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.