When I reviewed the Toshiba Excite 10, I was impressed by everything about it except the screen. Build quality, weight and thickness, performance, and a nice clean installation of Android Ice Cream Sandwich were all significant factors in the tablet’s favor. The only thing holding it back from a very strong recommendation were a slightly high price and, most important, a disappointingly inferior screen.
And so I was looking forward to getting my hands on the Excite 7.7, the smaller sibling to the Excite 10 with a 7.7” AMOLED screen, Tegra 3 processor, and 1280X800 resolution. I was expecting it to have the benefits of AMOLED, which are bright colors, deep blacks, and excellent contrast, along with a relatively high 196PPI pixel density that should translate into sharper text. I hoped that it would be worth the relatively high price of $499.99 for the 16GB version (and $579.99 for 32GB).
As things turn out, my expectations were mostly met, with a few important caveats getting in the way of my not only recommending the Excite 7.7, but considering the purchase of one as my own Android reference tablet. Read on to find out what those caveats might be.
Form Factor and Build Quality
First, as I posted about here, the 7.7” form factor has both its plusses and its minuses when we’re talking about Android tablets. In general, it’s a great size for ebook reading and any other app that works well in portrait, and the Excite 7.7 is thin enough and light enough that it’s easy to hold in one hand. At the same time, the smaller screen size can have some limitations in terms of how much information, which I’ll cover when I discuss the tablet’s screen.
That said, one of the best things about the Excite 7.7 is the build quality and form factor. The tablet has the same basic build of the larger Excite 10, with a silver plastic border around a Gorilla Glass screen on front and a dimpled aluminum sheet on back, and it’s extremely thin at 7.8 mm. It simply feels great, managing to achieve that difficult balance of thinness, lightness, and quality, and with excellent button placement it’s a joy to use.
Excite 7.7 Next to Samsung Galaxy S II
Excite 7.7 Next to iPad 3
The Excite 7.7 is also quite solid, with no flex or rattles that sometimes plague Android tablets. It’s not quite as solid as the Apple iPad, but it’s also considerably lighter and more comfortable to use for longer periods of time. In short, it feels like it’s worth it’s nearly $500 price tag, at least in terms of fit and finish.
Build quality and form factor: 9/10.
Expansion and Connectivity
The Excite 7.7 has acceptable expansion and connectivity features, including a micro-SD card slot and a micro-USB port
that doubles as an HDMI-out port. The USB port works as a host, meaning an eternal hard drive can be connected; unfortunately, the Toshiba drivers only support FAT formatting, not NTFS. The USB port does not charge the tablet.
The charging port is a point of contention, however. Not only is it proprietary, but it’s absolutely huge. It’s the same one used for the Excite 10 and 13 models, and looks like a behemoth when connected to the Excite 7.7. The cable is also rather thick and relatively inflexible, and so it’s more difficult to manage than it should be.
Expansion and Connectivity: 8/10
The Excite 7.7 is an excellent performer across the board, with a 1.3GHz Tegra 3 processor and an essentially bone-stock version of Android Ice Cream Sandwich 4.0.3. Apps open quickly, multitasking is a breeze, scrolling through home pages is free of lag, and games are quick and smooth. In fact, the Excite 7.7 is my favorite device for playing Temple Run—not only are the graphics smooth, but the touchscreen is responsive and the accelerometer works perfectly for moving the character left and right.
Benchmark scores bear out the performance of the Excite 7.7:
The Excite 7.7’s screen is a study in compromise. On the one hand, it’s an excellent AMOLED screen (similar to Samsung’s Super AMOLED Plus screen on the Galaxy Tab 7.7) with nicely saturated colors, pitch blacks, excellent contrast, and 196PPI density thanks to the 1280X800 resolution. Toshiba calls it “PixelPure.” In optimal conditions, all of that results in a screen that is an absolute delight, and is second only to the new iPad to my eyes. There are, however, two issues that hold the screen back during normal usage.
First, as I noted in my post titled “Android Tablets: Size Matters,” the Excite 7.7 runs at the smaller screen size in spite of the higher resolution. This means that screen elements are larger, and fewer fit on the screen at once. This causes some apps to function in a “tweener” mode between phones and tablets, and in general causes less information to be displayed at once. It’s clearly possible to run the larger tablet experience on the 7.7” screen size, because the Galaxy Tab 7.7 does exactly that.
Second, the screen has a tendency to become colder (i.e., whites are more blue), colors to become less vibrant, and contrast to significantly decrease when the screen is full of white or lighter colored objects. This can be seen by visiting a Web site that has a dark banner across the top of the screen and then increasing amounts of white space. As you scroll down the page and reveal more white space, the screen goes from excellent (and whites from a more natural temperature) to mediocre (with poor contrast, bluish whites, and lesser colors). This might be Toshiba’s “AutoBrite” feature at work, but they don’t mention it in regard to the Excite 7.7 (as they do the 10 and 13 models), and so I’m not sure.
It’s difficult to demonstrate in photos or video, but it’s quite noticeable during use. Here’s a quick video that attempts to show the effect. Notice at the end how opening the settings widget increases the amount of black on the screen, and thus whites get warmer and contrast/brightness increases.
My guess is that this second issue is due to an automatic adjustment that’s being done to contrast and brightness to improve battery life. AMOLED screens don’t use backlights as do LCD screens; rather, each individual pixel is its own light source. Therefore, a completely black screen uses no power at all, while a white screen uses more power than the typical LCD. I’m guessing that the Excite 7.7 adjusts the contrast and brightness when more whites and brighter images are on the screen, to preserve power. I’ve sent an inquiry to Toshiba to see what’s going on here, and I’ll report back later.
The bottom line is that the Excite 7.7’s screen is held back by these two issues, to the point where it’s hard to recommend, particularly at the $500 price point. The good news is that both of these are fixable. Toshiba could follow Samsungs lead and configure the tablet to show more information on the screen, and they could tone down the adjustments being made (if that’s what’s going on here). If the screen was more equivalent to the one on the Galaxy Tab 7.7, then I could wholeheartedly recommend this tablet, and in fact would purchase one myself.
Screen: 7.5/10. If fixed, it would be a 9.5/10.
The Excite 7.7 has a 15WHr battery, which is a good deal smaller than, say, the 25WHr battery on the ASUS Transformer Prime. The Excite 7.7 also has a smaller screen, and AMOLED to boot. So, how does the battery perform? In a word: mediocre. All told, I would expect the battery to last between six and eight hours of actual use with a mix of browsing, email, ebook reading, gaming, and video. That’s a bit less than I’ve experienced with other Android tablets, and considerably less than the new iPad.
Unlike some reviewers, I tend to measure a device’s battery life based on real-world use rather than running a quick video rundown test, and my usual method is to use the excellent BatteryDrain app to keep track of how much battery is being used during certain tasks. By noting the % of battery used per hour, it’s possible to get a fairly accurate idea of real-world longevity. For me, that means having multiple email accounts and other apps syncing in the background, the screen on automatic brightness while using it in different lighting conditions, and running the device through a number of different use cases.
The following are some results compared to the ASUS Transformer Prime. As I discussed in the screen section above, AMOLED uses less power when displaying screens with more dark items on them. And so, I’ve added a row for the Excite 7.7 showing the difference in the Greader RSS reader app, which offers both dark and light themes; battery use was significantly worse when this app was run with the light theme and thus white backgrounds.
I also ran into an issue running Flash in the browser. While performance was very good, battery usage shot up to as much at 75%/hour. This was a consistent finding, and the back of the Excite 7.7 also got very warm (which only happened otherwise during heavy gaming). Obviously, there’s a Flash bug in there somewhere.
Battery life: 7/10.
The Excite 7.7 has two speakers on the bottom of the tablet flanking the charging port, and a number of special sound settings including SRS enhancements. Overall, audio was full with good stereo separation, albeit bass was on the low side as with most tablet speakers. Other than the Toshiba Audio Enhancement setting, which boosts volume considerably, I couldn’t tell much different when the other settings were enabled.
Sound via headphones was very good and plenty loud. Whether playing music or watching movies, the Excite 7.7 provided a good enough audio experience.
As with the Excite 10, the Excite 7.7 has whimsical haptic feedback, with strong and consistent vibration for all kinds of taps and swipes in addition to the usual keyboard and home button feedback on some other Android tablets. Not only is there haptic feedback for things like swiping the home screens and scrolling through lists, but you can enable feedback for apps (such as games) that match to various audio and other triggers. It was fun to turn this feature on during a game of Birzzle and actually feel when birds popped.
I found haptic feedback on the Excite 7.7 surprisingly fun, and I miss it when I’m using other tablets. Note that these features can be adjusted, including turning haptic feedback completely off.
Haptic Feedback: 10/10.
The Excite 7.7 has a 2MP camera up front and a 5MP camera around back. Picture quality is passable from both, but we won’t replace your digital camera (or, probably, your smartphone camera either). The front camera is perfectly fine for videoconferencing, however, albeit in an awkward position at the upper-left of the screen that makes to difficult to center oneself in the image.
Excite 7.7 Rear Camera
Excite 7.7 Front Camera
As mentioned earlier, the Excite 7.7 runs a stock version of Android Ice Cream Sandwich, 4.0.3. Other than the various hardware-specific settings mentioned earlier, Toshiba has made no other changes to the base operating system. That’s a huge plus in the Excite’s favor, and likely indicates less hassle with getting updates in the future.
Toshiba has, however, loaded up the Excite 7.7 with a few extra goodies, including some games, a file manager app, and a very useful version of the remote PC management tool LogMeIn. This latter app performs very well, albeit given the small screen size managing a full-sized desktop requires some zooming and scrolling.
Toshiba File Manager
The Excite 7.7 is a highly portable, well-built, and fast Android tablet with good expandability, decent audio quality, and fun haptic feedback. It also has an excellent AMOLED screen that’s held back by some questionable configuration and software choices. If Toshiba can improve the screen, perhaps at least to fix the changes in color and contrast with different backgrounds, then they’d have a real winner on their hands. As it is, it’s hard to justify the $500 price tag.
Overall score: 7/10. If the screen is fixed, then 9/10.