Toshiba Excite 10 LE tablet

In a sea of me-too tablet slabs, the Toshiba Excite 10 LE–running Android 3.0 (Honeycomb)–distinguishes itself on two key metrics. First, at 1.18 pounds, it’s the lightest 10-inch-size tablet we’ve seen to date. Second, it’s the slimmest, measuring just 0.3 inch thick. Sadly, Toshiba made a few questionable design choices in its construction and display that detract from using it, and make it a poor choice.

Another reason to stay clear: You’ll be paying a little extra for the 16GB version: $530, versus $499 for the 16GB Apple iPad. (For 32GB, you’ll pay $600–the same price as Apple’s iPad, but $100 more than Asus charges for its same-capacity–and better-performing–Transformer Prime.) 

Design trade-offs

Make no mistake about the engineering significance of Toshiba’s Excite 10 LE: Constructed of magnesium alloy, the tablet feels noticeably lighter than competing models, including the close-in-weight Samsung Galaxy Tab Wi-Fi 10.1 (1.23 pounds). The Excite 10 LE was well balanced in the hand, and felt easy to hold one-handed in the vertical or portrait orientation, a common way of holding a tablet for reading books, magazines, and the like. No fewer than a dozen editors around the office handled the Excite, and all preferred the weight of the Excite over that of the Apple iPad 2, the current iPad, the Samsung Galaxy Tab, or the Asus Transformer Prime. 

The slim design does come with some trade-offs in physical construction. For one thing, the tablet is squared off around the bottom edges, which means that the Excite lacks the comfy, smooth tapering found on the iPad 2, the third-generation iPad, and the Asus Transformer Prime. For another, the edges of the tablet have some give and some gaps, so that they actually flex away from the Gorilla Glass screen. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say it feels as if it would snap in use, I wouldn’t want to toss it into a jammed backpack and put any serious stress on it; an iPad could withstand that, but the Excite does not feel as if it would.

A few more design gripes, and one plus: The plus is that the Excite conveniently puts all of its ports–including microUSB (with support for USB On-the-Go, an unusual find), micro-HDMI, and microSD–in a row, along the left-hand side in landscape orientation. Above those ports sits the awkwardly-placed headphone jack. And the slim, hard-plastic buttons for power, volume, and rotation lock–running along the top of the tablet when you hold it in landscape mode–lack distinction and are awkward to adjust, which makes them decidedly annoying to use. Finally, Toshiba continues to rely on a bulky proprietary charging cable that plugs into the centrally located dock connector (and jacks into the USB brick for power). Yet, oddly, you don’t use this cable to transfer data directly to the tablet; for that task, you’ll need a microUSB cable.

Mediocre performance

The Excite 10 LE is the first Honeycomb tablet I’ve used in a while that had quite as many glitches and crashes as the Excite did. The Excite uses Texas Instruments’ OMAP 4430 processor, which makes me speculate that perhaps Toshiba and TI need to work harder on optimizing the Excite hardware to work with Android 3.2.1 Honeycomb. Or perhaps Toshiba’s implementation of the OMAP processor somehow makes processing tradeoffs in order to provide better battery life and performance in the tablet’s slim form.

Whatever the reason, be aware that the Excite, with its launch software, crashed often on Google’s own apps. The camera app crashed frequently; so did the Gallery app, e-mail, and the Web browser. Other programs I tried seemed fine; still others seemed to chug along compared with a smoother experience on other Android models. Toshiba says the Excite is upgradable to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, but really, with no solid ETA for that upgrade, it’s a thin promise from a company that hasn’t had a good update track record. It’s also odd that it’s taking Toshiba so long, since the company doesn’t do any custom launchers or overlay tweaks to Android; instead, the company just loads on a bunch of apps to get you going out the gate, apps that include Netflix, Quickoffice, and Toshiba’s own media player app.

Besides crashes, I noticed another glitch in the Gallery app when I viewed a folder of high-resolution digital SLR images. Like some other Android tablets (including several of the Samsung Galaxy Tab models running the TouchWiz software), the Excite struggles with properly rendering these high-resolution images on the first go. At least, though, the Excite gets there, sharpening up the preview render without requiring you to do something like zooming into the image first (as the affected Samsung models do). But it takes a moment, and your eyes can often feel as if someone’s playing a trick on you.

Beyond the glitchy software, the Excite has a few other performance issues. Specifically, overall responsiveness was sluggish, and the touchscreen didn’t always respond smoothly to my fingers.

The Excite 10 LE scored poorly in our display tests, too. The display lacked the color accuracy and clarity of like-resolution tablets. More critically, all of our test screens–from still images to a Web page to test patterns–were marred by a tattoolike pattern imprinted on the display. The pattern is actually the touchscreen interface itself, and it’s more distracting–more visible–than the usual screen-door, gridlike touch technologies seen on other tablets.

On our SunSpider JavaScript benchmark browser speed test, the Excite was right in the mix, and on our custom Web-page loading test, it took 2.9 seconds to load a page–faster than the iPad 2’s 3.3 seconds, and slower than the Transformer Prime’s 2.6 seconds. On the GLBenchmark test with antialiasing off, it was competitive with the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 Wi-Fi, at 30.9 frames per second, but far short of the Transformer Prime’s 56 fps. Finally, in our subjective testing, stills and videos produced by the Excite’s camera were judged only fair; images had a lot of noise, and lacked sharpness.

Bottom line

Physically, the Excite 10 LE still excites me, but solely from the standpoint of the ideal it represents in weight and size. I look forward to the day when tablet makers can achieve lighter weights and thinner designs, as the Excite has, but do so without making a slew of usability, performance, and price tradeoffs. As it stands, however, this lightweight tablet has to be relegated to the annals of tablet experiments.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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