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.
A closer look at the display
The display is one of the most important parts of any computing device—tablet, convertible, or otherwise. You really can’t avoid looking at the thing. On the VivoTab RT, Asus is using the TrueVivid screen technology that first appeared in the Nexus 7 tablet it manufactures for Google. The key here is consolidation. Touchscreens typically stack multiple individual layers on top of the LCD panel. The VivoTab RT combines those layers, reducing both the weight and thickness of the screen.
The VivoTab’s touch sensors are attached directly to the screen’s top layer of scratch-resistant Corning Fit glass. That piece is then bonded to the LCD panel using a clear adhesive, eliminating the air gap that typically sits between the glass and the LCD. The end result is a single component measuring just one millimeter thick, more than 50% thinner than designs that rely on separate layers. This bonded screen purportedly allows more light to pass through it, as well. Asus claims the screen’s transparency is 94%, compared to as little as 82% with lesser designs.
In addition to letting more photons pass through the screen, the VivoTab RT fires more of ’em at the display. The screen is a SuperIPS+ type, which means it has a turbo-charged backlight designed to improve readability in outdoor light. Asus says the backlight delivers a maximum of 600 cd/m²—that’s candelas per square meter, the standard measure of luminance otherwise known as a nit. Our colorimeter registered only 525 nits with the VivoTab’s screen cranked all the way up, but that’s still much higher than typical tablet and notebook displays.
The screen is easily bright enough for indoor use, and it fares pretty well outdoors, at least under the overcast skies that will blanket the Pacific Northwest for the next six months or so. I’ll let you know about visibility in direct sunlight some time in April or May. Having used a couple of different SuperIPS+ tablets over the summer, I can say that extra backlight brightness makes glossy tablet displays much easier to read on a sunny day. Reflections still persist, and the picture is far from perfect, but brighter backlighting is a definite improvement.
Brightness isn’t the only measure of display goodness, of course. PPI, or pixels per diagonal inch, has quickly become one of the most quoted metrics used when describing a screen. The VivoTab has a 10.1″ panel with a 1366×768 display resolution, which works out to a relatively pedestrian 155 PPI. That pixel density is quite a bit lower than the 224 PPI of the Transformer Pad Infinity, which offers a 1920×1200 display resolution on panel of the same size. The iPad 3’s Retina panel delivers an even higher 264 PPI.
Obviously, higher pixel densities are better. Having more dots on the display enables sharper images and crisper text. How those pixels are used is important, though. Windows RT features a ClearType HD subpixel font rendering scheme that makes text on the VivoTab look surprisingly good when the tablet is held at arm’s reach. Let’s take a closer look to see what’s going on.
The images below show browser output on the VivoTab RT, the Transformer Pad Infinity, and the original Transformer (which has a 10.1″, 1280×800 display with 149 PPI). Each tablet was configured in portrait mode, with Internet Explorer on the VivoTab and Chrome on the Transformers zoomed in to show only the main text column from Scott’s article on Nvidia’s “Big Kepler” GPU. The camera lens was placed exactly 5″ from the surfaces of the screens, and all the images were cropped and resized in the same way. Click on the buttons below the images to see the results for the various tablets.
The fact that Internet Explorer uses a different font than Chrome makes our comparison less than perfect, but the differences are easy to see. The VivoTab RT’s pixels are about the same size as the ones on the old Transformer. However, the VivoTab’s text has more shading around the edges of each letter. This subpixel antialiasing creates a slightly blurred effect that does an admirable job of cutting down on the number of visible jagged edges compared to the Transformer’s output, which looks blockier to my eyes.
If you bring up the images for the Transformer Pad Infinity, it’s evident that ClearType isn’t enough to make up for the VivoTab RT’s low display density. The Infinity’s text output looks much cleaner up close and from afar. Just as hot rod aficionados maintain that there is no replacement for displacement, it’s clear there’s no substitution for resolution.
We don’t have a picture of this particular portion of text rendered on the iPad 3, but that tablet has even better text quality than the Transformer Pad Infinity. You can see how the two compare on this page of our Infinity review.
Now that we’ve seen the size of the pixels, let’s talk about the size of the screen. The VivoTab RT’s display has the same 10.1″ diagonal measurement as the Transformer Pad Infinity. However, the VivoTab’s 16:9 aspect ratio is less square than the Infinity’s 16:10. The resulting difference in total screen area amounts to a couple square inches: 43.6 on the VivoTab versus 45.8 on the Infinity. The iPad 3’s 9.7″, 4:3 panel has a total area of 45.2 square inches. The Microsoft Surface RT’s screen is even larger, with the same 16:9 aspect ratio and resolution as the VivoTab RT on a 10.6″ display with a total area of 48 square inches.
Next, we’ll consider the VivoTab RT’s color reproduction using our colorimeter. We tested the display using the same ~120 cd/m² brightness setting as a number of other tablets, including the iPad 3, the Transformer Pad Infinity, and the Transformer Pad 300 (whose 1280×800 display is similar to that of the old Transformer). We’ll start by looking at the display’s color gamut, which you can compare to the other tablets by clicking the buttons below the image.
The triangle outlined in white represents the range of colors covered by the panel. As the gamut plot makes clear, the VivoTab RT is working with a more limited palette than the iPad 3. The panel’s color gamut is more comparable to Asus’ other tablets, which have similar skewing toward blue and purple tones.
If a screen’s output is too biased, colors can look a little off, and whites can exhibit a tinge of something else. We can get a sense of the display’s color bias by plotting its color temperature, which we’ve done below. Again, click the buttons to bring up the plots for each tablet.
Ideally, a display’s color temperature should be 6500K, which matches natural daylight. The VivoTab RT produces cooler tones overall, particularly as the gray level ramps up. All of the other tablets come much close to the 6500K ideal.
The screen’s cooler color temperature makes whites look slightly bluish, an artifact I didn’t really notice when using the VivoTab on its own. There’s also a lot of blue in Windows RT’s touch-friendly UI and even in the traditional desktop environment, which probably helps the cooler color temperature blend in.
That said, the cooler tint is readily apparent when the VivoTab is viewed side-by-side with the Transformer Pad Infinity, which has a more neutral color temperature. When you look at the two screens next to each other, there’s no denying which one is superior. The VivoTab RT’s screen is good, with vibrant colors and clear text. However, the Infinity’s display imparts a sharpness to both images and text, and the difference is easily detectable at normal viewing distances.
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|
|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.
A tablet with built-in accessories
The VivoTab RT comes with a camera connection kit and a digital AV adapter, accessories that are sold separately with the iPad 3. Just kidding, sort of. The VivoTab provides similar functionality via built-in ports and slots. With the iPad, you have to cough up $70 at the Apple store to get external adapters.
Digital A/V output is handled by a Micro HDMI port located on the left edge of the tablet. The port hides behind a little plastic cover that’s probably going to fall off and get lost if it’s used enough. Then again, if you’re using the port on a regular basis, you probably won’t want to have to mess with the cover every time.
A microSD slot is tucked next to the HDMI out, making it easy to bolster the tablet’s storage capacity with a memory card. The slot supports the SDXC standard, and the compatible cards I see selling online offer 32 and 64GB of storage for less than a dollar per gig. Considering how much tablet makers charge for more built-in flash, it’s nice to have the microSD option.
Still, I wish the keyboard dock followed up with a full-sized SD slot. Most digital cameras use larger SD cards, and previous Transformer tablets have provided compatible slots in their keyboard docks.
I’d be more peeved about the lack of SD connectivity if Asus didn’t add a little something extra to make up for it. Transformer tablets have long offered USB connectivity in their keyboard docks, and so does the VivoTab RT. This time around, though, the tablet half of the convertible equation has a USB port all its own.
Unlike the Microsoft Surface, which has a full-sized USB port built right into the edge of the chassis, the VivoTab relies on an adapter that plugs into the tablet’s docking connector. The port is only accessible when the tablet is separated from the dock, so it’s not a second port so much as it is a transferable one. I’ll take it, though, especially since the required adapter is included in the box.
The VivoTab’s USB connectivity is limited to 2.0 speeds, but it’s not restricted to storage devices. USB keyboards, mice, and game controllers are supported. Whether other USB devices work with the system will depend largely on the availability of drivers for Windows RT.
If you’re using the VivoTab RT in notebook mode, the USB port will be on the right side of the dock. The right edge of the tablet hosts the volume rocker and a combo jack for headphone output and microphone input. The VivoTab has an internal mic and speakers, as well.
The mic is situated on the right side of the top edge. The speakers can be found along the left and right sides of the back panel, and they sound surprisingly good. There are four speakers in total, two per side, and the associated chambers have been enlarged by 60% versus the Transformer Pad Infinity, which has speakers on the right side only. The VivoTab RT definitely sounds better, but you’ll want to plug it into better speakers or headphones for serious listening.
When I took the picture above, I was all set to gripe about the fact that the VivoTab doesn’t have a removable panel that provides access to the memory and solid-state drive. Except those are in the tablet, not the dock. The dock contains only a keyboard, touchpad, USB port, and auxiliary battery. The secondary power source is rated for 22Whr, and it charges the tablet’s 25Whr cell when the two are attached. Asus claims the VivoTab RT offers nine hours of run time on its own and an additional seven hours with the dock.
Those battery life estimates are roughly in line with what we’ve seen quoted for similar tablets running Google’s Android OS, which should come as no surprise. The VivoTab RT is, after all, based on the same Tegra 3 processor found in numerous Android tablets, including Asus’ own Transformers. However, it doesn’t use the Nvidia SoC in quite the same way.
Nvidia likes to tout the fact that the Tegra 3 has five processor cores, or 4-PLUS-1, because marketing droids like to shout. The cores are all based on the ARM Cortex-A9 architecture and split between a quad-core cluster and a single “companion” core optimized for low power consumption. On Android-based devices, the Tegra 3 shifts between its companion core and the accompanying quad based on system load, never using both at the same time. Windows RT ignores the companion core and instead uses only the Tegra 3’s quad-core cluster. The clock speeds and voltages of those cores can be adjusted individually, and entire cores can be powered down if there’s nothing for them to do.
The particular Tegra 3 variant in the VivoTab RT is the T30, which ramps up to 1.4GHz with single-core loads and 1.3GHz when more than one core is active. Those speeds are a little slower than the T33 version of the chip in the Transformer Pad Infinity, which tops out at 1.6 to 1.7GHz depending on the number of active cores. The T30 is a closer match for the T30L in the Nexus 7, a processor that peaks at 1.2 to 1.3GHz.
|Processor||Nvidia Tegra 3 T30 1.3GHz with GeForce graphics|
|Display||10.1″ SuperIPS+ TFT with 1366×768 resolution|
|Ports||1 analog audio headphone/mic port
1 USB (tablet, via adapter)
1 USB (dock)
|Input devices||10-finger capacitive touchscreen|
|Dimensions||Tablet: 10.4″ x 6.7″ x 0.33″ (263 x 171 x 8.3 mm)
Dock: 10.4″ x 6.7″ x 0.4″ (263 x 171 x 10.2 mm)
|Weight||Tablet: 1.15 lbs (520 g)
Dock: 1.16lbs (524 g)
|Operating system||Windows RT|
Apart from a different take on the Tegra 3, the VivoTab RT is pretty typical of a modern, ARM-based tablet. The SoC features integrated GeForce graphics, like every other Tegra 3 chip, and it’s backed by 2GB of DDR3L memory. That’s a little more memory than we’re used to seeing on Android tablets, but it seems to be the norm for Windows RT convertibles.
On the wireless front, the VivoTab RT comes equipped with 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0. NFC is included if you want to transfer files via
fist device bump, as well.
There are also two cameras: an eight-megapixel shooter at the rear and a two-megapixel unit that faces the user. I can understand the inclusion of a front-facing camera for video conferencing and Skype sessions, but I don’t get the appeal of rear-facing tablet cameras. Have you ever seen someone take a picture with a tablet and not look like a complete idiot? Asus claims the VivoTab RT’s camera is the best in its class, but I’d rather use my smartphone camera. At least that can be operated discretely, with one hand, and without being that guy.
Asus is offering two versions of the VivoTab RT: the 32GB flavor we tested, which sells for $599, and a 64GB model that costs $699. In the near future, a variant with 4G cellular broadband connectivity will be sold through AT&T. We don’t have pricing for that particular model, though.
The VivoTab RT runs Windows RT, which isn’t compatible with traditional x86 desktop applications. The only way to get programs, software, applications, apps, or whatever you want to call them is through the Microsoft Store, which is a little short on performance benchmarks right now. Good luck finding cross-platform tests that work on Android, iOS, and Windows RT.
Lower execution times are better in this test, and the VivoTab RT cleans up. It’s substantially faster than the iPad 3, which is only marginally ahead of the Transformer Pad Infinity. Keep in mind that the VivoTab’s processor is only a little bit faster than the one in the Nexus 7. Windows RT and its version of Internet Explorer deserve most of the credit for the VivoTab’s strong showing here.
Interesting. Higher scores are better here, and the iPad 3 walks away with the win, well ahead of the Android tablets and the VivoTab RT. I’m surprised the Nexus 7 scores higher than the Transformer Pad Infinity, a result that persisted after multiple reboots and test runs. Although both Android tablets are running Jelly Bean, the Nexus 7 has a more recent version of the OS, which may account for the difference.
When considering these results, it’s worth pointing out that the VivoTab RT completed more HTML5 tests than the other tablets. The iPad 3, the Transformer Pad Infinity, and the Nexus 7 finished only one of Peacekeeper’s next-gen HTML tests, while the VivoTab RT completed three.
One other thing we can test easily is the cold boot time of each tablet. We hand-timed the boot process with a stopwatch, starting the clock when we first pressed the power button and stopping it when we arrived at the lock screen or, in the case of the VivoTab RT, the Windows RT Start screen.
The VivoTab RT boots in about half as much time as the Transformer Pad Infinity. That’s not quite fast enough to catch the iPad 3, though.
Odds are you won’t spend much time cold-booting a device like the VivoTab RT. Windows RT tablets are meant to idle in connected standby, a new sleep mode that allows email and other updates to trickle in while the system remains in an ultra-low-power state. Like other tablets, the VivoTab RT wakes up from standby mode instantly.
We test battery life in two scenarios: web browsing and movie playback. Our browser test loads up a version of the TR home page and refreshes it every 45 seconds. New ads are loaded each time, and browser plugins are set to “on demand” to prevent Flash from burning through the battery. Flash isn’t an issue for the iPad 3, which doesn’t support it, or for the VivoTab RT, which allows Flash to run only on approved sites. Apparently, our secret battery testing URL isn’t on the approved list.
Oh, snap. Even without the dock’s auxiliary battery, the VivoTab RT runs for more than 12 hours in our web surfing test, slightly longer than the iPad 3. Add the dock, and the VivoTab pushes past 21 hours.
The Nexus 7 and Transformer Pad Infinity don’t last nearly as long, suggesting that Windows RT does a better job of power management than Android. Perhaps there’s something to ignoring the Tegra 3’s companion core.
Our second battery life test repeats a 51-minute Game of Thrones episode encoded at 720p with H.264. On the Android tablets, we used the DicePlayer app, which works with the video decoding mojo in Tegra SoCs. We used the OPlayer HD app on the iPad and Windows RT’s built-in video player on the VivoTab. This test is run in airplane mode, with Wi-Fi disabled.
The VivoTab has the longest battery life once again, this time lasting a couple hours longer than the iPad 3. Curiously, though, the dock extends the run time by less than 50%, as opposed to 71% in the web surfing test. We’ll have to run these tests again to confirm the results. We have double-checked our data for the first runs in each test, though.
Life with the VivoTab RT
The VivoTab RT has been floating between the Benchmarking Sweatshop and my living room for nearly two weeks now, and I’ve developed a pretty good sense of what the system does well. I’ve also become acutely aware of its limitations.
For me, the biggest surprise has been the performance. I didn’t expect Windows to be so snappy on this class of hardware, but it’s clear Microsoft has done some great optimization work. The interface feels particularly light and responsive, with smooth animations that hiccup only when rapidly flipping through multiple applications. To give you a sense of things, I’ve recorded some UI elements on a high-speed camera at 240 frames per second:
The transitions are fast, and rare animation stutters don’t seem to slow things down. I’m especially pleased with how quickly one can switch between active applications. There’s a certain fluidity to the multitasking that’s lacking in Android, in part because app switching can be performed with a single, simple swipe.
Multitasking is further aided by Windows RT’s split-screen functionality, which allows a pair of apps to share the same screen. I thought this feature looked gimmicky when I saw it advertised, but it’s surprisingly useful in the real world, particularly when combining social networking or instant messaging with web browsing or productivity apps. The split-screen mode is also a good way exploit the display’s wide 16:9 aspect ratio. Like the multitasking, dragging apps in and out of split-screen mode is very smooth.
Although applications respond instantly if they’ve been running in the background, some of them take an excruciatingly long time to launch for the first time. You’ll be staring at the Mail and Weather icons for about seven seconds the first time those apps load. Internet Explorer takes only a couple of seconds, though, and the desktop environment comes up almost instantly.
Once IE is loaded, web browsing is speedy on the VivoTab RT. Internet Explorer renders pages noticeably faster than Chrome does on Android tablets with similar hardware. The iPad 3 has always been the king of tablet browsing, and my sense is the VivoTab comes closer to that experience than it does to browsing on Android. I haven’t had a chance to test the iPad 3 side-by-side with the VivoTab RT just yet.
Internet Explorer replicates at least one feature found in the iPad’s Safari browser. When you tap to zoom in on a web page, the browser makes the text column fill the screen. Chrome on Android isn’t that smart; it enlarges the page by a preset percentage instead of homing in on the content you might want to read. That feature, combined with IE’s faster rendering times, makes me prefer browsing on the VivoTab to any of the Android tablets I have kicking around.
The VivoTab’s Windows RT operating system is designed to put Microsoft’s new Modern UI Style front and center. That’s fine by me, since the tiled interface is attractive and easy to navigate with touch gestures. There’s an old-school desktop environment lurking under the flashy UI, though, and it provides a comforting fallback loaded with standard Windows programs like Notepad, Task Manager, and File Explorer. If you’re running a Windows network at home, you’ll appreciate being able to access shared folders without having to resort to auxiliary apps.
Windows RT has limitations, of course. The ARM-tailored OS doesn’t support x86 applications at all, rendering Windows’ extensive back catalog of software useless on the VivoTab RT. Only Microsoft’s own applications can be run in the desktop environment; everything else is sequestered in the Modern UI. There are even restrictions on how applications can be obtained. You can’t install programs off a thumb drive or download them from a website. The Microsoft Store is the only way to add apps to Windows RT.
Right now, the store’s selection is relatively limited. A lot of the big names are there, but the numbers don’t even begin to compare to what’s available on the iOS App Store or via Google Play. Gamers will find the pickings particularly slim, although Nvidia is working on a TegraZone app to help promote games optimized for the VivoTab’s SoC. Honestly, I’m more excited about games that take advantage of the system’s support for USB gamepads. Lousy touchscreen controls compromise gameplay more than fancy graphics improve it.
Perhaps to help ease the pain associated with Windows RT’s sparsely populated software library, Microsoft kicks in a free copy of Office Home & Student 2013 RT. The suite includes versions of Word, Excel, OneNote, and PowerPoint, all of which reside in the desktop environment. Here, too, there are restrictions. Macro support has been excised from the suite, and anything that requires ActiveX controls won’t work. Technically, this Home & Student edition can’t be used for business purposes, either. If Microsoft ever comes for me, you’ll know why; I took some notes for this review in Word before switching to Notepad. Shhh!
The capabilities of Windows RT and its accompanying software may be slimmed down, but there’s still plenty of associated bloat. Fresh out of the box, the VivoTab RT 32GB offers a scant 15GB of free storage capacity. Of the 25GB available in the main partition, 10GB is consumed by the OS and other pre-loaded applications. The rest of the built-in storage is inaccessible, dedicated to system and recovery partitions that consume more than 4GB. To put things into perspective, the iPad 3 and the Transformer Pad Infinity offer close to 28GB of user-accessible storage in their 32GB flavors—that’s an additional 13GB of useful capacity from the same amount of flash.
Advertising the VivoTab RT as a 32GB device may be technically accurate, but it’s also incredibly misleading. Consumers would be far better served if device makers indicated how much storage capacity was actually available.
I could go on—not about Windows RT’s footprint, but about some of the OS’s other features and applications. The thing is, I don’t want to repeat myself too much. I’ve already taken a broader look at Microsoft’s new OS and its suitability for convertible tablets in this article, which is based largely on my experience with the VivoTab RT.
The VivoTab RT is one sweet little system. It’s remarkably thin and light even with the keyboard dock attached, and both components combine solid build quality with a certain elegance. They gel nicely, too; the tablet and dock can be attached and separated with ease, and the accompanying OS does a good job of switching between environments suited to each configuration. There are some niggling issues with the marriage, like the inverted touchpad scrolling and the fact that the on-screen keyboard pops up even when the dock is attached, but those are minor problems that can probably be rectified with software updates.
Like its Transformer predecessors, the VivoTab RT offers a well-rounded selection of integrated goodies, including a microSD slot, USB ports, and a Micro HDMI output.The dock features a delightfully punchy keyboard and a decent touchpad. The auxiliary battery adds substantially to the tablet’s already phenomenal run times, too. We’ve never had a tablet last this long in our battery life tests, and we actually had to delay publishing this review while waiting for the last results.
Despite its impressive endurance, the VivoTab RT doesn’t chug along at a plodding pace. Apart from slow initial load times with a few apps, Windows RT runs very well on the VivoTab’s Tegra 3 SoC. The interface is responsive, and multitasking is effortless. Too bad the OS is so bloated. Having only 15GB of available storage capacity on a 32GB device is a little alarming.
Then there’s the display, whose 1366×768 resolution doesn’t live up to the crispness of Asus’ own Transformer Pad Infinity, let alone the Retina-equipped iPads. Windows RT’s ClearType font rendering produces remarkably good-looking text, but it’s not enough to make up for the screen’s relatively low pixel density. ClearType won’t make the high-res photos from your digital camera look any better, either.
Finally, there are the inherent restrictions associated with Windows RT. Although the OS seeks to serve both sides of the convertible equation, the lack of x86 application support makes the VivoTab RT a much less capable notebook than some might prefer. I could get by with the selection of Windows RT apps available now, to be honest, but I also know that Atom-based convertibles boasting x86 compatibility are just around the corner. It’s probably a good idea to hold off purchasing any Windows RT device until we have a better sense of what low-end Windows 8 convertibles have to offer.
Waiting may also be wise because Asus is still working out the details of a combo deal that combines the VivoTab RT with its keyboard dock. The dock costs $199 on its own, which is pretty steep considering the $599 price tag associated with the 32GB tablet. Asus tells us it’s working on a bundle that will include the dock at no extra charge. Folks who buy the bare tablet can register online to get a free dock shipped in the mail, an offer that expires December 31. No one should shell out close to $800 to buy the pair separately.
In the end, the VivoTab RT feels like it has a split personality to match its convertible status. On one hand, it’s a more refined version of the Transformer concept. On the other, it fails to measure up to Asus’ existing, Android-based models. The more I use the VivoTab RT, though, the more I want some kind of convertible tablet based on Microsoft’s new OS. I’m just not sure this is the one.