In a world that's increasingly dominated by tablets, Microsoft, whose fortune is intertwined with desktops and laptops, needed to prevent its customers from leaving in droves. After a few years in a Redmond laboratory, Windows 8 and Surface RT were born -- but not everything was well in the brave new world the company had created. While Windows RT looks and behaves the same way as its big brother, it doesn't run your existing Windows programs despite having its own "desktop" mode. Understandably, as casual users struggled to understand the distinction, Samsung abandoned any plans to launch a Windows RT product in the United States.
However, the device is still available in the rest of the world (including Canada), and so it is for everyone else -- and those with an eye on importing it -- that we put the ATIV Tab through its paces. In short, if it never made the journey across the pond, it would be a shame, because it's certainly tablet enough to give the Surface RT a run for its money. So should you buy one? The answer to that question awaits after the break.
Samsung’s Windows RT tablet beats the Surface RT in plenty of ways; it’s just a shame it can’t beat it on price.
If you've ever held a Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 or a Galaxy Note 10.1 in your hand, congratulations -- you've just won the right to skip the next two paragraphs. Samsung's alighted upon its preferred design language for tablets; as such, you won't find anything exciting or different here. Which is to say, it's clad in the same molded plastic that's been painted to look like brushed metal. That means it feels cheap, but should come off a little better against bumps and scratches compared to other devices with more fashionable outfits.
Front and center above the display is the forward-facing, 1.9-megapixel camera; beneath the screen is a physical Windows RT home button. Stereo speakers flank the upper third of the display and, with its hefty bezel, you feel as if your computing is being done in Cinerama. On top, we've got a 3.5mm headphone jack, power button, volume rocker, microSD card, micro-HDMI and a full USB 2.0 port. There's nothing on either of the device's sides; underneath you'll find a power port, dock port and the latch-holes to keep the keyboard accessory in place -- pleasingly filled in with colored plastic voids just in case you don't make the extra investment. Speaking of which, the dock wasn't available during our time with the unit, but if we get our mitts on one, we'll update our review accordingly.
Under the hood is a 1.51GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 APQ8060A that's welded to an Adreno 225 graphics unit and 2GB of RAM -- the same internals you'll find inside the Lenovo IdeaTab S220 and Dell's XPS 10. Nestled beside the 28-nanometer chip is 32GB of storage. You may notice there's no 16GB edition of this tablet, principally because Windows RT occupies around 16GB on its own. You'll also find the usual bucket of sensors and WiFi radios: a dual-channel 802.11a/b/g/n unit, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, S-GPS and GLONASS.
We'd be remiss if we didn't round out this section by talking about build quality, and here Samsung has put real effort into making the device feel as if it can take a pounding. No matter how much we tried to bend or break the hardware between our meaty hands, there was nary a squeak or creak to be heard. We'd feel entirely comfortable tossing this into a bag without a case and would expect it not to pick up any damage on your average day -- useful for a device that's been designed for work on the go. At 10.4 inches (265.8mm) wide by 6.61 inches (168.1mm) tall by 0.27 inch (7mm) thick and weighing 1.25 pounds (570 grams), it's all around lighter and more compact than the Surface RT, which tips the scales at 1.5 pounds.
Display and sound
Microsoft's mandated resolution for its first-generation Windows RT devices is 1,366 x 768 -- a far cry from the 1,920 x 1,200 or 2,560 x 1,600 panels that tablet buyers now look for in a flagship. Try not to turn your nose up at the low figure, as the virtue of Windows RT's flat OS rarely exposes its type-reproducing shortcomings. In fact, the only time you'll be able to pick out its flaws is when you place it side-by-side with a more pixel-rich display.
The screen hasn't struggled during our forays out under the low winter sun and, even better, lets you watch movies from oblique angles or with it lying face-up on a table without losing anything in the way of picture quality. Of course, if you are going to use it for movie watching, we'd advise you invest in the dock, stand or some other mount to spare your arms having to hold it aloft for long periods of time. Stand it next to the Surface RT, and you'll easily notice that its backlight is a little more powerful than the Surface's.
The stereo speakers that flank the display are good but, understandably, struggle with tracks that have a lot of heavy bass. If you're looking to load this up with your collection of Electric Six records, we'd suggest keeping the volume dialed to around 80 percent, unless you want it to sound even more grungy. In our unscientific test of leaving the tablet playing music at maximum volume under a towel, moving to the next room and closing the door, the sound was still crisp and clear -- meaning you should be able to use this to power any impromptu hotel room soirees the next time you're on the go.
Performance and battery life
If you've never used Windows 8 or Windows RT before, one of the things it's difficult to get used to (and even harder to explain) is the... rhythm of the device. It moves at a different tempo than devices you may have used if you're coming from Android or iOS. For instance, when re-orienting the screen from landscape to portrait, rather than just animating a 90-degree turn, the display waits a beat, zooms out of the screen, waits a further second and then transitions. It's also one of the few times we were able to get the ATIV Tab to hang, by unlocking it whilst in motion -- it'll stutter as it tries to keep up with your commands.
Similarly, those used to apps that load instantly (or at least appear to) may be disconcerted to see apps needing an average of five seconds to begin working. Hit the video button, and a comforting red background will fill the screen, while a wheel of white dots spin around letting you know that the hardware is working. When loaded, however, software is fast, responsive and we had difficulty forcing a slowdown. Even when playing video, downloading an app and constantly cycling through six or seven applications, we rarely saw any juddering or jerking when flipping between them.
Samsung ATIV Tab
ASUS VivoTab RT
9:31 / 4:40 (keyboard dock)
Microsoft Surface for Windows RT
Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7
Apple iPad 2
Acer Iconia Tab A510
ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime
10:17 / 16:34 (keyboard dock)
Amazon Kindle Fire HD
Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1
Apple iPad (2012)
9:52 (HSPA) / 9:37 (LTE)
ASUS Transformer Pad Infinity TF700
9:25 / 14:43 (keyboard dock)
Motorola Xoom 2
Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 (10.1)
ASUS Transformer Pad TF300
8:29 / 12:04 (keyboard dock)
Acer Iconia Tab A700
Acer Iconia Tab A200
Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus
Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1
Amazon Kindle Fire
Galaxy Tab 2 7.0
Acer Iconia Tab A500
Archos 101 XS
In our standard battery rundown test for tablets, we loop a locally stored video with WiFi on and brightness fixed at 50 percent. Samsung's ATIV Tab was able to squeeze out more than 12 and a half hours -- breaking the Engadget record set by the Galaxy Tab 7.7. That's the sort of life that could instantly make it our go-to video companion for a long-haul flight. In fact, we suspect we could have managed to get an extra hour or more out of the battery had we been more miserly in our choice of settings.
During the week we spent with the device, we could count on one hand the amount of times we had to hook it up to the wall. The only devices that we've seen that can outlive the ATIV Tab are the Transformer Pad Infinity and Transformer Prime, both of which require battery-powered docks to push their life past the 13-hour mark.
Windows RT launched on October 26th, so it's been knocking around for about three months now. To catch you up, Windows RT is designed to run on ARM-based devices in an attempt to beat back iOS and Android in the tablet space. When we reviewed Windows 8 back in October, it was clear that Microsoft might have a perception problem on its hands. Because Windows RT and Windows 8 look and operate in the same way, consumers may believe that they're one and the same. That's why Samsung decided to torpedo the ATIV Tab's US debut. RT, however, is incompatible with any software produced for the x86 (read: full Windows) edition, despite there being a traditional desktop mode. Confused yet? Suffice to say, if you have non-technical relatives who rely upon you to navigate this conundrum, you might find yourself having to make this distinction on a regular basis.
Video playback remains limited, and our default test video, which is an .mp4, suffered from plenty of frame dropouts and decoding errors that made the image unwatchable in places. We've heard unverified chatter that VLC's port to Windows 8 and RT should be upon us within the next three months and, on this evidence, the platform is screaming out for a reliable video player.
The included versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote are based on Office Home & Student 2013, though they've been modified somewhat for RT. While they're pinned to the Start Screen, each app will open up on the desktop. Unfortunately, that environment isn't optimized for touch, which might be precisely why Microsoft insisted upon the addition of a full USB port. If you take advantage of an external mouse then your opinion of the desktop changes dramatically. From a frustrating and fiddly experience, you're suddenly given a reasonably powerful word-processing machine with which you can happily create documents. In fact, it's in this mode that it's easy to "get" the point of Windows RT. The onscreen keyboard is one of the easiest to use we've ever seen, and we found ourselves able to hammer out huge swathes of text on the device without many errors -- and those that we did make were easily corrected with the mouse.
We also used the device in portrait mode and found it still makes a fantastic word-processing machine, and it shouldn't be a surprise that Microsoft had one eye on the enterprise market. In fact, the only issue with the ATIV Tab's aspect ratio in this instance is that your author was crying out for a kickstand. We can say, however, that a clementine or other malleable citrus fruit makes an impromptu prop in a pinch.
While great for hammering out reviews and other documents, the platform still has some sizeable gaps on the social side. If you don't count the People Hub (and we don't), Windows RT still lacks official Facebook and Twitter apps. There are, however, several third-party applications that repackage Twitter's mobile site and several more to which we didn't feel comfortable handing out our Facebook login credentials. Other apps you won't find on the platform include Instagram, Spotify, NPR, Remember the Milk, Flipboard, Nook and Rdio. Since our Surface RT review, however, Skype, TV Catchup, 4OD, eBay, Dropbox, Skyscanner and Angry Birds Space have all arrived in the Windows Store. It might be wrong to ask, but as Microsoft and Facebook / Instagram are all corporately intertwined, wouldn't a polite phone call from Steve Ballmer to Mark Zuckerberg have spared consumers this hassle?
We may not like it, but people are increasingly using their tablet cameras to record any sort of moment in their lives. The images that spring forth from the ATIV Tab's rear-facing 5-megapixel camera are passable, but hardly worth printing out and framing. We were able to take pictures of some quite dramatic, snow-covered landscapes, but they showed washed-out colors and were generally flat and uninteresting. As the stock camera app lacks any features like tap-to-focus or picture effects, Samsung has added its own extra app to give you a few more options. Inside, you'll find selections for white balance, image effect and the ability to switch between "normal" and "macro" focusing modes. While both cameras would do for the odd Skype chat, picture and sound quality weren't great, and things were even worse when we recorded video -- with sputtering, hissy audio that dropped out every other second.
Why does this deserve its own section? The problem with not including a micro-USB cable or other cord along with the hardware is that you lose your principal method of moving content to and from your device. Naturally, Microsoft wants you consuming your home entertainment from Xbox Music and Video, but if you want to use your catalogue of non-DRM media, you'll have to be creative -- as loading 10-plus gigabytes of data ready for your next flight is going to be a painful experience.
Samsung baked doubleTwist's AirSync into the device, which means you'll be downloading the desktop version to bolt onto whatever media player you normally use. However, doubleTwist doesn't cope well with large libraries and refused to move video across to the tablet. We're currently speaking with the software maker in order to understand what the problem is and how it can be fixed, and when we know more, we'll update this. Suffice to say, you'll probably be better off using a USB stick to shuttle media across devices for now -- but that's hardly an ideal solution.
As Windows RT is just starting out, we're able to cover every available device that runs the OS in this section. Samsung is letting retailers price the ATIV Tab according to their own whim, with Amazon listing the 32GB version of the device at £549.99. The company has placed the 64GB unit in a holding pattern and has yet to commit on a price for the additional dock, but when it's made a decision, we'll let you know.
If that's a little too much for your average early adopter, then Dell's XPS 10 will set you back £339 for the base model -- but even the 64GB edition with a dock is modestly priced at £524. If you'd prefer to stay within Microsoft's club, then the lowest-end Surface RT will set you back £399, plus £99.99 for the Touch or £109.99 for the Type Cover. Of course, if you've got £700 to spend on a Windows RT device, then perhaps Lenovo's Yoga 11, with its built-in keyboard and twisty-turny-bendy variable operations mode is more your suit.
Then again, perhaps the brave new world of Windows RT isn't for you, and you'd prefer to retreat to the comforting bosom of Android for your next tablet. Samsung's similarly sized Galaxy Note 10.1 will set you back £355, while the Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 runs to £272.71. ASUS' Transformer Pad Infinity is also available, setting you back £599 -- and there's always the looming specter of both the £319 Nexus 10 and the £399 fourth-generation iPad.
Samsung's ATIV Tab is thinner, lighter and more comfortable to hold than the Surface, its most obvious rival. It also offers staggering battery life and capable internals that keep everything running smoothly. Its display holds its own in darkened rooms and as soon as you pair it with a mouse, the device becomes a very good work machine. In fact, its ability to help us get work done (better than some laptops we've encountered recently) is one of the strongest reasons we'd recommend this, and we'd hope its productivity case should be strengthened when the dock finally meanders its way onto the market.
Given that, the unit's flaws can principally be laid at the feet of its operating system, which we hope will be resolved as Microsoft becomes more entrenched in the market. Once we see a wider collection of apps, significantly more robust WiFi sync and some love from Twitter, we'll feel a lot more comfortable recommending this to people.
Beyond that, the situation we're wrestling with is a simple one: is this device worth £150 more than the equivalent Surface RT? When companies have to compete with "homegrown flagships," like Google's Nexus 4 and Microsoft's Surface RT, other manufacturers have to work extra hard to justify their participation. When these devices are priced at, or below, cost then it's so much harder to see the ATIV Tab's price as anything but excessive.