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Dock and load
The VivoTab RT's keyboard dock is arguably its defining feature. Unlike the keyboard accessories sold for standalone tablets like the iPad, this one is fully integrated into the design. Connecting the tablet to the dock creates a system that very much feels like a proper notebook. You can prop it up on your lap with ease, and when snapped shut, the clamshell does a good job of protecting the screen.

The dock's real purpose isn't to protect the screen, but to provide a proper keyboard and touchpad. Those components address the single biggest limiting factor associated with modern tablets: their imprecise touchscreen input. Tapping, swiping, and other gestures work great for general navigation. In fact, those inputs can feel more engaging than a traditional keyboard and mouse. However, the on-screen keyboards are lousy if you have to input more than a sentence or two. Capacitive touchscreens also lack pinpoint precision, which can be frustrating for everything from document editing to photo tweaking.

Asus' Transformer keyboards have traditionally been pretty good, and at first glance, the VivoTab RT's appears to be even better. The first thing I noticed was the layout, which looks like it's been ripped straight from a Windows notebook.

All the important keys are there, including a full function row, inverted-T arrow keys, plus proper backslash, delete, and right shift keys. The F-keys are loaded with secondary functions to control the screen's brightness, adjust the audio volume, and disable the touchpad. There's even a shortcut for airplane mode, although you won't find discrete toggles for the built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

The keys are recessed into the dock and flanked by little nubs on the frame, maintaining a gap between the key caps and the screen when the lid closed. That provision might seem like a minor thing, but I've used plenty of notebooks that transfer oily finger residue from the keyboard to the display.

  Total keyboard area Alpha keys
  Width Height Area Width Height Rough area
Size 250 mm 82 mm 20,500 mm² 154 mm 42 mm 6,468 mm²
Versus full size 87% 75% 65% 90% 74% 66%

Obviously, you can only squeeze a keyboard so large into a 10" system. Asus made the VivoTab RT's keyboard about as wide as it can be, leaving more than enough room for my XL-size hands to hover comfortably. However, the keyboard is notably shorter than not only our full-sized reference, but also the keyboard paired with the Transformer Pad Infinity. The problem isn't so much the total height of the keyboard as it is the squished nature of the individual keys. On the Infinity, each alpha key measures 14 mm wide and 13 mm tall, nearly square. The keys on the VivoTab are more rectangular, at 14 x 11 mm, and the gaps between them remain the same.

Those two millimeters make a big difference for my stubby, sausage-like digits. When typing at speed, I'm more prone to producing typos on the VivoTab RT than I am on the Infinity. I've managed to adjust by curling my fingers slightly to generate more vertical keystrokes. Even after a week with the VivoTab, though, there's still an acclimation period when I start typing on the thing.

The shorter key caps are infuriating because, scrunching aside, the keyboard feels amazing. In defiance of the minor amount of flex visible in the center of the board, every keystroke bottoms out with a solid, satisfying thunk. There's quite a lot of travel given the slimness of the chassis, and the tactile feedback is excellent. On key action alone, this is one of the best mobile keyboards I've used in the past few years.

I could forgive Asus for shrinking the keyboard if it used the extra space for a larger touchpad, but that hasn't happened here. The VivoTab RT's touchpad measures 3" x 1.6" (76 x 42 mm), down from 3.1" x 1.9" (79 x 49 mm) on the Infinity.

The touchpad's tracking surface is smooth, and the integrated buttons depress with a nice, audible click. Unfortunately, the touchpad has on several occasions registered phantom clicks when I've had my fingers tracking across the surface. Another problem is the two-fingered scrolling, which is inverted, emulating the touchscreen gesture rather than normal touchpad behavior. If this inversion is the default for the OS, there should be a way to reverse the scrolling direction. Incidentally, OS X has gone the inverted route, too, but even Apple lets users choose their own scrolling direction.

The VivoTab RT seems to do a better job of ignoring inadvertent touchpad contact than the Android-based Transformers, but there's certainly room for improvement. On several occasions while typing, incidental contact has sent the cursor careening across the screen. The solution seems pretty obvious to me: expose a user-adjustable variable that defines the amount of time the system ignores touchpad contact after a successful keystroke.