Toshiba's USB and full-sized SD card slot are both things we're pleased to see. USB means we can attach memory sticks, look at documents or keep large files away from the tablet's in-built storage.
The SD card slot means that it's easy to use the tablet as a place to view digital photos from your SD-based camera while you're out on the move. We popped in a card from our Nikon D90, and after a modest pause, the images appeared via the Toshiba Media Player. Each page of photos needs to be cached first though, and there's a pause each time you move through the collection for it to do this. Once it's done though, the cache remains, so you only have to wait the first time.
Moving through photos was never fast though, and again the graphics power seemed lacking somewhat. We don't know if this is badly written software, or poorly managed hardware, but we would expect more from such a technically powerful machine.
The DLNA debacle
Toshiba provides an app on the AT100 that will access your network and allow you to stream video, music and photos. Well, it claims to allow that, and it certainly makes all the right noises, listing files on the remote server, and such. But when it comes to actually playing anything, brace for disappointment. It simply doesn't work for anything except images.
Obviously, DLNA is always complicated. There are so many little things that can cause problems. One of the big issues are codec support for video types - music and photos are much simpler, on the whole. And here, the choice of software plays a huge part.
Toshiba provides something called Toshiba Media Player which is, we think, a contender for the worst software ever. For a start, it uses technical jargon that won't sit well with normal consumers. When you select the "server" option, to stream from a Windows PC there are two options. One is "server list" the other is "renderer list". Many reading this review may understand that a "renderer" is a device which can play a DLNA stream. So it's a TV or PC that you can send photos videos from the tablet. Many, on the other hand, will not know what that means and will find the jargon confusing.
Toshiba also refers to sub folders and items in folders as "children". We suspect most people will get this, but it really isn't user-friendly language. Why not simply say "items", which just feels so much more natural.
But naming aside, there are bigger problems here. The Toshiba app won't work. We couldn't get it to show us anything except photos. Moving to the free Skifta app things were easier and worked. We could look at videos, and 1080p Katy Perry played, but not well and with significant judder. This is surprising, as our ancient - in tech terms - Samsung Galaxy Tab 7-inch played the same file flawlessly.
There's lots going on here, but we suspect that the hardware acceleration on the Toshiba has less comprehensive support than the Samsung, which is generally happier playing HD media. If you don't use DLNA, then this is unlikely to give you much pause, although it's worth remembering that the performance problems will affect all video playback.
Video and sound
The large screen on the AT100 is reasonable. The plastic cover is a fingerprint magnet though - like most devices, but it seems worse here - and so you'll need to wipe it regularly to get the best out of it. At maximum brightness, it chucks out a decent amount of light too. The good news is, having brightness set high doesn't really seem to wash the image out too much.
The viewing angle is reasonable, but not amazing. Sitting side-by-side with friends will produce no problem, but move it up and down, and the image does wash out a little. Far from the worst we've seen though.
Sound is a little weak out of the speakers, which are mounted on the edge of the tablet - either the left side, or the bottom, depending which way you hold it - and while they are just loud enough to hear in a quiet room, for anywhere else you'll need headphones. Sound quality, on the whole is reasonable, but not outstanding.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that the AT100 isn't even especially cheap. At around £300 you could pick up the Motorola Xoom 2 Media Edition, with an 8.2-inch screen, for £30 more. Or the full-sized 10-inch Xoom, for £80 more. Then there's Samsung's 10.1-inch Galaxy Tab, which is only £60 more.
Given the feel of the tablet, the quality of the screen and the occasional sluggishness we'd urge you to save a bit longer, and get either the Samsung or the Motorola. It shouldn't take you much longer and you'll ultimately be much happier as result.
The Toshiba has very good standby life, which it seems to achieve through switching off the wireless when the tablet is asleep - a light tells you when this happens - and so standby times can be impressive. Indeed, it should last days if you don't use it much.
Keep it on, and connected though, and you can easily drain the power in one day. Far quicker than most tablets we've seen.
The battery is, however, removable, which is a nice change and very rare on tablets. You have to prise the rear case off to do this, and it's not easy, but for end-of-life battery replacement, it's very handy.
Toshiba should have done better here. This isn't the worst Android tablet we've ever used, but it's a long way off what we would expect and hope for a big, established brand to produce. If it was £150, we would understand the huge quality compromises. But it's twice that much, and there are other tablets that are far sexier, for very little extra money.
And in everything other than design, it's a fair tablet that works as it should. There's no inspiration here, and although it's light, it's not light enough to be comfortable to hold for long periods. We don't hate the hardware here, we just wish it was packed up in a premium package.