The tablet world may be utterly dominated by the iPad, but that doesn't mean there aren't alternatives out there for Apple-dodging Android fans.
The Toshiba AT200 is one such slate, offering a clean design and a superbly slim chassis. It's not running the latest version of Android, nor does it pack the same quad-core power of some of its rivals, so will its skinny frame be enough to charm the money from your wallet?
Design and build quality
The 10.1-inch Android tablet world is awash with slates that are nigh on impossible to tell apart. Toshiba has made the AT200 supremely slim to try and distinguish it from the masses. At its preview in November last year, it was thinner than any tablet then available, and I've not seen anything slimmer since.
It's a mere 7.7mm thick, which knocks a sizeable slice off the 9.4mm of Apple's new iPad. Even the iPhone 4 is 9mm thick, so the AT200's slimness really does feel quite a surprise in your hand. If you hold it in one palm and the new iPad in the other, you really can reallty tell the difference. At 535g, it's much lighter than the iPad's 652g, making it more comfortable to hold for long periods.
Thin and light products often run the risk of feeling cheap and plasticky, but thankfully the AT200 manages to mostly avoid this. The back panel is made of some form of plastic that's been given a brushed metal effect that looks rather attractive. It offers very little flex when pressed and it provides none of the tell-tale creaks when you try to bend it, indicating that it's sturdy enough to put up with everyday use.
It's not all smooth sailing though with the chassis. Both the glass front and plastic back fail to sit flush with the metal surround, resulting in a rather sharp exposed edge. This is true the whole way around the edge on both sides and is sharp enough for me to be consciously cautious about the way I'm holding it. That's something I haven't had to experience on any of its rivals. It's a huge shame to see this as it smacks of poor quality control in production and spoils what would otherwise be a well designed piece of kit.
On the sides you'll find a micro-USB port, which serves for data transfer only and not for charging, a mini-HDMI port, a microSD card slot, a headphone jack, a volume rocker, power button and a customisable switch. the latter is touted as being 'multi-function', which is a little generous -- it has two functions, mute or orientation lock. After some poking around, I discovered that to switch between them, you have to delve into the screen options in the settings menu.
Annoyingly, you can't charge the tablet over the micro-USB port as you can on many of its Android rivals. Instead, you're forced to use the rather chunky proprietary cable. This means that you're forced to carry the cable with you if you plan on using it for any length of time away from home. You'll be rightly living in fear of forgetting it in a hotel room on holiday.
Of course, the iPad doesn't charge over micro-USB either, but at least Apple's cables are considerably easier to come across. If I was forced into an emergency battery situation with a tablet, I'd much rather it be with an iPad.
The new iPad's 'retina display' has pushed the boundaries of what can be expected of a tablet screen, so if a slate is going to seriously compete with it, it needs to offer a similarly pleasing display.
With a resolution of 1,280x800 pixels, it's coming up rather short of the iPad's 2,048x1,536 pixels, so expect much less fine detail on images, videos and web pages. Viewing high-resolution pics on the AT200 certainly doesn't provide the same 'wow' factor that I felt when looking at the same picture on the iPad.
It's bright and reasonably vivid though -- although it doesn't quite offer the same rich colours of the iPad. In terms of its Android slate competitors, it's certainly in the top half of the league, with punchier colours than lower-end tablets like the Acer Iconia Tab A100, although it doesn't quite challenge the Asus Transformer Prime.
Toshiba reckons that the screen has been given an 'anti-fingerprint coating', which is frankly laughable, as the glass shows up more fingerprints than an average episode of CSI. If you've got even the slightest amount of grease on your fingers, expect it to soon be smeared all over the screen. Of course, no tablet has ever been particularly good at avoiding finger grease, so the AT200 isn't on its own here.
It offers good viewing angles, which is handy if you've got your mates crowding round to see a YouTube clip, but it's very reflective so it isn't ideal for use under bright sunlight or harsh office lighting.
One of the most annoying aspects of the screen though is the odd dark grid pattern placed just below the glass. While this is probably the means by which the touchscreen can track your finger movements, it's considerably more noticeable than any tracking system I've seen on other tablets. Under certain lighting it's visible, even when watching videos.
It might not be a huge issue for most of the time, but I'm amazed that no one looked at the screen in the final checks and said, "No guys, look at it, it's like it's been tattooed, we can't put it on sale like that."
Android 3.2 Honeycomb
The AT200 comes loaded with Android 3.2 Honeycomb -- the version of Google's operating system originally designed to run exclusively on tablets, as opposed to smaller-screened smart phones. Sadly though, it's not the most recent version of Android, known as Ice Cream Sandwich, which is rolling out on tablets and phones.
I really do expect every new top-end device to be packing the latest software. Of course, Android can be updated, but these are typically extremely slow to emerge (if they ever do at all). Sadly, Toshiba told me that it so far has no plans to update the AT200 to the latest version, so you probably shouldn't expect an update this year.
You could argue that the update doesn't add a whole lot to the equation and that you'll still get a perfectly fine tablet experience with Honeycomb. While you'd be right, it's somewhat galling to spend hundreds of pounds on the latest toy to then find out that it's already outdated. It's certainly not going to appeal to the hardcore gadget geeks -- like me -- who want to know they're always using the latest and best kit.
The Honeycomb experience is fairly standard as Toshiba hasn't done a great deal of tweaking to the interface. You get the usual multiple home screens to swipe around and fill up with apps and live widgets. One of the neat features of Honeycomb is that you can resize widgets to either sit quietly in the corner of a screen or dominate the whole page. Any apps you don't want to see cluttering up your home screens are thrown into a grid to swipe through.
Navigation is relatively simple, using the standard Back and Home buttons on the bottom left, as well as the multi-tasking button, which shows a list of currently running apps, allowing you to quickly switch between them without returning to the home screen.
Connecting the tablet to the computer using the micro-USB port was straightforward, with the tablet appearing as a removable device for me to easily pull photos and videos onto my PC.
There were, however, a few software bugs that became more apparent during use. For example, the brightness slider bar stuck at just above the minimum level and wouldn't let me increase it to see the screen better under the bright lights of the CNET UK office. Even when I set it to automatic brightness, it wouldn't increase. I eventually restarted the tablet, which fixed the problem, but it left me with the feeling that the software -- like the hardware -- had not undergone the rigorous checks that I'd expect.
I also found a bug in the camera software, which seemed to turn everything green. I searched through the settings and could find no effect or scene mode enabled to blame this on, so I was again forced to restart, which solved the issue.
Stuffed inside that slim chassis is a dual-core 1.2GHz processor, backed up by 1GB of RAM. Considering the recent arrival of quad-core tablets and phones, those specs aren't going to impress the truly addicted gadget junkies. But it's the same amount that you'd find in the Motorola Xoom 2, so I was expecting a decent performance.
Swiping around the home screens was fairly swift, with a few slight judders here and there. It was perfectly capable of running basic apps like Spotify, Angry Birds, or even opening images in the gallery. But when I fired up the camera or more demanding apps like Blood & Glory, operation became noticeably laggy, and at times I was booted out back to the home screen.
To see how it stacked up against other devices, I loaded up some delicious benchmark tests. On the CF-Bench test, the AT200 achieved a score of 5,028. By comparison, the Sony Tablet S racked up a score of 5,339 on the same test and the Samsung Galaxy S2 phone achieved 6,449. However, the quad-core Transformer Prime trounced the lot with a mighty 10,764.
In general, the AT200 seemed just about powerful enough for standard day-to-day tasks. If you only ever intend to browse the web, send a few emails and look at some pictures, it will suit fine. But if you hope to annihilate the latest 3D games and edit your photos and videos with apps from the app store, you might find it lacking.
Around the back is a 5-megapixel camera. Snappers on tablets are usually pretty awful affairs and they should definitely not be your sole basis for choosing a tablet. Still, it's nice to have a camera in place for those moments when you need to tell all of Twitter about your cat.
In the example picture seen here, the images produced aren't anything to write home about. Colours lacks the vibrancy and punch that I'd like to have seen and there's a great deal of noise creeping in in the shadowed areas.
Taking a shot of our amazing ball pit at CNET UK's HQ, I was again let down by a massive amount of noise, making this photo grainy and lacking in both vibrancy and clarity. In general, the results from the camera are disappointing and certainly don't challenge the iPad or Transformer Prime's efforts. If you only need to take occasional snaps, it might do fine, but if you're hoping to share some luscious images on Facebook or Twitter, it's probably not going to satisfy your shutterbug itch.
On the front is a 2-megapixel camera, which will come in handy for vain self portraits or video calling your friends and family over Skype.
Stare at yourself on screen all day in a narcissistic reverie, with this front-facing cam.
While the Toshiba AT200's slim chassis and brushed aluminium design look attractive, it's let down by sub-standard build quality and a screen that fails to impress. The processor has enough juice to power the Android OS, but true tech addicts won't be happy with the outdated version, nor with the software bugs that creep in.
If you desperately want the slimmest slate on the market, the AT200 might be the way to go, but your money could be spent more wisely elsewhere.