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Asus' VivoTab RT convertible tablet reviewed

The Transformer's first appointment with destiny

Convertible tablets have been around in one form or another for years. In the past, most relied on resistive touchscreens limited to stylus input. Those machines were a little on the portly side, with fancy hinges that allowed the screen to twist and then fold flat onto the keyboard. Fancy hinges aren't cheap, and as one might expect, those initial convertibles cost a fair amount more than comparable notebooks.

Then along came Asus' Eee Pad Transformer. This system swapped the contortionist hinges of old in favor of a docking station that allowed the tablet and keyboard components to be separated completely. It ditched the resistive touchscreen for a finger-friendly capacitive model and traded the x86 PC internals for ARM-based hardware like the iPad's. Best of all, the asking price was no higher than the cost of an iPad plus one of those keyboard accessories most folks seem to have in tow.

The original Transformer wasn't a convertible tablet in the strictest sense—it ran Google's Android OS, after all—but it did blow up the traditional formula. Now, after refining the concept over several generations, Asus has released its first model running Windows. The 10.1" VivoTab RT lacks the Transformer name but stays true to the formula, with a detachable keyboard dock and ARM hardware under the hood. It's more affordable than expected, too. The tablet starts at $599, and the dock costs an additional $199. Until December 31, though, Asus is offering a free dock to folks who buy the tablet.

Windows 8 and its ARM-based RT cousin seem perfectly suited to convertible tablets, just like the Transformer design is ideally suited to living a double life as both tablet and notebook. Now that hardware and software have collided in the VivoTab RT, it's time to see what this next-generation convertible tablet can do.

Introducing the VivoTab RT
For years, journalists and critics have lambasted PC makers for lazily aping Apple's industrial designs. They've had a point, for the most part, but the times they are a changin'. The VivoTab RT may be a rectangular device with rounded corners, even one that uses brushed aluminum panels, but it has an aesthetic flair all Asus' own. First, there's the color, a subdued shade of grey with hints of the amethyst tones used in the Transformer Prime and the Transformer Pad Infinity. The VivoTab RT is actually a two-tone affair. Some elements, like the bottom panel and the stripe along the lid, are a darker grey devoid of purple influence.

Asus used a mix of materials for the VivoTab RT's exterior, too. The tablet's shell is brushed aluminum, but the stripe running along the back is ribbed plastic. That stripe is more function than form, by the way; plastic doesn't interfere with wireless signals as much as metal. You might recall that the Transformer Prime had GPS and Wi-Fi reception issues due to its all-metal back.

Plastics can be found elsewhere on the VivoTab's body. Apart from the display, though, none of the surfaces employ glossy coatings. Matte and brushed finishes abound, helping to keep the exterior free of unsightly smudges. Flecks of dust can get caught up in the ribbed portion of the lid, but it's much easier to brush them off than it is to buff out a fingerprint.

Aluminum and plastic are staples of modern devices, but Asus combines them in a unique way. The VivoTab RT's chassis employs so-called nano molding technology, a process that Asus says "causes the plastic to 'grow' into the surface of the aluminum like a tree root grows into the earth." The firm claims bonding plastic to aluminum in this manner allows for thinner, lighter aluminum panels. Asus also tells us the process helps to integrate mounting brackets for internal hardware, resulting in further weight savings.

Nano molding apparently works, because the VivoTab RT is very thin and very light. The tablet portion measures just 0.33" (8.3 mm) thick and weighs a scant 1.15 lbs (520 g). That's thinner and lighter than the Transformer Pad Infinity, Asus' premium Android tablet, which is 0.33" (8.5 mm) thick and weighs 1.32 lbs (598 g). For reference, the iPad 3 measures 0.37" (9.4 mm) in thickness and tips the scales at 1.44 lbs (652 g).

Snapping the VivoTab RT into its keyboard sidekick roughly doubles the weight and expands the system's girth by 0.41" (10.4 mm). Add the little rubber feet affixed to the bottom of the dock, and the system gets thicker still. However, the complete package remains easily portable. All in all, you're looking at hefting 2.3 lbs, or just over one kilogram.

The difference in weight between the VivoTab RT and Asus' other convertibles is immediately apparent. Those older devices aren't exactly a chore to carry around, but folks will surely appreciate the VivoTab's lighter weight when holding the tablet in one hand for prolonged periods. Asus hasn't sacrificed structural rigidity in the name of shaving grams, either. The VivoTab RT's chassis feels solid, with no undue flex.

There is a little bit of screen wobble, though. When seated in the dock, the screen can be tilted back and forth a few degrees without actually rotating the hinge. Excessive play in the docking mechanism is to blame, and it's something we've experienced with Asus' previous convertibles. Fortunately, the latching mechanism holds the tablet securely in the dock until you flip the little slider on the left edge of the screen.

Asus tweaked the docking mechanism on the VivoTab RT to allow the tablet to be removed with one hand. The hinge is new, as well, and it has a lower profile, hiding behind the dock when the screen is tilted back. I never really cared about seeing the hinge on the old Transformers, but the new design does seem to be less prone to tipping over backward than its predecessors. The hinge probably deserves some of the credit for the improved stability, although I suspect the tablet's lighter weight is primarily responsible. The tablet components of Asus' Transformer convertibles have typically been heavier than their associated keyboard docks, but the VivoTab RT's pieces are about the same weight.