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article imageReview: ASUS exploits the allure of tablets, but at a cost

By Jack Kapica     Jan 14, 2013 in Technology
The ASUS Vivo Tab RT is a great vehicle to show off the best features of Windows 8 RT, but can it replace a full laptop computer that can cost less?
The ASUS Vivo Tab RT is my first experience with Windows 8 RT, and it has certainly made me admire its technology. But the operating system has done little to explain — to me at least — the whole logic behind tablet computing. Oh, I understand all the usual arguments for tablets, but as a desktop user I am satisfied enough with what I have and, faced with the price for good tablets matching the cost of good laptops and netbooks, I can’t really feel a blind desire to get a tablet.
At $549.99 (Future Shop) or $599.99 (Staples), plus an extra $130 for the keyboard dock, the ASUS Vivo Tab RT is no match for a terrific netbook with a full operating system and a full keyboard, all thinner than a tablet that really needs a dock, such as this one. However, isn’t buying a keyboard to complement a tablet kind of a contradiction in terms?
But the allure of tablets is great, even greater than that of a snazzy netbook, and it doesn’t matter what I or anyone else says; you either are a tablet person or you’re not. I refuse to enter into the sectarian wars.
My reasoning has to do with use. I’m a writer. I type. I need a keyboard to type — it is physically impossible to type as quickly on a tablet screen as on a keyboard. Some people say they can do use the on-screen keyboard just fine and I admire them, but they never seem to give me a clue as to the length of what they write. They might think that updating your Facebook page or sending a tweet might be a major undertaking. But I’m talking 2,000-word pieces in one sitting, not birthday greetings or memo confirmations. Could the enthusiasts peck at the glass surface for hours on end? I doubt it. They will need a keyboard.
Yet a lot of people love tablets because for them it’s an excellent source of entertainment or information. It boils down to consumption (tablets) versus productivity (full computing power). This is a big problem when trying to see it as a serious tool. At least as far as we currently understand tablets to be.
Nevertheless, from the point of view of a tablet as a device for consuming information and entertainment, the ASUS Vivo Tab is a very nice machine. The hardware is generally excellent, the battery has enough storage to run it for a day or even two of reasonably heavy use (or three days of light use) and the screen is easy on the eyes.
The most obvious feature to consider is the screen, a 16:9-inch ratio (1,366 by 768 pixels), which makes perfect sense for those who like to watch movies the way most of them have been filmed. I don’t care how sexy Apple’s “retina display” is, the iPad screen still cuts off the viewing area at each end.
There is another startling difference between the Vivo Tab and Apple’s iPad — the Vivo Tab weighs in at just shy of 500 grams, while Apple’s new iPad, with its smaller screen, is 635 grams. In the cut-throat world of gadget marketing, this is a big difference.
The major drawback of a screen with these proportions is that trying to use it in vertical mode is a difficult process if you’re doing something more interactive than browsing YouTube. You need some things that were taken out of tablets to make them tablets — such as a stand and a keyboard.
Since displaying movies seems to be a primary purpose of the tablet, a good power supply is necessary. The battery here not only handles a charge for an impressive two or three days, it can it can also be recharged to 50 per cent of its capacity in an hour, or to full power in two hours. Moreover, the battery remains cool no matter how long you use it. Considering that as a tablet it’s meant to be handled a lot, heat becomes an issue. And, like heat, noise is also an issue when you want to use it in quiet situations.
This is important because the architecture of much software made for the earlier Windows operating systems running on laptops tends to devour battery life and run hot. Re-writing apps for Windows RT, which is designed to work with the ARM processor used in tablets, has allowed Microsoft to offer slimmed-down programs that accomplish much of what most people use desktop machines for anyway. It’s a variation of the Pareto Principle, which Microsoft has invoked in the past to explain that 80 per cent of users access only 20 per cent of Microsoft Office features.
Creating lighter and faster versions of desktop software would be difficult to sell to a market consisting of desktop users; people would think they’re being robbed. But put them in a tablet and then it becomes a necessary move. The popularity of tablets is a confirmation that there is a sizeable market for software reduced to something approaching 20 per cent of the capability of its desktop cousin. This process is hardly new; Adobe, for instance, has been rolling out lighter variations of Photoshop for a number of years, though not for reasons of lightness, but for people who do not need the full force of the original software. It might be for different reasons, but it’s still the same process, and Adobe has marketed it very carefully. Perhaps Microsoft killed off its old Microsoft Works package too soon; it could have been a good candidate for porting to tablets — but then I don’t know the mechanics of such a move or the marketing logic.
Of course Windows RT can’t run Windows desktop software, but if the apps available from the Windows 8 store are good enough, then it becomes a lot easier to get the market to accept the product.
The Windows 8 Store? This is the sticky point in any strategy to move to a tablet. At last count, the Windows 8 Store had north of 3,600 apps, a number of them from big names. Of course the Apple community will claim the iPad has more packages, therefore it’s better. Frankly, if I need a dozen apps and they’re good, I don’t think I’d be torn between any two machines.
There are two really big problems with Windows RT. First, or course, is that it’s meant to be a touch pad, meaning you interact with the machine with your fingers on the screen. To many people who use computers for productivity (writing, photo-editing and so on) using a tablet is likened to the level of finger-painting. Fair enough. But that response is valid only for their specific needs and temperaments.
Another is the difficulty in placing menus and features. One hard-core geek I know (he is the go-to tech-support guy at a large university) hated the new menu. For instance, he said, it’s just not logical to place the shut-down function under the Options menu. But wanting the shut-down feature to be reachable from the Start menu, as it is in windows 7, is (to my mind at least), no less logical. But at least we have become accustomed to starting our shut-down process by going to the Start button.
What’s interesting about these complaints is that they reflect the broad spectrum of what people do with their computers. Their comments on new gadgetry spring from deep in the psyche, the place where many people have stored their intuitive understanding of technology. And that’s hard to change. The same problem has stalled the transition, for Americans, from imperial measure to metric. It’s not logic, but preference.
With Vivo, ASUS has actually gone some distance to understanding the concerns of desktop users and satisfying them. For instance, the Vivo Tab has both an SD slot and a USB slot; both can handle 64 gigabytes of storage, multiplying the solid-state drive’s 32-GB memory limit. That way sharing files between a desktop or laptop machine and a tablet becomes easy.
It also has built-in apps for mail, calendaring, messaging, photos and SkyDrive, which is becoming more important in Microsoft’s strategy. It also connects to the Internet via Wi-Fi, which has become almost universal in the developed world.
But it has a preview edition of Microsoft’s Office Home and Student 2013; you will have to wait for that to be released before you can buy it. It also has Microsoft Internet Explorer as its primary browser, and it will not (yet at least) allow you to install Firefox or Chrome, which could frustrate users of certain websites that will simply not work with IE.
Even though I am not in the cross-hairs of Microsoft’s tablet marketing people, I have to admit that handling the Vivo Tab is a pleasant experience and, if I carry something like Microsoft’s Wedge portable keyboard of the ASUS keyboard dock, I could conceivably use it for some limited productivity. But using a separate keyboard somehow seems to defeat the entire concept of a tablet, which is to be really, really light.
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