First impressions of Asus’ VivoTab RT convertible tablet

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 1366×768 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 1280×800 display has a similar pixel density to the VivoTab RT.

The 1366×768 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.

Comments closed
    • C10 250
    • 7 years ago

    [quote<]Windows hasn't run on ARM-based systems before...[/quote<] I may expose my ignorance here, but I always wonder why Windows CE is never referenced or compared when Windows 8 RT is mentioned.

    • mcnabney
    • 7 years ago

    $599 is inching fairly close to Ultrabook/Ultrathin territory. Remember, this is ARM, with about 5-10% of the performance of these $700-800 notebooks.

    • glynor
    • 7 years ago

    Wake me when there’s some available applications that aren’t crap.

    The Windows Store is quite desolate right now, and I don’t know what is going to motivate developers to throw their existing applications away and start over (when they have to keep developing them anyway for existing customers).

    If these sell well and don’t get returned… Maybe.
    If not…. I suspect the Modern UI may end up being a lot like Vista Sidebar Widgets.

    • BabelHuber
    • 7 years ago

    According to Microsoft Germany, you must not use the RT’s Office to create documents for professional usage. If you want to do this, you have to pay extra. So the Office-version on RT is like a Student’s edition for regular Windows-versions.

    This is outstanding, really! MS even manages to kill its singular strong point.

    Apart from this, I’d take a TF700 or even a TF300 instead of this junk:

    – No sideloading of Apps
    – No admin user
    – Locked bootloader
    – Desktop available, but no Apps except the pre-installed ones

    This really is a bad joke. I don’t understand why anybody should buy this.

    If you want to have a rela Windows, buy an x86-tablet. If you don’t need Windows, buy an iPad or Android-device.

    • hoboGeek
    • 7 years ago

    “…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. ”

    Well, turn the device 180 degrees, you should be able to have the windows symbol on the right side.
    Problem solved…

    Next please!

    • moog
    • 7 years ago

    [url=http://www.networkworld.com/community/node/81626<]Something[/url<] interesting: Microsoft is on record as saying that Windows Phone 7.x apps will run on Windows Phone 8 without requiring a recompile. Also, Windows 7.x apps are written to adjust their screen size, so they aren't locked to one resolution. Have you ever run an iPhone app on the iPad and saw a small, 3.5" app in the center of that 9.7" panel? That won't happen on Windows 8 tablets. Once you port to Windows 8, that's where the fun begins. A developer told me that since migrating his WP7 code to Windows 8, he now has one code base, and Visual Studio 2012 generates a separate app for Windows Phone 8, Windows RT and Windows 8-x86. He also said the migration from 7 to 8 was trivial. From my own experience I can vouch for the single code base and graphics scaling to any size (as long as you use XAML assets, these are vector based so they can scale without pixellation).

      • sweatshopking
      • 7 years ago

      yeah, it’s looking like a pretty bright future for programmers. one os and three screens….

      • MadManOriginal
      • 7 years ago

      Developers? Developers! Developers.

      • indeego
      • 7 years ago

      So…what? Ultimately $$$ drives developers, not ease of programming on a platform. Not technology to scale their programs between versions. They will follow the ecosystem where they find code/$/time works best for them.

    • kamikaziechameleon
    • 7 years ago

    IMHO this type of device (keyboard dock tablet) is best suited for a X86 tablet that way you get the best of both worlds in a more meaningful way.

    • brucethemoose
    • 7 years ago

    [url<]http://www.amazon.com/Acer-Aspire-TimelineX-AS1830T-68U118-11-6-Inch/dp/B0042X8W0Q/ref=sr_1_18?s=pc&ie=UTF8&qid=1351045871&sr=1-18[/url<] [url<]http://www.walmart.com/ip/20564284?adid=22222222227015261361&wmlspartner=wlpa&wl0=&wl1=g&wl2=&wl3=17434399030&wl4=&wl5=pla&veh=sem[/url<] [url<]http://www.amazon.com/K53E-DH51-15-6-Inch-Versatile-Entertainment-Laptop/dp/B005PAJVDC/ref=sr_1_2?s=electronics&ie=UTF8&qid=1351045919&sr=1-2&keywords=gt+540m[/url<] [url<]http://www.amazon.com/MSI-X460DX-008US-1366x768-i3-2310M-SuperMilti/dp/B005F3I784/ref=sr_1_5?s=electronics&ie=UTF8&qid=1351045919&sr=1-5&keywords=gt+540m[/url<] [url<]http://www.amazon.com/Toshiba-Satellite-L745D-S4230-14-0-Inch-Aluminum/dp/B0054QJ2XQ/ref=sr_1_1?s=pc&ie=UTF8&qid=1351045998&sr=1-1[/url<] Now tell me... why would I pick this tablet over any of these fine laptops for slightly more/slightly less $$. Let's take the first example... same price, over 10x the storage, vastly more processing power, a similar size, and it has a full blown version of x86 windows. Is a touchscreen/longer battery life with the dock worth it? I feel like this tablet craze is brainwashing us.

      • Voldenuit
      • 7 years ago

      ASUS’ own Vivotab Smart has a Clover Trail x86 processor and full x86 Windows, and is $100 cheaper than the VivoTab RT. I do agree that the tablet craze is leaving a lot of tech geeks scratching their heads while others are wholeheartedly embracing the new paradigm. I’m just not sure which camp I fall into myself yet.

        • mcnabney
        • 7 years ago

        Still Atom – do Pentium M speeds still thrill you?

      • indeego
      • 7 years ago

      This is how I always have, and always will feel about tablets. Too much compromise in too many areas just for ease of portability+battery. I also can type about 30x faster on a keyboard, and get real work done. I guess get off my lawn?

      • glynor
      • 7 years ago

      Let me preface this by saying that I do not want one of these, or any Windows RT tablet.

      However…

      The point you’re not considering is that tablets in general are not designed to be laptop replacements. In my case, for example, I [i<]already have[/i<] a very nice laptop that I'm happy with. If I'm shopping for a tablet, I'm not looking for a laptop. So... [quote<]Is a touchscreen/longer battery life with the dock worth it?[/quote<] Sometimes, yes. Now, if I was choosing it as my only portable computing device? Then, obviously, no. But I'm not. Like I said, I already have a nice laptop. It comes down to this: I use my tablet [i<]more[/i<] in many more situations where I would have ever bothered to bring a laptop. I'm not going to go into the whole list, because you know what they are, but in actual use, I bring the tablet and use it. I had a laptop for eons (and tried netbooks and ultraportables) and I didn't bring or use them in many of those same situations. Plus, having the "ultraportable" tablet, allows me to get a larger, more powerful laptop without worrying so much about the compromises needed to get long battery life and good portability. If you've tried one yourself, and you don't have uses for it... That's fine! Great. Maybe you spend most of your day in places or situations where a laptop works well. Lots of people do not. The world is full of choices, and that's a good thing. EDIT: Fixed a typo. Preview button would be awesome.

        • glynor
        • 7 years ago

        I should add…

        I think that this is the fundamental flaw in Microsoft’s new strategy as well. Tablets are not “smaller laptops with no keyboard”. They’re used for different things in different places and for different reasons. I have absolutely no desire to replace my laptop with a tablet.

    • Chrispy_
    • 7 years ago

    [b<]Pricing:[/b<] I thought the Surface represented the [b<]upper end[/b<] of the spectrum, with state-of-the-art manufacturing and design processes, incredible build quality, and money-no-object materials used. Surely this part-plastic, transformer-prime adaptation should cost less than the Surface, not the same. Don't get me wrong, the VivoTab RT looks decent enough, but compared to the SurfaceRT it's a (very) poor cousin that looks and almost certainly feels cheaper and nastier. Where are the $300 RT tablets that Balmer said represented the beginning of the sweet spot, especially with Google and Amazon having had overwhelming success at the $200 mark?

      • MadManOriginal
      • 7 years ago

      It’s the same price for the tablet itself as Asus’ other high-end tablets. Any $300 WinRT tablets will not be ‘high-end’ but they’ll come…just be patient. Jeez, Win8 hasn’t even officially launched yet!

      • Arag0n
      • 7 years ago

      For 500$ both, I would take the Surface hands down. But at some countries Surface won’t be available.

      • dashbarron
      • 7 years ago

      Really? I don’t think it’s a bad comparison to the Surface. For more/less the same price, you get a keyboard which provides several hours of extra battery plus greater connectivity, by a company who already has the design perfected.

      But I will agree that we should be seeing cheap $300 RT tablets…and have been disapointed thus far.

        • Chrispy_
        • 7 years ago

        It’s not that bad, but plastic-shell-over-creaky-subframe means that it’s heavier, thicker, less robust and less [i<]premium-feeling[/i<] than a slab of precision-machined metal like the Surface or anything coming from Apple. It [b<]IS[/b<] cheaper to make and design, it [b<]LOOKS and FEELS[/b<] cheaper and the price ought to reflect that. Based on the bill of materials, Asus is still making profit off the $199 a Nexus 7. This therefore looks, moves and smells like a $349 tablet with an optional $149 docking station, at best.

          • cygnus1
          • 7 years ago

          absolutely agreed. Now, I know MS gets a cost advantage since they’re not paying for the OS, but I still think Asus is over charging by a fair amount for what you get.

            • cygnus1
            • 7 years ago

            and I know MS does actually pay for the OS, but it’s still not major line item on component cost like it is for the OEMs

    • NeelyCam
    • 7 years ago

    So uninterested… I would suggest everyone FIRST go to see what’s happening in iPad land, and then maybe come back to see this article on a Windows Cripple tablet

      • theonespork
      • 7 years ago

      Ugh…fanboys and their delicate toys…

      My wife has been using the Transformer Prime since January and completely ditched her laptop. It is the perfect device for the casual internet junkie who does light computing. If Windows RT can further bridge the tablet divide fantastic. Not because I want or need Windows to have a tablet experience, but because the more successful RT becomes the better I can expect the Android tablet experience to become.

      It is funny, this overwhelming obsession with comparing IOS and Android tit for tat and completely excluding the old OS’s, Windows and OS X (yeah, yeah, even Linux), when they still have much to teach these young upstarts before they are retired. We are generations from convergence and until then products like RT and their accompanying tablets are important bridges that must be crossed.

      • Chrispy_
      • 7 years ago

      iPad land seems to be mostly digging up the old aspect-ratio issue that we put to rest years ago in Microsoft land. 16:9 or 16:10 is good, because for media-consumption devices, that is the best match to media.

      Of course documents and webpages look better in 4:3 but this is an old battle that has already been won and closed. The point of a smaller tablet was so that you could pocket it. Apples 8-inch is nowhere near as pocketable as Google’s 7-inch, so AFAIK Apple saw something popular, misunderstood exactly [i<][b<]WHY[/b<][/i<] it was so popular, and then failed to copy it properly. We need not mention that Apple are pricing the 32GB mini at [i<]$230 more[/i<] than the $199 Nexus 7, due to be at 32GB by the time the mini ships.

      • Sam125
      • 7 years ago

      Windows 8 on a tablet seems pretty compelling, TBQH. I mean, it’s obvious MS is focusing on tablets with 8 somewhat to the detriment of laptops and desktops but watching a few videos on tablet 8s in action looks kind of well, [b<]good[/b<].

        • glynor
        • 7 years ago

        To be clear…

        Windows RT is NOT Windows 8.

      • grantmeaname
      • 7 years ago

      You were interested enough to show up here and complain.

      • sweatshopking
      • 7 years ago

      oh neely. people still don’t know you’re a troll….

        • NeelyCam
        • 7 years ago

        And !! I got the wurst post.

      • eitje
      • 7 years ago

      gg on firsting.

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