Toshiba Encore Mini Preview

Toshiba Encore Mini Preview

We're drowning in cheap devices. Here's the cheapest

The question "how low can they go?" is no longer theoretical. As it turns out, they can go very low indeed. PC makers have raced to respond to Microsoft's "zero dollar" Windows licensing, and the result is a new generation of ultra-cheap Windows PCs and devices. The latest example: Toshiba's $120 mini-tablet, the Encore Mini.

Which I've just ordered from the Microsoft Store.

At a cost of $120.

I've written a lot this year about the new boom in low-cost Windows PCs and devices, and of course about the ever-lowering average selling price (ASP) of PCs generally for many years now. But 2014 is shaping up to be a bit unique. Thanks to Microsoft's decision to offer Windows for free—sorry, for "zero dollars"—to partners that build Windows Phones or low-cost Windows PCs and devices with small screens, and Windows 8.1 with Bing on the cheap for any-sized PC—these trends have obviously accelerated.

We know what low-cost PCs look like today, and if the Acer I recently purchased is any indication, the experience isn't that horrible at all, and of course this holiday season will see a new bout of low-cost PCs that are actually thin and light too. (Although some may cost a bit more, too.) And we know what low-cost Windows Phones look like: The Lumia 530 is pretty terrible, but the not-much-more-expensive Lumia 635 is a fine device, and a coming generation of new partners, like BLU, will likely redefine this segment as well.

But what about a low-cost tablet?

When Toshiba announced at IFA earlier this month that it would soon ship a $120 Windows mini-tablet, it raised some eyebrows. Many, used to outdated notions about Windows being bloated, refused to believe that the experience of running Microsoft's OS on such low-end hardware would be even remotely positive. But these people aren't up-to-date on the changes that Microsoft made in Windows 8.1 Update 1, which include support for low-end hardware such as the 1 GB of RAM and 16 GB of storage found in the Toshiba. And even if they were aware of it, no one had yet experienced such a device, since these benefits were only available on new devices, and could not be obtained by upgrading existing PCs.

But now the Toshiba Encore Mini is available from Microsoft's US Store at a price of just $119. To understand why this is impressive, you can visit the Microsoft's Store Tablet page and sort the view by price: The next-cheapest tablet (also a Toshiba, go figure) is $199.99, almost twice as expensive.  I ordered one immediately and it should be waiting for me when I get home from Las Vegas this weekend. I am very curious to see how this tablet stacks up against competitors like the excellent Dell Venue 8 Pro.

Here's how it looks on paper, with notes about how these specs compare to the Venue 8 Pro.

Processor. 1.33 GHz Intel Atom Z3735G vs. the Dell's 1.33 GHz Intel Atom Z3740D. I'm guessing these are fairly close.

RAM. 1 GB vs. Dell's 2 GB.

Internal storage. 16 GB, with microSD expansion vs. Dell's 32 GB with microSD.

Screen. Here, we have a bit of a mystery. At the IFA announcement, Toshiba said it Mini sported a 7-inch screen at 1024 x 600 resolution, below the understood minimum for Windows 8.1 Modern apps. But the Microsoft Store says the resolution is 1280 x 768. So we'll see, but the Dell is an 8-incher at 1280 x 800.

Multi-touch. The Mini supports 5 touch points, instead of 10 with the Dell.

Ports. Both tablets provide a micro USB port and a combo headphone/microphone jack.

Wireless. Both provide 802.11n with Miracast support and Bluetooth 4.0.

Cameras. Both tablets have dual cameras, but I don't see any details about the Mini cameras. The Dell has a 1.2 megapixel webcam on the front and a 5 megapixel camera on the back.

Size and weight. With its 7-inch screen, the Toshiba is small (7.83 x 4.71 x 0.42 inches) and light (.74 pounds). By comparison, the Dell is a bit bigger (8.50 x 5.12 x 0.35 inches) and heavier (.87 pounds).

Software. Windows 8.1 with Bing plus a one-year subscription to Office 365 Personal. The Dell comes with Windows 8.1 "Core" and includes Office Home & Student 2013.

Price. $119 as configured, compared to $249 for the Dell.

Since the Dell Venue 8 Pro is twice as expensive as the Toshiba Encore Mini, this will be interesting comparison. That addition money gets you more RAM and storage, of course, and a bigger screen. But you could also buy two Minis for the price of one Venue 8 Pro.

Yes, this is going to be interesting.

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