We’ve seen a flood of Android tablets this year, most of them largely the same. They run the same operating system, and they’re pretty close when it comes to size, weight, processing power and price. So when all the big stuff is baked, it’s the little things that make a tablet stand out.
Toshiba’s Thrive tablet, a 10.1-inch slate that starts at $430 for the 8GB, Wi-Fi only model, is a stand-out, alright — it’s the biggest and heaviest of the tablets from the major manufacturers.
At 1.66 pounds, it’s much heftier than the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 (1.24 pounds) and the T-Mobile G-Slate (1.38 pounds) and just a hair heavier than the HP TouchPad and the Motorola Xoom. The Thrive is also 0.63 inches thick, where almost everyone else comes in at well under half an inch.
Being the fattest kid in class sounds like a silly way to differentiate. But the extra bulk allows for some attractive features absent in other tablets.
First, the battery is user-replaceable. You can pry off the plastic back using only your fingernails and swap out the battery, which looks like a flat, 5-inch square. Toshiba sells spare batteries for $80 each. The Thrive is efficient, lasting about eight hours between charges in my tests, so you’ll really only need to swap batteries after a few years of use, or if you’re away from a power socket for an entire weekend.
And if you don’t like the black plastic rear shell — or if you crack it while taking it on and off, which seems highly unlikely given its flexibility — that’s replaceable, too. Toshiba sells a variety of colored plastic backs for $20 each.
Finally, the Thrive boasts an array of ports closer to what you’d see on a laptop than a tablet. Behind a rubber panel on the bottom edge are an HDMI port, a full-size USB port and a mini USB port. Just around the corner from those sits an SD card slot.
Using these ports, you can attach all sorts of external storage to augment the tablet’s on-board memory. The Thrive ships with up to 32GB on-board, but the cheapest model only has 8GB. With such scant storage, all the expansion options are a huge plus.
I loaded some movies and MP3s onto a USB stick and an external Seagate drive, and the Thrive could play back the media stored on either. I also fed it some SD cards, which it handled with equal success.
The tablet ships with Android 3.1 Honeycomb, which has limited ability to browse files on external storage devices. To get around this, the Thrive ships with its own File Manager app that lets you browse your USB sticks and SD cards, and to copy files to and from the tablet. The File Manager is far from elegant — it doesn’t do drag and drop, and copying and pasting files requires more tapping and OK-ing than is necessary — but it works.
The USB port can also be used to attach full-sized keyboards and mice. That’s a lot of added versatility, and should please the curmudgeons who complain about touchscreen keyboards.
Granted, the ports, the big screen and the removable back make the Thrive heavier, but you shouldn’t worry too much about that. The difference between the Thrive and the iPad 2 is only about one third of one pound. It’s still comfortable enough to hold with one hand or rest on your lap.
If there’s a problem with the tablet, its the less-than-stellar performance when scrolling in apps and playing games. This isn’t just an issue with Toshiba’s tablet — I have yet to use an Android tablet with graphics and scrolling that are as smooth as I’d like. I played some rounds of Plants vs Zombies, a Flash game, and it was playable, but not nearly as smooth as it is on the desktop. Also, playing Angry Birds was jittery, and scrolling and zooming aren’t as smooth as they should be in the browser, in Twitter, in Google Maps, and in other apps.
Video playback is, for the most part, satisfactory. Videos on YouTube and Vimeo played perfectly in both the Flash and HTML5 players, and even those videos in HD. But when I loaded up some MP4 files I ripped at 720p, the playback was a little jerky.
The Thrive’s screen is plenty bright and has a 1280×800 resolution. It’s not the best I’ve seen (the Galaxy Tab has best screen of the Androids) but it’s good enough. The stereo speakers along the bottom edge are feeble. However, you can hook it up to a real home theater using the HDMI port. You’ll need your own HDMI cable, since Toshiba doesn’t include one (bummer). The Thrive’s screen uses a 16:10 aspect ratio, which is larger than a standard HDTV at 16:9. Rather than present the entire image in a letterbox when you throw it to the big screen, the tablet crops it slightly on the sides.
The Thrive is packing a 1GHz Nvidia Tegra 2 dual-core processor and 1GB of RAM, which is on par with other tablets and provides enough juice for most games and videos. But the evidence suggests the software and hardware we’ve seen so far on Android tablets are still not fully developed enough to drive a pure home media convergence device in a way that’s as satisfying as what Apple, still the team to beat, has achieved. The Android desktop has come a long way, but scrolling in the browser and in apps, animations in games, and video playback just aren’t as elegant on Honeycomb as they are on iOS.
But if you’re eyeing the Thrive, chances are you’re attracted by the connectivity options, the ability to run Flash, the familiarity of Android, and the relative openness of the app ecosystem. Those certainly are endearing features, and for consumers who crave versatility, they trump the tablet’s annoyances.
Update, July 19, 9:30am: Gadget Lab is reporting that some Thrive users are having difficulty waking the tablet up from sleep mode. I did not experience this problem. A software update for Toshiba arrived during my testing period. I ran the update, but it made no noticeable difference in the tablet’s operation.
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