Almost two years after it was announced, Apple’s iPad remains the very definition of a category-defining product. Every other tablet that’s arrived since — and there have been bajillions of ’em — must start by trying to answer a basic question: “Why should somebody buy this instead of an iPad?” Rising to that challenge has proven unexpectedly tricky, which is why nearly every tablet that isn’t an iPad has turned out to be an also-ran.
Two reasons you might buy a non-Apple tablet are reasonably straightforward, however: You might prefer one that’s smaller and cheaper. Those factors help explain the relative success of Amazon’s Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble’s Nook Tablet, two 7-inch models that are $300 and $250 cheaper, respectively, than the iPad.
They also come into play with Toshiba’s new tablet, the Thrive 7. Unlike the Fire and Nook, this Android device hasn’t been stripped down to hit a low price point. In fact, it features many of the same features and components as Toshiba’s first tablet, the 10.1-inch Thrive. It also starts at the same price as the earlier model: $380, or $119 less than the lowest-cost iPad. (That’s for a unit with 16GB of storage space — a 32GB version is $430.)
Using the Thrive, I got the same twinge of good news/bad news I’ve experienced with 7-inch tablets dating back to Samsung’s original Galaxy Tab. The small size makes for a distinctly different, more portable device than the 9.7-inch iPad. In portrait orientation, it feels like a paperback book; in landscape mode, you can still cradle it in your fingers and type with your thumbs. It can slip into a coat pocket or a purse, making it easier to tote than the definitely-not-pocketable iPad.
But both hardware and software issues keep the Thrive, like its 7-inch predecessors, from providing iPad-like overall excellence in a more compact form. I’m as convinced as ever that this is a legitimate size for a tablet — and I’m still looking for the first one that nails it.
As with Toshiba’s first tablet, this one has less of an iPad-wannabe feel to it than some of Apple’s rivals. Instead, Toshiba seems to have set out to translate what it knows about building laptops into tablet form. The 13.2-oz. Thrive 7 is a tad chunky and unapologetically plasticky, but it includes some PC-like features that the iPad 2 lacks: a Mini USB port for attaching peripherals, a Micro HDMI connector for hooking up a TV and a MicroSD slot that lets you expand its storage capacity.
(Outside of the U.S., incidentally, Toshiba sells a 10.1-inch tablet that goes head-to-head with the iPad 2 in terms of raw sex appeal, but the company hasn’t announced plans to bring it to this country.)
The single best thing about the Thrive 7 is its screen. Toshiba essentially took the display on the 10-inch model and squooshed it down, retaining the 1280-by-800 resolution of the original. That gives the Thrive a strikingly high pixel density for a 7-inch tablet: 66% more pixels than the Kindle Fire and Nook, and 25% more than the iPad 2. Movies from Netflix, which comes preinstalled, looked sharp and beautiful — especially once I’d cranked up the brightness a tad beyond its default setting — and Kindle books sported crisper typography than they did on the Kindle Fire.