If you read my Surface RT review you may have noticed that I said in my conclusion:
"If I want to run full Windows 8, I would buy an ultrabook. The form factor of the Surface RT seems to me much better suited to Windows RT and its generally fully immersive touch experience. Windows 8 desktop and especially legacy apps are not at all touch optimised and that will be an issue."
Well, I decided it was time to find out if I was right. There are a lot of different Windows 8 tablets, many of them convertibles, on the market and I had to pick which type of device to use for my comparison. I could have picked an 11.6" screened tablet with a keyboard dock as sold by many different manufacturers, but they are all quite a bit more expensive that the Surface RT. They also have larger screens that will be more difficult to handle. So, I decided to go for the only tablet I could find that matches the basic Surface RT on price, the Asus VivoTab Smart.
Specs and device tour
The basic specs of the VivoTab are:
- 1.8Ghz dual-core Intel Atom Z2760
- 2Gb RAM
- 10.1" IPS display 1366x768 pixels
- Micro SD Card memory slot
- Wi-Fi b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0
- microUSB charging port with USB On The Go support
- 3.5mm headphone jack
- Micro HDMI port
- Primary camera: 8 megapixel with autofocus, 5-element lens, large F/2.2aperture, back-illuminated CMOS sensor
- Secondary camera: 2 megapixel front-facingcamera
- 25Wh battery
- Dimensions: 262.5x171x9.7mm
- Weight: 500g
I have the white version here which I think is very smart looking and really quite attractive. It is also surprisingly light feeling and easy to handle.
The front of the tablet is dominated by its screen. Underneath that is the Windows button - the home button. On my tablet it is very unresponsive and provides no feedback that it has been pressed at all. I am not sure if this issue is isolated to my example, but it is very frustrating. The front facing camera is above the screen and is offset from the centre. This has annoyed me since the moment I first set eyes on the tablet! Asus manage to centralise the cameras on pretty much all their other tablets.
The left side of the device has the microUSB charging port, the micro SD memory card slot and behind a flap, the micro HDMI port.
On the right is the nicely balanced and responsive volume rocker, the headphone jack and a noise cancelling mic.
The top of the tablet houses the power button with a integrated charging LED - another well designed button - and the primary mic.
The back is a slab of plastic broken up only by the camera and flash, as well as the multitude of stickers that Asus have adorned the VivoTab with. You can just make out the speaker behind micro drilled holes on the right side of the casing.
This is one area that the Asus cannot even come close to the Surface. The Surface is made from magnesium, feeling extremely solid and cool to the touch. The Asus is a purely plastic back with a simple all glass front. The Asus flexes a little under pressure but it is nothing too terrible. This is a tablet that feels cheaper than its price, the complete opposite of the Surface. Having said that, I find it very comfortable to hold by its gently rounded edges. The Surface is noticeably larger and heavier too. Overall, the Surface is much better built but the Asus is slightly more comfortable to use, especially with one hand.
This is such an important aspect of the overall quality of a tablet. As I said in my Surface RT review, it has a pretty good screen. The Asus cannot match the brightness, clarity and responsiveness of the Surface. But, I do think the image quality is slightly better with a real sharpness that the Surface lacked despite the same resolution. This may be a result of the smaller screen on the Asus, or the specific panel used, but either way, I am quite impressed. It is certainly better than any of the 1280x800 pixel resolution screens I have used on other 10" tablets.
The cameras on the Surface are very poor and only just good enough for Skype video calls. The Asus on the other hand has far superior imaging capabilities. The rear camera is particularly impressive. It will not compete with 8Mp cameras in the latest smartphones, but for a tablet it is excellent and genuinely worth using. The front facing camera is reasonable and despite suffering badly in low light conditions, it is a much better bet than the front camera on the Surface RT.
The performance of the Surface RT is something I mentioned in my review as being less than adequate for third party apps but reasonable for the core operating system. In comparison, the Asus with its Intel Atom chipset absolutely flies. Modern UI apps open fairly quickly and without much fuss while everything in the core operating system is genuinely fast. Boot times for example are very short - in the region of 15 seconds to get to the start screen from cold.
The problem here is that Windows 8 just does not seem properly optimised for loading apps. There is plenty of power in this device, but Modern UI apps still take too long load compared to an iPad or an Android tablet. Thankfully once running, apps are quick and seamless with a massive performance boost over the Tegra 3 powered Surface RT.
Desktop apps are very usable on the Asus, touch notwithstanding, loading rapidly and working very well. Even Office apps such as Word and Excel load very quickly. I was pleasantly surprised at how well this device performs. It is better in every possible way compared to the Surface RT except where 3D graphics are concerned. The Intel chip in the Asus has very limited capabilities in this area. This is in no way a gaming tablet, even Cut The Rope can be choppy!
I was concerned at the relative lack of RAM for running full Windows 8, but this turns out to be a non issue. I ran many Modern UI apps, Chrome and Word on the desktop and never experienced any issues.
There are more pleasant surprises here. For me, the Surface RT solidly gives 8 hours of use and often pushes past the 9 hour mark depending on exactly what I am doing. With a similar setup on the Asus, I have consistently achieved well over 7 and a half hours of use. It is amazing how efficient this latest Intel platform is whilst Microsoft have done a fantastic job too. Having no active cooling - no fans - inside a Windows tablet with an Intel processor is fantastic and really makes Windows 8 feel like a proper tablet operating system. The fact the Asus charges from a standards Micro USB charger is just another positive. In fact, the supplied charger and USB cable in the box is exactly the same as that supplied with the Nexus 7!
Peripherals and wired connectivity
Asus will happily sell a cover and separate bluetooth keyboard for the VivoTab Smart. I haven't been able to try either, but a separate keyboard with its own battery does not sound as practical as the covers available for the Surface. There is a distinct lack of ports on the Asus with just that one Micro USB port. It does support USB On The Go, but that is not an ideal solution - being able to use peripherals and charge at the same time is an issue. I can confirm though that I managed to connect a wide range of devices using the appropriate cable and could happily use a USB hub to have a keyboard, mouse and printer connected and working at once. Nonetheless, the full sized USB port on the Surface is far more practical. Of course, running full Windows 8 rather than RT means that any device that works on other Windows computers works on the VivoTab Smart.
Amazingly, the Asus VivoTab Smart comes with 64Gb of storage, more than the similarly priced Surface RT. On first boot, I had about 35Gb of that free, way more than the Surface RT. Obviously it is a lot easier to use up space on a Windows 8 tablet than a Windows RT tablet especially if using large desktop apps, but there is always the option of adding a micro SD card. Overall, I am impressed that Asus bundles so much storage at this price point.
If you are using the tablet as a touch device, desktop apps are incredibly frustrating. They run smoothly, quickly and with no fuss, but are almost impossible to use. I stayed almost entirely within the Modern UI touch optimised part of this tablet. Hooking up a keyboard, mouse and external screen made the Asus a very versatile and easy to use computer. It became a full Windows 8 desktop computer. This is more than the Surface RT can offer due to its lack of support for legacy Windows apps and is a welcome dose of additional flexibility.
It is safe to say that I was wrong. It is feasible to run Windows 8 on a tablet and have a decent experience especially in the Modern UI part of Windows 8. It is also possible to buy a full Windows 8 tablet for the same price as a basic Surface RT although you will not get the same quality of build or flexibility when using peripheral devices. Surprisingly the performance of this full Windows 8 tablet far outstrips that of the Surface RT with only a small cost on battery life. This is a genuine tablet computer with the flexibility to become a full desktop computer when you need it.
Following this experience, I am sure you want to know, which tablet should you buy, the Surface RT or the Asus VivoTab Smart? I would recommend buying neither! If you only want to spend £399 - the price of the 32Gb Surface RT and the 64Gb Asus VivoTab Smart - then the Asus is superior in my opinion, but, I would seriously consider an iPad or an Android tablet such as the Nexus 10 or Asus Transformer TF300.
I think the best Windows 8 tablets are going to be the convertibles. It seems strange that Asus should make almost all their tablets convertibles, available with keyboard docks that transform the tablet into a netbook or ultrabook format, adding battery life and the practicality of a proper keyboard, but the VivoTab Smart is not one of them. If they offered that option for the VivoTab Smart I would already be using one as my main computing device.
In the end, Windows RT feels like a lame duck. Full Windows 8 tablets running on Intel ATOM processors offer a significant performance boost with a minimal cost on battery life and a similarly small impact on price. The only problem is with Windows 8 itself. It is an operating system full of potential - fast, efficient and with all the right parts, but it is just not entirely coherent The virtual keyboard for instance is simply not good enough and many apps that allow text input do not enable auto correction - the official Twitter app being one at the time of writing this. It is very hard to type on a tablet with a completely dumb keyboard. The built in apps remain sluggish and weak compared to its competitors. There are very few high quality third party apps.
Tablets such as the Asus VivoTab Smart offer a genuinely decent experience and one that is far better than a Surface RT and any other Windows RT tablet I have used. As much as I like the Surface RT, the fact it is running Windows RT makes it feel like a dinosaur before its time.