We've been rather busy cranking out reviews lately, and we've got all the usual PC makers to thank. Similar to how we spent 2011 reviewing various Android tablets, we're now facing an onslaught of laptop / tablet hybrids, most of them running full Windows 8 and chugging along on low-powered Clover Trail processors promising epic battery life. So far, we've tested models from Acer, HP, Lenovo and Samsung. But our review cycle wouldn't be complete without ASUS -- after all, the company was selling its Transformer tablets before keyboard docks were even a thing.
Today we're taking a look at the VivoTab Smart, a $499 tablet offered with an optional Bluetooth keyboard and a thin, magnetically attached cover that doubles as a stand. (Yes, with four different color options, it looks kind of like that Smart Cover.) But that's only part of the story: this is also shaping up to be a fantastic bargain for people who want a relatively inexpensive device running full Windows 8. Think about it: for $499 you get a device with 64GB of built-in storage (not 32, but 64), an IPS display, 9.7mm-thick design and an 8-megapixel rear camera capable of 1080p video. Not bad at all for a device at that price. So is it as nice in person as it is on paper? Mostly.
Look and feel
The VivoTab Smart might be one of the most inexpensive Windows 8 tablets on the market, but it also happens to be one of the best-made. There's not much to it, really: the entire back shell is made of polycarbonate, with black and white being your two color choices. We got hands-on with the white model, and indeed, the review unit we took home was white too. So, we can't speak for the black model, but the white one, at least, does an excellent job of masking fingerprints. It's scratchproof too, so far as we can tell, which should apply to the black version as well, if that's the one you decide to get.
The VivoTab Smart is simple, solidly built and doesn't draw too much attention to itself.
And did we mention it's light? The tablet measures 9.7mm (0.38 inch) thick and weighs in at 580 grams (1.28 pounds), putting it on par with other lightweights like the Acer Iconia W510 (1.27 pounds) and the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 (1.3 pounds). Holding it is generally comfortable, though the rounded-off edges aren't quite as round as they look: the sharp edges can dig into your palms if you're not careful.
All in all, it's perhaps not as premium-looking as ASUS' metal-clad Infinity tablet, but that doesn't mean we like it any less. The VivoTab Smart is simple, solidly built and doesn't draw too much attention to itself. In fact, it'd be nice to see ASUS extend this aesthetic to other devices; spun-metal lids are nice and all, but we enjoy what the company is doing here, and besides, a little shake-up in design could keep things interesting.
Taking a tour around the device, the VivoTab Smart has an NFC sensor built into the back. You can't miss it: there's even a sticker marking the spot. Though that's not exactly a rare feature, it's definitely something you're more likely to find on higher-end tablets than on budget models.
We were also a little surprised not to find a full-size USB port. Granted, not all low-powered Windows 8 tablets have this on the hardware itself, but if they don't, there's usually at least a USB port included on the keyboard dock. The VivoTab Smart is one of the only products where you won't find a full USB port on either the tablet or the keyboard. What you do get is a micro-USB socket, which you'll also use for recharging. Other than that, the rest of the list shouldn't surprise you: a 3.5mm headphone jack, a microSD slot, a volume rocker and a power / lock button. Pretty standard stuff.
Display and sound
Like every other Atom-based tablet, the VivoTab Smart's 10.1-inch screen has a resolution of 1,366 x 768. It's also an IPS panel -- one rated for 350 nits of brightness, at that. In most situations (read: indoors) the viewing angles are quite wide: you can watch a movie with the tablet lying face-up on a table if you wanted to. That's particularly good news since the optional TranSleeve folds up in such a way that you can't adjust the viewing angle, but we'll talk about that in much more detail later. For now, suffice to say that if you're using the tablet on your couch, its display specifications should be more than adequate for streaming a little Netflix.
Outdoors, though, that IPS panel and 350 nits of brightness aren't enough to make the screen easily viewable. Even with the brightness cranked all the way up, we struggled to frame shots in the Camera app, though a little shade and some squinting should help you get by. Hardly a dealbreaker, but it would be nice if later generations of this tablet sported the same 600-nit Super IPS+ screens used on ASUS' highest-end Transformer tablets (and even the VivoTab RT!).
Audio quality on the VivoTab Smart feels like a bit of an afterthought, mostly because the single speaker doesn't get very loud, and is located on the backside where the sound is at risk of getting muffled. Indeed, you'll want to keep the tablet parked in the TranSleeve dock if you intend to listen for long periods; drop the tablet flat onto a couch or a bed and the sound instantly loses some of its bite. All that said, the quality itself isn't half-bad. We started streaming Grooveshark after listening in on a laptop, and didn't really notice a drop-off in quality. If anything, it was the volume that took a hit.
When the VivoTab Smart was first announced, there were some tech bloggers (even some Engadget editors) who suggested it came with a Surface-style keyboard. That's not strictly true. Yes, that thin TranSleeve cover snaps on in a manner similar to a Type Cover, but there are no keys attached there. What you get instead is a standalone Bluetooth keyboard -- a thin little thing that you can easily shove into a carry-on. As you might expect, a slim profile means the buttons themselves are pretty flat. In fact, though, they're surprisingly easy to type on. Sure, it's not as comfy as the ThinkPad Tablet 2's keyboard (nothing is), but we had few issues using it to type out a chunk of this very review.
When the VivoTab Smart was first announced, there were some tech bloggers who suggested it came with a Surface-style keyboard. That's not strictly true.
Above all, we have to commend ASUS for maintaining a respectable amount of space between the keys. Even with that island-style arrangement, there aren't many undersized buttons here -- the Enter, Shift, Backspace and Caps Lock keys are all full-sized, and easy to hit without looking away from the screen. All told, it's a much less cramped -- less netbook-ish -- experience than what you'll get on the Iconia W510. To be clear, the buttons here are still closer together than on your typical laptop keyboard, and the flimsy panel flexes under the stress of more furious typing. Our point is: of all the hybrid keyboards we've seen, this is one of the better ones.
The trackpad is also superior to what you'll find on most other tablet keyboards. Yes, it's as small as you'd expect it to be, which means it's usually a better idea to left click with a tap instead of trying to squeeze your thumb and index finger on there. But, it handles tracking pretty well, and even supports Windows 8 gestures, which isn't true of every keyboard we've tested. Certainly, the Acer Iconia W510 can't do that.
Finally, one last thing we like about the keyboard: you never have to worry about swapping in fresh batteries. Instead, it makes use of a rechargeable battery, which you can top off using the on-board micro-USB socket. That's the same charging standard that the tablet uses, so in theory you could travel with just one cable and switch off as needed. It should go without saying, too, that you can use it while charging. The only downside there is that because the charging port sits on the top edge of the keyboard, the cord curls up against the propped up tablet, partially obstructing your view of the screen.
What's nice is that once you fold the cover up, magnets keep the makeshift dock in place so that it doesn't flop around. Mostly, anyway.
It doesn't seem like a coincidence that the VivoTab Smart's thin cover is similar in design to that other Smart Cover, the one designed for the iPad. Like Apple's offering, the TranSleeve attaches not through a physical latch, but through magnets, which hook onto the bottom edge of the tablet. Here, too, the cover is lined with a soft material on the side that's meant to lie against the screen; the outer shell is a bit tougher, a bit more rubbery. All told, it stands up quite well to scratches and fingerprints and generally works as promised, at least as far as protecting the tablet goes. Just make sure you don't lose it: it costs $50 in addition to the tablet, which seems steep for what it is. (Psst: try and see if you can find this for $39 or so before ponying up the full $50.)
Now for the best part: in addition to protecting the screen, the cover can be folded up so that it doubles as a stand. We'll admit we fumbled a bit with this the first time we saw the VivoTab in person back at CES. But even if you struggle the first time, you're not likely to make the same mistake again. You see, the cover has indentations in the spots where you're supposed to fold it; not unlike a paper map with crease lines. Unlike a map, though, you couldn't fold this thing the wrong way even if you tried. There's only one correct way to transform this into a dock, so whatever you do, all roads eventually lead to right.
What's nice is that once you fold the cover up, magnets keep the makeshift dock in place so that it doesn't flop around. Mostly, anyway. We noticed in our testing that one side of the dock often held more tightly than the other. And while the cover itself is easy enough to set up, it can be challenging to make the tablet stay put. Even after living with the VivoTab for more than a week, it still routinely takes us two or three tries to make the tablet sit in its dock without toppling the whole thing over. It would seem that has less to do with the sturdiness of the dock, and more to do with the TranSleeve's tenuous magnetic connection (while we're on the subject, you definitely want to avoid picking the tablet up by its cover). In any case, once you get it right, though, it's easy to move the thing around on your desk without having to set it up all over again.
Performance and battery life
ATTO (top disk speeds)
ASUS VivoTab Smart (1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760, Intel HD)
83 MB/s (reads); 35 MB/s (writes)
Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 (1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760, Intel HD)
83 MB/s (reads); 35 MB/s (writes)
HP Envy x2 (1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760, Intel HD)
83 MB/s (reads); 34 MB/s (writes)
Samsung ATIV Smart PC (1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760, Intel HD)
82 MB/s (reads); 36 MB/s (writes)
Acer Iconia W510 (1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760, Intel HD)
81 MB/s (reads); 28 MB/s (writes)
You might be used to seeing a little variation in specs when we review smartphones, but low-powered Windows tablets are a different beast. Every (and we mean every) model we've tested has the same Intel Atom Z2760 processor, clocked at 1.8GHz, along with Intel HD graphics and 2GB of RAM. So, what'dya know, the VivoTab Smart performs identically to its peers in synthetic benchmarks, with max read speeds of 83 MB/s, peak write rates of 35 MB/s and a boot-up time of 15 seconds or so.
So what does this mean in terms of everyday use? Well, if our anecdotes are of any use, we had no problem composing this review in Word while intermittently flipping back into other applications like IE10, Netflix and the native Photos application. As we've said before, Intel's Clover Trail platform is more than adequate for doing things tablets are supposed to be good at, things like playing back movies, displaying photos, loading webpages. We had no problem opening apps, or switching between them when we had a bunch open at once. Heat management was fine too -- the backside got a little warm after we spent some time streaming music through Grooveshark, but the device never got hot or uncomfortable to hold.
We did notice, though, that the screen's palm rejection couldn't always keep up with us. Case in point: we ended up with a handful of junk camera shots because the tablet couldn't tell we were just holding the tablet, and not actively tapping the screen to release the shutter. That's not a quirk we've noticed on every Windows 8 tablet we've tested.
Windows 8 systems
ASUS VivoTab Smart
ThinkPad Tablet 2
Acer Iconia W510
8:19 (tablet only) / 14:17 (with the dock)
HP Envy x2
7:53 (tablet only) / 12:30 (with the dock)
Acer Iconia W700
Samsung ATIV Smart PC (AT&T)
7:04 (WiFi only) / 6:43 (LTE)
Under the best conditions, the tablet's 25Wh battery is rated for 8.5 hours of runtime. With light use, you may well approach the nine-hour mark but obviously, we got a little less juice when we really put it through its paces. In our grueling rundown test, which consists of looping a movie with WiFi on and the display brightness fixed at a constant level, we got exactly seven and a half hours of battery life.
That's not bad for a tablet with an x86 processor inside, but we've also seen Atom-based slates that last longer than this. The HP Envy x2 lasts nearly eight hours for instance, while the Acer Iconia W510 is capable of nearly eight and a half. And let's not forget the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2, which managed a whopping 10 and a half hours on the same test. What's more, many of these tablets (the x2, the W510) can be used with a keyboard dock that has a second battery built in. The VivoTab Smart doesn't have that, so it was especially important that the tablet itself offer best-in-class runtime. Best in class it's not, but for some, 7.5 hours might still be enough.
We think we can all agree that tablet cameras are crude compared to what even a mid-range smartphone can offer, with slower shot-to-shot speeds and poor macro performance. Even so, we had high hopes for the 8-megapixel shooter on the VivoTab: after all, ASUS' Android tablets already cream the competition as far as image quality is concerned. Heck, ASUS even managed to do a fine job on the VivoTab RT, which is notable since the native camera application in Windows 8 / Windows RT doesn't offer any of the amenities you'd normally expect (tap-to-focus, HDR, scene modes, etc.). So we figured if any device could rise above all the other Windows 8 tablets we've been testing, it would be this.
And it generally does. Even in low-light conditions (a dimly lit lobby, for instance) the main 8MP camera focuses quickly and accurately. (Take a look at that shot of the lamp with the see-through stand; we half-expected the tablet to home in on the background instead.) We'd also add that most of our photos were free of blur, which is a bit surprising, just because we always felt keenly aware of a little shutter lag. That is, it would take an extra second before we were totally, without-a-doubt sure that the photo had processed and that we could move on. Oftentimes, we moved too quickly after snapping a pic, and were sure the shot had been ruined; it never was. Even a shot I took of my shadow while walking turned out okay. Basically, then, the camera might feel a bit slow, but if these samples are any indication, it's not actually that hard to end up with a pristine shot.
As for the photos themselves, most colors look pleasant, though there was an instance or two when whatever it is we were trying to shoot came out much darker than in real life (take a look at that surreal navy sky in our sample gallery -- that was a daytime shot!). Our 1080p video, too, looked crisp, though it wasn't totally free of ghosting once we brought some fast-moving subjects into the mix.
Software and warranty
ASUS actually didn't go overboard with the bloatware here: you've got a few added apps like Netflix, Skype and Kindle, and then a bunch of proprietary programs created by ASUS itself. These include ASUS Camera, MyLibrary, MyDictionary, ASUS WebStorage and LiveUpdate (they're all exactly what you think they are). There's also the same SuperNote application you'll find on the TAICHI 21 Ultrabook, which is strange because this particular device doesn't support pen input for jotting down notes. Finally, ASUS bundled a handful of Xbox Live games, including Pinball FX2, Microsoft Mahjong, Taptiles and Microsoft Solitaire Collection. See, that wasn't so bad, was it?
No surprises here, but the VivoTab Smart comes with one year of warranty coverage. Pretty standard for consumer electronics, unless, perhaps, you just bought a high-end laptop.
Normally, when we talk about different tablet configurations, we're giving you the choice between 32 gigs and 64; WiFi-only or 4G. Here, the only decision you have to make is whether you prefer black or white. The tablet will be available in those two colors; either way, it costs $499 with 64GB of built-in storage. (ASUS is expecting the street pricing to hit $479 in some places, for what that's worth.) If you want the whole enchilada -- both the sleeve and the keyboard -- they're being sold as a bundle for $130. If all you want is the cover, though, you can purchase that by itself for $50.
We'll just spoil the punch line right here: the ASUS VivoTab Smart offers fantastic value for the money. It might not be our favorite in every respect, but it's a compelling product in its own right, and it's even greater when you consider the price. Let us repeat: this starts at $499 with 64GB of storage. For the same price, the Acer Iconia W510 has just 32 gigs -- and the typing experience with the optional dock isn't as good, either.
And as much as we love the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2, it ain't cheap: it starts at $579 for 32GB of storage, and that's without pen support. All told, it offers the best battery life in its class, along with the best keyboard (that sells separately for $120, so you at least make up $10 on the price gap, what with this keyboard being cheaper than ASUS'). If pen support is important to you, we suggest you bite the bullet and pay the premium for a model that has a dual digitizer (don't bother with the HP Envy x2 -- that has pen support, but the battery life and typing aren't as good as on Lenovo's tablet). The Samsung ATIV Smart PC has pen support too, but only if you choose the WiFi-only model (the LTE version on AT&T only accepts finger input). Even then, we weren't fans of the Smart PC's keyboard dock, and we experienced glitches on multiple review units, too.
If pen input isn't a necessity, though, you've got a choice to make: you could decide to pay extra for the ThinkPad Tablet 2 on the grounds that it's the absolute best tablet in this class. Or you could pay less for the VivoTab Smart and get more built-in storage, along with a perfectly serviceable typing experience and good-enough battery life. We can't say we'd blame you if you chose the latter.
In absolute terms, the VivoTab Smart isn't our favorite low-powered hybrid (that would be the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2). But it's close. Hands down, this offers more bang for your buck than anything else you might be considering, what with its attractive design, relatively low price point and generous storage. We're also pretty keen on the optional Bluetooth keyboard, as its thin shape makes it easy to pack in a bag, and the buttons are well-spaced enough for touch typists.
Folks who want pen input are better off splurging on the ThinkPad, as that's one feature you're not going to get here. We'd also hope that ASUS squeezes out a little more runtime on the next-gen model, especially since the keyboard doesn't have a built-in battery of its own. In fact, if spectacular endurance is what you're looking for, you might want to take a look at the Acer Iconia W510, but even then we'll warn you that it has a cramped keyboard and less built-in storage for the same price. These caveats aside, the VivoTab Smart is a great buy, and it's your best bet if you want the full Windows 8 experience on the cheap.