|Meet Our First Windows RT Tab|
|If you've been waiting for the other shoe to drop in the tablet market, today is the day. We're a few days ahead of Microsoft's Surface and Windows 8 launch on October 26th but the folks at ASUS (and other OEM partners) have been given the green light to let fly with their Windows RT tablet offering today. Microsoft is allowing the wraps to slip off of their Windows RT operating system, a branding otherwise known as Window 8 for ARM-driven devices. And interestingly enough, it looks as if NVIDIA has a solid lock on Windows RT tablet market share, as not only Microsoft's Surface but the majority of Windows RT tablets to hit the market today are driven by NVIDIA's Tegra 3 quad-core system on a chip.
Let's think about this for a minute. NVIDIA's Tegra 3 quad-core SoC (4+1 companion core, please, NVIDIA would like you to remember that) has also powered the vast majority of Android slates as well. So what we're looking at here is a very interesting dynamic where, for all intents and purposes, the hardware driving many current Google Android and Microsoft Windows RT tablets is pretty much identical, especially when it comes to 10-inch slates. Now, paint that dynamic against the backdrop of Apple's ever-dominant iPad and iOS 6 and you have real tipping point in the tablet landscape, just in time for that holiday buying spree, of course.
So, the sixty-four-thousand dollar question, as they say, is: Does Windows 8/RT have what it takes to compete in the sea of Android and Apple tablets currently on the market, as the Jelly Bean turns? We'll try and answer that question to the best of our ability for you, in the pages that follow.
First, let's give you a hands-on look at the ASUS Vivo Tab RT and the Windows RT operating system in action. Then we'll dig into the specifics of ASUS' first Windows RT offering.
all about combining the best things that a tablet experience has to offer, with cross-platform PC compatibility and functionality.
Beyond the user experience and software side of things, from a hardware perspective, ASUS set up the Vivo Tab RT very much like many of the Android slates in their Transformer line-up. NVIDIA's Tegra 3 SoC (System on a Chip) is backed-up, however this time, by a full 2GB of low power DDR3 memory. In addition, ASUS' super-gorgeous Super IPS+ display technology makes an appearance again as well, with its full 600 nits of brightness, though native resolution is capped at a more modest 1366X768. 32GB and 64GB variants of the Vivo Tab RT are available with the keyboard doc, for an MSRP of $599 and $699 respectively, which includes a full version of Microsoft Office 13 RT Home and Student Edition, to complete the package.
Let's get a closer look at the hardware...
|ASUS Vivo Tab RT Design|
The ASUS Vivo RT is pretty standard fare when it comes to 10-inch tablets these days, though ASUS does offer a bit of polish and quality you won't find in other designs. The primary upside with the Vivo RT is its Super IPS+ display that offers great brightness, contrast, color saturation and viewing angles. Perhaps the Windows 8/RT color scheme helps here somewhat, because the Metro UI looks rich and just seems to pop on the display.
Unfortunately that display is limited to a native resolution of 1366X768, as we noted earlier, but that may or may not be a concern for you. If you're a pixel snob looking to compete with the likes of the new iPad, the ASUS Transformer Pad Infinity or Acer A700 Android tablets, the Vivo RT doesn't measure up to the 1920X1200 displays on those higher-end slates. In our opinion, however, 1366X768 is high res enough for 10.1 inches of glass. We're not making excuses; those higher res displays offer more field of view and tighter image quality to be sure. That said, the Vivo Tab RT's display is still one of the nicer displays on the market in 10-inch tablets, no matter how you slice it or what operating systems you're on.
That Vivo Tab RT casing is built with the same brushed aluminum finish we've come to know (and love actually) from previous generation ASUS Transformer series tablets. Seen here is the gray finish version of the tablet, though we'd call it more of a champagne silver, with a subtle hint of pewter in the mix. It's a fairly durable, mostly fingerprint resistant material that will unfortunately have a tendency to scuff on the back side of the tablet, if you set it down on a hard or coarse surface. The back side of the Vivo RT does have a rubberized top around the camera, power button, volume rocker and microSD card slot area that will help in this regard, though it does break the overall polished look just a bit.
The keyboard dock isn't as "optional" as previous generation Android slates from ASUS, since the company is pushing a tighter coupling of the two, which makes sense given the fact that Windows RT straddles the line better between a PC and tablet experience. The dock does a nice job of providing that additional functionality and you do find yourself actually using it a bit more than you would with an Android tablet. More on this later.
With a Micro-HDMI and microSD card slot on board, as well as the ability to directly add a USB 2 connector via an included dongle, the Vivo Tab RT is a pretty complete slate even before you add the keyboard dock. All told, for a retail price of $599 for 32GB and $699 for 64GB variants, ASUS provides a fairly competitive offering, especially when you consider Microsoft throws in Office 13 RT Home/Student Edition to the mix. We'd like to see tablet only SKUs out there eventually for $399 - $449, since historically ASUS sells the dock separately for around $150, but that hasn't been confirmed as of yet.
Let's look at the software side of things and see what else you get for the pesos you put up.
|Windows RT Interface|
Let's be real here. I mean that's why you come to this place called HotHardware, right? (Well that and for the love of cool stuff, we hope...) If you're new to Windows RT/Windows 8 and have cut your PC teeth on previous generation Windows operating systems, Microsoft's new Metro user interface is a pretty hard transition, like no segue at all, just sort of "here, deal with this." The words "jarring" and "radical" have been used copiously to describe the difference between the UI and what end users have been working with for well over a decade.
On the other hand, tablets themselves have evolved significantly since they were introduced way back before ARM even had a whiff of the market opportunity and before Android was even a glimmer in Larry Page's or Sergey Brin's eyes. And touch? Back when the old Window UI was introduced, if you were touching the screen you were just mucking it up with fingerprints. Windows 7 TouchPack? Don't even get me started. Microsoft saw the writing on the wall and had to break out with something revolutionary. For tablets, I think they've succeeded.
Windows RT Start Screen
Firstly, though it may take you some time to get fully up to speed with the many features and functionality of Windows RT and Windows 8, with a few simple gesture swipes committed to memory, you can get things done pretty darn efficiently. In fact, to me, the OS feels significantly more efficient on a tablet than Android currently.
Key Gestures To Know -
Swipe in from the right and you bring up the "Charms" toolbar and Clock/Calender/WiFi/Power widget. Why some marketing genius called these things "charms" is beyond me but that's why they pay them the big bucks I guess. Charms... How about "Control Bar?" I digress. Swiping in from the left of the screen switches active applications for you. Swiping in from the left and then quickly back out, brings up a tile-based list of most recently used apps. Swiping up from the bottom within any app brings up the command bar for that app. Swipe in from the left slowly and you can split the screen with an app in the foreground, with an app you have running in the background offering functionality and access to both apps. Drag-swipe down from the top edge of an app and you'll quit out of it. Beyond that, other than standard and now commonplace pinch/zoom, tap, slide and rotate gestures found on virtually all tablets these days, you really don't need to know much more to get around Windows RT or Windows 8. From there you need to put your big boy pants on and explore a little bit, that's all.
So that's about 10 - 12 high level commands/gestures you need to keep rattling around in your brain, all of which have mouse/keyboard equivalents to go with them as well. The whole affair, once you know what to do, is pretty painless.
Microsoft Internet Explorer for Windows RT
Internet Explorer for Windows RT is also fairly well-equipped, with its own app control/settings menu, URL and history bar and open pages tiles available with a swipe up from the bottom of the screen. And you should see this thing render. Reorienting from landscape to portrait mode happens without a hint of screen re-draw; it just re-sizes and pops into place instantly. Pinch/zoom gestures react as quickly as any iPad and both reorientation and screen gestures feel faster, smoother and more fluid than Android web browsing currently, even with Jelly Bean.
Application Split Screen Sharing
Windows RT Desktop/MS Office Multitask, Split Screen Pictures Library
Tablet Multitasking Grows Up -
Multitasking is another huge strength for Windows RT and Windows 8. If you took any time to watch our demo video on page 1, you saw just how fast and fluid the new OS is switching between actively running apps. That's because Microsoft doesn't keep the apps actually running, at least full bore, but rather invokes a sleep state for an idle app or one that isn't running in the foreground. As a result, CPU and Memory footprints for the multiple apps you have running are miniscule comparatively to multi-tasked applications in Windows 7, for example.
Windows RT Task Manager Resource Utilization Monitor
The above screen shots show Multiple MS Office applications running in standard desktop mode (a requirement for Office 13 apps currently), along with Internet Explorer, Fresh Paint, Pandora, the Weather and a game called "Cut the Rope," all simultaneously. And you can swipe from one to the other between these apps and the desktop like "butter" (sorry Google). Notice all the apps consuming almost zero or zero CPU utilization along with low memory footprints and no disk access? Windows RT and Windows 8 are really that good with application multitasking and switching.
|Windows RT Apps|
Alas all is not perfect by any stretch with Microsoft's new OS and there of course are more than a few immaturities you'll need to cope with, at least for a while...
Email sent via Email Share Function of Bing News App
For example, there are a few things that are currently just plain broken. Above is a screen shot taken from the Bing News app, that I shared to my personal email account. When I opened it in MS Outlook on my Windows 7 desktop to view it and clicked the link to the article, what I got was a dead link that didn't work with an incorrect path and bad scripting. This at least seems like an easy fix for Microsoft.
Microsoft Store App
On the other hand, a longer, harder road for Microsoft will be fleshing out the Microsoft Store app and gaining ISV support for their new OS and app ecosystem. Historically this has been a strength for Microsoft on the desktop, but with handsets there is a big gap between the MS Store and what both Google Play and iTunes (the watermark currently) have to offer. Microsoft is keeping a pretty tight rein on things prior to official launch on Friday, 10/26. NVIDIA has informed us that Tegra Zone will be coming to the Store bringing a much-needed kitty of games to the party.
Windows RT Pictures Library App
There are more than a few download worthy apps currently available however, to go along with the traditional software that's already included within Windows RT. Seen here is the Pictures app, which does a nice job of organizing and presenting your still image media on the device. The mail client of choice currently on Window RT is Metro-inspired version of Hotmail that is actually pretty slick and easy to use.
Windows Fresh Paint - Free on the MS Store
Fresh Paint is drawing app that is free on the MS Store, and there are other notable titles like Pandora, which is one of our all time favorites.
Pandora Music Streaming App for Windows 8/RT - Free on The MS Store
The Windows RT/8 version of Pandora is really nice, presenting album art and glam shots of your favorite artists along with a buffed up and stylized version of its playback/pause/skip and voting interface.
One of the few graphically intensive games currently on the MS Store is Hydro Thunder Hurricane.
Hydro Thunder Hurricane by Vector Unit and Microsoft Game Studios - $9.99 on MS Store
Similar to what we've seen on other NVIDIA Tegra 3-powered tablets, frame rates and image quality are impressive, especially for a tablet gaming experience.
Backing up all your precious data, images, music and other media is Microsoft SkyDrive, which has been out on multiple platforms including Windows, iOS and Android for some time now. Much like Google Drive and iCloud, SkyDrive lets you backup your files to Microsoft's servers in the "cloud", and you can access them from anywhere, on any device, regardless of the operating system. It also allows sharing files and access to files that have been shared with you. The app is free, comes pre-installed on the ASUS Vivo Tab RT and you get 7GB of storage capacity for free.
|Performance: Web-based Testing|
Test Methodology: Unfortunately, this page may be a bit dry and tasteless for you, if you're used to digesting page upon page of performance benchmarks. The fact of the matter is, there really aren't currently that many ways of benchmarking performance on a Windows RT device currently, other than a couple of web browser-based metrics. Only Microsoft can run Windows 32 apps on Windows RT currently, like MS Office 13 for example.
And of course Android and iOS-based benchmarks are a no-go as well. With that in mind, we can still run a couple of basic tests, like SunSpider and Rightware BrowserMark.
In SunSpider, the Windows RT-driven ASUS Vivo Tab RT takes the performance slot versus all other major tablet platforms currently, including iOS and Android. Even the powerful quad-core Samsung Exynos SoC in the Galaxy Note 10.1 doesn't quite keep up with Android Ice Cream Sandwich on board. We should note, although not quite Apples-to-Apples (no pun intended), the iPhone 5's A6 SoC and iOS 6 do outpace Windows RT, NVIDIA's Tegra 3 and the Vivo Tab RT here by just a hair at 941.8
Unfortunately our benchmark testing with Windows RT right now is a bit on the inconclusive side but we'll return to this in the weeks and months ahead, as new tools and measurements become available to us.
|Camera App, Performance, Battery Life|
|Though the camera app in Windows RT may look a little uninspiring, with it's simple box control panes, drop-down menus and sliders, I actually appreciated the simplicity, which is one of the primary attractions of Microsoft's new OS to begin with.
Microsoft Windows RT Camera App
Asus Vivo Tab RT Still Camera Samples
Unfortunately, even though there's an 8MP camera on board the ASUS Vivo RT, image quality definitely wasn't the best, especially in low light settings. Even with the flash on, auto-focusing was challenged and resulted in somewhat grainy, lower fidelity shots.
In brighter settings and with a steady hand you can realize better results, though. This appears to be an area that both Microsoft and manufacturers are still buffing out a bit.
In an attempt to quantitatively measure the ASUS Vivo Tab RT's battery life in a controlled benchmark environment, we ran a test in which we set up a webpage with a mix of graphics, Flash media and text. The page automatically refreshes every three minutes. This is a simple baseline test that measures up time while web browsing. Due to time constraints, we were only able to test the tablet itself and not the keyboard dock, which offers additional battery capacity.
For this test, we set the Vivo Tab RT's display to 50% brightness, which is still plenty bright and easy on the eyes.
RESULTS NOT FINAL
Now before you get all worked up with excitement, unfortunately the playing field is a bit uneven here. You see Flash support currently in Windows RT appears spotty depending on the website and thus the workload for web browsing may have been dramatically reduced for the ASUS Vivo Tab RT. All of the other times listed here are based on browsers and operating systems that support Flash media fully. We've been told that technically, Windows RT supports Flash in the IE10 browser but that currently there may be issues site to site. As a result, the Vivo Tab RT's time could be a bit skewed and exaggerated. For further reference, ASUS claims the device is capable of about 8 hours of use in continuous HD video playback.
** We'll update this graph in the next few days, as we've been told that Microsoft will be pushing a major update to Windows RT devices on October 26th, which will include a significant Flash update as well.
|Performance Analysis and Final Thoughts|
Performance Analysis: Though we weren't able to fully quantify the numbers in dedicated benchmark tests, the ASUS Vivo Tab RT offered a very responsive, fluid and satisfying tablet experience overall. Switching between applications and multitasking in general was very impressive, actually besting or matching virtually any competitive tablet solution on the market currently, in general use. Though there were a few application glitches along the way for Windows RT and the Vivo Tab RT's camera didn't impress us much, overall Windows RT and the NVIDIA Tegra 3-power ASUS Vivo Tab RT is an impressive combination in terms of usability and general performance.
So then, let's go back to that original question we asked in the beginning of our coverage here. Do Windows RT (and Windows 8) tablets have what it takes to compete in the sea of Android and Apple tablets currently on the market? I would offer that answer is a firm, convincing "yes," absolutely. To be candid, we went into this evaluation with significant skepticism just due to the fact that Android 4.X and iOS have been on the market so long gaining traction and maturity. Now that I've had a week's worth of regular use with the ASUS Vivo Tab RT, in short, I'm sold and in a big way.
In fact, I'd go so far as to say that I actually prefer Windows RT/8 to the Android experience I've gotten used to, save for the spotty Flash support in IE10 for Win RT. I can also draw further assumption that I'll likely be as impressed with Windows 8 Pro tablets when they hit the scene in the coming weeks as well. Windows RT and Windows 8 are natural, built from the ground up tablet-centric, touch-centric operating systems. Microsoft's real challenge will come on the desktop. Here I think we'll likely be looking at a situation similar to that of Windows XP, where users and especially the enterprise will cling to Windows 7 for a long time to come.
Conversely, early adopters who take time to live with and learn the OS will reap the benefits of superb multitasking and application resource management, a feature that any performance enthusiast will surely be jonesing over. While the ASUS Vivo Tab RT doesn't necessarily step out with anything remarkable in terms of the hardware (Microsoft has standardized things again it seems, as they did with early Windows Phone 7 devices), it does offer a pretty great tablet experience, one that Windows users especially will appreciate for its interoperability with their current desktop and notebook platforms.
It's a multi-screen, multi-device world these days and it will be interesting to see how Microsoft competes moving forward across the venues. At this point, with respect to tablets and hybrids at least, they're off to a great start.