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.
And while it's fine if you have a mouse and keyboard, on an 8-inch tablet it gets a bit frustrating when you're trying to close windows and you can't quite hit the 'X' or you want to search for something, but the virtual keyboard doesn't automatically pop up.
There is the option to increase the size of icons, windows, and text, but doing so causes some windows not to fit completely on screen, which as you might imagine introduces its own set of problems.
This is mostly a Microsoft issue, of course, but Toshiba did choose to put this OS on an 8-inch tablet and then not release a keyboard/touchpad for it, so it has to take its fair share of the blame as well.
The Encore 8 packs an 8.1-inch screen with a 1,280x800 resolution. That spec combination is usually good enough to deliver a fairly sharp screen on Android tablets -- see the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8-inch -- but on the Encore 8, pixels and text aliasing are immediately visible, especially on smaller text like the words at the bottom of tiles on the Metro interface. Larger text looks sharper, and after a while it’s easy to become accustomed to.
The tablet delivered decent but not overly impressive scores in 3DMark. Its graphical performance can’t match that of the 1.7GHz Nvidia Tegra 4 in the Surface 2, but it handily beat the Surface 2 in 3DMark’s physics test. Doing well in the physics test usually points to a faster CPU speed, and it's typical for Intel Atom processors to excel in CPU speed while only delivering satisfactory GPU performance -- that’s indeed the case here.
The Encore 8 scored a bit better than the similarly spec'ed Dell Venue 8 Pro and much faster than another 8-inch Windows 8 tablet, the Acer Iconia W3. The Encore 8 feels zippy when using it; boot times are fast, apps open quickly, and it handles multitasking as well as the Asus Transformer Book T100.
Battery life is impressive for a Windows tablet, lasting 8 hours and 52 minutes. That's longer than either the Acer or the Dell, but not quite as long as the T100. Most modern Android tablets however last longer on the average.
The Toshiba Encore 8 gives you a full Windows 8.1 for $330. It's fast, has a lengthy battery life, and includes useful features like Micro-HDMI and microSD storage.
It won't win any aesthetics awards, and its bulky design is anything but cutting edge. Also, the lack of a keyboard/touch pad accessory is a serious drawback on an operating system that requires precision navigation to get the most out of it.
As small tablets go, there are much better -- and lots cheaper -- alternatives, like the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HDX.
For strict Windows users, the Encore 8 is worth taking a gander at, but the Dell Venue 8 Pro -- both sleeker and cheaper -- is the superior choice.
(In seconds, shorter bars indicate better performance)
(In minutes; longer bars indicate better performance)