Toshiba Encore 2 Windows 8 Tablet

I recently looked at the Acer Switch 10 convertible laptop and was, for the most part, pleasantly surprised by the sub-$400 laptop/tablet running Windows 8. Despite a couple of issues and concerns, the Switch 10 is a tempting alternative to iPads or Chromebooks for the classroom. The Toshiba Encore 2 WT8-B is a smaller, cheaper, Windows 8 tablet that has similar specifications to the Switch, but cuts a lot of corners along the way.

Encore 2 WT8-B

The most obvious change is the size. The Encore 2 has an 8-inch screen but keeps the same resolution as the Switch. While this does mean the Encore 2 has a higher PPI (pixel per inch), it was significantly more difficult to accurately interact with Windows Desktop applications. I often found I was not touching in the correct spot to minimize a window or click a checkbox.

The Encore 2 is also a tablet-only device. You could connect an external keyboard, but it would simply be another accessory that you have to carry with you. Toshiba sells a Bluetooth keyboard case for the Encore 2, but it is designed around the 10" model. It is also expensive making the combined price higher than the Switch 10.

Internally, the Encore appears to be nearly identical to the Switch. It uses the same chipset (CPU and graphics), has the same resolution screen, and the same amount of storage. The biggest difference is that the Encore 2 only has 1GB of RAM, half that of the Switch 10. This is not enough for any Windows device, and in fact the pre-installed Symantec utility warned of potential performance issues due to high memory usage. This message appeared immediately after powering the device on for the first time, and it was complaining about a core Windows service.

Speaking of pre-installed software, it always amazes me that Windows OEM's continue to find value loading up devices with applications that not only provide no value to the customer, but are actually detrimental to the experience the customer has with the device. The Switch 10 did have some pre-loaded software, but it was minimal and I was never prompted or interrupted by it. It is a different story with the Encore 2. The Symantec software has repeatedly popped up warning me about performance, asking me to register, or asking if I want my "toolbar back" in Chrome. The other drawback to pre-installed software, especially on these entry-level Windows devices, is the impact on storage. The Encore 2 has 32GB of storage, of which only 18.3GB is free out of the box.

The button layout of the Encore 2 was odd as well. The power and volume buttons were in fairly standard locations (on the left edge of the tablet when held in portrait mode), but the Windows button is on the top of the device. The Switch 10 used a capacitive button on the front of device just below the screen which is far more convenient. Reaching for the top of the Encore 2 for the Windows button just felt awkward every time.

At roughly $250 the Encore 2 is definitely in iPad Mini and Chromebook territory. The touch precision issue and lack of keyboard means that you would realistically be limited to apps specifically designed for Windows 8. Windows Desktop applications are virtually unusable. Considering the small amount of RAM and the device constantly complaining about memory-hogging processes, using the Encore 2 regularly would be quite frustrating. The Switch 10 was a compelling alternative to iPads or Chromebooks, but the Encore 2 8-inch tablet just cuts too many corners.

Note that there is a 10.1 inch Encore 2 that has specs nearly identical to the Switch 10, but it does not include the keyboard. If you add the keyboard, the Encore 2 10.1 inch model is significantly more expensive than the Switch 10.

Acer Switch 10 - A Windows laptop... or tablet

The Acer Switch 10 is a Windows 8 convertible laptop that can be used as either a laptop or tablet. The laptop mode is a typical clamshell design, but the screen can be easily detached by simply pulling it apart from the keyboard base allowing you to use it as a tablet. The screen is held to the keyboard using magnets. The connection is quite strong, and you can pick up and hold the laptop by the screen without the keyboard coming loose. Acer advertises two other modes as well, but I am hard pressed to think of examples where I would use them. The first is in a "tent" position with the screen facing out. The second is similar to the standard clamshell configuration, but having the screen facing away from the keyboard.

Obviously to function as a tablet, the Switch has a touch screen. The screen is bright, and uses a light sensor to adjust the brightness setting automatically. It was easy to read the screen in a variety of indoor lighting conditions, including a classroom. Although not the highest resolution screen (1280 x 800), there is enough detail to be productive. Touch accuracy was quite good, even when in Windows Desktop mode. I had little difficulty interacting with window controls (minimize, resize, move), or clicking on buttons, links, or other user interface elements.

As mentioned, the keyboard connects to the screen magnetically and holds quite well. This is partly due to the use of strong magnets, and partly because the keyboard is very light. The disadvantage to the weight of the screen versus keyboard is that if the screen is open too far, the laptop will tip over. If using the touch screen, the laptop doesn't need to be open very far to have a touch tip it over.

The keys on the keyboard are necessarily small with little key travel. Touch typists will find the keyboard uncomfortable, but students accustomed to using on-screen keyboards will have little trouble adapting.

The overall size of the Switch 10 is similar to an iPad though thicker (even without the keyboard). I was able to use the Switch with an iPad document camera stand, and it fits easily in our storage units for the iPads. It is heavier than an iPad, especially an iPad Air, but similar to many of the entry level Chromebooks.

The included storage is extremely small (32GB) for a Windows device. You will quickly run out of space once you start installing Windows applications, but there are options for file and media storage via a micro SD slot and USB port.

The Switch has 2GB of RAM and a quad-core Intel Atom processor. It is unfortunate that Intel continued with the Atom name for these newer CPU's. Many people recall the name from the netbook days and associate it with terrible performance. These newer Atom processors are far more competent (although still far from being fast). I installed SMART Notebook 14 and was able to open and use a fairly large Notebook file. I also installed the newest version of AirServer with Miracast support and successfully mirrored an Android device along with two iOS devices to the Switch. In general I was impressed with the performance but still would never recommend this class of device for any serious media editing.

I did have some issues with the Switch. Screen rotation was inconsistent and did not always automatically rotate when holding the tablet in portrait. Oddly auto rotation was most consistent when the keyboard was attached (and you are least likely to want to rotate it).

There is a full-size USB port on the keyboard base and I believe that is what caused Windows to complain (did not safely remove device) every time I disconnected the keyboard. The system froze on me a few times, and it seemed most likely when detaching the keyboard.

One other area of concern is durability. I always recommend a case for tablets but finding a case for the Switch will be a lot more difficult than finding one for an iPad or Samsung tablet. The Switch didn't feel fragile, but it didn't feel like it would survive a drop to the classroom floor either. The screen does make use of Gorilla Glass 3, so it is at least scratch resistant.

The Switch 10 costs less than $400, putting it in the same territory as the iPad and some Chromebooks. I think it is a compelling alternative. You are still able to run Chrome apps without losing the ability to run Windows programs. I was hoping to get it to boot Android-x86 but was unsuccessful in the limited time I had. Overall, I think Acer (and Microsoft) have a tough sell in the classroom. The Windows Store has little compelling to offer compared to the App Store or Google Play, and falls well short in terms of the number of available apps. However, if your school or district still uses a lot of Windows applications, the Switch 10 could be a good, low-cost choice.