Trying to compete with Apple in the tablet arena must be a frustrating and disheartening experience.
Take Toshiba and its brand new Excite 10 LE. After Apple dazzled the world with its super thin and light iPad 2 last year, the Japanese consumer electronics giant gave its engineers the difficult task of creating a tablet of even slenderer proportions.
The Excite's stylish, brushed magnesium alloy body is just 7.6 millimetres thick and weighs a feathery 535 grams. That makes it the most wafer-like 10-inch tablet on the planet. This is a fine accomplishment worthy of pride. Size and especially weight are important considerations for many tablet users.
But then, just days after the Excite's North American launch, Apple unveiled the third-generation iPad – a device both thicker and heavier than its predecessor. And no one seemed to care.
Apple had changed the game. Suddenly it's no longer a contest to see who can make the slimmest slate, but instead a competition of screen fidelity and horsepower. And next to the new iPad's stunning retina display, A5X CPU and mighty four-core graphics processor, the Excite's 1280-by-800 pixel Gorilla Glass screen and 1.2 GHz dual-core brain – decent enough hardware just weeks ago – seem like last year's components.
Adding insult to injury, Apple found a way to keep the price of the entry level WiFi version of its high-tech hero at just $519 – $30 cheaper than the $550 16-gigabyte WiFi Excite (Toshiba also offers a 32-gigabyte edition for $600).
How does one compete with a company that so often and so dramatically alters the playing field?
Most tablet makers not based in Cupertino have been banking on Google's mobile operating system Android to keep them in the game. As enamored as most of the world is with Apple's brilliantly intuitive operating system for phones and slates, there are still millions of people looking for something more versatile, more customizable and more open.
The Excite comes with Android 3.2 (Honeycomb). This will likely disappoint Android enthusiasts now enthralled by the recently launched Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), but Toshiba says Excite owners will be prompted to upgrade to Google's latest OS when an update is released later this spring.
And it's a very clean Honeycomb deployment. Proprietary apps and interface overlays can be a boon – some Android device manufacturers see them as the only way to meaningfully distinguish their tablets from those of the competition – but I've found that, more often than not, they simply clutter things up without adding much in the way of truly useful features or innovations. They also tend to make it more difficult for manufacturers to release timely OS updates.
Aside from the addition of a few practical non-Google apps – including Amazon Kindle, TuneWiki and Evernote – to the home screen, Toshiba has given us a fairly stock version of Google's OS. And Android's capacity for user customization as well as data and file management remains enviable. It is an operating system meant for people who like to dig and tinker.
On the downside, the Excite's processor has trouble delivering a smooth Honeycomb experience. Noticeable instances of lag can be detected while swiping through screens, loading apps and surfing the web. That said, most apps seemed to run well once loaded.
And the mildly stuttering interface doesn't detract from many of the other perks for which Android devices are known, including the ability to easily expand storage, transfer data and connect peripherals. The Excite – which has microSD, mini-USB and MicroHDMI ports, as well as Bluetooth and WiFi – has an enviable suite of connectivity suite.
As Android tablets go, Toshiba's latest is a nice specimen. Its slim profile ought to go a long way with folks who, say, are forced to bear the full weight of their slates in a single hand during standing-room-only commutes. However, seductively slim as it may be, it still doesn't pose much of a threat to Apple's latest game-changer.
You can find the Toshiba Excite 10 LE starting at $549.99 at Canadian big-box electronics stores.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story was unclear on the iPad's processing specs, we regret the error.