What to Look Forward to in the Toshiba Thrive Android Tablet

After nearly six months of teasing, Toshiba will soon deliver its first Android tablet, the Toshiba Thrive. The difference is now we have a fully formed tablet with specs, and a name, unlike the state of affairs when the Thrive was first introduced as a nameless slate back in January. Based on my early up-close time with the Thrive, this model will certainly be worthy of consideration by would-be tablet buyers, thanks in part to how Toshiba tries to bridge the gap between laptop and tablet.

Already on pre-sale, the Thrive will be on retail shelves in the first half of July, at the usual suspects among consumer electronics retailers and office superstores. The Thrive will be the latest in this summer's parade of tablets, following the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and the HP TouchPad to market.

[See the Toshiba Tablet up close.]

Rather than give a blow-by-blow hands-on report, I'm instead focusing on the points about the Thrive that have stuck with me and made me wanting to see more. Which in and of itself is a feat: At this point, with so many tablets crowding shelves, and my desk, it takes a little something extra to stand out, and it's notable that the Thrive has done that.

So what stood out about the Thrive when I used it? That it aims to minimize your trade-offs in the shift from laptop to tablet. Granted, the Thrive feels chunky compared with the svelte, lightweight leaders-Samsung's Galaxy Tab 10.1 and Apple's iPad 2. But tucked neatly along the edges of the Thrive are: an SD Card slot and USB port; mini-USB; and a full-size HDMI port. That's all in addition to the seemingly-standard docking port, found on all of today's tablets. Those four ports translate to some extraordinary possibilities that expand just how you may be able to maximize using this Android tablet-especially in light of Android 3.1 gaining USB host functionality for adding USB devices.

The full-size SD Card slot is especially enticing. The Thrive is the first Honeycomb tablet to include a full-size SD Card slot. None of this microSD card nonsense for Toshiba; ditto for only having a micro- or mini-USB port. By including the SD Card slot and USB port, the company recognizes the need for interoperability among devices. And only with interoperability can a tablet begin to replace a laptop in your arsenal.

Yes, some will point to the "cloud" and say ports are not necessary. But put the cloud aside for a moment, and consider how you use your laptop. How many times do you plug stuff in and out of those USB ports? Stuff like portable hard drives, or USB flash drives? How many times do you take your SD Card straight from your camera and pop it into the laptop? When you consider things from this perspective, well, the appeal of Thrive is clear and compelling.

Consider this: You're on vacation, and kicking back with the family after a day's outing Pop your card out of your point-and-shoot camera, slip it into the card slot, and boom--instant means of sharing and enjoying your content on a relatively big screen, no adapters or file transfers required. Got a digital movie stored on your tablet? No problem: Just connect an HDMI cable and you're good to go. (Well, even better would be if Toshiba came up with an to remotely control your tablet's playback capabilities with your Android phone, but one step at a time here.)

Its variety of built-in ports means that the Thrive has an integrated, dongle-free edge over the competition. Buyer's choice over whether you value sleek lines and light weight over integration, but personally, I'll take integrated ports over unwieldly dongles that ruin said sleek lines and portability any day.

What remains to be seen is just how functional Toshiba has made some of these ports. Android 3.1 has limitations, in that it still is not natively intended for smoothly dealing with removable storage. The Thrive did recognize my thumb drive just fine, and let me open files on it, but the final judgment will come when I get to see just how interoperable the Thrive is in the real world.

Toshiba says its SD Card slot can handle 128GB SDXC cards--terrific for those who want to expand the built-in storage, or use high-capacity cards in their digital camera. And the company has included a File Manager app for reading content from the SD Card and USB ports; and an ExFAT driver so the Thrive can handle up to a 1TB external hard drive over the USB port.

The other thing that stood out for me about the Thrive was its display. With a test photo I loaded onto it, it appeared to do an excellent job at rendering the image sharply, and with detail; and doing a good job in reproducing color. In conversation, Toshiba noted it has software magic being applied in the background. Ultimately, the question is less how it works and more how it looks, and early returns were impressive. I look forward to testing this out more with the final product, too.

The Thrive runs the same Nvidia Tegra 2 platform (dual-core 1GHz CPU, 1GB of memory) as other Android 3.0/3.1 tablets. And it comes in 8GB, 16GB, and 32GB capacities ($430, $480, $580, respectively). It's still on pre-order, with an expected ship date in July

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