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Asus' VivoTab Smart ME400C tablet reviewed

Windows 8 meets Clover Trail

There was a time, not long ago, when Windows tablets cost at least as much as an iPad or an Android slate. It wasn't that the Windows tablets necessarily had better hardware or software than the competition. In fact, they often had lower-resolution displays, and their selection of good touch-friendly apps was very slim. Yet Microsoft and its partners still felt confident enough to charge a premium.

Maybe it was because Windows 8 tablets could also double as productivity PCs. Maybe Microsoft expected people to stampede electronics stores in search of them. I mean, who wouldn't want a tablet and a PC in the same device? What a bargain, right?

Well, the stampede didn't really happen. The user response to Windows 8 turned out to be lukewarm, and as the months passed, people continued to buy competing tablets in droves. Microsoft watched, presumably with impotent frustration, as Apple broke iPad shipment records and Google moved loads of small and inexpensive slates like the Nexus 7.

Something had to change. And, last month, it did. According to the Wall Street Journal, Microsoft began selling Windows 8 to tablet makers at a steep discount: $30 instead of $120. The idea, one would think, was to spur a decline in Windows tablet prices—and, hopefully, to win the hearts and wallets of apathetic consumers.

Today, the most affordable Windows 8 slate is the Asus VivoTab Smart ME400C, which sells for $429.99 with free shipping—$70 less than it did at launch. It has a 10.1" display and an Atom processor, and it runs both touch-friendly tablet apps and legacy x86 software. And we're going to review it today.

In the photo above, you can see the VivoTab Smart ME400C accompanied by its TranSleeve and TransBoard accessories. Asus offers those accessories in a separate bundle for $119.99. The TranSleeve is the company's take on the Apple Smart Cover: it protects the screen and folds in a way that allows the tablet to be propped up at an angle. The TransBoard, meanwhile, looks like the bottom half of a laptop. It connects to the system via Bluetooth and lets you control Windows 8's desktop interface with a real keyboard and touchpad.

These accessories don't turn the VivoTab Smart into a genuine convertible tablet, because there's no laptop-style hinge to mate the keyboard to the screen. (The keyboard doesn't even connect to the tablet physically.) However, the TranSleeve and TransBoard add a tantalizing touch of versatility to this inexpensive tablet. On paper, the VivoTab Smart seems like it could combine entertainment, productivity, and affordability in a way that still eludes more powerful Windows 8 convertibles.

We reviewed one of those upscale convertibles recently: Samsung's ATIV Smart PC Pro 700T. That system has a proper keyboard dock, and in a very real sense, it's an ultrabook squeezed into a convertible tablet. That means solid performance and almost all the capabilities of a real PC—but also a heavy, bulky chassis and a high price tag. The 700T cost an eye-popping $1,079.99 right now.

System-on-a-chip Intel Atom Z2760 1.8GHz
Memory 2GB LPDDR2-800
Graphics Intel GMA
Display 10.1" panel with 1366x768 resolution
Storage 64GB eMMC solid-state drive
Audio Intel SST
Ports 1 Micro USB
1 micro HDMI
1 analog headphone/analog microphone
Expansion slots 1 Micro SD card reader
Communications 802.11n Wi-Fi via Broadcom controller
Bluetooth 4.0
Input devices Multi-touch display
Light Sensor
Camera 2.0-megapixel front
8.0-megapixel rear (w/ flash)
Dimensions 10.33" x 6.73" x 0.38" (262.5 x 171 x 9.7 mm)
Weight Tablet: 1.27 lbs (575 g)
Keyboard dock and sleeve: 0.88 lbs (399 g)
AC adapter: 0.15 lbs (70 g)
Battery 25 Wh lithium-polymer battery

The VivoTab Smart is much cheaper, and as you'd expect, it doesn't have anywhere near the horsepower of an ultrabook. Its Atom Z2760 processor may have dual cores, Hyper-Threading, and a 1.8GHz clock speed, but it executes instructions in order (rather than out of order, like on other modern x86 processors) and lacks 64-bit memory addressing. Two gigs of 800MHz LPDDR2 is the best memory configuration you can expect. Also, the chip's integrated graphics, which are based on Imagination Tech's PowerVR SGX545, lack even DirectX 10 support.

All of these concessions help the Atom Z2760 fit into a minuscule power envelope—less than 2W, according to Intel. They also result in a small die size and a low price. However, those savings come at a cost in terms of performance. We'll see how the VivoTab Smart's benchmark numbers compare to those of ultrabooks and other tablets in just a minute.

In other respects, the VivoTab Smart is generously outfitted for the price. It has 64GB of solid-state storage, a micro HDMI output, Near Field Communication, front and rear cameras, and a microSD card reader. The collection of internal sensors includes a gyroscope, a compass, and a GPS, so you can find your way around with the Maps app and play motion-sensitive tablet games—provided the integrated graphics can handle them.

And despite all this gear, the VivoTab Smart still weighs less than the iPad and measures only an extra 1/16" or so in thickness. The claimed battery life is in the same ballpark, too—9.5 hours, compared to 10 hours for the Apple tablet. Not only that, but the VivoTab Smart's 64GB storage capacity is four times that of the base iPad. On paper, the Asus tablet's only obvious downside is its display, which has a lower resolution than Apple's Retina panel.

Let's take a closer look at the VivoTab Smart's display now.