While it’s a brave manufacturer that launches a 7in tablet against Google’s all-conquering Nexus 7, the market for 10.1in tablets is a lot more wide open, particularly at the lower end. As long as you’re not going up against premium models like the iPad 3, Asus Transformer Prime and Transformer Infinity or the Acer Iconia A700, it all comes down to how much you can pack in at an attractive price. This is unquestionably the Toshiba AT300’s biggest strength: it might not have the most stylish design, the best screen or the lowest price, but it gives you the power of a Tegra 3 processor for as low as £310.
Physically, it’s a nice looking tablet without exactly being a knockout. While it hasn’t got the one-piece aluminium shell of some premium tablets, it does have a textured aluminium rear panel and a brushed metal frame, some comfortable curved corners and understated logos on the back. Toshiba’s previous model, the AT200, was slimmer at just 7.8mm, lighter at 508g and undoubtedly more stylish, but the AT300 is hardly a porker at 8.95mm and 598g, and still easier to hold over long periods than the similar Acer Iconia A510, at 11mm and 680g.
If we had any criticism about its construction, it’s that there’s some flex in the body. Put pressure on the corners and you can feel them come away from the tough gorilla glass screen, even if only by a fraction.
The AT200 suffered from a slightly disappointing screen, and the AT300’s still isn’t up there with the best. Viewing angles aren’t a problem – two people can easily look at the screen at the same time – colours look natural and definition isn’t bad for a fairly bog-standard 1,280 x 800 display. However, brightness and contrast levels seem lower than on the best Asus and Samsung tablets, and there’s a general lack of punch. The screen on the AT300 is perfectly competent, and the less in-your-face presentation is arguably easier on the eyes. All the same, we’re left a little underwhelmed.
Sound is also not a strong point. It’s disappointingly thin and weedy, with no real depth or body to the output, and when you push the volume up distortion starts to creep in. In this area, the Acer Iconia A510 has the AT300 decidedly whipped.
Toshiba’s tablets have consistently gone one step further than most on the connectivity front, and the AT300 is no exception. Beyond the proprietary charger/dock connector at the bottom, the right-hand side hosts a headphone socket, a micro HDMI port, a micro-USB port (which supports USB hosting) and a full-sized SDHC memory card slot. The latter gives you the option to upgrade the supplied 16GB of flash storage with cards of up to 32GB in size. It also means you can take a card straight from your digital camera and plug it right in.
For networking, the AT300 has an 802.11bgn Wi-Fi chipset. Performance of this seemed better than average in extremely subjective tests, with the AT300 connecting flawlessly in areas of the house and garden where other tablets have occasionally struggled.
While Toshiba has apparently promised an upgrade to Android 4.1 Jellybean, the A300 is currently stuck with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. On the plus side, ICS is still very usable, and Toshiba hasn’t messed around with the user interface beyond installing some additional software and some (rather unattractive) desktop wallpapers. On the ‘things we like’ list go the pre-installed ThinkFree Office, SplashTop Remote HD Free and McAffee Mobile Security Apps, not to mention a Media Player app which works with local files or those stored on DLNA devices on the network. This flawlessly played 480p and 720p H.254 MKV and MOV files without a hitch, not to mention JPEG photos and non-DRM protected AAC and M4A audio. There’s also a handy widget to control playback from the homescreen once the app is minimised.
The AT300 has a 5-megapixel rear-facing camera and a 2-megapixel front-facing camera. The latter is perfectly fine for video chat, capturing crisp detail and working well in most light conditions, but we were a bit disappointed with the rear snapper. Even outside, colours look washed out and there’s a scarcity of detail, and inside the news isn’t any better, as the camera struggles to expose anything much in dim conditions. However, there is - rather unusually - an LED flash, which helps when things get really dark.
Usability and performance
For the most part, the AT300 is a pleasure to use. The screen is nice and responsive, and even a light touch has the usual tapping, pinching and sweeping gestures working well. Surprisingly, the Swype keyboard has been pre-installed and made default, but while we’re always glad to see it on a smartphone, it doesn’t make so much sense on a 10.1in tablet, where the standard Android 4.0 keyboard arguably looks and works better. Toshiba has also implemented a little vibration for haptic feedback, though as this is felt on the bottom of the tablet more than on the screen, the effect is actually a little bit odd.
With a quad-core Tegra 3 processor running at 1.3MHz and 1GB of RAM, the AT300 was never going to feel slow. It’s SunSpider score of 2,041 and Geekbench score of 1,523 put it in a similar position to the Iconia A510 and other mainstream Tegra 3 tablets. If you want to play games, then you’re in for a treat. Advanced titles like Madfinger’s Dead Trigger and Shadowgun look magnificent on the 10.1in screen, and you can play the THD versions with all effects enabled. Frankly, the only way you’re going to get this much gaming and graphics performance at a lower price is with a Nexus 7 – fine if you want a smaller screen, not so fine if you don’t. The AT300 gets warm when pushed hard, but not as hot as the Iconia A510, and you could never describe it as uncomfortable.
The Tegra 3 in the AT300 includes NVIDIA’s companion chip, which is supposed to run processes when the tablet isn’t doing very much, saving energy that might be spent on the full quad-core chip. In practice, it’s hard to say how well this works. We got around seven hours of actual use out of the tablet, including video playback over Wi-Fi and some intensive gaming, which is OK for a 10.1in tablet, but nothing that will worry Asus or Apple. The Acer Iconia A510 did better here, its dual batteries managing nearer 10 hours of solid work.
On many levels, the AT300 gives you a lot of tablet for very little money. The Tegra 3 processor does a great job of handling more demanding apps and games, and overall usability is very good. It’s lighter than the average 10.1in tablet and bar a bit of flex, build quality is generally fine. On the other hand, battery life could be better and so could the screen. Neither is anything worse than average, but wouldn’t you like a little more than that?
At the price, the AT300 is still worth shortlisting; while there are a lot of tablets – new and old –coasting around the £300 to £350 mark, most of them have an older Tegra 2 processor and don’t offer anything more in terms of screen quality or style. The exception is the Acer Iconia A510, which offers a similar screen but a longer battery life and twice the storage for only £20 to £30 more. Unless you’re really limited in your budget, the A510 would be a better bet.
Manufacturer and model
nVIDIA Tegra 1.3GHz quad-core
10.1in, 1280 x 800 pixels
Micro-USB, micro HDMI, 3.5mm audio
260 x 179 x 8.95mm
Android 4 ICS