Read the comments on any of our ASUS Transformer Pad reviews. It doesn't matter if you pick the mid-range TF300 or the high-end Infinity. You'll invariably find someone saying, "That's nice, but can't it run Windows 8?" It's a perfectly sane request: sure, a tablet and optional keyboard dock make for a convenient setup, but how great would it be if you could use that keyboard to get work done in Microsoft Office? Ditto for the dock's USB port: being able to plug in a thumb drive is a good start, but it'd be even sweeter if you could drag and drop files, as you would on a PC.
Well, ladies and gents, you can quit your fantasizing. ASUS is ready to start shipping the VivoTab RT (TF600), and we're guessing it's pretty darn close to whatever Franken-tablet you've been dreaming up. Which is to say, it takes everything we loved about ASUS' Transformer Pads, and adds Windows RT. Like other tablets in ASUS' lineup, it has a 10-inch Super IPS+ display with claimed 178-degree viewing angles and a 600-nit brightness rating. Other tried-and-true specs include a quad-core Tegra 3 chip; an 8-megapixel, autofocusing rear camera capable of recording 1080p video; SonicMaster audio; and long battery life -- in this case, up to nine hours for the tablet and up to seven for the keyboard dock. At 8.3mm thick and 1.2 pounds, it's also about as thin and light as any Transformer Pad. Lastly, the VivoTab has NFC -- something you won't find on any of ASUS' older slates.
The VivoTab RT should be available beginning today, starting at $599 for the 32GB tablet with a keyboard dock included. A 64GB tablet-and-dock bundle will retail for $699. So is this as good a buy as ASUS' earlier tablets. And how does it compare to other Windows RT devices being offered at a similar price? Let's find out.
What does your OS of choice say about you? Ask ASUS' design team. While the VivoTab RT borrows heavily from the Infinity's spec sheet, it has a more serious, buttoned-up look than any of ASUS' Android-based tablets. Whereas the Infinity and original Prime have bold-looking spun-metal backs, the VivoTab sports a subtle, brushed-metal finish, with a rubberized strip stretching across the top. All told, that plastic band cheapens the look ever-so slightly, but if it means there won't be any signal issues this time around, then that's a trade-off we can get behind.
The good news, as we said, is that the VivoTab is about as thin and light as any Android-based Transformer Pad we've seen recently (which is to say, it's quite thin and quite light). Just as important, it's considerably easier to hold than Microsoft's Surface for Windows RT, which weighs 1.5 pounds and has a thicker, sharper-edged shape. Some things to keep in mind: though the Surface is heavier, it has a built-in kickstand and finer build quality. Plus, its Touch Cover keyboard is only about 3mm thick, so if we're talking about the thickness of the tablet plus the keyboard dock, Microsoft does manage to make up for some lost ground.
Taking a tour around the device, you'll find the power / lock button up top, and a volume rocker on the right side -- it's placed high enough that you won't accidentally hit it with your fingers while you're watching a movie in landscape mode. On the bottom, of course, are the connectors necessary to plug the tablet into its accompanying keyboard. On the left edge is a covered micro-HDMI socket, along with a microSD slot. Soon, AT&T will start selling an LTE-capable model, and presumably that one will include a dedicated SIM slot, but the tablet we tested is WiFi-enabled only. As ever, the speakers are located on the rear. There, you'll also find the 8-megapixel camera module, along with an LED flash. Up front is a lower-res, 2-megapixel camera for video chatting.
Though the VivoTab mostly follows in the footsteps of the Transformer line, it does introduce one important, and very odd, design change. Here, there's a latch on the lower-left edge, allowing you to disconnect from the keyboard dock. That's a stark departure from the old design, in which the latch was located on the dock itself, above the keyboard. According to ASUS, its design team made this change to make the dock look more visually pleasing, and to generally improve the docking experience. While the connection is indeed as sturdy as ever, we have to say we prefer the old way of doing things: it was easier to put one hand on the dock to release the latch, while pulling the tablet out with the other. This new setup feels clumsier and less intuitive.
Other than that, the dock itself looks very similar to the ones made for ASUS's Transformer tablets (save, of course, for the Start button, but you could've guessed that). As ever, the dock is made of metal, providing a sturdy base for the keys -- you won't suffer any keyboard flex here. The problem is the whole layout is a tad crowded. It's more convenient than using a touchscreen keyboard, that's for sure, but the buttons are small and tightly spaced. Even those of you with dainty hands might feel your fingers brushing up against adjacent keys you didn't mean to press. In contrast, as we noted following a tour of Microsoft's design labs last week, the Surface's pressure-sensitive Touch Cover keyboard is surprisingly spacious -- you just might experience a steeper learning curve as you get the hang of its flat keys.
On the plus side, the trackpad is a little bigger than what you'll find on other tablet keyboard docks, and responds pretty well to single-finger navigation. The built-in button is easy to press too. You won't be using it much, what with the touchscreen and all, but it comes in handy when you're using desktop apps like Word or Explorer and need the precision of a mouse.
As we've said with previous Transformer tablets, the weight distribution is stacked so that the tablet is a bit heavier than the dock. Holding it in your lap, the dock won't feel terribly grounded, but the weight does seem to be distributed a bit more evenly than in the past. If we had to choose, we'd say the Surface is sturdier, but only because it has a kickstand propping up the tablet from behind. That doesn't mean we'd want a kickstand planted in our lap; on the contrary, ASUS' solution seems to be more comfortable.
Display and sound
The VivoTab's Gorilla Glass screen has a resolution of 1,366 x 768 -- typical for a $500 Windows RT tablet (see: Microsoft Surface). As on recent Transformer tablets, it's a Super IPS+ display, which, marketing lingo aside, means the brightness can go all the way up to 600 nits. That's a higher rating than you'll find on most laptops, let alone tablets -- to give you a comparison, even the Surface tops out at 400 nits, and that's already pretty vibrant. Even if you're not clued into on feeds and speeds, a 600-nit screen definitely has its advantages. What we've always loved about ASUS tablets is that, on the one hand, the display is bright enough that you could easily use the tablet outdoors. On the other, the battery life is so good that you can feel free to crank the brightness once in a while without fear of polishing off the remaining juice. It's a really nice display, but all things considered, we still prefer the Surface's, whose optically bonded screen is less reflective than the VivoTab's.
Once again, ASUS went with SonicMaster audio for its flagship tablet but, say company reps, the speaker chambers are larger than the ones on the Transformer Pad Infinity. The good news is that the bass quality is actually quite pleasant, especially compared to the sound coming out of other tablets. Despite the larger speaker chambers, the volume is on the weak side, but if you're hanging out in a quiet space it should more than suffice.
Performance and battery life
Like other Windows RT tablets hitting the market, the VivoTab runs on a new NVIDIA Tegra 3 T30 SoC, clocked at up to 1.3GHz, along with 2GB of RAM. In the case of this particular tablet, all that amounts to some hit-or-miss performance. On the one hand, we were able to zoom in on web pages with little tiling or stuttering, and the tablet was also quick to respond as we launched apps. Sometimes, we opened an app and changed our mind, hitting the Start key or flipping to another program before that application finished loading. In those cases, the VivoTab responded without hesitation, moving swiftly to whatever app we chose last.
As with the Surface, though, we did see some performance hiccups, like when we swiped in from the left to toggle between open applications. So far, we've seen this on two of two Tegra-powered Windows RT tablets we've tested, though this stuttering was more pronounced on the VivoTab: here, the open apps tiled a bit as we paged through them. On the Surface, the swiping just felt a bit slow at times. Also, we often found ourselves tapping onscreen items (a "buy" button in the Windows Store, a backward arrow) only to be met with no response. And though it's a more minor point, it's worth noting that cold-boot times are slower on the VivoTab: about 30 seconds, compared to 25 or less on the Surface.
ASUS VivoTab RT
9:31 / 4:40 (keyboard dock)
Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7
Apple iPad 2
Acer Iconia Tab A510
ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime
10:17 / 16:34 (keyboard dock)
Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1
Apple iPad (2012)
9:52 (HSPA) / 9:37 (LTE)
Microsoft Surface for Windows RT
ASUS Transformer Pad Infinity TF700
Toshiba Excite 10
Motorola Xoom 2
Sony Xperia Tablet S
ASUS Transformer Pad TF300
8:29 / 12:04 (keyboard dock)
Acer Iconia Tab A700
Acer Iconia Tab A200
Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus
Lenovo IdeaTab S2110
8:07 / 15:11 (keyboard dock)
Amazon Kindle Fire
Galaxy Tab 2 7.0
Acer Iconia Tab A500
Epic battery life has always been one of the best reasons to buy an ASUS tablet: they last a long time on their own, and the optional keyboard docks have built-in cells of their own. In this case, the tablet has a 25Wh battery, rated for up to nine hours of runtime. In practice, the tablet lasted quite a bit longer for us: nine hours and 31 minutes with video looping, WiFi on and the screen brightness fixed at 50 percent. The 22Wh dock, rated for up to seven hours, lasted four hours and 40 minutes on the same test.
We're grading on a curve here -- tablet cameras just aren't that sophisticated -- but ASUS has consistently delivered some of the best image quality we've seen in this category. The VivoTab RT gets off to a good start with the same 8-megapixel, f/2.2 module used on the Infinity. All told, we were really impressed by the level of detail, and our low-light shots don't look half bad, either. That's not to say this should take the place of your smartphone or point-and-shoot camera, though: many of our photos look a bit oversaturated (check out those New Mexican skies, for instance -- they weren't that blue at 5PM). We also noticed some shutter lag on our shots, which meant we had to hold still for a few seconds while taking a shot.
Though the native Windows RT / Windows 8 also doesn't offer anything in the way of photo-enhancing features like HDR mode, ASUS bundled its own camera app, which looks similar to Windows', but offers filters like grayscale and sepia. Unfortunately, neither native app has tap-to-focus, but this particular camera, at least, does a good job of eventually homing in on the right subject.%Gallery-169363%
We keep saying "Windows RT" as if it's a known entity, but until this week, no tablets running this OS had shipped. And we're still not sure consumers will understand the difference between this and regular Windows 8. It doesn't help that they look the same: both have the same redesigned Start Menu, comprised of Live Tiles and native apps like Mail, Calendar, Photos and IE 10, among others. The same gestures apply -- swiping in from the right to expose the Charms Bar, swiping from the left to toggle through open programs and swiping the bottom or top of the display to expose settings specific to a certain application. As you'll hear us say many times in our early Win-8-related reviews, it takes a little time to get comfortable with this new interface, particularly because many of these controls are hidden from view. But once you master them you'll find most of these options are easy to access with just a tap or two. Even better, the Charms Bar and toggle-trigger on the left side of the screen are both within thumbs reach, so it's easy to move through the OS while still cradling your tablet in a natural position.
Another similarity: both Windows RT and Windows 8 have the traditional Windows desktop. Well, mostly traditional. As always, you've got the Taskbar at the ready for pinning apps and files; it's just that the windows are two-dimensional now (no more transparent bordering) and, as you may have heard, there's no Start button in the lower-left corner. Wonderfully, too, every Windows RT comes with Office 2013 Home & Student, with Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote pinned to the Taskbar. These apps are very, very similar to the desktop versions we previewed earlier this year; they've just been modified slightly to accommodate some under-the-hood differences between RT and Window 8.
Other than that, though, you won't be spending too much time here, given the fact that you can't run legacy programs written for traditional x86-based Windows systems. Really, though, we imagine the only x86 app many consumers want is Office, which comes installed on every Windows RT tablet, anyway. Despite the fact that you'll almost exclusively be using apps purchased in the Windows Store, we'd add that the traditional Windows desktop on a tablet-type device can be enormously useful. Case in point: if ever you use the VivoTab dock's built-in USB port, you'll be glad to drag and drop folders in Explorer, just like you're used to.
In addition to Office 2013 and all those native Windows apps we alluded to, ASUS threw in some apps of its own choosing, These include: Amazon Kindle, SuperNote, MyDictionary, MyLibrary, asus@vibe Fun Center and Guide -- a tutorial designed to make people more at home in the new Windows interface. Additionally, the tablet comes with 8GB of ASUS WebStorage, free for three years. NVIDIA has also brought its TegraZone gaming portal over to Windows RT, matching the experience offered on Tegra-powered Android tablets.
Configuration options and the competition
You'll have to decide if you'd rather buy early and hope for the best, or hold off until more of your favorite apps become available.
To recap, ASUS will sell the 32GB tablet and keyboard dock as a bundle, for $599. If you want the 64GB version instead, that will be offered along with the docking station for a kit price of $699. The keyboard will sell on its own for $199.
Soon enough, there will be a handful of Windows RT systems to choose from, with the Dell XPS 10 ($499 and up) and Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 11 ($799, December) set to go on sale later this season. For now, though, ASUS has the advantage of being first out of the gate. First along with Microsoft, anyway. The VivoTab lands the same day as the Surface for Windows RT, which also costs $599 if you want to get the 32GB tablet and keyboard as a bundle. (Note that we're talking about Microsoft's flat, pressure-sensitive Touch Cover keyboard, not the more traditional-looking Type Cover.) To recap everything we've been saying all along, the Surface is heavier, and not as comfortable to hold, but the build quality and display are nicer, and the typing experience is more enjoyable. Either way, performance and battery life are comparable.
Outside the Windows ecosystem, tablets like the VivoTab find competition from the new iPad, as well as high-end Android tablets -- yes, even ASUS' own Transformer Pad Infinity. It already seems clear to us that Windows RT is the better choice for people who want to use their tablet to get real work done. So far, with the Windows Store still in its infancy, you'll find a much wider selection of apps on iOS and Android. As of this writing, Windows 8 is still missing biggies like Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Dropbox, Mint, PageOnce, TripIt, NPR, Draw Something, Words with Friends, Temple Run, Spotify, Springpad, Remember the Milk, Instapaper, Pocket (formerly Read it Later), Flipboard, Steam, Instagram, Nook, Zinio and Rdio.
That will change, though, we're sure: heavy hitters like Netflix, HuluPlus and The New York Times have recently joined the platform, while others, like Pandora, Slacker Radio, Box.net and the Associated Press have been on board for some time already. Given that this is Windows we're talking about -- a major franchise if ever there was one -- we suspect companies like Facebook and Twitter would be crazy not to develop apps for the Windows Store. We just don't know when, exactly, certain holdouts will make their way onto the platform, so you'll have to decide if you'd rather buy early and hope for the best, or hold off for a few months until more of your favorite apps become available.
For better and worse, the VivoTab RT replicated everything we loved and didn't love about the company's Android-based Transformer tablets. This, too, is exceptionally thin, light and easy to hold, with long battery life and a good camera. Still, the fact that ASUS hasn't changed the layout on its keyboard dock means you'll have to brace yourself for a cramped typing experience -- which is a shame since Microsoft's own Surface tablet is offered with not one, but two comfortable keyboards. The performance also feels far more buggy than on the competing Surface tablet.
Finally, too, we'd caution prospective buyers that the selection of Windows RT-compatible apps is far from complete, though the fact that Netflix, HuluPlus, Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja and The New York Times were all added within the past two weeks gives us reason to believe that Microsoft fans won't be left hanging -- at least not when it comes to the important stuff. If you have faith that Windows RT will eventually run every app you could need or want, the VivoTab RT is one of at least two promising choices -- or at least it will be, if ASUS and Microsoft can manage to iron out the software glitches.