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.
Unlike many tablets, the Thrive lacks IPS technology, which permits a wider-than-normal viewing angle. I didn’t find this to be a problem, though.
Beyond the nice display, the Thrive’s hardware is a mixed bag. I liked the 2-megapixel front-facing camera, which let me make video calls on Skype with a minimum of fuss. The 5-megapixel camera on the backside, however, took an eternity to focus even in decent light, making it tough to take photos that didn’t come out fuzzy. The Thrive suffers from the fundamental conundrum that hobbles almost all tablet cameras: Manufacturers think they need to include them to be competitive, but they don’t care enough to make them really good. (Of course, if you have a phone with a respectable camera, you might not care.)
Battery performance seems to be a weak spot, too. I didn’t perform formal testing. But battery tests by Engadget, PCMag.com and The Verge show the Thrive 7 running for 4 hours and 42 minutes, 3 hours and 50 minutes and 3 hours and 51 minutes, respectively. None of those figures are impressive compared to other 7-inchers, and all fall far short of Toshiba’s claim of “up to” nine hours.
Then there’s software: The Thrive runs Google’s Android 3.2.1, also known as Honeycomb. Toshiba, unlike many of its tablet-making peers, has resisted the temptation to futz much with the operating system. For the most part, it’s Android as Google intended it, without “improvements” that add bloat and confusion. That’s a good thing.
Even full-strength Honeycomb has its downsides. Despite the Thrive’s robust tech specs — it has a speedy dual-core processor and a theoretically roomy 1GB of RAM — Android was occasionally pokey, failing to immediately respond to my taps. Like nearly every Android device I’ve ever used, it crashed within about 10 minutes of the time I turned it on for the first time, displaying an unhelpful error message. And while there are hundreds of thousands of Android apps, very few are tailored for tablets; most are designed for phones, and expand to fill the Thrive’s roomier display with varying degrees of success. Apple’s iOS 5 remains far slicker, with a vastly better selection of tablet-friendly software.
Google’s new version of Android, version 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, is much more polished and pleasing than Honeycomb. It hasn’t arrived on any major tablets yet, and Toshiba isn’t saying when — or even if — it’ll arrive as an upgrade for its tablet. When and if it does, it could make the Thrive meaningfully better all by itself. But with Android updates, it’s dangerous to assume anything.
For now, the Thrive is worth a look, if you have your heart set on a 7-inch tablet and want one which offers the unrestricted access to the Android Market that the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet lack. If you’ve been waiting for the definitive 7-inch tablet, though, this isn’t it, and neither is anything else. Shall we try for 2012?
McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist; on Twitter, he’s @harrymccracken. His column, also called Technologizer, appears every Thursday on TIME.com.