(Pocket-lint) - It's fair to say we've slammed previous Toshiba tablets for being utterly dreadful. We haven't done this to be mean, or to look big and clever, we've done it because, in our view, those tablets were a waste of money and offered nothing that tablets from Asus and Samsung didn't.
So, when the AT300 was offered to us, we didn't exactly open the box with excitement and anticipation. But we weren't without optimism either because, to be fair to the company, its Android-powered tablets have been improving with each iteration.
So how does the AT300 stack up. Has the company finally nailed it, or is this just the third disappointment in a row?
First impressions count
When we opened the box, we felt a sense of relief. We could tell instantly that the build quality and design has improved over the previous models. The 300 is quite a flat device, so there's a uniformity to the cover that we find pleasing. It has rounded corners, which we could live without, but it's still a smart, modern look.
It also feels well bolted together. There's no creaking, and no real flex in the case. These two things mean that it feels like a premium product, not an overpriced toy. On the downside, gone is the AT100's removable battery, a rarity in tablets anyway, but something that made the design feel chunky and old-fashioned-laptopy.
Aside from the look, there are some nice features on the AT300. On the left side, there's a volume rocker and rotation lock switch along with a power button. On the right-hand side you'll see headphone, micro-USB and micro-HDMI sockets along with a full-size SD card slot.
On the top of the tablet, facing you is a video calling camera for the likes of Skype and Google Hangouts. There's another camera on the back, for all the usual tablet-camera-shenanigans. Honestly, we think it's pointless. but we also doubt it adds all that much to the price.
You also get a proprietary power and data cable which fits in to a massive socket on the bottom of the tablet. It really is quite the most absurd thing, and feels thick enough to power a washing machine, let alone a 2amp tablet.
There aren't a lot of Jelly Bean devices on the market at the moment. The AT300 doesn't break that tradition, it's running Ice Cream Sandwich, which is, for the most part, fine. There's a lot to like in Jelly Bean, but not so much as to render the presence of this older version an irritation.
Toshiba has made almost no changes to the look of the operating system - a good thing in our view. There are a few apps thrown in, including ThinkFree Office, Evernote and Skitch, a rather lovely little drawing app.
There's also the Toshiba Media Player. We never miss an opportunity to kick this app, because it's dreadful. It allows media streaming from network and playback of files locally, at least, in theory. In practice, it might as well not be installed, because it quite simply does not work. Even music won't play - or wouldn't on our device. Video is somehow worse, it wouldn't play from any of our media hosting devices, it made us truly miserable. We hope Toshiba eventually listens to us - and presumably others - and just stops including this app, or fixes it. In the meantime, get Plex (paid, from the Play Store) or Skifta (Free) to play back media. Although, be aware, there are still playback issues on the Toshiba on these apps.
Toshiba also provides its own keyboard design. We actually found it worked well, and was pretty fast for typing. Some mistakes were made, but we've used far worse keyboards in our time. If you don't get on with it though, there are tablet keyboards in the Play Store.
If you're interested in the AT300, then you might want to consider which model to buy, there are three in total. The AT300-100 comes with 32GB of storage, and is Wi-Fi only. We're testing the AT300-101, which is a 16GB model with Wi-Fi only. And there is, at the high end - and higher price - the AT300-105, which has 16GB, but also includes 3G.
The entry model, 16GB with Wi-Fi only costs £300 according to Toshiba, but the Amazon price is more like £287 at the time of writing. Not too unreasonable, although we still think Toshiba is asking too much for these devices, considering how stiff the competition is. If you want the 32GB model, it's another £40 or so - Amazon price is £335. Interesting, the expected list price for the 3G model is about £370 direct from Toshiba, which makes it possibly the best buy of all three.
It has to be said, Toshiba makes its model numbers very confusing. Of course, people don't generally buy based on the model number, but even so, trying to work out which one is which from the Toshiba website is hardly easy. Happily, we're here to help you out with that.
From the bottom-mounted stereo speakers, sound is actually remarkably clear. So much so, we think it might be some of the best we've heard from a tablet. There's a problem though, the audio is just far too quiet to hear in anything but a quiet, small room. In most cases, that's the only place you'd want to use the speakers, but put it in, say, a car, and you probably won't hear it above the road and engine noise.
The range on the speakers is limited too, but that's hardly a surprise as they're tiny, and we wouldn't expect them to produce amazing bass.
The headphone audio also sounds very good, but it too is slightly quieter than we'd expect. That's good for preserving your hearing, but from time-to-time you'll find something that's a little too quiet, and needs a boost, and you won't be able to.
But for us, quality trumps volume every day, and the Tosh does manage to produce a nice sound.
Toshiba has included a rear camera, and it's not brilliant, to be honest. Images tend to suffer a lot from light smearing, and although the colours look okay, the detail isn't particularly astounding. It's not a trainwreck, but it's not up to the standard of most premium mobile phones either.
The front camera is fine for video calls though. This suggests that perhaps, it's time for Tosh to kill the rear camera on its tablets.
Display and picture quality
We're very pleased with the screen in the AT300. It's a solid performer, bright enough to be seen in most conditions and with a decent viewing angle. There's plenty of detail too, despite the fact that it's nowhere near as high-resolution as the iPad screen - it's got about half as many pixels. But specs only tell part of the story, and overall we really enjoyed using the Toshiba's screen, it made watching video a very pleasant experience. Outside, in normal daylight the screen is bright enough. There are reflections, as there are with all tablets, and that can make seeing what's going on a little difficult at times.
There's an auto-brightness setting too, but we found it was problematic, and caused the screen to adjust itself too often. This seems to be a problem on Android devices, we've yet to see auto brightness work seamlessly and quickly.
Toshiba also provides some video optimisation modes too. This is a nice idea, and Samsung does it on its laptops, but we didn't think it worked brilliantly on the AT300, and we think we prefer video left as standard. Optimisation modes are generally just tricks, but sooner or later they come up against some footage they make a mess of.
Power and performance
Battery life seems impressive. We used it modestly for a while, and went from fully-charged down to 32 per cent in three-and-a-half days. We think that's pretty good, considering we did some web surfing, social networking and watched streaming video via Netflix and Plex. Clearly, this is a capable power-pack. Heavy users will, of course, find their tablet runs down quicker, but we can't give you accurate figures for any scenario, save to say we think it does a good job.
Problems arise when you try to watch an MKV-wrapped MP4 video file, Toshiba doesn't support playback of such things, so you won't get hardware acceleration. Your best hope, therefore, is to hop on the market and get a third party player. Sadly, we couldn't find any that would play both video and sound. Perhaps a 5.1 encoded file was a bit ambitious, but other tablets can do it, so we were disappointed.
Despite being powered by a nVidia Tegra 3 quad-core processor, with the now famed ninja-core, we didn't find the AT300 to be the most responsive tablet we've ever used. For the most part, it was decent, though at times we found certain apps were a little sluggish. Mostly, it has to be said, video playback apps. But even so, you'd expect silky smooth performance on a device like this.
That said, it's not a disaster, and all devices have little performance hiccups from time-to-time. They can occur when other apps are dominating the processor time, or if your memory is full.
Web browsing is good, even on the Android browser. We suggest you get Chrome though, as it adds a lot of very useful features and improves speed again. Even so, the stock system has tabs, and is a very desktop computer-like experience.
Toshiba is doing it. It's taken a year, but the firm is slowly pushing out tablets we'd be happy to recommend. The AT300 is nearly there, the battery life is good, it looks nice, it's well-built. As a tablet that competes with the likes of Apple and Samsung, it's slightly too expensive, and we think that will hamper sales. But if you do spend your money on the AT300, we'd no longer consider it a waste.
In a year's time, Toshiba may very well be a real threat to Samsung. It's slowly pushing through all the pain, and seems to learn each time. The AT300 is, in our view, worth considering, but we'd say if there are deals on other tablets you'll find the likes of Asus and Samsung more appealing.
A great improvement, colour us impressed.