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?