Same design, new OS
When I reviewed the Asus Transformer Pad Infinity, one of the best Android tablets available, I ended with this: "If you want one device that's both a tablet and a laptop, I'd wait a few weeks to see what Windows 8 has in store." I said something similar about the Transformer Pad, and about the PadFone. Asus's modular strategy works reasonably well with Android, but seems tailor-made to fit how Windows 8 works.
So I guess I shouldn't have been surprised when the Windows RT-powered Asus Vivo Tab RT appeared on my desk, and I ignored it thinking it was the Pad Infinity. Asus changed very little about its 10.1-inch tablet formula for its latest device: the Vivo Tab has a similar look, similar specs, and even a similar use case for the tablet / laptop hybrid. At $599.99 for a 32GB model with a dock, it's even about the same price. It is, for all intents and purposes, a Windows-powered Transformer tablet — which I've been wanting for months. Does the Vivo Tab deliver? Read on.
Update: The Vivo Tab RT's price was initially listed incorrectly. It's $599 for a 32GB tablet / dock combination, and $699 for 64GB.
Asus didn't change the Transformer formula
Asus certainly didn't break any molds with the Vivo Tab. The tablet is a dead ringer for all of the company's Transformer models, though it borrows most from the high-end Infinity. It has an aluminum back, though instead of the Transformers' tree-trunk-like concentric circle design, it's just a brushed metal pattern — but it still looks great. Unfortunately it's interrupted by a ridged plastic panel at the top of the back, which is both flimsy and unsightly. Actually, the whole thing feels a little flimsy: the Vivo Tab bends and flexes quite a bit, and though I doubt you'd break it easily it doesn't feel as well-made as some other Asus products.
There's a slight flat edge on the sides of the device before it slopes toward the back — it's comfortable to hold, though it does feel thicker than an 8.3mm tablet should. The volume controls, headphone jack, Micro HDMI slot, and microSD slot all sit on that slope, making them somewhat tough to find with your fingers, but the power button on top sticks up enough that it's a little easier. Other than the ugly plastic panel, the whole device is sleek and attractive, but the build quality does give me some pause.
The front of the tablet is obviously dominated by the 10.1-inch display, which is surrounded by an enormous black bezel. Not only is the bezel big, but it's larger on the top and bottom than the sides, and I couldn't stop noticing the asymmetry. On the big bezel are an Asus logo, a camera lens, and the capacitive Windows button that takes you to the Start screen — all are inconspicuous enough, and none are very distracting.
The Vivo Tab RT is definitely Transformer-inspired, but I like the Transformers better — from the bezels to the overall build quality, Asus's Android tablets are just slightly better hardware than its first Windows 8 effort.
Tablet quality meets laptop resolution
1366 x 768 is a set of numbers you should get familiar with. It's probably the resolution of your laptop, and it's probably going to be the resolution of your Windows 8 device if you buy into this fall's lineup. And, surprise, it's the resolution of the Vivo Tab RT's 10.1-inch Super IPS+ panel. The screen looks great, with accurate colors and near-180-degree viewing angles — unlike most laptops vertical viewing angles are also quite good, meaning you won't have to work to find a suitable angle. Asus made a point of how bright the screen is, but I can't say I noticed — it's certainly bright enough, but it can't reach the retina-searing levels that I've seen on some other devices.
There's a camera pointing each direction out of the Vivo Tab RT — 2 megapixels in the front, and 8 megapixels and 1080p video recording in the rear. That's the same as the Infinity, and so are the results: you get half-decent pictures from the rear camera as long as you're in good light, but in low light or with fast action you should forget about it. The front camera does quite well for video chat. One bright spot of the camera setup is the Asus Camera app, which gives you a bunch of extra options, filters, and settings while you're shooting. The app is fast and simple, and actually does help you take more usable pictures with the Vivo Tab.
One distinct advantage the Vivo Tab has over Asus's Android tablets is its speakers. For one thing, there are two of them, and you do get some semblance of stereo sound. They may be individually unimpressive and frustratingly back-firing, but they output relatively clear and loud audio, certainly enough to not always require headphones or speakers. That said, you're still probably going to want headphones or speakers.
Part of the appeal of Windows 8 and Windows RT is that the OS is equally suited to a touch-driven tablet environment and a keyboard-and-mouse-controlled laptop setup. The Vivo Tab is simply a touchscreen tablet, but its $199.99 dock turns it into a laptop. The dock adds six rows of physical keys, a trackpad, a USB port, and a big battery. It also nearly doubles the weight of the setup — from 1.1 to 2.3 pounds — though it's still pretty light in either scenario. When the tablet's locked into the dock, you'd never even know it comes apart — at least until you hit the slider on the side and pop the slate back out.
Unfortunately, while 10.1 inches is a good size for a tablet screen it's not good for a laptop. The screen's too small to make multitasking really useful, and since Asus had to make the dock the same size as the tablet, it's too small as well. The keys are spaced well enough, but they're tiny — I wound up having to type with three fingers on each hand, which is basically how I type on a touchscreen anyway. The tiny trackpad's an even bigger problem: it's wide enough that scrolling sideways through the Start screen works okay, but there's not nearly enough room for two-finger scrolling in a webpage or pinch-to-zoom gestures.
The dock also had a nasty habit of dropping characters, as if the connection were shoddy between keyboard and tablet. It only happened occasionally (and mostly when I was trying to enter my password to unlock the device), but whole words or lines would get lost before I'd notice my keystrokes weren't registering.
As I found with the Acer W510, 10.1 inches doesn't seem like the right size for a device like this — using the Vivo Tab as a laptop only made me think of crappy, hard-to-use netbooks from three years ago. That's not really the association you'd want. If you keep your expectations in check (and already own a laptop), the dock is a great accessory to a tablet — it's a good stand for watching movies, adds many hours to the Vivo Tab's battery life, and is certainly a better typing solution than poking at the screen. But in terms of Microsoft's great "one device, every use" promise, the Vivo Tab is a swing and a miss.
The Vivo Tab is NOT a laptop
There's another reason the Vivo Tab RT isn't a great do-it-all device: Windows RT. Basically, RT is the tablet version of Windows 8. It's an OS only for new Windows 8 apps, and though there is a "desktop" mode it's primarily just for Office (which comes preinstalled on Windows RT devices) and more flexible window management. It runs only the apps designed for the Windows Store, with no support whatsoever for legacy apps.
Don't confuse Windows RT with Windows 8
At the moment, relying on the Windows Store is a bad move — there aren't many apps, and the ones that do exist are too often either poor third-party replicas or 1.0 apps that should really still be called betas. I fully believe that situation will change, and fast, but until it does the Vivo Tab RT (and any Windows RT device) feels severely crippled. For much, much more on all things Windows 8, be sure and check out our full review of the new OS.
So what can you do with the Vivo Tab RT, and how does it work? The interface is wonderful — the Start screen is fluid and smooth, the gestures are responsive and useful, and thanks to the great live tiles you can glean a lot of information without ever launching an app. If you do launch an app, though, the experience gets frustrating very quickly. Apps can take several seconds to load at all and several more to load fully; there are stutters and lags as you swipe through apps; some taps and gestures just don't register.
I'd blame developers, but the problems are equally persistent within Microsoft's own apps. I'd blame the hardware, but the Vivo Tab runs a 1.3GHz Tegra 3 processor, which we've proven over and over again is a very capable processor. I'm left with no choice but to blame Windows RT, which just doesn't seem optimized for speed or fluidity beyond the Start screen. A couple of these problems exist on Intel-powered devices as well — apps are slow to load there, too — but they're much more manageable on full-blown Windows 8. Windows RT just seems too resource-intensive for the hardware supporting it.
One thing the Tegra 3 can definitely do well is play games, and that's true on the Vivo Tab as well. Most games in the Windows Store are fairly basic at this point — there's no Borderlands 2 equivalent, that's for sure — but the ones I played worked quite well. I got particularly into one game, Adera, that also connects to Xbox Live and saves your game and achievements. Few existing games seem to be designed with the keyboard and mouse in mind, though — I love the idea of being able to play casually on the touchscreen or seriously with the device docked, but that's still just a dream for now.
The standard modus operandi for Windows 8 and Windows RT seems to be to add a chunk of first- and third-party apps to the stock Windows experience, bundled in a section of the Start screen off to the right side. Asus adds only a few: Asus Camera, Asus WebStorage, and MyLibrary, plus two apps I'm all too familiar with from the company's Android devices: SuperNote, the cool scrapbooking app, and Asus@vibe Fun Center, which I refuse to open because of its name. (It's actually a sort of music / radio listening app, but it's terrible. Don't open it.) Mercifully there's no Norton or McAfee antivirus begging you to buy its services — and in that way, Windows RT is a wonderful thing.
Above all else, Microsoft touts battery life as the great advantage of Windows RT. No matter what's responsible, the Vivo Tab RT's longevity is certainly something to be envied: I used the device pretty heavily for almost two full days before it died — it wasn't my primary machine, but it was on my lap every time I put my computer down. That's a lot of tweeting, browsing, video watching, and hunting for the few decent Windows RT apps in the store. With the dock connected, that number jumped to nearly four days. As long as you're not playing graphically intense games, battery life is something you'll rarely need to worry about with the Vivo Tab RT.
I'll take bigger and heavier, in exchange for more useful
It turns out that when I wished for an Asus Transformer Pad Infinity running the new version of Windows, I was half-right. I love the idea of the convertible form factor, and the fact that the Vivo Tab feels like both a tablet and a laptop. But it's not a great example of either: the tablet has some build quality issues, and the whole laptop element is subpar because a 10.1-inch laptop doesn't work. Plus I'm convinced that if you only want to have one device, it can't run Windows RT.
The more time I spend with this first run of Windows 8 / RT devices, the more I'm excited for what's coming next. Asus's own Transformer Books may solve all my problems: they run full-blown Windows 8 on Intel's 3rd-generation processors, come in larger screen sizes (I'm eying 11.6 inches), and still have the tablet / dock paradigm that Asus seems to do better than anyone. After spending some time with the Vivo Tab RT, my wallet's still in my pocket, but I'm also still glued to the Asus website.