|Introduction and Specifications|
|It seemed, just a couple of years back, that almost every week was topped off by the introduction of a new netbook. Remember those things? We haven't seen much in the way of new netbook technology lately, but we have seen plenty of tablets. The iPad started a modern-day revitalization of the slate PC market, and while Apple has dominated the market, rival companies have been pushing out tablet after tablet in an effort to grab their piece of the pie. One thing we've noticed is the great variety in form factors. Whereas the iPad basically just comes in two flavors, those content with Android can have their pick when it comes to design.
There's the standard, flat slate (like the Galaxy Tab 10.1), slates with docking stations, and now, a slate with a built-in, slide-out keyboard. That's right, a keyboard that's built right in, no Bluetooth or accessory cases necessary. Asus' Eee Pad Slider was actually introduced as a concept product back at CES, nearly three seasons ago. That's an eternity in computing years, but it takes time to get a radical design like this just right. The Slider is no doubt the cousin to the Transformer, but the difference here is the tight integration with the keyboard. We'll dive into the usability in the pages to come; for now, let's have a look at the specifications.
Is a slate with a built-in keyboard right for your needs? Is it compact enough to consider over a netbook? Is Android 3.2 able to take on iOS? We hope to answer those questions and more as we explore every angle of the Eee Pad Slider.
|Design and Build Quality|
|Maybe we're just enamored with the new and fresh design, but we won't beat around the bush on this one: the Eee Pad Slider is one of the most handsome and striking mobile computing devices that we've seen in a long time. That's no small feat. Just as the Galaxy Tab 10.1 and the iPad 2 are simply beautiful for a pure slates, Asus has managed to engineer a keyboard into a tablet form factor in an elegant way, and they managed to do so while keeping the price point of the 16GB model below $500.
At around a half-inch thick, the Slider is somewhat chubby. But only when compared to fellow slates without a keyboard. When you sit it beside even your average netbook, it actually appears as if it has been put on a diet. Somehow, Asus has pancaked the keyboard and the display with a minimalistic, albeit strong and rigid, hinge in between. The metal hinge slots down into the rear of the keyboard base when it's not erect, and there are two small hooks that the screen rests against when popped open. It's a simple approach, but it's a beautiful and functional one.
Our only major complaint with this setup is the opening process. There's just no easy way to go about it. Pushing the front of the panel up in an effort to get it to pop open doesn't work. There are no side slots or top handles for easy tugging. The easiest way to open up the screen is to wedge your finger in a small indentation area on the top of the screen and pull up / out. It's far from intuitive, but the beautiful springing action once the panel is on its way up almost makes us forget about how clunky the actual opening process is.
All of the ports and slots are located on the keyboard base; there are no toggle switches at all along the sides or bezel of the slate itself. The left edge is home to the power button, the volume rocker and a microSD card slot, while the rear is where you plug in the proprietary Asus power / USB connector, or a mini-HDMI connector. The right edge has a full-size USB port and a 3.5mm headphone jack.
While in slate-mode, you can take advantage of the 5MP camera on the rear, while the 1.2MP front-facing camera can be used for video chats in both styles of orientation. One thing that we did notice outside of the keyboard was the display. It's a big, bright IPS display with a 1280x800 resolution. And while the display is truly beautiful to look at (crisp, bright colors, great viewing angles, no wash-out, etc.), we can't help but wonder how much better it might be if Asus implemented a smaller bezel. There's a heck of a lot of black, unused space around the LCD, and those bezel strips aren't gesture-sensitive like the strips on RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook or HP's line of Pre smartphones. Opportunity missed, in our estimation.
The space bar is too close to the edge, and it requires a good bit of practice to really nail typing on the slider. We spent hours dealing with typos, and couldn't easily adjust to it. Meanwhile, even the smallest netbook keyboard was never this truncated. But it's a tablet, so we can somewhat forgive the small size. What's harder to forgive is the lack of a trackball, some sort of pointer, or a trackpad. However, Asus claims that users who would rather use a pointer instead of their fingers can just hook up a USB mouse. Point taken. That said, we would have greatly preferred a small, simple trackball in place of one of the Control keys (or anything non-essential).
We know touch is the future, but if you're going to build a keyboard into the body of slate, you might as well carve out a small section of space for a cursor control mechanism of some sort. At least, that's our feelings on the matter. The entire control experience would have been helped immensely by an on-board cursor control device. That would've really been the icing on the cake.
Finally, it's definitely worth noting that the multi-touch panel was highly responsive. Pinch-to-zoom worked well, and our inputs were always recognized -- even gentle ones. But it felt strange using a combination of touch and keyboard inputs, and if you end up buying one, we would recommend a trial-and-error session to see what kind of keyboard shortcuts you could take advantage of. In the end, the total solution definitely works. It just takes a bit of getting use to.
|Software, Camera and User Experience|
|Software wise, there's not a lot here that hasn't been experienced elsewhere. Unlike HTC, which loads their "Sense" overlay onto Android, or Samsung that does similar with TouchWiz, Asus hasn't fiddled with Android too much. We actually are fond of "vanilla" Android installations, as there is no overlay to potentially consume resources or otherwise get in the way. Android 3.2 ships on the Slider, with the only Asus "customizations" being a unique live wallpaper (with an ice water backdrop that doubles as a visible battery life indicator), Polaris Office, MyNet/MyLibrary and a few other minor applications. All in all, we're applauding Asus for taking a mostly hands-off approach.
With Android 3.2 onboard, you'll find the new Music Beta application as well as access to YouTube Movies, Books, a legitimate Gmail application, etc. At this point, however, it's all par for the course. You know what to expect with Honeycomb on a tablet -- plenty of resizable widgets for email, calendar, news, YouTube, etc., as well as a number of home panes and access to the Android Market. But the real question is this: how does the Slider handle the OS?
The 1GHz dual-core Tegra 2 is more than capable of handling high-def video playback, fast app switching and all the typing your tired fingers could ever do on the built-in keyboard. The overall experience was brisk and pleasant, and we won't hesitate to say that this is one of the smoothest overall Android tablet experiences that we've had to date. Everything felt streamlined, and it truly felt as if the software and hardware were married to one another. Asus' close relationship with NVIDIA probably helped here, at least in terms of optimization.
The keyboard inputs were recognized immediately -- no lag whatsoever. Even when we had multiple applications loaded up, a quick keystroke would fire up a Google search or input text into whatever line we had selected. It still doesn't feel exactly like a "real" notebook without a "real" desktop-level operating system to go with it, but this unit comes as close as anything we've seen since the Transformer.
The web browsing experience was as good as we've seen on an Android tablet. Pages loaded and rendered quickly, and even with 7+ tabs open, we never really felt as if the Slider was under duress. The camera app loaded quickly, our benchmarking apps loaded quickly. In fact, everything we did on the Slider felt fast.
The 1.2MP front-facing camera was sufficient for basic video chatting (though it was hardly ideal from a quality standpoint), while the 5MP camera on the rear is more suitable for taking photos. Granted, we've never really understood the allure of taking photos with a tablet, but since the sensor is here, we took a few sample shots with it. Not surprisingly, indoor and low-light performance was lacking, and colors were generally muted. There's also a heavy amount of grain, and the focus speed was on the slow side. It probably won't matter much to many; taking photos with a tablet has always been sub-optimal, but here are a few samples just to give you an idea of what the Slider is capable of.
The first two tests presented here are general purpose computing type benchmarks.
Some mixed bag scores here; the Eee Pad Slider was right up there with its peers on the Linpack score, but hovering on the lower end of the spectrum in the single-threaded test. Note, we've also included the multi-threaded score which is much better.
An3DBench is a benchmarking tool based on an Android port of the jPCT 3D engine. The app runs 7 tests in total that look at graphics processor fill rate and complex rendering workloads and scenes. We were also able to run some tests with An3DBenchXL, which is a newer version of the app that is significantly more demanding.
Here, we see the Eee Pad Transformer and the Slider are nearly neck-and-neck on these tests, and it shouldn't really come as a surprise. We had no issues with taxing graphical apps, nor playing HD content, and it's clear that the Tegra 2 within is optimized for situations like this. The strong result for the Slider in the Magic Island test hints at further driver optimization with this new tablet.
|Battery Life Test|
|In an attempt to quantitatively measure the Eee Pad Slider's battery life in a controlled benchmark environment, we also ran a test in which we set up a webpage with a mix of graphics and text. The page automatically refreshes every three minutes.
For this test, we set the tablet's display to 50% brightness, which is still plenty bright and easy on the eyes. The Slider was able to last well over 8 hours on its own before it powered down.
This is a fairly new test in our set of benchmarks, so we don't have a lot of other tablet data yet to which we can compare. However, we have run the test on a few smartphones, the Motorola Xoom and Samsung's Galaxy Tab 10.1. The graph above shows how the Eee Pad Slider compares. Versus the Motorola product, we pulled an additional 3.5hrs out of the Eee Pad Slider, coming in just shy of the Transformer's time. At almost 9 hrs of up-time browsing the web, the Eee Pad Slider's battery life is impressive.
|Summary and Conclusion|
|Performance Summary: From a pure performance standpoint, the Eee Pad Slider is up there with the best of the current 10" Android-based slates. Given the hardware similarities to the Eee Pad Transformer, we aren't surprised to see it hit so many similar marks. We also applaud Asus for leaving well enough alone with the stock Android 3.2 build, and we firmly believe that the general lack of bloatware contributed to the Slider's strong performance loading applications, browsing the Web and inputting text via the keyboard. Touch performance is buttery smooth, and even with multiple tabs open, the browser never felt laggy. Playback of HD video was seamless, and battery life didn't seem to suffer at all. NVIDIA's Tegra 2 has proven to be a winner once more in the tablet space, even with a keyboard flanked on the bottom.
Far too often, companies prefer to be iterative followers rather than leaders. Chalk it up to not wanting to take financial risks, or perhaps it's just easier to watch what works and attempt to replicate. But we have to give credit where it's due; the Eee Pad Slider is a different beast entirely in the slate market, and it's executed (nearly) to perfection. The slide-out keyboard is beautiful to look at, and the hinge mechanism functions flawlessly. The downsides? It's tough to actually open and slide the screen back, and there's no trackpad, ball or mousing apparatus at all on the keyboard to aid in cursor control. Perhaps we're spoiled by some touchpad-equipped alternatives, but it's sometimes a little cumbersome to have to move your hands from the keyboard to the touchpanel when you're simply looking to click an icon or relocate a cursor. It's a operational requirement that's easily learned though.
If that's no bother in your mind, you'll probably enjoy having the keyboard on board -- if you're willing to suffer through a learning curve. The key layout is a bit strange, but understandable given the space constraints. The IPS display is one of the most beautiful ones we've seen in the mobile arena, and those who plan on enjoying multimedia will have plenty of gorgeous pixels to look at. The only display downside is a bit of light leakage from both the top and bottom of the panel; it's not noticeable with lighter backdrops, but darker wallpapers can't hide it.
Overall, the Eee Pad Slider is a strong tablet for a specific subset of the market. Those who won't routinely use the keyboard are certainly better off with a normal slate, or perhaps even the Transformer, which allows you to bring along the keyboard only when you're planning to take advantage of it. If there were a built-in trackpad or trackpoint-type device here, we would have no hesitation in recommending the Slider as a netbook alternative with outstanding battery life (well over eight hours with the display on). Finally, while the mini-HDMI port and full-size USB ports are welcome inclusions, this tablet is targeted at users that have more demanding requirements and specifically want a more convertible, keyboard-equipped device, rather than a traditional slate. It's beautiful, bold and very well equipped, but it isn't for everyone.