If you saw the tablets Microsoft gave away to developers at its Build event last year, you'll find the Series 7 Slate a familiar looking device. That's not surprising, as the Build tablet was a modified version of Samsung's Slate.
The Slate is an interesting example of the extremes to which PC design can go. It might also be the best slate PC yet.
A simple black rounded rectangle, with a 16:9 1366 x 768 display, the Samsung Slate looks more like a small monitor than anything else. The 11.6-inch screen is wrapped in a thin glass bezel and a burnished black metal case, hiding a quad-core Intel Core i5-2467M processor and 4GB of RAM. With a Gorilla Glass screen it's strong and light, with no torsion or flex - and importantly for a tablet, with good balance. It's also relatively light, coming in at 890g it's heavier than an iPad (607g for the 3G version), but lighter than many of its Windows tablet competitors.
As this is a tablet you get a lot of choice about input methods. The optional dock lets you plug in USB devices, while built-in Bluetooth simplifies connecting to wireless keyboards and mice. A single centre button under the screen works as the Windows key, while another on the right under the power button is a rotation lock. You'll find two other buttons on the left, working as volume controls. The hybrid screen mixes 10-point capacitive touch with a Wacom pen. Sadly there's no slot for the pen, making it easy to lose - though you can buy a lanyard that fits into the headphone socket fairly cheaply.
Touch sensitivity is key
Except on the most responsive screens, Windows 7 can be hard to use with a touch screen. This is an extremely responsive touch screen that detects finger touch accurately enough that you can work with the Windows user interface. Even so we often preferred to use the pen, as it's that much more accurate. Not many applications are ready for the Samsung's high level of touch support, and we're looking forward to running Windows 8 on our test device (especially after using the developer preview on the Build tablet), but scrolling through Web pages and documents or zooming in and out of photos is effortless and fluid.
While you can use the Slate in portrait orientation, note-taking is landscape works well too. When you put it in the dock, it looks like a tiny all-in-one PC with a widescreen monitor. It's light enough to hold one-handed in either orientation, ready to use the pen. The metal back and the texture on the optional case both give you a good grip.
The screen itself is glossy, and as it's a touch screen that means there's likely to be plenty of fingerprints, although these don't show until you turn the Slate off. When it's on, you see a superb, bright and vivid screen, although you can max out the battery life by turning the brightness all the way down if you're just using it to take notes. Unlike some other PC slates, the screen has the resolution needed to run the full Metro experience in Windows 8, with two apps side by side.
Video and sound performance
Video performance is good, as you'd expect from a Core i5. Our test 1080p streamed video played well, with plenty of detail and no artefacts. The screen has excellent contrast, with plenty of detail in both blacks and whites. As it has a 1366 x 768 display, it's ideal for watching 720p HD content, and the Slate's 802.11n Wi-Fi is more than capable of handling the throughput.
Sound quality is also good, thanks in part to the built-in “Sound Alive 3D” processing tools. The two speakers on the bottom edge of the tablet may be small, but they pack plenty of punch.
Like most tablets, there's not much space on the Samsung Slate for ports. There's one USB 2.0 port on the left side of the screen, with a removable cover that's hard to prise out and easy to lose. There's also a micro HDMI port and a combo headphone/microphone jack. If you want Ethernet, you'll need to pay for a USB Ethernet adapter, probably not a big deal for most people though. Front and rear cameras make the Slate a great tool for video conferencing and augmented reality.
On the top there's a micro SD card slot rather than SD, so you're not going to be able to import images from most cameras. If you choose the mobile broadband option, the SIM slot is on the right (our test system didn't have this). Underneath is a dock connector and two locating pin holes.
If you want to use the slate as a desktop PC, Samsung's docking station works well. Flip up the lid that makes it a neater shape for travel, and drop the slate into the groove. It's well-balanced, and the dock cover acts as a brace. You get extra ports from the dock for USB, HDMI and Ethernet, as well as a power connector and a headphone jack. One thing to note: by default the dock will switch audio away from the slate's built-in speakers and to a USB audio device that drives the dock's headphone jack.
Performance is good, as you'd expect from a Core i5 with 4GB of RAM and 64-bit Windows 7 Professional. It starts up impressively fast, booting in under 20 seconds. The 128GB SSD in our test machine was fast, and while the built-in graphics didn't have the speed of a dedicated card, they were more than good enough for business graphics and casual gaming.
Touch is responsive too, with no lag on the on-screen keyboard, and good hand-writing support when using the pen. You'll get good battery life too, something that necessary as this is a sealed unit with no opportunity to swap out a battery. Under relatively heavy load, streaming audio and video while working with web services we got 3hrs 23 minutes of use. Without such heavy Wi-Fi use it's more like five hours plus. Dropping the screen brightness and turning Wi-Fi off for note-taking gives you a lot longer, most, if not all of a working day in fact.
Our test device used the Microsoft Store “Signature Build” of Windows, so there's very little bundled software. In particular it didn't include the Swype keyboard that lets you draw rather than tap on a keyboard and it has Microsoft Security Essentials rather than the usual Norton Internet Security.
Samsung's TouchWiz-like launcher adds an optional shell to Windows, with more touch-friendly icons - pinning icons to the taskbar works well in landscape view, not so well in portrait mode. You get tools like a basic to-do list, a clock, and a weather applet. Other bundled software includes a touch log-on tool, Microsoft Office Starter, Windows Live Essentials, and Microsoft's Touch Pack of demonstration software and games (as seen on the Surface).
This is one of the nicest Windows touch machines we've seen, and it's ideal for anyone who needs a tablet PC for entertainment or work and is prepared to pay for it. It's light, fast, easy to use, and with a sensitive touch screen - and it's a full desktop class PC wrapped up in a tablet shell.
It's no wonder Microsoft choose this as the basis of its Windows 8 demonstration hardware, as it's ideal for both today's and the next generation of Windows - with support for all of Windows 8's key hardware specifications.