Toshiba Thrive: a tablet edges closer to the ideal

Toshiba Thrive: a tablet edges closer to the ideal

The Thrive is the first tablet to fully harness the interoperable power of Android, but it falls short.

Toshiba Thrive

Toshiba Thrive

The Toshiba Thrive feels chunky compared with the svelte, lightweight market leaders, namely the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and Apple iPad 2. But tucked neatly along the Thrive's edges are its secret weapons: an SD Card slot, plus Mini-USB, USB, and HDMI ports. Those ports keep the Thrive from being just another tablet in a crowded field. We tested the 16GB Thrive AT105-T1016 ($500 as of July 13, 2011); Toshiba also sells an 8GB version for $430, and a 32GB version for $580.

Of all the Android tablets we've seen so far, the Thrive impresses thanks to its flexible media handling. This is the first tablet that makes it easy to do anything other than consume entertainment and apps.

That isn't to say that the Thrive achieves its goals in all respects: It's heavy, its built-in speakers sound tinny, and the display, though sharp, had colors that were slightly off in our tests. But even with those stumbles, the Thrive makes its mark in a big way.

Toshiba Thrive: the basics

The Thrive's specs are in line with what has become standard fare for Android Honeycomb tablets. The tablet has a 1GHz Nvidia Tegra 2 processor, 1GB of RAM, 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 3.0 connectivity, and your choice of 8GB, 16GB, or 32GB of on-board storage. It comes loaded with Android 3.1; at this time, Toshiba cannot say when Android 3.2 will be coming.

In addition to the included storage, you get a SD Card slot that accepts up to 128GB SDXC cards. The Thrive is the first major contender in the tablet field to have such a slot, and the first with SDXC support. That slot alone shoots the Thrive to the top of the heap: Not only does it mean that you have on-the-fly expandability up to four times the maximum built-in capacity (and twice the maximum capacity available on the Apple iPad 2), but you also can pop your SD Card out of your digital camera or camcorder and enjoy the content stored there immediately, no pesky dongles or adapters required.

Even with the expansion possibilities, I wouldn't recommend an 8GB tablet to anyone: That space will fill up fast if you use the tablet to its full potential for enjoying music, video, pictures, and apps. Even five years ago, the 8GB iPhone didn't last for long as an entry-level model, and users' digital-media consumption is exponentially greater today than it was five years ago.

The Thrive is big: It measures 10.75 by 6.97 by 0.62 inches, and weighs 1.6 pounds, which it at the top end of the tablets we've tested. Regrettably, it feels hefty in comparison with some of the other tablets we've encountered of a similar weight. The balance of its internal components made it feel heavier than models such as the HP TouchPad and Motorola Xoom, which also weigh 1.6 pounds. While I used the Thrive, I routinely found it harder to hold than either of those tablets, and practically impossible to hold in one hand for any length of time. One of Toshiba's primary challenges for its second-generation Thrive will be to get the bulk and weight down--without sacrificing what makes the Thrive stand out.

I can forgive a lot in physical design--including a little extra bulk and weight--if the trade-off on form versus function translates in a meaningful way. And in this case it does: The Thrive packs in the most inputs of any tablet available today, which gives it instant appeal for anyone who prizes flexibility in a self-contained package.

Looking at the edges of the Thrive, you might not even notice the plethora of ports. Only one is visible: the SD Card slot at the top-right edge of the tablet (all mentioned locations assume a landscape orientation). Along the right side, covered by a surprisingly sturdy flap best removed with the assistance of a fingernail, are the Mini-USB, HDMI, and USB ports. To be clear, those are full-size HDMI and USB ports--meaning that you can use the same kind of HDMI cable you have at home for your TV, and the same USB flash drive, hard drive, or even memory card reader you use on your PC. All of that is in addition to the docking port, which is situated beneath a sturdy flap of its own at the bottom edge.

Those inputs translate to some extraordinary possibilities in the ways you could use this tablet--especially given how Android 3.1 now supports USB host functionality, and USB devices such as a mouse, keyboard, or game controller. By including the SD Card slot and USB port on the Thrive, Toshiba recognizes the need for interoperability among devices. Suddenly, a non-Windows tablet inches closer to replacing a laptop for both consumption and productivity.

Rounding out the perimeter of the Thrive are a 3.5mm headphone jack and a power port at the bottom-right edge, and well-defined power/wake, volume rocker, and rotation-lock controls along the top left. Toshiba's power brick is similar to what you'd find accompanying one of the company's laptops, with a stiff, bulky plug coming straight out the side of the tablet; unfortunately, the connector doesn't match those used with Toshiba's laptops. A shared power source would have been a huge boon to Toshiba laptop owners (who might then get away with traveling with just one charger to handle both devices), and it would have been a strong bonus consideration in the Thrive's favor.

The pitch-black Thrive has a flashy style in part due to the shiny silver trim around the 2-megapixel front-facing camera and microphone, which are centered at the left side of the tablet; the silver wraps around to the back, surrounding the 5-megapixel, 720p video camera. (Stay tuned for our full camera testing results for the Thrive.) The bling effect also comes from the three status lights (for power, battery, and Wi-Fi) that are visible at the top edge. The status lights can't be turned off, a disappointment considering that they detract from the clean bezel of Thrive and are annoying and bothersome while you're reading or watching a movie.

Overall, the Thrive has a distinctive design, with a grooved, rubberized black backing that's easy to hold. You can replace the removable black back cover and customize the look to match your mood with any of five additional colors--blue, lilac, silver, green, or pink--for $20 each.

Another unique feature: The Thrive has a removable battery. Toshiba says the lithium ion battery will last for up to 7 hours of video playback.

I found the down-firing stereo speakers mediocre on the whole. Although they sounded better than the iPad 2's speakers, they produced thin, tinny audio. By contrast, the HP TouchPad produces richer, more full-bodied audio that's enjoyable to listen to. Music on the Thrive sounded tolerable--and more viable than on the iPad--but I would use the built-in speakers only for video chat or a YouTube fix, or if I'm in a pinch and I have nothing else to listen to music with.

Toshiba Thrive Software: apps galore

The Thrive is jam-packed with app icons--over 20 in all, including seven games, and a Toshiba-branded file manager and media player. But the Thrive is also the first tablet I've seen to cross the line between providing value through preinstalled software and simply cluttering up a new device with useless programs or shortcuts.

Among the clutterware offerings, you get an icon for the user guide, which links not to a local PDF but to the online version, displayed within the Web browser (an unfortunate choice should you ever wish to consult the guide without having to bounce around a website). The link for MOG's streaming-music subscription service shoots you to a video that advertises the service and how it works on phones. (Can we at least get ads targeted at tablet users, folks?) If you click past the movie, you end up at the Android Market to download the actual app, where all you'll see is material showing MOG for phones. As for Electronic Arts' Need for Speed Shift app, don't get excited: Toshiba just gives you a link to a demo version. The same goes for Kaspersky Tablet Security.

At least the five Hardwood card and backgammon games work. They may not be the best specimens of such games, but they are full working versions.

To be fair, Toshiba has provided some useful apps, too. The two most practical, Quickoffice and the Toshiba File Manager, are buried on the bothersome third home screen of apps.

The installation of Quickoffice immediately recognized the Microsoft Word and PDF documents I downloaded from Gmail attachments. The app had some issues rendering a complex newsletter with columns and different text sizes, but it did a better job than Quickoffice's WebOS version did on the HP TouchPad.

Toshiba's powerful File Manager app is the one piece of software that makes the tablet so useful. This file manager exceeds what I've seen on other tablets (only the Asus Eee Pad Transformer comes close), and makes the Thrive the first tablet to fully integrate true file handling and interoperability, with no additional software or dongles required.

The Toshiba File Manager app makes it easy to take full advantage of the various ports on the Thrive. You can tap on any of three icons at the top to view the folders on the internal storage (as indecipherable as their order is, no thanks to Google), view files and folders on an SD Card, or view files and folders on a USB drive. Along the bottom are options for selecting files (to specify individual files or batches for cutting, copying, or deleting), creating folders, or going up a level. You can even preview JPEGs within File Manager, or open other files such as PDFs and Word documents in PrinterShare or Quickoffice.

As for the rest of the tablet's software design, it's fairly straight-up Android 3.1. Unlike other tablet makers, Toshiba has opted for an understated look with its preconfigured startup display, a layout that lacks flashy widgets or overlays to spruce up the native Android 3.0 Honeycomb interface. It uses Google's purple flower background, with just the analog clock widget, an ordinary icon for YouTube (instead of Google's YouTube widget), and nine additional app icons.

The organization of the apps and home screen could be better, but I wasn't surprised to see useful apps such as Quickoffice and File Manager buried on the third home screen. Front and center were a trio of apps--App Place, Start Place, and Book Place--designed to help sell Toshiba services.

At first glance, the three apps appear to be a good starting point, but both their role and origin get a bit murky. For example, enter App Place, and you'll find Toshiba's app store--but to shop, you have to create an account, and it's unclear who you're setting the account up with until you've initiated the process (Snapp Cloud powers the store). The on-tablet app selection was thin at the time of my testing, and the descriptions didn't reflect whether each app was even optimized for a tablet. Things become a smidgen clearer when you go to and look at the options there. You get lots more apps to choose from, but no real sense of why you'd shop on Toshiba's site versus on Android Market. At least there your apps get backed up so if you change devices, your apps can easily sync up to the new tablet.

The Book Place app says that the shop is "Powered by Blio" in the fine print at the bottom. Pity that nothing in the app introduces shoppers to Blio and the 1-million-title Toshiba bookstore, so users can better understand what they're buying. For that information, you need to pop over to the Book Place website, linked to from the bookmarks widget on the first home screen. Oh, and did I mention that the Book Place app requires you to set up another account, specifically for use with Blio's services?

The inappropriately named Start Place is actually a news app that appears to grab current news and photos from Associated Press feeds. The search bar at the top says that it's "Enhanced by Google." Bizarrely, however, when I typed in a search for "Duchess of Cambridge," I got a general set of Google search results, as opposed to Google News results about William and Kate's just-concluded visit to North America. The latter, of course, would make sense in a news app, but apparently that isn't the point of the pop-over search-results pane.

Where the Thrive fits in

In an increasingly crowded marketplace, the Toshiba Thrive stands out in many ways--most of them good. It has some hardware weaknesses, including tinny speakers, a good but not outstanding display, and a bulky, heavy design. But the Thrive's array of ports puts it in a class all its own. And the Thrive feels like the first tablet that could truly complement a laptop in my workflow--all by itself, with no extra dongles, cables, or docking stations.

If your life is solely in the cloud, and if you can't envision yourself porting over files on a USB drive, playing a video from your tablet on your TV via HDMI, viewing photos on the tablet that you just took on your digital camera, or using USB devices with your tablet, then the Thrive isn't necessarily for you. But somehow, I think even the most connected people will have occasion to use a tablet in one of those ways. And that's where the Thrive's appeal clearly lies.

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Tags smartphonestabletsAndroidhardware systemsconsumer electronicstoshibatablet PC

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