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ALAN ZISMAN ON TECHNOLOGY

What can you do with a $100 Windows tablet?      
 
By Alan Zisman
16 April 2015


Maybe it's got something to do with aging, but I've realized that I'm not a tech power user. Maybe I never was, but for a while tech companies were lining up to loan me their latest and greatest for review. Faster, larger, better.

But now, with a (mostly irregular) self-published blog if I want to try out something new I mostly have to buy it myself. And that means that I'm more concerned with what you can get with very little money.

Besides (and I suspect I'm not the only one here) - faster, larger, better doesn't seem to make as much difference as it once did. Dramatically more battery life, yes. 10% faster CPU, maybe not so much.

But recently an ad (in an email titled PC Mag's Best Deals) promising a 'Toshiba Encore 2 8" Windows 8.1 Tablet - 1-year Office 365 Included! (their exclamation point) for US$89 + free shipping' got my attention.

It had been a long while since I last bought a new Windows system - 2006 to be exact. I've had loans of various Windows products over the years and have run pre-release and other versions of Windows in virtual sessions on whichever Mac has been my primary computer.

And I know that Windows 8 and the more recent 8.1 has gotten - at best - a luke warm response. People have been confused by Microsoft's attempt to shoehorn a totally new user interface, aimed at tablet and touchscreen users, on top of the traditional Windows desktop experience. Applications run in one environment or the other, some preference settings can only be made in one or the other. Confusing!

I've run Windows 8 and 8.1 - and now the pre-release Windows 10 - in virtual sessions on my Mac, but other than a couple of weeks loan of the original Microsoft Surface tablet in late 2012, I haven't had a chance to use a Windows tablet. Not that I'm tablet-starved: I bought a iPad in 2010 on the first weekend they were available in Canada (later upgraded to a 10" Retina iPad 3) and got a 7" Android-powered Google Nexus 7, again as soon as they became locally available.

But a hundred bucks seemed like a cheap enough price to give a Windows tablet a try. Toshiba's a reputable brand name, anyway!


The advertised 32 GB of storage seemed adequate. 1 GB of memory not so much. (Amazon is now advertising Toshiba Encore 2 WT8-B264 - 8" Tablet - 64GB, Dual Cameras, Windows 8.1, WiFi & Bluetooth - Satin Gold with twice as much storage and twice as much memory - and a stylus - for $240 or a Toshiba Encore 2 WT8-B32CN 8.0-Inch 32 GB Tablet gold model similar to the advertised one for $149 - there are also pricier models with 10" screens).

Anyway, I ordered it. (Sorry - limited time offer - but (April 18 2015) - eBay Canada is listing a similar but 7" HP Stream 7 for CDN$98). How bad could it be?

It shipped the same day and arrived a few days later. Physically, nothing special - a silver plastic case weighing under a pound (386 gm). On the top a headphone jack, a 'Windows' button and a micro-USB port for charging - and also (with adaptor) connecting USB devices. That's nice - as is the ability to charge it using the same cables and power adaptors as the multitude of Android devices.

Along one side: on/off and volume switches plus a micro-SD memory card slot. Also nice - that means the 32 GB of built-in storage can be expanded using a commonly-available memory card in sizes up to 128 GB. I plugged in a 16 GB micro-SD card I had handy after loading it with music, photos, video files and documents.

It booted up pretty quickly: 10-15 seconds or so - much faster than my Nexus 7, for instance. But I couldn't just get down to business; first, there were 51 'critical updates' to install.

This was advertised as a Microsoft 'Signature Edition' - something Microsoft advertises on some of the hardware available through its physical and online Microsoft Stores. 'Signature Edition' models promise "No Junkware or 3rd party trialware". That's a good thing since typical new brand-name PCs come with a lot of junk needing uninstalling. It also promised "World-class security software" which was less true - that means Microsoft Windows Defender anti-virus, included with Windows 8.1. Windows Defender was recently reviewed by PC Magazine which rated it 1 1/2 stars out of 5 and concluded: "you'll be much, much better off installing almost any other free antivirus utility."

After installing the multitude of updates, I installed Panda Free Antivirus, PC Mag's best-ratedfree product. I also installed Microsoft Office 365 using the included product key. The personal edition - good for use on one PC or Mac plus one tablet sells for about $70 (for a one-year subscription), almost the cost of the tablet - and usable on a desktop system as well. Also potentially valuable - 1 TB of online storage at Microsoft's OneDrive service. (Like the Office 365 offer, free for a year. After that, be prepared to pay to renew).

Next steps - setting it up with the software and services that I prefer to use. Microsoft, Apple, Google (and increasingly Amazon) all want to hook users into their universe of products and services. This tablet, for instance, comes with Microsoft's Internet Explorer web browser pre-set to use Microsoft's Bing search engine. In fact, the installed operating system is referred to as Windows 8.1 with Bing - a version Microsoft is giving away to manufacturers of low-powered systems. As well, users get a terrabyte of cloud storage in Microsoft's OneDrive.

The defaults can be easily changed though. I prefer Google's Chrome browser and use Google's Gmail, calendar, and contacts along with Google Maps and wanted to continue to use them rather than Microsoft's pre-installed equivalents. I have online storage from Microsoft and Google but find myself using Dropbox most often.

I regularly access Facebook and Twitter and get news from online services Feedly, Zite, and Flipboard. I watch stored videos and access Netflix and listen to saved music files.

All of these are things that I can (and do) do on my Ipad and Android Nexus tablets, as well as on my Mac laptop. (Well, Zite isn't available on the laptop).

With a little bit of fuss, I could all of these - again except for accessing Zite - on the Encore 2. Where possible, I installed free Windows 8-style apps from Microsoft's app Store. The selection of apps is much smaller than in the equivalent Apple or Google app stores - no YouTube app for instance. Unofficial 3rd-party apps for most of the Google services: Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Maps. But I can also access the 'official' versions of these services from within the Chrome (or even Internet Explorer) web browser, so no problem.


Where the other tablets fall down is doing the other stuff - the 'productivity' stuff. When I'm travelling, I generally don't need to do much of it, but every now and then, it's handy to be able to do a quick edit of a webpage that I manage - update a calendar item on http://squeezeboxcircle.org, for instance. A two-minute task but needing the ability to edit an HTML file and ftp it to my web server. Maybe some folks can do these things on an iOS or Android tablet, but not me.

But the dual-nature of Windows 8 - much as lots of folks scoff at it - is in fact, a big plus for me. I've travelled with both the iPad and Nexus 7 tablet. And they're both fine for all that email/web browsing/social media stuff and for watching videos, playing music, and showing off photos of my grandchildren. But not for the productivity stuff. I don't need to do much of that - especially on holiday! But it's helpful to be able to do a little bit now and then.

Last trip I took along an inexpensive system running Google's Chrome OS and connected remotely (using Chrome Remote) to my Mac at home, doing the little edits and stuff like that on the Mac from 8000 miles away. It worked but seemed a bit awkward.

On this tablet, though, I was able to install Windows versions of the web page editor (the free Kompozer) that I use on my Mac along with free WS-FTP for sending files to my server.

That raises the question of working with traditional desktop-style software on a tablet. In the early 2000s, Microsoft promoted Windows Tablet Edition - touch-screen laptops running standard Windows. These systems shipped with styluses (styli?) for tapping on the small buttons and elements of the standard Windows interface. They never really caught on.

Apple's Steve Jobs famously made fun of finger-touch interfaces on tablets smaller than the 10" iPad suggesting in 2010 that these tablets should come with sandpaper, so users could file down their fingers so they could interact with the smaller screen elements on smaller tablets.

Jobs ignored that millions of Apple customers seemed to be happy working with smaller touch screens on their iPhones and iPod Touch devices - and Apple released an 8" iPad a few years later. Maybe my fingers have been filed down, but I've been finding the small interface elements of the traditional Windows desktop environment more usable - along with the on-screen virtual keyboard - than I'd expected.

And if not, I've got a cheap, portable Bluetooth wireless keyboard that connects and works fine with this tablet. I can even plug a USB mouse into its micro-USB port (using an adaptor for the full-sized USB plug).

The low powered 1.33 GHz Intel Atom Z3735G processor? The 1 GB memory? From time to time there's a pause opening a program or a new webpage tab. For the sorts of things I've been doing, they haven't been a big deal, though I'm sure I would be happier with more memory. But not for the price difference.

I'm still learning the tricks to work the Windows 8.1 tablet interface. For instance, close an app (in the tile-interface) by pulling down from the top. Open a still-running program by pulling over from the left. With that trick, you can display two windows side-by-side. Long-press in the desktop interface equals right-click. Stuff like that.

So when I go away in a couple of weeks, I'm planning to leave the Mac laptop and the Chromebook and the iPad and the Nexus 7 home. What I will be taking - the Windows 8.1-powered Toshiba Encore 2 $100 tablet and my unlocked Nexus 5 Android smartphone. (I may throw the bluetooth keyboard and USB mouse into my bag, but I'll bet I won't actually use them).

I'll let you know how it works out!


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About This Blog...

I've been writing about computers, software, Internet and the rest of technology since 1992, including a 17 year (1995-2012) stint as 'High Tech Office' columnist for Business in Vancouver. This blog includes thoughts on technology, society, and anything else that might interest me. Comments, emailed to alan@zisman.ca are welcome - and may be published in whole or part. You can follow me on Twitter or Google + for notice of new blog postings.
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