When I first spotted the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer tablet in our offices many moons ago, I was very impressed with it. Here was an Android tablet that was not only responsive and built well, but it also came with an optional keyboard dock to turn the tablet into a kind of versatile netbook. Since then, very few manufacturers have been able to replicate this kind of tablet-cum-keyboard-dock formula successfully, and so ASUS have taken it upon themselves to show us all how it’s done, this time with the ASUS VivoTab running Windows 8.
Build quality & design
The VivoTab is a smart move by ASUS, owing to the number of other manufacturers who are already scrambling to get their Windows 8-powered laptops and tablets onto the market. But the VivoTab aims to celebrate the best of both worlds by once again including a keyboard dock that turns the tablet into a full-functional netbook.
As with other ASUS products that we’ve seen, the VivoTab sports ASUS’ signature build quality and design, opting for smooth curves on the tablet and sleek finishing. Though the device is encased in plastic and brushed aluminum, it doesn’t deter from the overall look and feel of the device. The VivoTab features a power button, headphone jack, volume rocker, microSD slot, mini-HDMI port, and a charging port at the bottom (there’s no card reader port). You also get a dongle that lets you convert the charging port into a USB port in case you don’t have the keyboard dock handy. Lastly, there’s also a digitizer stylus included in the box, but I’ll elaborate more on that later.
The keyboard dock is also solidly built, snapping onto the tablet to form a traditional clamshell design. It adds two USB ports to the device but also lets you use the VivoTab for longer since the keyboard dock has its own battery built in. Combine the two together and you’re looking at battery life of at least 12 or 13 hours. My only complaint about the keyboard dock is that when it’s attached, there’s no comfortable way to open the VivoTab. There’s no bump or slight lip that you can latch on to, so you basically have to pry the device open with two hands.
You won’t find anything spectacular with the specifications on the VivoTab, but even so the overall user experience was never lagging at any point. No matter how many apps I launched in the background, the VivoTab was able to bear the brunt of my abuse.
Benchmarks and Performance
The VivoTab did fairly well in our benchmarks, given that it isn’t really kitted out to be running very processor-intensive applications. Even when I loaded up Photoshop onto the VivoTab it was able to keep up with most of my editing, though as I added more filters and layers to my file, it began to put a strain on the device.
As either a tablet or netbook, the VivoTab performed very well and can easily be adapted to whatever situation you’re in. Note taking during a meeting? Grab the stylus and draw directly on screen. Typing up a last-minute report in a taxi to work? Dock the VivoTab and let your fingers fly across the keyboard with ease.
UI and Apps
Apart from the usual barrage of Windows 8 apps, ASUS have installed a few of their own custom apps. There’s ASUS Webstorage, which lets you sign up to a cloud-based storage solution to backup and retrieve your files. There’s a handy Guide app that shows you various video tutorials of how to use the VivoTab, and a SuperNote application to take down notes. There’s also a ‘Fun Center’ app that doubles as some kind of music preview service, but I gave up trying to figure out what it was for. The VivoTab also rather handily comes with NFC, so sharing web pages and other content is as simple as tapping your device to the back of the screen.
At 1,366 x 768 pixels, the VivoTab won’t blow you away with its resolution, but it’s comfortable enough for web browsing and watching media on it. The only downside to the screen is that it’s quite glossy, so viewing content in brightly lit areas or outside may pose a bit of a challenge.
The keyboard dock is a star in itself simply because its included battery greatly boosts the longevity of the VivoTab. But apart from providing some extra juice, the dock does actually have some flaws to it. The keys provided sufficient feedback when typing, but I felt the keys to be slightly smaller than I would have liked, so I often found myself hitting incorrect or multiple keys if I typed too quickly. Even when I passed the VivoTab to other people to use, they complained of the same thing, so hopefully ASUS will have another look at the keyboard in the next version of the VivoTab. The other thing I didn’t like about the keyboard dock was that it often wasn’t that simple to dock the tablet into it. There are tiny arrows that you can line up to dock the device properly, but these should be made a bit more prominent as it can be a bit daunting to try and dock the device if you’re in a hurry. Lastly, the keyboard isn’t backlit, so you’ll always need another light source nearby to see the keys properly.
At the bottom of the keyboard dock is a trackpad which was surprisingly responsive to use – in my experience trackpads on most keyboard docs are often quite terrible, but the one on the VivoTab was a breeze to use. It also supports Windows 8 gestures, so you can swipe from the right to bring up the Charms menu, or from the left to bring up the last app you accessed. The lower half of the trackpad also doubles as the left-click button, so you don’t necessarily need to press near the bottom of the trackpad in order to click.
As mentioned before, the VivoTab comes bundled with a Wacom digitizer stylus which works well with the bundled SuperNote app for taking down notes and diagrams. It’s also pressure sensitive, so artists and designers will certainly enjoy using their illustration applications on the VivoTab. The only downside is that there’s nowhere to really ‘put’ the stylus when you’re done with it, unlike on devices such as the Samsung Galaxy Note II which have a hidden compartment to slide the stylus out of view.
Camera & Sound
I’m really not a fan of using the cameras on most tablets, simply because you look ridiculous holding up something that huge to take a photo. But if you’re inclined to take photos with your tablet, the bundled ASUS Camera app is a much better option than the stock Windows 8 camera app. It allows you to apply various filters and make finer adjustments before you take your photos. For the most part, pictures do look half-decent, but some brighter colors did appear slightly washed out if not lit up properly. The only annoying thing about the ASUS Camera app is that there is a bit of a delay when taking photos, so if you move the camera after hearing the sound, you’ll get a blurred photo.
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Sound on the VivoTab is courtesy of two speakers hidden at the back, on the left and right sides of the screen edges. Despite pointing away from the user, audio levels were decent but the speakers were better at handling tracks with vocals than those with a heavy bass line.
Heat levels & Battery Life
Throughout my testing and usage, the VivoTab never got very hot or uncomfortable to use or hold. When undocked and playing back HD video the tablet did get a little warm at the top, but it wasn’t very noticeable. Battery life without the keyboard dock was around seven hours with moderate usage, while plugging it into the dock took the battery life to just past 12 hours. That’s a serious amount of battery life, and if you just use the VivoTab occasionally you’ll at least get a two days of usage or more before you’ll have to charge it up again.
So does the ASUS VivoTab measure up as a Windows 8 tablet that can quickly transform into a functional laptop? The answer is a mixed bag – while the keyboard dock is an excellent idea, it’s actual usability is hampered by uncomfortable keys and the fact that it adds considerable weight and thickness to the device. The bundled stylus is a unique addition, but is yet another thing that you’ll have to carry around or stow away safely if you end up using it. Sans the keyboard dock, the ASUS VivoTab is a great Windows 8 tablet that could use a few more tweaks to make it truly incredible.