The most compelling Windows 8 tablet yet.
Price: $599 | From: ASUS
The VivoTab Smart is a Windows tablet that seems to offer it all. This is a full, unhindered Windows 8 device that’s somehow managed to come in both lighter and cheaper than its iPad equivalent, plus it’ll let you run all your desktop apps and has a battery that lasts a full working day. However, if that’s left you scrambling for a pen and asking ‘Where do I sign up?’, can we humbly suggest holding that thought for a moment — there are still quite a few caveats here.
The tablet problem thus far
Tablet PCs are, in many respects, victims of their own design. Having an interface that can be driven using just your digits does demand some simplification of the interface. While being simple might equate to ease of use, there are still plenty of occasions where complexity and the power it offers is needed — it’s the difference between trying to edit and manipulate images in Microsoft Paint versus Adobe Photoshop.
If you’ve tried to use one of today’s ‘simple’ tablets for prolonged work or intricate productivity tasks, you may have come to the realisation that traditional PCs and laptops still have a vital role to play. As much as we might love the idea of a smart, easy-to-use and highly portable tablet that allows us to do everything, the reality is that stabbing at a screen with your fingers is nowhere near as efficient or precise as using a mouse (or trackpad) and keyboard with a traditional PC.
The new standard bearer?
With that caveat in mind, Windows tablets do theoretically hold some potential to break that paradigm — certainly more so than their iPad and Android peers. With Windows 8’s discrete desktop and tablet (a.k.a. ‘Modern UI’) modes, there’s the promise of power and flexibility when you need it, combined with a simple tablet interface for more casual use.
So can you really have one device that does it all?
The VivoTab Smart does undeniably make a very solid effort. ASUS has taken an iPad-like approach with the device, building a compact little Windows tablet that competes well with Apple’s offering on paper. At 580g, it’s light and comfortable to hold, but with an Atom processor it still manages tablet-like battery life with a sub-$600 price tag.
The build quality is generally sound, with a bright and clean IPS screen at the same lowish 1,366 x 768 resolution of other Windows tablets. Unlike most of its VivoTab kin, the Smart uses a plastic rather than metal chassis.
The IPS screen is the typical 1,366 x 768 resolution.
The laptop replacement
ASUS has a solid reputation for creating hybrid tablets, although the Smart is genuinely a standalone device. In order to effectively use it with Windows’ desktop mode, you’ll really need to add two ‘optional’ accessories: a magnetic snap-on cover and a matching wireless keyboard.
The former works in a similar way to Apple’s iPad Smart Covers, letting you fold it around and behind the tablet to act as a stand, although Apple’s patented design has clearly led ASUS to opt for crazy origami-style folding mechanisms.
The keyboard is a fairly compact Bluetooth number with chiclet keys. These are generally a nicely usable size with one or two exceptions, as is the trackpad, which is substantially bigger than the equivalent on Microsoft’s Surface RT tablet. The whole keyboard is actually designed to magnetically snap onto the inside of the cover; it’s securely sandwiched between the tablet and cover when the latter’s closed.
To use this three-piece kit like a laptop, you need to jump through some hoops, first detaching the keyboard and then performing some cover origami to get the tablet propped up. It’s possible to use the keyboard while it’s still attached to the cover, but that leaves you nothing to prop the screen up with.
We found that living with the Smart was ultimately a case of managing your own expectations. ‘Netbook’ is a word that’s left a sour taste in many tech enthusiasts’ mouths, but that’s about the level of computing you’re getting from the Atom chip and 2GB of memory that power the VivoTab Smart. Its new dual-core Z2760 processor does offer improved performance when compared to its forebears, but there’s still a wide gap between it and even an entry-level Intel Core i3 processor.
Desktop multitasking is certainly doable, but push things too far — say, by running more than three or four apps — and things will start to slow down. Scrolling in web pages can get stuttery and launching apps or opening downloads often involves pauses of 5 to 30 seconds.
The other downside is storage; despite having 64GB of flash storage onboard, after Windows and its recovery partition have taken up their share, there’s just 33GB of free space left. That’s fine for installing Office and other basic productivity apps, but start downloading multi-gigabyte games from the Microsoft Store or larger multimedia creation programs and you’ll run up against that limited storage in no time at all.
Basic gaming is more than possible, thanks to a PowerVR SGX545 graphics chip, but it’s only a single-core one. (The iPad 4’s quad-core PowerVR SGX554 is around two to three times faster.)
The tablet fight
Rated purely as a tablet, the Smart does struggle a little. A lot of that comes down to the immaturity of the Windows tablet ecosystem when it comes to the variety of apps and games available, though this is slowly and steadily improving as the months go by.
It’s generally competent when it comes to general tasks like watching videos, surfing the web or reading books, but the higher-resolution screens on the best iPad and Android tablets to make them crisper.
Considering its compact size, low weight and general flexibility, the Smart’s battery life is reasonably impressive. It lasted 7:10hr in our video playback test, which should see most people through a full working day. If you want to switch to tablet mode for some after-hours media consumption, you’ll need to charge it up again for a couple of hours.
Horses for courses
Compared to even a cheap laptop, it’s hard to escape from the fact that this tablet doesn’t have much memory, storage or processing power. What works in the Smart’s favour is that neither do any of its peers and moreover, most of them are considerably more expensive.
If you can live within its limitations, this is a tablet that can let you be more productive than an iPad or Android equivalent and it’s not terrible value considering the rest of the market. But, there’s clearly still some way to go before that ‘single computing device’ dream becomes a reality.
Pros : Full Windows 8 OS, lightweight design, 7-hour battery life.
Cons : Netbook level performance, only 33GB usable storage.
Rating : 8 out of 10. Highly recommended.