If not for its annoyingly bulky design and slightly expensive price, the Toshiba Encore 8 would be your best option for a small Windows 8.1 tablet. As it stands, the Dell Venue 8 Pro is lower priced, thinner, and lighter.
The Encore 8 features microSD storage and something few tablets -- including the Venue 8 Pro -- have: Micro-HDMI. As a full Windows 8.1 system, the Encore 8 runs all Windows legacy programs. That is, as long as you can find space. The tablet comes in both 32GB (for $330) and 64GB ($400) configurations, but honestly, neither size is large enough to comfortably install more than a few large programs. Thank goodness for built-in storage expansion.
The lack of a keyboard/touch pad accessory means you'll want to stay away from the desktop interface -- the tablet however works great in Metro -- as attempting to use your fingers to navigate a UI that was designed with a mouse in mind is frustrating, to say the least. Fortunately, Toshiba's capacitive styli start at only $15.
The Encore 8's battery lasts long, and its overall performance is fast. As long as you never leave the Metro interface -- not likely -- navigating the UI is seamless. However, I recommend investing in a stylus pen if you're planning to take full advantage of Windows 8.1 and install legacy programs.
Design and features
The Encore 8 features a by-the-numbers tablet design that looks like it came fresh out of a "make-your-own-tablet" cookie-cutter tray. With its black bezels offset by a silver trim, it eschews any sense of elegance or panache, and at first glance harkens back to cheap tablets from yesteryear (2011 through 2012).
At 0.96-pound, the Toshiba Encore 8 is also one of the heaviest small tablets around. However, if your experience with tablets is limited, you may not even notice. But as a (self-proclaimed) connoisseur of tablets small and large, to me it stands out like a sore heavy thumb.
It's also one of the bulkiest tablets -- small or large -- I've encountered in quite some time, but it works to justify its corpulence with some useful extras. Notably, a micro USB port, micro HDMI, and a microSD slot.
The power button and volume rocker sit along the right edge but are too flush with the tablet's body and as a result don't deliver much tactile feedback when pressed. A pair of well-spaced speakers sit along the bottom edge, and a headphone jack is placed on the top.
In the top-right corner of the front bezel is a 2-megapixel camera, and directly opposite it is an 8-megapixel shooter. Neither takes the most colorful pictures or delivers the clearest video, but as long as there's enough ambient -- and preferably natural -- light, pictures usually turn out decent enough. Even with adequate lighting however, most of the pics taken with the rear camera lacked color and looked a bit washed out.
The backside is plastic silver and textured with a bumpy finish that should make it more grippy, but actually doesn't. The corners are smoothly rounded, though, and don't dig into my palms, so I do like that.
Windows 8 on a small tablet
I'm a fan of Windows 8.1's touch interface as it's come a pretty long way since Windows 8.0. Still, its reliance on the old Desktop interface can prove problematic for small tablets with no keyboard accessory options, like the Encore 8.
The desktop interface was meant for a mouse and keyboard -- or at least a touch pad and keyboard -- rather than your fingers. And attempting to navigate the interface with anything less than a precision instrument -- mouse, touch pad, or stylus -- is an exercise in heavy frustration.