The ASUS VivoTab RT is the first tablet I’ve tested with Windows 8 RT on it. If this is the type of device that Win8 RT tablets will bring, then Microsoft is going to be hugely successful, and both Apple and Google need to get their game together ASAP.
That is to say, I’m loving my experience with the VivoTab RT. It’s almost like the Transformer Pad Infinity, except with a 1366×768 resolution display (instead of a 1200p panel) and Windows 8 RT instead of Android 4.1. The former isn’t so important, but the later makes what would generally be considered a strong tablet that isn’t quite on par with the iPad a tablet millions of people would rather have than the iPad, and any other tablet on the market.
What Microsoft has done with Win8 RT is pretty spectacular, though for months it has seemed mostly unimpressive. They built nearly every function of Win8 into a tablet running an ARM processor, the processor architecture used by every major tablet on the market today. These processors are highly efficient and very capable, though they lack the raw performance of laptop and desktop processors made by Intel or AMD. With Win8 RT, that doesn’t really matter. The operating system is very slim yet still does just about anything you could want…except run executable files. We’ll get to that in a minute.
Firstly, the best way to describe Win8 RT on a tablet is this: imagine Windows 8 and Windows 7 available on a touchscreen. Imagine that it works well. Imagine that it works with both a keyboard and mouse, with the touchscreen. Imagine that it has a full browser, not a dumbed-down one like most tablets do, but a tablet with power and functionality equivalent to today’s PCs. And imagine it comes with all of the basic Office productivity software. Now stop imagining because it’s true, it works great, and for the past week it the VivoTab has become my laptop and tablet. I finally found a device that replaces both without an enormous pricetag.
It’s that good because of the combination of Win8 RT’s software, which is essentially just Win8, and the fact that all I really need is a browser, the ability to easily save documents and files, and all of the user interface devices have to work smoothly. In all of these areas — which are crucial to business people and professionals as well as everyday consumers — no tablet does a good job. The iPad can save and read most filetypes, but not all of them, and specific apps are required to save certain files. The browser improves regularly but it doesn’t support Flash and is still pretty slow. The same for Android tablets: it can save and play back any filetype, but applications for doing so are sparse and plenty (too few cover all the bases, and too many are available), the browser is capable but Flash again is unsupported. And both have poor keyboard and mouse control, generally speaking.
On Microsoft’s first try it nails every single one of these key mechanics perfectly, at least from my testing thus far. The browser plays Flash (not all Flash; updating Flash is a pain, but that tends to be the fault of websites, not Microsoft), though as of this writing Flash has updated twice and both times sites that previously didn’t support video playback or interaction now work. Office works almost flawlessly, even though it’s still the 2013 Preview, not a full-version (the full version will be available for free for Win8 RT owners). And the Internet Explorer 10 browser is not only remarkably fast, it can handle multiple tabs performing multiple actions simultaneously, something no Android or iPad today does.
And with the proliferation of the web, there really isn’t any need for apps on Win8 RT devices like the VivoTab RT. It has full access to the internet. Full, unfiltered access, and users like myself who live online will flourish with it.
But what about executable files? That’s the one caveat to Win8 RT: files cannot be installed like you would on any traditional Windows computer. The only way to download applications is just like you would on an Android or iOS device: through Microsoft’s app store. It’s a serious bummer, but considering the differences in the CPU architecture it wouldn’t really be possible with so many applications already available. Microsoft would have to either make sure that significantly different processors could run hundreds of millions of PC applications, or make developers adjust their applications accordingly. Anyone who says the former is a requirement is mad. No company could do that, and if Microsoft mandated it the company’s software engineers would have all ripped their hair out, performed mass hari kiri, and if you had stock in the company you’d be crying right now.
In my week with the VivoTab RT, the inability to manage executable files isn’t a big deal. There are a handful of applications I regularly use on my desktop that I’d love to install for regular use, like Adobe Lightroom, Paint.net, Pidgin, and a few others, but again, this is a tablet. Furthermore, applications are available in the Windows 8 workspace, though frankly I haven’t spent much time there. In fact, I like it less for web browsing and general use than the traditional Windows 7 desktop. The browser doesn’t work as well (though it is better equipped for touch-enabled websites, which still number in single digits), and tabs and apps work much like they do on competing tablets: minimal multitasking.
On the Windows 7 side though, I can have WordPress running (our backend of choice), Gmail open with several chat windows, Pandora running (there is no Pandora app for Win8 as of yet), and if need be any Office application. If I need to quickly type something out Notepad and Wordpad are both available instantly. The basic applications on Windows are all there. Users can even access the task manager and control any open or running application, both on the user side and OS side. It’s really incredible.
The hardware is slightly lacking to make the VivoTab RT a laptop/tablet replacement however, mainly because it has no SD card slot like it’s Android brother, the Transformer Pad Infinity. It has a MicroSD card slot (specifically MicroSD cards, not full-size SD cards), as well as an HDMI Mini out port. The additional $100 keyboard dock includes a USB 2.0 slot and a charging slot that can double as a USB 2.0 connector with a special included (free) adapter. With Bluetooth 3.0, I see no reason for up to two USB slots…what sort of peripherals could someone want with a tablet if they’re already using the keyboard dock, which includes a keyboard and small but surprisingly great trackpad? Only a USB headset, and that’s a weird enough choice.
The compact keyboard case is great to type on, though the slightly lowered frame for the keys blocks the spacebar and requires typists to press on it in a strange way so they don’t press on the frame instead of the spacebar. The trackpad is small, but it doesn’t do a good job of reading accidental presses. I’ve accidentally clicked several times in places unintentionally, which caused errors in typing, leaving webpages by accident, and losing some typed data. Thankfully everything online is saved meticulously.
The overall speed of the device is also excellent, considering it’s a tablet and the internal components aren’t exactly the highest-end parts. Sure, Gmail takes a few seconds to load anything, but the full Gmail experience isn’t even available on Android and iOS, only the dumbed down versions. Heck, I typed the last few articles solely using the Internet Explorer 10, listening to Pandora radio through another tab, and chatting on Gchat, and doing everything just in the browser. The only immediate downside for someone like me is the lack of a decent on-board picture editing tool (for basic resizing, cropping, slight edits) through the Windows 7 desktop and maybe a little better performance from IE 10. Otherwise, I’m at home on the VivoTab RT. Much more than any tablet before it.
And, it goes without saying, this whole week of use was on a single charge. ASUS lists the TF600 as capable of 16 hours of continuous use with the keyboard dock, and that number is pretty accurate. I could charge over a few hours when at my desktop and come back and keep using it. That sort of battery performance is unprecedented on such a thin and light device; nothing gets that. Even if the tablet battery life alone is relatively weak at around eight hours, the tablet and keyboard go hand in hand. I couldn’t even imagine using this tablet without the keyboard for too long (though users could opt for a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, which I’ll test for the full review.
We’ll go into much more depth with the full review, but I am so impressed with the VivoTab RT that I would seriously consider replacing both a tablet and laptop with it completely. For my own personal workflow that there would be some limitations, such as finding an app to handle and edit RAW photos, buying new MicroSD cards for my DSLR instead of the current SD cards, and a few Win8 apps to complete my standard workflow. As the VivoTab RT is now, I’d use it for everything except handling my high-end photography; so perhaps not for covering press conferences, but for meetings , for working outdoors or anywhere, and for just about everything else? The VivoTab RT can handle all of that.