The most succussful Android tablets have tended to be 7-inch tiddlers, but there are 10-inch iPad alternatives on offer too.
Toshiba's AT300 hopes to tempt 'droid fans with its sleek design, quad-core processor and Google's impressive Android operating system, known as Ice Cream Sandwich. With a starting price lower than that of the iPad, it might be in with a chance.
It's available this month for £329 for the 16GB model or £379 for the 32GB version (neither has 3G). That makes them £70 and £100 cheaper than the corresponding new iPads. The older 16GB iPad 2 is also £329.
Toshiba's previous tablet, the AT200, was one of the slimmest on the market, measuring only 7.7mm thick, so the AT300 has some skinny shoes to fill. At 8.95mm, it's not quite as slender, but it makes up for it with a much more appealing design. It's slightly slinkier than the new iPad, which comes in at 9.4mm -- and you'd hardly call that chubby. Not to its face, anyway.
The AT200 may have been incredibly slim, but that seems to have resulted in build quality issues. Notably, the edges were so sharp, I was very conscious about not brushing my fingers over them when I was holding it. Thankfully, the AT300's updated design replaces the angular edges with a rounded finish. It would have been better had Toshiba kept it very slim and made it more pleasant to hold, but I'd rather have it this way around if I can't have both.
The chassis is made entirely from various plastics that don't have the same premium feel of the iPad's metal casing, but thankfully, it doesn't feel cheap and nasty like the plastic shells of bargain basement tablets like the Andy Pad. There's little flex in the back plate and none of the loose edging or unexplained gaps between pieces, that tell of shoddy construction. I'd be quite content chucking it casually into a bag and whisking it off on an adventure.
Like most tablets, there's not a whole lot going on with the front of the device. The glass slopes away attractively at the edges, which helps this design stand out slightly from the crowd. That small sloping edge has an incredibly subtle sparkly effect which you can only really notice in the right light, but it's quite attractive when you see it. Around the back is a grey plastic panel that's been given a textured effect that's arguably rather dull, but is pretty much par for the course for a lot of Android tablets.
As a 10.1-inch slate, you're unlikely to be holding it up in one hand for too long, especially given its 590g weight. You're more likely to use it on your lap while lying down, or standing it at your desk. If you particularly fancy one-handed tablet usage, you might want to check out the smaller and lighter Google Nexus 7 by Asus or the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 -- your arm muscles will certainly thank you.
Around the edges you'll find a 3.5mm headphone jack, a micro-HDMI port for hooking it up to a big TV and a micro-USB port, as well as the usual volume rocker and power button. Awkwardly, the AT300 doesn't charge over USB so you're forced to plug in the rather chunky power plug. This also means you can't borrow a mate's cable if you start to run low on power.
A welcome addition is the full-sized SD card slot, which will allow you to whack your digital camera's card straight in, unlike the plethora of tablets that take microSD. I found it very easy to plug in a card and review the photos I've taken on a shoot, deleting any images that aren't up to scratch (hardly any), and revelling in the ones that will surely be award-winning (loads).
The 10.1-inch display comes packing a 1,280x800-pixel resolution. That's no match for Apple's eye-melting 'retina' screen, which offers 2,048x1,536 pixels. Neither does it challenge the Full HD display of the Asus Transformer Pad Infinity 700, but it's still in the top half of the pile of Android tablets. The resolution is the same as that offered on the Asus Transformer Prime, and I found that to be lovely and crisp, so I had high hopes for this screen.
The screen is pretty bright. It's easily viewable under sunlight and the harsh office tanning bulbs of CNET UK Towers. There are still a few reflections that can't be avoided, but for the most part, the brightness deals with them well. I couldn't say it was any more or less bold than other slates in the top half of the market, but it's certainly good enough to enjoy your movies from the Google Play store or just to watch the odd YouTube clip.
The screen is covered in Corning Gorilla Glass, which is the same stuff found on the front of the iPhone 4S. It's much harder than regular glass, making it particularly scratch resistant and less likely to shatter into a bazillion pieces if you dropped it on the floor. Don't expect it to come off too well if it plummets from several feet onto concrete though.
Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich
The AT300 comes packing Google's Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich operating system. Up until very recently, that was the latest version of the OS and I'd have applauded Toshiba for loading its slate with the most up-to-date gear. However, with the release of 4.1 Jelly Bean, ICS is no longer cutting edge.
Still, Jelly Bean only arrived a short while ago so it's still good to see a recent version of Android on board, rather than the now very outdated Android Honeycomb. Toshiba could even release an update to Jelly Bean down the line, although nothing has been announced.
One of the advantages of Android is that it's an open operating system, meaning that manufacturers can tinker and tweak the interface with whatever stuff they like -- as Samsung does with its TouchWiz interface or HTC's Sense. Toshiba hasn't really done a whole lot, so you shouldn't expect much in the way of software treats once you boot it up.
You might be disappointed that there's not a lot extra to play with. But it's good to see a device that isn't loaded up with loads of pointless software that you might never use (as Toshiba makes a habit of doing with its laptops). The simpler approach results in a more straightforward interface that will be immediately familiar to anyone who's used Android before, and Android novices will find it easy to pick up.
You get the usual multiple home screens that you can fill up with apps and widgets by finding the one you want in the apps menu and clicking and holding on it. Slightly annoyingly, Android removed the ability to bring up a widget menu by pressing and holding on a home screen, forcing you instead to dive into the menus.
As a Google device, you'll find the standard set of Google apps like Gmail, Maps and YouTube, so setting up your email and calendars is made extremely simple. You also have full access to the hundreds of thousands of apps available on the Google Play Store as well as the Movies and Books section.
Power and performance
Trapped inside that silvery frame you'll find an Nvidia Tegra 3 processor clocked at 1.3GHz. The Tegra 3 is a quad-core processor that boasts particularly good performance with 3D graphics.
I've previously experienced the Tegra 3 in tablets like the Prime and found it not only superbly powerful for everyday tasks, but also capable of rendering the sort of graphics you'd expect to find on some slightly older Xbox 360 titles. That power also means it will easily play back high-definition content and output it to a TV over the micro-HDMI port, without batting an eyelid.
Indeed, in my own testing, I found it to be an extremely nimble piece of kit. To see how it stacks up against the competition, I booted up the Geekbench benchmark test and was given a score of 1,431, which is a very healthy score for a tablet. By comparison, the 7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 achieved only 409 on the same test. However, the excellent Google Nexus 7 racked up 1,536 which, considering its considerably lower price, might represent a better option if you're looking for power on a budget.
Still, benchmarks aren't everything and I'm pleased to say the quad-core chip offered a very smooth performance. Swiping through the various home screens was immediate and opening menus and folders was satisfyingly free of lag.
I loaded up Dark Meadow -- a game designed to run with the Tegra 3 chip -- and found the graphics to be excellent. Frame rates remained high, resulting in smooth gameplay overall. The AT300 is easily capable of tackling the most demanding games on the Play store at the moment and is well equipped to take on new titles as they arrive with ever more power-hungry graphics.
Around the back of the AT300 is a 5-megapixel camera. Given its 10-inch size, you're unlikely to ever want to take it outside for serious photography, but it's good to know that your new slate can at least capture the moment when your mate faceplants the floor when trying to skateboard indoors.
The results from the snapper aren't exactly great, but they're about all you would expect from the majority of Android slates. As shown in the example photo above, colours aren't particularly rich, nor is the image very sharp. But it offers a reasonably even exposure, making it fine for quick Twitter snaps.
There's also a 2-megapixel front-facing camera, letting you show off your holiday sunburn or impressive beard growth to all your friends, using video calling services like Skype. Your mates probably won't care about your beard or your bikini line, but at least you have the option.
The Toshiba AT300 improves on the AT200 with a better design, more potent processor and a newer version of Android. It's cheaper than the iPad, so if you're after an Android slate and don't want to compromise on power, this is a good option.
If you can cope with a smaller screen size, the Google Nexus 7 offers an equal dose of power, has the latest version of Android and costs quite a lot less.