Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Toshiba Encore first impressions

For Christmas I received a Toshiba Encore WT8-A32 8-inch Windows tablet. It has 2 GB RAM and 32GB storage. It was refurbished but like-new and cost only $91.19. It was an amazing deal because it's hard to find a working Windows tablet with that much RAM and storage under $100.

Tablet's best qualities

  • Dual-band Wi-Fi (both 2.4 and 5GHz; 802.11abgn)
  • 2 GB RAM (most cheap ones have 1 GB)
  • 32 GB solid-state storage (16 GB on most cheap ones)
  • 8 inches - pretty big
  • Quad-Core Intel Z3740 CPU - fast and uncommon in cheap tablets
  • This CPU family is said to be able to hardware-decode H.263, H.264, and even VP8, among others
  • The GPU (built into the CPU) is new enough that it runs the latest Stellarium without problems
The Wi-Fi seems good. My Lenovo T60p was able to connect and do pings on a G network from much further away than the tablet, but it was a business-grade laptop and had bigger antennas, so that's to be expected. But the tablet's Wi-Fi is by no means bad. Aside from supporting 802.11n, which the Lenovo doesn't, it's been able to connect to the Wi-Fi at Sams Club while I was sitting in a car in the parking lot.

When I first turned it on, I was shocked at the display's contrast ratio. It uses IPS technology, so it's no OLED, but it looks a lot better than most other screens I work with.

Battery life is nice as long as the screen is dim. Just try to avoid Flash video on websites whenever possible. I use the latest Opera, which supports HTML5, and YouTube always selects HTML5 for me. I've read that it's more power-efficient that Flash, and I've observed it to be true. My battery went to almost nothing after watching a little bit of AFV on the official ABC website, which uses Flash, but I've been able to watch YouTube with HTML5 for hours without a recharge.

I also installed the K-Lite Codec Pack which comes with Media Player Classic. I experimented to see which hardware decoder would have the least CPU load. I downloaded the official music video of Little Talks by Of Monsters and Men from YouTube in 720p H.264 format using 4k Video Downloader, which is a lot nicer for this task than Any Video Converter. After trying both Intel Quicksync and DXVA2 Native, I saw that DXVA2 Native used significantly less CPU than Quicksync. I even asked about this on a forum related to K-Lite and the admin confirmed it.

You'll need a good dedicated USB device charger (included). Some mobile devices, including this tablet, will not charge off computers and certain wall chargers. I have, however, been able to charge it in the car.

I also learned that the Lithium-Ion batteries used in mobile devices should not be fully charged and discharged except once a month or even less. I'd always heard that batteries had a memory and so should be fully cycled, but everyone says this type does not have a memory and lasts longer if kept between 40% and 80%. Maybe that's how my Lenovo T60p's battery got ruined...

Battery pitfall

Recently the battery charge indicator had gotten stuck at 100%. It thinks it's 100%, runs down to nothing, and suddenly shuts off. Even if I stop charging at 82% or 74%, it's stays at that value. I did some searches online and this is a very common problem for mobile devices. It has to do with the battery not calibrating. I couldn't find a Windows tablet app to calibrate the battery, so I did some more reading and at least one person on a forum suggested letting it charge to 100%, running it until it turns off, and then charging it again. This is supposed to make it automatically re-calibrate the battery. But over the last 3 days the battery had been exhibiting this condition with no indication of stopping. I was concerned that I may have gotten a dud tablet.

How I saved my battery

Today I realized the tablet had only gotten stuck at 100% when I went to Sams Club 3 days ago. I normally kept my screen at its dimmest, but that day I set it one or two ticks brighter. It subsequently got stuck at 100% when I charged it. The next day it just turned off. After charging and dying several times over three days, today (1/13/2016) it went down to 67% when I had left it at 74%. It hadn't gone down at all in 3 days so this was a relief, but I had to be sure it wasn't just a fluke. Since AFV is notorious for draining the battery, I played a couple minutes of it, and sure enough, the battery went down at least 2 percentage points. The lesson? Expect a few days of automatic recalibration if you change your screen brightness.

The tablet has front and rear cameras and an ambient light sensor. Most of the time the Camera app just shows blackness because sometimes the cameras can't be connected to. Skype's camera preview showed green once when this happened but for some reason Skype can now connect without issues.

The tablet has a GPS sensor, a Broadcom BCM4752 chip. It supports 4 different satellite constellations and supposedly works indoors by triangulating Wi-Fi, although I haven't seen any way of doing that. The tablet rarely gets fixes when stationary and when it does they are very inaccurate. For me, at least, you have to be going about 3 mph (a brisk walk) or faster to get any fixes at all. If you are moving then it will consistently get fixes once per second and they are usually surprisingly accurate. I've even tested it in the car while traveling over 65 mph and it still got dependable position fixes once per second. The GPS sensor only provides info over the Windows Location Platform. It will not natively output NMEA 0183 streams. However, there are people on forums who are able to use conversion software to emulate a regular serial GPS.

The tablet runs Windows 8.1, which takes up most of the hard drive. I've read that upgrading to Windows 10 would free up a lot of space, but I don't think I'll upgrade for quite a while. My Lenovo T60p runs Windows 10 and seems to get slower every day. To some extent, so does a more recent laptop I upgraded. It also runs out of memory on my T60p way before it should, but that started recently. I looked it up online and I think it's a bad Windows Update (gotta love mandatory updates.)

Why I won't be upgrading my tablet to Windows 10 (yet):

  1. Constantly phones home to Microsoft
  2. Runs mysterious processes in the background for no reason, using hard drive, memory, and CPU time
  3. The Start menu and taskbar notification icons are a bit unresponsive and sometimes the Start menu doesn't let you enter search keywords
  4. Low on Memory errors and program crashes when there's still 500MB RAM left
  5. All Windows Updates mandatory and automatic
  6. Battery life rumored to be worse versus Windows 8 (no surprise: see #1 and #5)
On older Windows versions, such as XP, menus popped up immediately. The fact that the new Start menu and especially notification icons sometimes take a while to respond implies to me that that part of Windows' interface may be running on top of some emulator. Still, it's free, so we should expect some issues. I really like how XP was tolerant of low memory and you could be reasonably certain your computer was truly idle when you weren't using it.