Toshiba Thrive Android tablet review: full-sized ports make a difference
The Toshiba Thrive isn’t the first Android tablet to hit the streets. It’s not the thinnest, lightest or cheapest. But Toshiba’s tablet manages to stand out from the crowd in a few ways that makes this 10 inch tablet worth considering if you’re looking for a more PC-like experience from an Android tablet.
Toshiba’s tablet features a 10.1 inch, 1280 x 800 pixel capacitive touchscreen display, a 1 GHz NVIDIA Tegra 2 dual core processor, and runs Google Android 3.1 Honeycomb. It comes with 1GB of RAM and includes front and rear-facing cameras. If those specs sound familiar, that’s because the describe nearly every other Android tablet released from a major consumer electronics company in mid-2011.
Here’s what makes the Toshiba Thrive different: It has full-sized HDMI, USB, and SD card ports, status LEDs, and a removable back panel which makes it easy to swap out the battery.
That might not sound like much, but at a time when there’s very little distinguishing one Android tablet from the next, the Toshiba Thrive is one of the easiest tablets to customize or use with third party peripheral devices, and that makes it special. It might not be the best option if you care more about size and weight than expansion ports. But the Thrive is designed to appeal to business customers and geeks alike, and may also have something to offer for long-time PC users that expect Android tablets to work a little more like Windows computers.
Toshiba offers three different Thrive models: an 8GB version for $430, a 16GB model for $480, and a 32GB version for $580.
Measuring about 10.7″ x 6.9″ x 0.6″ and weighing close to 1.7 pounds, the Toshiba Thrive is fairly chunky for a modern Android tablet. Sure, it’s thinner and lighter than most Windows-based tablets, but there’s no mistaking Toshiba’s tablet for the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, which is about twice as thin and weighs just 1.25 pounds.
The Samsung tablet doesn’t just look nicer, it’s also easier to hold in one hand for an extended period of time because of its lighter weight. The Thrive, on the other hand, is most comfortably held with two hands. If you plan to spend most of your time propping the tablet against a table or against your lap or stomach as you sit on a chair or lie in bed, this probably won’t be a big issue. But if the extra weight is definitely noticeable.
One of the Thrive’s ergonomic saving graces is the rear panel. It has a grooved pattern which makes the tablet easy to grip with your fingers. So while the tablet is a bit on the heavy side, it’s quite easy to hold and there’s not much risk of letting the device slip from your fingers and fall.
The other nifty thing about the rear panel is that it’s removable. This allows you to swap out the black cover that comes with the tablet for a range of colorful replacement options. Green, blue, purple, silver, and pink options are available for about $20 each.
When you remove the back panel you can also pop out the tablet’s 24Whr battery. This lets you easily replace a faulty battery or pop in a spare battery if you need more run time and recharging the tablet isn’t an option. A spare battery will run you about $90.
Very few Android tablets have removable batteries, and while some folks would probably rather have a thinner case than a replaceable battery, this is probably one of the tablet’s main draws for some consumers.
There are no screws holding the back cover in place. Instead you can pry off the cover with your fingernails. The easiest place to start pulling is near the speakers on the bottom of the tablet. The first time I did this, I had to pull pretty hard, but I’ve removed the back panel several times since then and it was only the first attempt where I felt like I was going to break something.
Toshiba puts a locking switch on one side of the tablet that you have to slide to fully remove the cover. The latch only hooks into one corner of the tablet cover, so it provides just enough protection to make sure the lid doesn’t fall off unexpectedly, but you’ll want to press down firmly on all sides when replacing the cover because sliding the switch doesn’t really do very much.
Another PC-like feature are the status lights built into the rather thick bezel around the display. While the light letting you know when the tablet is on or charging is somewhat handy, I really don’t see why we need a wireless activity light on an Android tablet… or on most PCs, for that matter.
While the Thrive, like most tablets running Google Android Honeycomb, can be used in either landscape or portrait orientation, it’s most comfortable to hold in landscape mode due to the widescreen layout and the weight distribution. That’s why it seems a bit odd that the cameras are placed on what you’d probably consider to be the left side of the tablet instead of the top. Overall they’re angled so that you can still snap photos or engage in a video chat comfortably, but it just looks a bit odd — especially since Toshiba highlights the camera placement with a chrome outline.
On the top of the tablet you’ll find a power button, volume buttons, and a screen orientation lock. The power and volume buttons have a cheap, soft plastic feel and I don’t find them particularly comfortable to use, but at least they’re not awkwardly placed on the back of the unit, which is more than I can say for some tablets.
There’s a headset jack next to a power cable. While many Android tablets charge through the USB port, you can charge Toshiba’s tablet using a separate AC adapter… much as you would a laptop. Unfortunately you can’t charge the Thrive using a USB connection, so you’ll need to carry around the adapter if you plan to charge your device on the go. If you want to charge the tablet while it’s connected to a computer you’ll need two cables: one for charging and the other for connecting.
On the bottom of the tablet there’s a removable plastic panel covering a docking port. You can use this to connect to a multimedia dock or other accessories. To the left you’ll also find a full-sized SD card slot which you can use to add extra storage to the tablet. Since the Thrive uses a full-sized SD card slot, odds are you can pop a flash card out of your digital camera and right into the tablet to view photos or other files.
You’ll also find two stereo speakers on the bottom of the tablet. They’re reasonably loud… unless they’re facing your lap or a desk. I’m not convinced anyone has found a great place to stash speakers on an Android tablet yet, but if I had to pick a layout I liked best, I’d probably go with Samsung’s placement of speakers on the left and right sides of the Galaxy Tab 10.1. Odds are that no matter how you’re holding that tablet, at least one speaker won’t be covered.
Now for the good stuff. There’s a plastic door covering a series of ports on one side of the Thrive. While I’m not a big fan of the door which feels like it’s bound to break off and disappear eventually, I suppose it keeps the tablet looking reasonably pretty when you’re not using the ports.
But when you open the door you get access to: a full-sized HDMI port, a full-sized USB port, and a microUSB port.
You can plug a standard HDMI cable into the Thrive and hook up an HDTV or monitor. The USB port can handle USB flash storage devices or peripherals such as a keyboard, mouse or joystick. And the microUSB port is the one you use if you want to connect the tablet to a computer to transfer files.
We’ll take a closer look at how these ports let you use the tablet in unusual ways in the special features section below.
If the Toshiba Thrive were a Windows PC, none of the items I’m about to highlight would be considered special features. But it’s not a Windows PC… so they are.
While most Android tablets have microUSB ports or proprietary docking ports that allow you to connect the table to a PC with a USB cable, the Thrive is one of the few to have a full-sized USB port. This allows you to do a couple of interesting things.
You can plug in a USB flash drive to view photos, watch movies, or access other files stored on the device. Toshiba also includes a file browser application on the tablet which you can use to copy or move files to and from a removable device.
The Google Android 3.1 operating system is also the first version of Android to include built-in support for USB peripherals such as a keyboard, mouse, or video game joystick. I tested these features by plugging a 4-port USB hub into the Thrive and connecting a standard PC keyboard, mouse, and flash drive.
It worked beautifully. The keyboard and mouse were recognized almost instantly. While the Android user interface is designed to be touched with your fingertips, when you plug in a mouse a cursor shows up on screen. You can click on program icons to launch them, or tap-and-hold on the screen to access context menus in apps, web pages, or on the home screen.
You can also hold down a mouse button and drag left, right, or up and down. In the web browser, double-clicking a mouse button will zoom in or out of a web page.
When you’re using a mouse you don’t get to use multitouch gestures unless you reach out and touch the tablet with your fingers. But overall, you can plug in a keyboard and mouse and prop up the tablet on a stand to use it very much the way you would use a standard Windows, Mac, or Linux computer.
Ideally you’d want to use a smaller, more portable keyboard than the one I used, but I just grabbed a few items lying around in my closet for the purposes of this test.
There’s something else that’s kind of nifty about the full-sized USB cable: You can use it to charge peripheral devices. In other words, while you can’t charge the tablet itself via a USB connection, you can use the tablet to charge your cellphone or other device while you’re on the go.
The full-sized HDMI port also makes it incredibly easy to connect the Toshiba Thrive to an external display such as a high definition television or a monitor. The first time I use an HDMI cable to connect the tablet to a TV, nothing happened for a moment. Then I jiggled the cable a bit to make sure the connection was tight, and a second later the tablet display was mirrored on the television.
When you’re using the HDMI output, audio will also be sent to your TV while the sound on the tablet is muted. This prevents you from listening to the same audio from two different sets of speakers.
Unfortunately there’s currently no way to disable the tablet display while a TV is connected. So if you want to watch a video from your tablet on your big screen TV, you’ll end up seeing the same video on both devices.
In one way this makes sense, because your TV doesn’t support touch input. You need to be able to see the tablet screen to play or pause a video — or to control a video game, navigate through a web browser, or perform most other actions.
On the other hand, if all you want to do is watch a video, it would be nice if you could disable the tablet display.
Another odd quirk is that the status bar and home, recent apps, and back button don’t show up on an external display when you plug in an HDMI cable. Again, if you’re using the tablet’s touchscreen display to control the action on your TV or monitor this probably doesn’t matter.
But if you were hoping to plug in a mouse, keyboard, and external display and use the tablet as if it were a desktop computer, things could get awkward since even if you could turn off the tablet display you wouldn’t be able to see the home or back buttons which would make them kind of difficult to click with your mouse.
If you go into the tablet settings you’ll also find another thing that sets the Thrive apart from the crowd. The tablet features SRS Audio, and you’ll find a multimedia tab in the settings allowing you to enable volume boost, or other audio enhancements. For instance, there’s a “Voice Clarity Enhancement” option that’s supposed to improve quality of voice communications.
Toshiba also has an “Ambient Noise Equalizer” which is designed to increase the volume of quiet audio components to make them audible over ambient sounds when you’re listening to music or watching a video on the tablet.
Honestly, I didn’t notice any huge differences while using these enhancement options, but I also spent most of my time using the tablet’s built-in speakers. The differences may be more noticeable if you’re using headphones.
If you want a primer on the Google Android 3.1 operating system that comes with the Toshiba Thrive, you can check out my reviews of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 or Motorola XOOM. Toshiba hasn’t made any major changes to Android 3.1, so you basically get the operating system as Google designed it.
That is to say, the OS looks a little bit like the Android software you’d find on a smartphone, but instead of using physical buttons for home, back, or search functions, you use on-screen buttons. There are also tweaks to take advantage of the larger display. You can fit more apps on the home screen, and there’s support for multi-pane applications.
While the operating system is pretty much exactly what you’d get from any tablet running Android 3.1, Toshiba has loaded a few custom applications.
The two most useful are probably the file manager and media player. Android doesn’t come with its own file manager, but there are a number of third party options available from the Android Market. Some of them are prettier or offer more functions than the Toshiba File Manager. But Toshiba’s app is designed to do a few things and do them well.
At the top of the file manager there are icons for your internal storage, an SD card, and a USB flash drive. When you insert an SD card or flash drive, you can use the file manager to browse for files on your removable storage. You can use the app to play music or movies this way, or you can copy, cut, and paste files from your device to a removable flash drive or vice versa.
The Toshiba Media Player functions as an alternative to Google’s Gallery and Music applications. For some reason if you want to watch a movie using Google’s default software, you have to navigate through the photo gallery app. But music is accessible from a separate applicatrion.
Toshiba’s app offers a single unified place where you can find music, movies, and photos — but they’re not all mingled together. Instead from the home screen of the app you can choose what kind of media you want to access and then you can find music by artist, album, playlist or song, or view all videos, videos on your camera, or recently played movies. The photo section lets you browse by folders, photos from your camera, or sort by the time a photo was taken.
The media player also includes support for UPnP media devices, allowing you to stream media from a PC or supported video game console or set-top-box on your home network. There’s also a podcast manager.
If you’d prefer to use the default Android media apps you still can. The Toshiba Media Player doesn’t replace the Music or Gallery apps. It just gives you an alternate option.
Other Toshiba apps include an app store called “App Place” which offers little to nothing that you couldn’t already get from the Google Android Market, and a Book Place app for downloading and reading eBooks.
The reading view is kind of unusual. You can view books in a single-panel portrait mode or a two-pane landscape mode.
But instead of allowing you to resize the fonts the way you can with most other eBook apps, Book Place lets you zoom in or out as if you were viewing a web page, or use a ReadLogic setting that allows you to advance through a book one chunk at a time — much the same way you would if you were using a comic book app to view single panels at a time, the way you would with ComiXology.
Toshiba also offers a news app called Start Place which brings in photos and stories from the Associated Press. The app would be a whole lot more useful if you could customize the news sources to include your favorite newspapers or blogs, but at least it offers a fairly attractive user interface.
There’s also a search box powered by Google — but results open in a web browser, not in the Start Place app.
Finally Toshiba loads the tablet with a system update tool called Service Station that you can use to check for software updates and apply them. While Android actually has this feature built in, the Service Station lets you see a little bit of information about an update before applying it, including the release date, version number, and file size.
There are a couple of different ways to measure performance. You can look compare a computer’s sheer number-crunching capabilities or you can look at overall ease of use. After all, you could have the fastest tablet in the world, but if it weighs 16 pounds and has razor-sharp edges making it impossible to hold without bleeding to death, it’s not going to be all that useful.
In terms of benchmark performance, there’s very little difference between the Toshiba Thrive and other tablets with similar hardware (1 GHz NVIDIA Tegra 2 dual core processor, 1280 x 800 pixel display, and 1GB of RAM). That’s generally a pretty good thing. The tablet is about as fast as they come for now, although higher speed chips and quad-core processors are coming soon.
It’s a little tougher to answer the question of how easy it is to use the Thrive. On the one hand, all those full-sized ports and the removable battery make the Thrive one of the most versatile Android tablets around. The textured back cover also makes the device easy to grip.
On the other hand, the Thrive is a little on the heavy side, and it’s longer than many other Android tablets. If you find yourself leaving the tablet at home because it feels like too much machine to carry around with you, it might not be that useful.
I think some folks are going to prefer a svelte tablet such as an iPad 2 or Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 because those devices are easier to carry around, and they just look sexier. But if you like the idea of being able to turn your tablet into a multi-function computer by plugging in off-the-shelf components, you might be willing to put up with a little extra weight and girth.
Anyway, I did run some benchmarks, so here are some comparisons with similar tablets. The SmarBench and Quadrant benchmarks look at overall tablet performance through a series of CPU and graphics tests. The Motorola XOOM came out ahead in both of these tests, but the Toshiba Thrive still notched higher scores the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1.
The LinPack and NenaMark benchmarks look at CPU performance and GPU performance separately. This time the Thrive came out ahead on top in the graphics test but the tablet was at the bottom of the pile in the CPU test.
I also ran the new CF-Bench test of overall performance on the Thrive and Galaxy Tab. This test hadn’t been released yet when I reviewed the Motorola XOOM. The two tablets I have tested so far had very similar scores, which isn’t surprising since they have very similar hardware.
At a time when almost every Android tablet looks the same, Toshiba has found an unusual way to distinguish the Thrive: by making it act a bit more like an old-school Windows tablet.
Windows tablets have been around for about 10 years without making a very large impact while Apple has sold tens of millions of iPads in the first year. So it might seem like lunacy to decide that the way to compete with Apple is to introduce a tablet that’s more PC-like. But there are a few key differences between the Toshiba Thrive and a Windows tablet:
- It features an operating system that was built from the ground up for touch input.
- The tablet offers long battery life and instant-on capabilities.
- There’s no physical keyboard adding bulk or weight to the tablet, so while the Thrive isn’t the thinnest or lightest modern tablet, it’s also not unreasonably thick or heavy when compared with similar offerings from Asus, Acer, or Motorola.
The PC-like tweaks could make Windows users feel more at home without necessarily turning the tablet into a Windows machine. If you’re used to being able to plug in a flash drive to copy and paste files, you can do that. Want to plug in a standard keyboard? No problem.
But the ability to use standard computer peripherals with the Thrive or even open up the case and peer inside means the Thrive may also be easier to repair, or modify than other Android tablets, making this a much geekier, hacker-friendly device than similar tablets from other consumer electronics companies.
So not only is the Thrive designed to appeal who have been using Windows computers so long that they’re just used to the way they work — it’s also meant to appeal to people who have used computers so long that they know the benefits of being able to take them apart and put them back together again in new and interesting ways.
The Thrive isn’t going to be the best Android tablet choice for everyone. But for geeks, there aren’t many better options on the market right now.