Toshiba's new Windows 8.1 tablet, the Encore Mini, is pretty darn basic. The screen measures just 7 inches, with 1024-by-600 resolution; it's got 16GB of storage, a Micro SD slot, Wi-Fi, and two cameras but not a whole lot else, such as an HDMI port for video hookups. The industrial design is plain and plasticky.
But the Encore Mini also has a price which instantly explains its features, or lack thereof: It's $119. That is the cheapest Windows tablet on record from a company anyone's ever heard of, and the cost could dip below $99 at retail.
The era of dirt-cheap tablets has been booming for a while—and even at $99, the Encore Mini would set no records. (You can find an extremely basic model for $50 or less.) It's just that "dirt-cheap tablet" and "dirt-cheap Android tablet" have been synonymous until now. Hardware manufacturers can use Google's operating system for free, which has made it the logical choice for a device whose profit margin, by definition, is going to be as razor-thin as they get.
Microsoft, by contrast, likes to charge for Windows—which is understandable, since charging PC makers for Windows has historically been one of the greatest business models in the history of business models. It has commanded more than $100 a copy in some circumstances. But in recent years, as very cheap Windows PCs have faced competition from devices running free operating systems—both Android and its foundation, Linux—Microsoft has responded by cutting Windows licensing fees.
And in April, Microsoft announced that it would let manufacturers put Windows 8.1 on small tablets—9 inches or less—at no charge. That's the price cut that made a device like the Encore Mini possible.
The notion of devices running full-blown Windows costing so very little remains startling: I remember when it was big news that Windows laptops were available for a mere $999. But it's not entirely clear why most folks would want full-blown Windows on a device with a 7-inch screen. The newfangled "Metro" interface should work fine at that size, but most old-school desktop applications—which are the main attraction of full Windows—are going to feel like they've curled themselves into a fetal position.
I'm glad the Encore Mini exists, and knowing Toshiba, it will be a competent product given the price point. There will presumably be people who, if offered a choice between a bargain-basement Android tablet and a bargain-basement Windows tablet such as this one, will choose Windows. But you have to wonder: How might the tablet market have evolved differently if Microsoft had been ready with a no-cost, tablet-capable version of Windows a few years ago, before Android got so entrenched?