First impressions of Asus' VivoTab RT convertible tablet

The Transformer takes on Windows RT

Windows 8 doesn't debut until the 26th, but we can give you our first real taste today. Asus' VivoTab RT arrived at the Benchmarking Sweatshop on Friday, giving me the weekend to play with one of the first ARM-based Windows devices. This system is new ground for Microsoft on several fronts. Windows hasn't run on ARM-based systems before, and the RT version of the OS comes with restrictions that extend beyond its lack of x86 compatibility. Also, until now, Microsoft has been absent from the growing market for consumer-focused tablets.

While the VivoTab RT represents a brave new world for Microsoft, it's sort of old hat for Asus. The PC manufacturing giant created the blueprint for detachable notebook/tablet hybrids with the original Android-powered Transformer, and it has refined the design over multiple generations since.

Indeed, Asus continues to refine the VivoTab RT. And Microsoft is doing the same with Windows RT. Asus has told us to expect firmware and software updates right up until October 26th, so the VivoTab that's been following me around for a few days may not be completely representative of the eventual end-user experience. I applied a collection of updates just last night, in fact.

We're going to hold off on our usual in-depth review until we can be sure we're testing the final product. In the meantime, I thought I'd give you some thoughts based on using the VivoTab for a few days.

First, the basics: the VivoTab RT is 10.1" device with a Tegra 3 processor, 2GB of RAM, and either 32 or 64GB of flash storage. It has everything you'd expect from a modern tablet, including dual cameras and multiple wireless connectivity options. A 4G version is coming to AT&T in the "near future."

The VivoTab RT is a hybrid tablet, otherwise known as a convertible. The basic idea behind this class of device is to combine the appeal of a touchscreen tablet with the practicality of a notebook's keyboard and touchpad. Some convertibles resemble contortionist notebooks, with screens that flip, twist, or bend over backwards to simulate a slate-style tablet. Other hybrids, like the VivoTab RT and the Transformer line on which it's based, combine traditional tablets with separate keyboard docks. With these devices, the tablet can be used on its own or locked into the dock to form a notebook-like clamshell.

Our system comes from the first shipment of retail units for North America, so the hardware is final. It's pretty slick, too. The chassis mixes brushed aluminum with ribbed and matte plastics to create an understated aesthetic that feels original. While the hybrid's tablet component doesn't have the same angular lines as its keyboard sidekick, the two make an attractive pair. Neither is prone to picking up fingerprints and smudges. The screen's glossy coating isn't so forgiving, an issue that afflicts every other tablet we've seen.

An exotic "nano molding" process that bonds the VivoTab's plastic and aluminum pieces is credited for enabling the tablet's thin profile and light weight. The tablet is just 8.3 mm thick and weighs only 1.15lbs. I noticed the weight—or lack thereof—immediately upon picking up the thing. The keyboard dock has about the same weight as the tablet, so the complete clamshell is easily portable.

Skimping on battery capacity wasn't a part of the diet for the VivoTab. The tablet's 25Wh battery is good for nine hours of run time, according to Asus, and the auxiliary 22Wh cell in the dock adds seven hours of juice. The dock also contributes a second USB port. There's a port on the tablet, too, although it requires an adapter that's about the size of a small thumb drive. That adapter comes in the box, at no extra charge.

A full-sized SD slot is conspicuously missing from the dock, but a microSD slot can be found on the tablet. There, it's joined by a Micro HDMI video out, a combo audio jack, and surprisingly decent speakers. Four speakers sit inside the VivoTab RT, two per side, and the sound quality is much better than I expected. This may be the best-sounding tablet around.

This is not, however, the best tablet display. The VivoTab RT's 10.1" panel has the same 1366x768 resolution that has taken over the notebook industry. The resulting pixel density is much lower than that of the iPad 3, the Transformer Pad Infinity, and even the Nexus 7. I expected text to be jagged and blocky as a result, but that's not really the case. Microsoft's ClearType subpixel font rendering does a good job of producing crisp text despite the limited pixel count. The results aren't perfect, but they're a definite improvement over the original Transformer, whose 1280x800 display has a similar pixel density to the VivoTab RT.

The 1366x768 resolution's 16:9 aspect ratio feels notably skinnier in portrait mode than the 16:10 Android tablets I have floating around the house. More annoying is the touch-sensitive home button on the bezel, which I can't seem to avoid hitting when using the tablet in portrait mode. Asus says it may be able to disable the button or insert some kind of time delay, but Microsoft's permission seems to be required.

Like recent Asus tablets, the VivoTab RT has a SuperIPS+ display with an ultra-bright backlight designed to improve outdoor visibility. You could probably blind yourself with the thing indoors. Asus has also brought over the TrueVivid screen tech used in the Nexus 7. The screen's cover glass is bonded to the touch sensors, and that combo is glued to the LCD module to create a single piece. The end result is a thinner screen that, Asus claims, allows 15% more light to pass through. We'll have to see what our colorimeter says about the color reproduction, but at first glance, it appears to be good.

The tablet attaches to the keyboard dock with a new, low-profile latching mechanism that seems to have somewhat more play than previous Transformer products. Docking the tablet is smoother, though, and the two parts can be separated using only one hand. The VivoTab also seems less prone to tipping over backward than earlier Asus hybrids patterned on the same basic design.

Typing on the dock's chiclet keyboard feels excellent. There's some visible flex if you stab one of the middle keys with enough force, but keystrokes don't feel mushy or vague. The tactile feedback is precise, and there's loads of key travel. No layout quirks, either. In addition to a proper delete key, the keyboard serves up a full function row. My only complaint is that the keys are a little on the short side—about 1.5 mm shorter than the ones on the Transformer Pad Infinity, according to my ruler. The keyboard feels more cramped as a result, even if the individual keystrokes aren't as satisfying.

A clicky touchpad sits below the keyboard, providing a precise mouse cursor for Windows RT's desktop environment. Tracking is reasonably smooth, but the two-finger scrolling direction is inverted, emulating scrolling on the touchscreen. Ugh. At least the touchpad seems to do a decent job of ignoring inadvertent contact while typing.

I don't want to comment too much on Windows RT because it's evidently a work in progress. For example, last night's OS update fixed a rather annoying problem with the Photos app that prevented zoomed-in images from displaying at higher detail. I will say that navigating the UI feels very smooth. Metro's tiles scroll effortlessly, and the included apps all feel responsive... once they're loaded. If an app hasn't been run in a while, launching it can take a few seconds—longer than I'm used to waiting with newer Android-based devices. That said, switching between recent applications is pretty much instantaneous. The task switching and other gestures feel natural, too.

We'll reserve judgment on Microsoft's new OS and the VivoTab RT until we can spend more time with the final cut. My early impressions are largely positive, though. The detachable clamshell design popularized by Asus' Transformer tablets has always seemed like a natural fit for Windows hybrids, and the VivoTab RT should be among the most affordable offerings on the market. Just yesterday, we learned Asus will be bundling the 32GB version with the keyboard dock for $599. The dock was initially set to be sold separately for $199, so the bundle represents a substantial discount. When we publish our full review, we'll be able to give you a better sense of whether that clamshell combo is a good value.TR

Tags: Mobile computing

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