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.
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.