Asus VivoTab Smart review
The Asus VivoTab Smart is certainly an interesting idea. Boiled down to basics, it's a Windows 8 tablet compressed into the sort of design you'd expect for a Windows RT tablet. That means it's small and light, and will be the ideal device for you to carry everywhere with you.
Such a task is a bit tricky though, because balancing PC processor power consumption with size and weight is a big issue. All the previous tablets that have tried it have been good PCs, but quite poor tablets. So the big question has to be, does it pull off PC power in a tiny device?
Arguably, one of the things that Microsoft is struggling with is getting the message out about what version of Windows you need. Windows 8 and RT look the same on the surface, but when it comes to compatibility they couldn't be more different, and that's going to cause some people some problems. The Asus VivoTab Smart doesn't do much to help that. Logically, it should be an RT device at this size and weight, but it runs Windows 8.
But applause for Asus at getting an Atom-based system down to such miniature proportions. The tablet weighs about 580g, which makes it a shade lighter than Apple's most recent iPad. Clearly though, Asus has saved some weight by going for plastic over metal, which gives you a little more grip, but looks a little less pretty too.
In terms of connectivity, things are a little bit limited. There's a micro-USB socket, a micro-HDMI which is hidden under a little pop-out cover and there's also a microSD card slot, which has a little plastic blanking card to keep it dust-free. Most notably absent is any sort of dock connector for either charging, or attaching a keyboard dock.
On the top of the tablet is a power switch and on the right-hand side a headphone jack and volume rocker switch. As you might expect, there's a rear-mounted camera, along with a front-facing one which sits, frustratingly to the eye, just a little off-centre.
As with all Windows RT tablets, there's a Windows logo button on the front bottom, dead in the middle - which is why the front webcam looks so noticeably off-centre. This is a capacitive button though, rather than a hardware switch, which means it's perfectly flush and looks more like branding than a functional button.
As with Microsoft's Surface tablets, there is a keyboard/stand option available for the VivoTab in various colours too. We weren't sent one of these to test, but we can't help think it's probably going to be an essential item to buy, as it adds a nice stand and more usable keyboard to the package.
NFC is built-in, which is a nice idea. It's also a little more rare on Windows devices than it is on Android phones, but even so it's nice to see here. Having it opens up some new options, it can be used to share files with friends, but also configure routers to allow the device to access the internet, or set up a Bluetooth wireless speaker system. Of course, you'll need apps to support all this, and Windows isn't overflowing with them.
You also get built-in GPS, which is very good news for anyone hoping to use this as a massive sat nav. Of course, the lack of built-in data might hamper those who want to use it while out and about, because you'll need to find a Wi-Fi hotspot, or use a 3G device to get access while away from your home.
Speaking of Wi-Fi, we noticed that the performance of the wireless on the Asus was reasonable, but not amazing. We had some real problems getting apps to download over our internet connection, and this isn't something we've seen on the other Windows 8 devices on our network.
It also bears mentioning that the VivoTab doesn't support Wi-Fi in the 5GHz frequency band. So what, you're thinking, but we're increasingly finding the regular Wi-Fi frequencies are so busy that it can cause reliability problems. For a device to really win us over, it has to have a 5GHz option these days. While the range is significantly worse than 2.4GHz, it's fine for most homes and it can be an awful lot faster.
Low power means less power
To get a decent amount of power out of the VivoTab Smart, Asus has gone for an Intel Atom dual-core processor. Here, it runs at 1.8GHz, which sounds like a decent amount for most real-world use. During our tests, we mostly found that the device performed really well. It felt slick, and swiping our way through Windows 8's tiles and starting "modern" apps was all lovely and fast. Sometimes though, there would be a frustrating wait. We often found that pressing the Windows button on the device would yield a hefty wait while it did some thinking. Not a showstopper, but still a little frustrating.
In terms of raw power, we thought it best to use video as our main way of assessing the processor power. We loaded on some short samples from films in 720p and 1080p with digital sound included. We played the clips back via VLC on the desktop. As we'd hope, the 720p video played happily, and very smoothly. The 1080p clip played, but when there was a lot of motion on screen - and thus, an increase in the data rate - the tablet started to stutter.
Realistically, we don't think that not being able to play 1080p video will be a massive problem, as the memory built-in here, and the microSD expansion, are still size-limited, so there's precious little space for massive full HD video clips. But if you're thinking of using this as a media centre, we'd suggest that perhaps you look to a different device. In comparison, the Samsung Series 7 Slate can handle both 720 and 1080 video with reasonable ease, although its Core i5 processor drinks power, while this Asus sips at the battery.
And that sipping means that we think you'll get pretty close to Asus' stated 8.5 hour battery life. It's actually quite impressive to see how long the tablet manages to last. We've used ours for a couple of days on a single charge, and there's 61 per cent remaining. We'd hardly say we'd been pushing it, but we've not given it an easy time either.
Shoehorning a non-touch interface into a touch device
Although Windows 8 has been designed to work well with touchscreen devices, it's still painfully obvious that Windows has some distinctly non-touch UI elements. On a desktop, these jar slightly in the new interface, but they aren't a critical problem. On a touch device, where there's usually no mouse or keyboard, the "old fashioned" interface elements are annoying. The example we always cite here is with networking. Press the wireless settings option, and you get the new-style Windows interface which works well with touchscreen tablets, dig a little deeper to the more hardcore networking options and you quickly run into the classic Windows interface. This is very hard to use on any touchscreen device, and near-impossible on a 10-inch screen where everything is quite tiny.
And although apps aren't Microsoft's problem, when you're running certain desktop programs, you'll often run into elements that make them impossible to use with a touchscreen. Take, for example, Plex Media Centre. By far our favourite media streamer, and the app we use most often for enjoying media on our home network. Here, by default, the mouse is disabled and inputs are handled via a keyboard and that makes it impossible to use on the Asus. This isn't Asus's fault, but it's an interesting look at why Microsoft knew it needed to push tablet users towards Windows RT, and the app store, where such apps wouldn't be allowed.
So the problem here is user expectations. Asus is telling people that they'll get a full Windows experience here, and while that's true, you're really going to need to connect a keyboard and mouse to it to get anywhere near a usable PC. Once you've done that, you've added extra bulk and expense and it may well be that a little laptop would suit your needs better.
Asus software and cloud backup
Asus bundles some apps along with the tablet to get you a bit of extra value. There's the "asus@vibe Fun Center" - their punctuation and spelling, not ours - that seems to be a kind of clunky front end for Aupeo's free streaming service. It's okay, but we had some buffering problems and the selection is, erm, a bit weird. Still, there's a Katy Perry artist station, so who are we to complain.
Asus also supplies an Asus Camera app. This seems to be a slightly different front end from the Windows 8 camera app, but it doesn't really seem to have all that much extra functionality over the Windows app. Having two ways to take photos seems a bit silly to us, although we could understand the Asus app offered loads of functionality that the standard one does not, but that's really not the case.
There's also Asus Webstorage. Usually, you'd have to pay for this, but when you buy an Asus tablet, the company throws in three years' use free. You get 32GB included, which is more than enough to keep what's stored on the tablet backed-up. Honestly though, with Dropbox being available both as a Windows 8 modern app, and a desktop app, you might find that are more usable app. There's nothing really wrong with the Asus system though, and getting a decent amount of storage for free is always handy. The Asus app is also really well designed, it fits well into the Windows ecosystem and you can back-up easily too, something that's not really part of Dropbox's built-in features.
There's also something called Finger share, which allows you to find people with fewer digits than you, and lease them your spare digits. Not really, what it actually allows you to do is use the NFC built-in to the VivoTab to send files to other NFC-capable devices. We tried it with an Android phone and couldn't get it to work. Similarly, Android didn't really want to send files to the Asus either. So there's some way to go before NFC does what everyone wants it to do.
It's a slight irony that the tablet runs a version of Windows more likely to be of interest to business users, and one which doesn't come with a free copy of office. Buy an RT and you get Office bundled in. Here though, it's the usual Office free trial, but to use it for any length of time you're going to need to cough up a lot of cash, or go for a free alternative.
Of course, there are plenty of Office alternatives, but it's a shame that Starter edition isn't included, as it would be more than enough for most people using this tablet, we suspect.
Screen and sound
The 10-inch screen uses an IPS panel, so you get pretty solid viewing angles and good, strong colour. Brightness is more than sufficient for most uses, and the device makes a good stab at adjusting itself automatically. We noticed that it seems to jump in fairly large increments when changes in light are detected. This is okay for watching a video, but we noticed when we passed our hand over the front of the device a bit, it would get confused. A minor point, though and it can be prevented from auto-adjusting.
Detail was good, especially when looking at the Windows UI. The desktop fonts are pretty tiny, but they remain legible and that says a lot about the quality of the screen used. In the modern interface of Windows 8, everything looks marvelous and it's really here that the VivoTab thrives.
Video looks nice though, and the 1366 x 768 resolution means that 720p video fits the screen quite well, this further proves that it's not designed for 1080p content really, and trying to play back such video on a device with a lower resolution is a bit of a waste of time, unless you're trying to do so via an external monitor.
Audio is surprisingly powerful too. There's a speaker grille at the rear, but it's micro-drilled holes are hard to see unless you have a good look. But the sound quality that comes out of this thing is both loud and clear, making it ideal for watching in bed. Just remember that the placement of the speaker means it can be covered by your hand, or anything you prop it up against. We noticed that desks helped push the sound forward to our ears though, which is very handy.
The front-facing camera is fine for Skype, and that's all you'll use it for. Try and use it for anything relating to photography, or to record a video for YouTube and we'll hunt you down and give you a lesson in using things as they are intended.
The rear camera is not all that bad. It's 8-megapixels, which is reasonable enough and it does well enough in bright light, and even slightly less-bright conditions. It's not going to set the world on fire, but it's good enough for the occasional Tweet or Facebook wall update.
There's so much to consider here that it's almost enough to make your head melt.
First, there's the price - £400 is reasonable for a tablet, especially one as flexible as this. At the same time though, laptops are cheaper and offer more power. And while Windows is usable on a touchscreen, the desktop elements found in Windows 8 - as opposed to RT - mean that it's inherently more fiddly to use at times, and you're likely to find yourself stuck without a keyboard or mouse.
But then the flexibility of being able to use a keyboard and mouse, and get proper work done with minimal fuss is really appealing. Plus the fact that it's so lightweight means that it's infinitely more portable than any other fully-blown Windows 8.
Of course, the Atom processor is fairly limited in terms of power. There were times when the VivoTab felt slower than a dedicated Android Tablet and that's a shame. But at the same time, there's enough power here for most tasks, including 720p video playback. We honestly don't think its 2GB of RAM is really enough, try running Skype and a few Chrome windows, and you'll soon see what we mean.
But overall, our time with it has been quite positive. No one can argue that it's a triumph of technology and lovely to use. During our time, we had some glitches that were fixed with a full reset of the software, and our only other trouble was with slow Wi-Fi. Hopefully, some driver updates can improve that situation.