(Pocket-lint) - There's a good chance you don't think of Asus when you think of tablets. Apple, Samsung? Sure. Asus makes boring stuff, right? However, Asus is secretly a bit of a tablet demon, having come up with the Nexus 7 (2013), still one of the best tech-per-pound tablets to date. And now its Asus ZenPad S 8.0 looks to make waves in the 8-inch tablet market.
While the ZenPad S 8.0 doesn't have any Google ties beyond running Android, it feels like a not-too-distant relation of the Nexus 7. It gets you an ultra-high resolution 2K screen and decent specs for £170, absolutely trouncing what Amazon's new Fire HD range gets you for that sort of money. Is it the tablet underdog to opt for?
Asus ZenPad S review: Design
In terms of its shape and overall style, the Asus Zenpad S 8.0 is much closer to another competitor: the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 (which, at £319, costs almost double).
The two are similar because the Asus has an 8-inch screen and iPad-a-like 4:3 aspect ratio. This is a super-convenient shape and size, getting you a screen that feels huge for games (rather than widescreen movies) and apps, while the tablet is as about manageable as a 7-inch widescreen one.
Asus has put quite a lot of effort into classing up the design too, for a sub-£200 tablet anyway. The ZenPad S 8.0 has a brushed metal plate that covers most of the back, with a little lip of imposter leather at the bottom. The look is a bit "executive chic" for something people are most likely to pick up at Argos. And the metal is a thin film on a mostly-plastic design, but it feels a lot higher-end than most of the tablets you'll get from the bigger brand names at the price.
The Zenpad S 8.0 is also very, very thin at 6.9mm and quite light at 319g. While we're not sure many would sell at £300, this Asus could pass pretty convincingly for something around that price. The one bit that's not so hot is the silver surround on the front: it looks fine, but seems pretty easy to chip. It'll go from executive chic to shabby chic pretty quick unless you're careful.
Build quality in general is only on-par with the budget competition too rather than keeping up the high-end first impression, with some apparent quirks. There's a bit of give in the casing design, for example, which makes the power button on the side go soft, losing its click, when held in certain ways.
Asus ZenPad S 8.0 review: Battery life
Shaving millimetres off a tablet's body is rarely going to do its battery life any favours. And sure enough the 4,000mAh unit in this ZenPad is not setting any new standards. When left just playing back a 720p video on its local storage, it lasts for 8.5 hours. That's fine, and lives up to what Asus actually promises. However, more expensive tablets like the Galaxy Tab S 8.4 and iPad Mini 2 will squeeze a good few more hours out than that.
You might expect that, as one of the first USB Type-C tablets out there, the ZenPad S 8.0 charges dead fast. With no special fast-charging skills under its belt, though, it still takes a few hours.
Don't know what USB-C is yet? It's the next-gen sister of the microUSB socket we've been using for years on Android devices. The big win is that the cable is reversible, so your days of fruitlessly trying to plug it in the wrong way around are over. Of course, the sour note is that you won't be able to use any microUSB cables you have lying around the place from old phones or tablets.
The reversible nature USB-C is your only benefit for now. Even if it did have the ultra-fast data transfer USB-C will get us one day, the internal storage only of the ZenPad has a write speed of 43MB/s, which isn't too far off what good old USB 2.0 can do anyway. That's not bad, though.
Asus ZenPad S review: Screen
What makes the Asus ZenPad S 8.0 pretty special is its screen. The 8-inch 4:3 shape is just about perfect for an ultra-portable tablet, and its resolution is excellent for the price. The Asus ZenPad S 8.0 display is so much better than things like the Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 8.0, LG G Pad 8.0 and Amazon Fire HD 8 it's almost funny.
The 2K (1536 x 2,048 resolution) panel is the same as that of the iPad Mini 2 and the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2. Sharpness is excellent, killing the similarly-priced 16GB version of the Amazon Fire HD 8. Text and 3G games look particularly sharp, making the whole experience feel that bit higher-end than what you normally get at the price.
Colour quality isn't quite as good as that of the iPad Air 2 or Samsung Galaxy Tab S2, though, but you can at least tweak it to your taste. There's a tool called Asus Splendid that allows you alter the saturation and white balance, plus there's a Bluelight filter mode designed to reduce eyestrain. It's clever stuff.
Asus is a bit heavy-handed with its tweaks, though. For example, when playing video it switches on a "high frame rate" mode as standard, adding-in extra frames and making everything look almost sped-up. A lot of TVs do this too, but it rarely looks any good. You can turn it off, though. Thank goodness.
Asus ZenPad S 8.0 review: Software
In places Asus's handprints on the ZenPad S 8.0 are a bit too clear. The ZenUI software is the most obvious case.
This tablet is jam-packed with preinstalled apps. So much so that the custom user interface (UI, hence that ZenUI namesake) actually uses a dynamic folder system that automatically files away all your apps into smart folders. Ultimately it makes Android harder work than it needs to be unless you're a serious app addict.
You can switch off these folders and use a totally flat apps menu instead, but this reveals the full horror of the bloatware, which can feel like it spans to the horizon on first glance. A lot is comprised of almost-useful little extra tools and productivity apps, but there are a few third-party pre-installs that no-doubt earn Asus a few quid and help to bring the price down to its current impressive level.
Put off? We understand. However, the custom ZenUI also gives you absolutely loads of scope to prune all of this back to nothing. Within five minutes work the Asus ZenPad S 8.0 can be made to look sparser than even than the Nexus 9.
You can uninstall or disable every single bit of app fluff on the ZenPad S (including, apparently, Gmail, which wasn't much help) and it really does feel as though even system apps have been removed once they're disabled. You need to dive right into the Settings menu to bring them back to life.
We also find ZenUI to be a bit worse-looking in general than the default Google Now Android interface. But this too can be tweaked with icon packs, custom font sizes, colours and more.
Dig a little deeper and you'll find the Asus ZenPad S 8.0's version of ZenUI is one of the most customisable manufacturer-made interfaces available. And if you can't be bothered to put the effort in, you can always use the Google Now app for a vanilla Android 6.0 Marshmallow look.
We're tempted to be a bit more forgiving of the Asus ZenPad S 8.0's app bloat when it's in part what makes a £170 QHD tablet possible, not to mention fixable.
Asus ZenPad S review: Performance
Performance is sound and with the latest software running we've not had issues (earlier software rendered the odd screen press unresponsive). It feels reasonably nippy, as a 2GB RAM tablet running on Android 5.0 should do, really.
We were a little concerned that the ZenPad S's brains might not be able to cope with driving Android's highest-end games to the 2K-resolution display at good frame rates. While the rate isn't always perfect when you max out settings in various games, we still think this is a great affordable gaming tablet.
After all, its Intel Z3580 SoC actually uses a similar GPU as the iPad Air: a PowerVR G6430. Riptide 2 at top graphics settings showed a the occasional minor frame-rate dip (even though it appears to render in 1080p maximum), but Modern Combat 5: Blackout, Mortal Kombat and Dead Trigger 2 all run extremely well and look great on the high-res display.
It's a much better performance than some of the lower-end Intel-powered Asus tablets we've used over the last year or so, which tended to have much more serious issues with gaming performance.
The only issue is that as it uses an Intel SoC, you may find that the Asus ZenPad S 8.0 is locked out of using certain visual effects designed specifically for Tegra or Adreno CPUs. Dead Trigger 2 doesn't allow its "ultra" water effects, for example. Checking out a fistful of the higher-end games with customisable graphics settings, almost all seem to switch the tablet onto a low visual setting by default, as if the hardware hasn't been properly recognised. It's always capable of more, so be sure to check Settings in games if you buy a Asus ZenPad S 8.0.
Asus ZenPad S 8.0 review: Cameras and Audio
While the visual side of the Asus ZenPad S 8.0's gaming sets the standard at £170, the audio isn't so hot. The tablet has front-facing stereo speakers but they're very thin-sounding. A year ago you might have shrugged this off as the norm for a thin, affordable tablet, but the Tesco Hudl 2 and Amazon Fire HD 8 sound a lot better. Get your headphones out, in other words.
The Asus ZenPad S 8.0's cameras are fine (an 8-megapixel one on the back and a 5-megapixel one on the front), but again nothing you'll want to use when you have a better option to hand. Your phone, in other words. However, they are still better than we expect from a lower-cost tablet.
The rear camera has an f/2.0 lens and, unusually, its equivalent focal length seems to be slightly greater than 35mm, so it's not hugely wide-angle. Its images tend to be pretty noisy with anything less than good light and the preview image refresh can be sketchy at times, but low shutter lag makes it quite fun to use.
The fixed-focus selfie camera isn't a patch on the best 5-megapixel front cameras on phones, but it does have plenty of modes and a neat shutter mechanism that lets you drag away from the shutter button to instantly set a timed delay.
So camera quality isn't remarkable overall, albeit a step above some of the tablet cameras at the price. However, the camera app does nail the fun potential of both the front and back cameras. The selfie camera has dedicated modes for insta-animated GIFs, slo-mo video, selfie panoramas and time-lapse. The rear camera goes even further, adding depth of field and miniature modes.
The Asus ZenPad S 8.0 is special because it crams a good, super-sharp screen into a very slim and handy body for a great price. Samsung's best at this level is the Samsung Tab 4 8.0, which isn't nearly as good by comparison.
If you have a bit more to spend you can often get a great deal on a Nexus 9 or last-gen Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4. But only because they're quietly being discontinued (at the time of writing). It's actually the £219 iPad Mini 2 that is the most alluring alternative. But how much does the extra £50 mean to you?
The Asus ZenPad S 8.0 piddles all over the hardware some rivals are bringing out at the price. Yes, you need to spend 10 minutes fiddling with the software to get the most out of it, and yes, the speakers are naff. But if £170 is as high as the budget will stretch and you have the patience for some little software tweaks, the ZenPad S 8.0 is a tablet that is very easy to recommend.