ASUS’s rendition of Windows RT shows what Microsoft got so right, and so very, very wrong with the Windows RT.
It’s not like ASUS is trying to hide VivoTab RT, in fact, it’s one of the only Windows RT devices that is really making a go of it in the United States. Samsung never offered its ATIV Windows RT tablet state-side, and just pulled it from Europe as well… due to slow sales.
Look, we’ll keep this one brief. We’re not going to give some long-winded strategic outlook for this one. Looking at the sales figures, you’re probably not going to buy one of these. But, people are curious, since Microsoft is actively competing with its own customers, via Surface RT tablets. How does ASUS stand out from Surface’s shadow?
The ASUS VivoTab RT600 differs in a couple of key ways from Surface RT. They both are powered by NVIDIA’s Tegra 3, and they both run Windows RT. Where they differ, is in how they convert into table-devices from tablets.
The Surface RT relies on a kickstand, combined with its signature covers to turn into a laptop-like device. And, while we didn’t like the touch covers, the Type Cover did a good job of pulling this off for light use.
But, the VivoTab RT reminded us just how much ASUS got it right with the Transformer design. What we’re given, is basically, the latest ASUS Transformer Android tablet, running Windows RT instead. It’s sleeker, lighter, and feels better in just about every respect than Surface RT. The keyboard works great, though we prefer the Surface Type’s old-school non-spaced keys much more… the VivoTab’s keyboard dock is sturdier. It feels more like a laptop.
And that is also because the higher quality of the VivoTab’s keyboard dock is combined with a built-in battery. While docked, you can use the dock’s battery to power the tablet, giving you more on-the-go power. In addition, you can charge both simultaneously with the high-power USB-based charger and cable combo. Power passes through from the keyboard dock to the device, charging both batteries while docked.
USB on the VivoTab RT is delivered via widget or dock, the dock provides a single USB 2.0 port. That matters more on Windows RT though, because Windows RT is the only of the tablet platforms that has broad driver support for USB printing.
The dock release certainly wasn’t as pleasant as Surface RT, but it did the job. Docking VivoTab RT is easy, just not as elegant. More importantly, the dock provides better drop protection… plus a battery, for the same cost (or less than) Microsoft’s Surface Covers.
The main disappointment vs Surface RT, is due to patent. Thanks to Microsoft’s recently-renewed patent sharing agreement with Apple, Surface tablets have a MagSafe-like charging adapter. VivoTab of course does not, as Apple has refused to license MagSafe patents to anyone.
There are a couple of other areas that the VivoTab bests Surface. VivoTab features built-in GPS and NFC. Unfortunately, neither are really leveraged well with Windows RT’s limited app sphere today. CoPilot has promised offline GPS for Windows 8, it’s probable that will reach Windows RT. And, if Nokia offers a Windows RT tablet, you can expect their turn-by-turn GPS to be offered for other RT tablets, similar to how Nokia Maps is available for non-Nokia Windows Phones. Just to be clear though, both GPS and NFC are pretty worthless on Windows RT today. We couldn’t even review them well as a result.
Oh, and the camera on VivoTab RT isn’t terrible. Not great, and not an iPad 4’s camera, but better than Surface RT’s.
VivoTab RT has the hardware down, but it’s really the software that gets VivoTab RT in trouble. It’s still hampered by what Microsoft limits Windows RT with. No desktop apps other than Microsoft’s own Office and Internet Explorer. No sideloading of apps period. If Microsoft doesn’t approve the app, you don’t get to use it. That includes compelling apps like Chrome, Firefox, Opera, and many more.
That’s not to say the package isn’t compelling. We picked up our VivoTab RT setup, with dock, for $349. For that $349, we get a hardware-encrypted Windows tablet, capable of accessing BitLocker secured drives, run Internet Explorer… with Flash built-in, and a fully licensed copy of Office 2013.
If (and we do stress if) you can live within Microsoft’s ethically-questionable walled garden, what you get is not that bad. I had no problem at all drafting, writing, and reviewing this whole review… while watching a TV show on hulu.com. I was able to mount my BitLocker-encrypted drives and review documents in Office.
You can’t say that very easily about any tablet that Apple ships or Google approves of today. Granted, you can accomplish each of those tasks in iOS or Android. But, when it comes to multitasking, only Windows RT can really replace the laptop. Windows RT is probably the most capable multitasking operating system on ARM today. It’s just a real shame that the walled garden makes that, essentially, an Office + Internet Explorer only affair. While you can run two modern/metro apps side-by-side, it’s a disappointing experience, similar to much of the dumbed-down UI guidelines that underpin Metro in general.
Is it worth it?
In a word, maybe. That’s the question that’s been racking my brain. Android has way more apps. So does iOS. You can get nearly the same tablet from ASUS in the TF800 and it runs Jelly Bean all day long. But, you can’t edit a document while watching TV online, like you can with the TF600.
We really wish ASUS would have been daring, pushed the envelope. Microsoft probably would have stopped them, but it would have been amazing to have offered dual booting between Windows RT and Android. The Windows RT licensing terms are, of course, secret, but regulators were told that OEMs can add their own UEFI boot keys and run other operating systems. Considering this is basically a TF800, why not dual-boot and let users run both?
Oh yeah, Microsoft would have said no. And thus, we’re left with an awful decision. We’re sold on the TF600, just like the TF800 in terms of hardware. But it makes no sense to buy both.
We believe Microsoft is committed to Windows RT, there’s no concern that this tablet will not get Windows Blue, the next version/service pack of Windows. We just aren’t sure Microsoft will fix Windows RT. Enable sideloading, allow for desktop apps, and really make the platform shine.
The VivoTab RT makes sense for some. Those who want a truly secure tablet for users that perform over ninety percent of their tasks in either Internet Explorer or Microsoft Office. Considering that Microsoft has made both apps actually quite adequate, it may make sense for you to buy one. Just do get it at a bargain, there are plenty out there on these.
Windows RT can replace your laptop on the go. iOS and Android, it’s still a tertiary device. That’s the bet Microsoft made with all its burdens on Windows RT, both on consumers and device manufacturers. At $349, VivoTab RT makes the case relevant. But Microsoft needs to do more to close the sale. Still, the only people that would hate owning this tablet over the next few years, are gamers; Windows RT’s app situation hurts gaming the most, by far.
Finally, and ultimately, the VivoTab RT is a gamble. It’s a gamble that Microsoft will do the right thing and keep improving Windows RT. Today, Windows RT bests Android and iOS in a few fringe areas. We’re impressed, but it would be so easy for Microsoft to take the muzzle off devices like VivoTab RT, and let them really shine. We’re tired of repeating to Microsoft how to make it happen.
Pros: Excellent multitasking, refined hardware, great Transformer dock performance.
Cons: Windows RT’s walled garden limitations, multitasking hampered by desktop app ban.
Final Score: 4/5