Android tablets with 7 inch displays seem to be a dime-a-dozen these days… or at least available for around $199. But there are a few things that Toshiba’s $380 Thrive 7 tablet offers that you won’t find from low-cost tablets from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Lenovo, or Coby.
The Toshiba Thrive 7, for instance, has a high resolution 1280 x 800 pixel display. It ships with Android 3.2 Honeycomb and full access to the Google Android Market. And… well, actually that’s about it.
Toshiba’s first 7 inch tablet is certainly a respectable entry into the Android tablet space. But it would have been a much more compelling device if Toshiba had managed to bring the tablet to market before the starting price for 7 inch tablets started to plummet — or if Toshiba managed to keep some of the features that made its 10 inch Thrive tablet special.
While the 10 inch Thrive has full-sized SD, USB, and HDMI ports and a removable rear panel which lets you replace the battery or even change the color of the tablet with an optional colorful back panel, the 7 inch model offers none of those features.
Instead, the 7 inch thrive is basically what you’d get if you took nearly every Honeycomb tablet from 2011 and simply shrunk the display.
It has a 1 GHz NVIDIA Tegra 2 dual core processor and the tablet is nearly indistinguishable in benchmarks from other Tegra 2 tablets such as the Motorola XOOM, Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 or Toshiba Thrive 10 inch tablet. But the 7 inch model has a smaller battery than most of those 10 inch tablets and suffers from substandard battery life. It also feels a little sluggish at times — but that may be a problem with the operating system rather than the hardware.
Like most decent tablets, the Thrive 7 has 1 GB of RAM, 16GB to 32GB of storage, a microSD card slot, microUSB port, and mini HDMI port as well as a proprietary docking/charging port. It has has front and rear cameras and stereo speakers. The tablet features WiFi, Bluetooth, and GPS.
Toshiba loaned me a Thrive 7 tablet for the purposes of this review — and if your top priority in a 7 inch tablet is a high resolution display, this tablet is one of the only games in town. But that’s really one of the only features that helps justify the $380 price tag at a time when a number of competing tablets are available for far less money.
Toshiba’s 7 inch tablet measures 7.4″ x 5″ x 0.5″ and weighs about 0.8 pounds. That makes the tablet a tiny bit thicker than the Amazon Kindle Fire or B&N NOOK Tablet, but it’s still small and light enough to feel good when held in one hand — and the rubbery textured plastic back panel makes the Thrive easier to grip than most tablets on the market.
Unfortunately while that panel looks exactly like the one on the tablet’s 10 inch sibling, it’s not removable which means that you can’t swap out the panel for a more colorful option or replace the battery.
The front of the tablet is virtually all glass. There’s a glossy panel of glass that stretches from one edge of the device to the other. There’s still a black bezel around the display though, which gives you space to grip the tablet with your fingers without accidentally tapping on the touchscreen.
Some tablet makers make it hard to spot the front camera by hiding it away under the glass. Toshiba, on the other hand, makes the camera into a design feature.
There’s a metallic chrome element that folds around the front and rear cameras. It adds a little flare to the tablet, and also makes the front-facing 2MP and rear 5MP cameras easy to spot — as well as the mics built into the front camera and the LED flash above the rear camera.
The cameras are located in an awkward position though. If you hold the Thrive 7 inch tablet in landscape mode, the camera will be off to the right or left side. That means if you point the tablet straight and an object, it will be off-center in a photo — so you may have to hold the tablet at an awkward angle to shoot a photo or video unless you’re holding the tablet in portrait mode.
On the left side of the tablet you’ll find plastic volume, power, and screen orientation lock buttons. I can’t count the number of times I’ve accidentally press the screen lock button when I meant to press the power button, but eventually I did get used to the layout.
There’s also a plastic door covering the microSD card slot and microUSB and mini HDMI ports. There are no ports or buttons at all on the left side of the device.
At the bottom you’ll find a large proprietary docking port which works with a special cable to charge the tablet or connect the Thrive 7 to a computer so you can transfer files. There are also stereo speakers at the bottom, but while they’re reasonably loud for speakers on a 7 inch tablet, the sound is very thin without much bass.
Probably the most impressive element of the Thrive 7 design is the high resolution 1280 x 800 pixel display. Most tablets of this size has lower resolution 1024 x 600 pixel or 800 x 480 pixel screens.
Because of the way Android works, you won’t necessarily see more text in an eBook page or on a web page when you’re reading, and system fonts won’t appear too sharp to read. But graphics look a little sharper, you can see every detail in a 720p HD video, and high resolution pictures look great.
The Thrive also has decent viewing angles. Colors don’t wash out when you tip the tablet forward or back, left or right. But the glossy screen reflects quite a bit of glare, so if you’re using the tablet outdoors, near a window, or directly under a light bulb, you may have to hold it carefully if you want to actually see what’s on the screen rather than a reflection of the light source.
Google Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich may be all the rage these days, but the Toshiba Thrive 7 currently ships with Android 3.2 Honeycomb. For the most part you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference.
Most apps that run on Ice Cream Sandwich can also run on Honeycomb, and the user interface is quite similar. But after having spent a little time with ICS tablets, I do miss the ability to remove apps from the recently used list or delete notifications with a finger swipe.
The OS is designed to work well in portrait or landscape mode — and many menus and apps have single-panel views for portrait mode and multi-panel views in landscape.
For some odd reason, the Android Market only opens in landscape mode. No matter how you’re holding the Thrive 7 tablet, when you fire up the Market to look for apps to download, the screen will rotate to landscape orientation until you’re done with the Android Market.
Toshiba loads the tablet with a few custom apps including the company’s own File Manager and Service Station apps. These utilities also ship with the 10 inch version of the tablet. The first acts as a file browser — something that Google has never bothered to offer build into the Android operating system. The second is a place to check for system updates.
You also get the popular Swype keyboard, which allows you to enter text by dragging your finger quickly from letter to letter without lifting your hand from the touchscreen.
This may help you enter text more quickly than by tapping one character at a time — but I personally find Swype-style keyboards to be much more effective on phone-sized devices. On the Thrive, I disabled the keyboard after a few days and started using the default android keyboard instead.
Toshiba also includes a bit of bloatware on the Thrive 7 including a handful of games and the Kaspersky Tablet Security app. Unfortunately there’s no easy way to uninstall any of these apps to free up space unless you root your tablet first.
You can find information on rooting the Thrive 7 tablet, installing a custom recovery, or flashing custom ROMS at the ThriveForums.
But unlike the Kindle Fire and NOOK Tablet, you don’t have to root the Thrive 7 in order to use the Android Market or run most Android apps.
I ran a handful of benchmarks on the Thrive 7 to test its all-around performance, but they didn’t show any real surprises. The Thrive 7 is the umpteenth or the umptieth tablet to hit the streets with a 1 GHz NVIDIA Tegra 2 dual core processors — and it scores about the same in most performance tests as other devices with that chipset.
There’s also not a major difference in overall performance between the Thrive 7 and the Amazon Kindle Fire, a tablet with a 1 GHz TI OMAP4 dual core processor.
The CF-Bench test looks at overall performance — higher scores are better, but there wasn’t much difference between the Thrive 7 and other tablets with similar hardware.
These benchmarks can be notoriously fickle, depending on exactly what they measure. The Quadrant, benchmark, for instance gave the Kindle Fire, HTC Flyer, and NOOK Tablet scores around 2000, while the Thrive 7 and 10 inch tablets scored around 1550.
While the Thrive 7 got the lowest score of the 4 devices in the chart, the differences were negligible.
But these tests only tell part of the story. At times the Thrive 7 felt sluggish, sometimes taking a moment or two to react when you tap a button. There’s also an odd quirk when you reboot the tablet — when the lockscreen first shows up after a boot, it doesn’t recognize touch input, so you can’t unlock it. All I had to do to get around this was press the power button to turn off the display and then turn it on again before unlocking the tablet, but it’s a bit odd.
I suspect that some of these issues may be related to software rather than hardware, so it’s possible that the Thrive 7 user experience could improve with a software update.
It’s also possible that a software update could improve battery life — which would be nice, because right now the Thrive 7 gets only about 5.5 hours of run time.
Five and a half hours of battery life would be respectable (but not spectacular) for a laptop. But it’s a little embarrassing for a $379 tablet at a time when a number of less expensive devices offer several hours of additional run time.
The Toshiba Thrive 7 is a reasonably good tablet with very nice display, a decent processor, and the ability to run a wide range of Android apps. It’s more portable than the larger 10 inch tablets that have flooded the market over the last year and with a screen that’s just a tiny bit bigger than those found on most eReaders, it’s a great size for reading books.
But with a starting price of $379, it’s hard to justify picking up a Thrive 7 over some of the alternatives. While the Thrive 7 offers more storage than the Kindle Fire, more expansion options than the NOOK Tablet, and a higher resolution display than either device, it also costs nearly twice as much as Amazon’s tablet, and over $100 more than a NOOK Tablet.
That would be forgivable if the Thrive were the only 7 inch tablet which could offer Android Market access and a complete Google experience for under $400. But Asus recently announced plans to release the 7 inch MeMo tablet for $249. That tablet is expected to have an NVIDIA Tegra 3 quad-core processor and Android 4.0 software, which makes the Asus MeMo look like an attractive alternative to Thrive 7 which has a dual core CPU and Android 3.2 software.
Of course, the MeMo isn’t available yet, while the Thrive is available for purchase today. If you’re looking for a tablet right away that has a 7 inch screen, a high resolution display, and doesn’t require any warranty-voiding actions in order to run the Android Market, the Thrive 7 is one of your best bets… for now.