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Asus Vivo Tab RT review: Great, but doesn't quite breach the Surface

Just like the Surface, Asus' Vivo Tab RT is a tablet and keyboard combo that runs Windows RT, has a Tegra 3 CPU, and a screen larger than 10 inches. But does it have what it takes to beat Microsoft's flagship tablet?

Lynn La Senior Editor / Reviews - Phones
Lynn La covers mobile reviews and news. She previously wrote for The Sacramento Bee, Macworld and The Global Post.
Eric Franklin Former Editorial Director
Eric Franklin led the CNET Tech team as Editorial Director. A 20-plus-year industry veteran, Eric began his tech journey testing computers in the CNET Labs. When not at work he can usually be found at the gym, chauffeuring his kids around town, or absorbing every motivational book he can get his hands on.
Lynn La
Eric Franklin
11 min read

Even though Microsoft's Surface gets the lion's share of the press, it's not the only tablet running the pared-down Windows RT operating system. The Asus Vivo Tab RT will be one of four Surface rivals going head-to-head with Microsoft's tablet this fall.

Asus Vivo Tab RT

Asus Vivo Tab RT

The Good

Asus' <b>Vivo Tab RT</b> features the Windows RT's elegant and refreshing user interface, has a bright and rich screen, and is equipped with a keyboard dock for maximizing productivity.

The Bad

The Vivo Tab RT's keyboard is cramped, its operating system takes some time to get used to, and both its app store and Desktop interface are severely limited.

The Bottom Line

With its vivid screen, sturdy build, and sleek user interface, the Asus Vivo Tab RT is an excellent tablet in its own right -- but it can't beat the innovative Microsoft Surface RT.

And while it doesn't best the Surface altogether, particularly when considering its inferior typing experience and smaller screen, it comes pretty damn close.

The Asus unit will cost $599 for the 32GB version, and $699 for 64GB. That's $100 more than the $499 Surface RT (also 32GB), but Asus includes a keyboard dock, which is an optional accessory with the Surface. (However, if you do want to buy the two components separately, it'll be initially sold as a Wi-Fi-only device when it hits stores on October 26, but AT&T will offer a 4G LTE version "in the near future.")

Editors' note: Due to similar software features, sections from this review were lifted from CNET's review of Microsoft's Surface RT tablet.

Measuring 10.4 inches wide, 6.7 inches tall, and 0.33 inch thick, the device is slightly shorter and lighter than both its Android counterpart and the Microsoft Surface (but to be fair, the latter does have a bigger screen). At just 1.18 pounds, the Tab RT is easy and comfortable to hold with one hand. But unless you grasp it with two hands, it does begin to weigh down on you if it's held for an extended period of time.

On the left side are a mobile dock latch, which lets you attach the unit to the keyboard hinge, a microSD card slot, and a Micro-HDMI port. Up top are a sleep/power button and a manual reset hole for when you want to hard-reset the device. On the right are a 3.5mm headphone jack and a volume rocker. Unlike the Surface, it lacks a native USB 2.0 port.

The Vivo Tab RT's back panel includes an unflattering wide strip of ridged plastic. Josh Miller/CNET

With its sober black and silver surfaces, the tablet sports much of the same handsome aluminum aesthetics as the Pad Infinity TF700, except for one noticeably bad difference -- the Windows device's back panel is sectioned off into two parts, one of which is about 2 inches wide and is made out of an unattractive lined plastic.

Like the Pad Infinity, the plastic panel is most likely to accommodate the GPS, since its signal can travel easier through plastic than metal. Why Asus widened the panel and added unattractive ridges, however, are beyond us. Other dissimilarities include the back panel's lined finish (instead of the concentric circular pattern seen on the Infinity) and an additional speaker on the right side of the rear.

Purely based on aesthetics, we prefer the Tab RT's design more than Microsoft's Surface. It feels more premium and luxurious than the Surface's VaporMg casing, but if it came down to it, we'd give up a sleeker look for a built-in USB port anyday.

Asus Vivo Tab RT Asus Transformer Tab Infinity TF700 Microsoft Surface
Weight in pounds 1.18 1.32 1.5
Weight with keyboard in pounds 2.38 2.5 1.98
Width in inches (landscape) 10.37 10.4 10.8
Height in inches 6.7 7.1 6.8
Depth in inches 0.37 0.33 0.43
Side bezel width in inches (landscape) 0.81 0.8 0.81

The keyboard has good build quality, and its design doesn't stray much from the Infinity's keyboard. We liked its sleek, dark chrome finish. Buttons are easy to press and sturdy, though we initially fumbled a couple of times with the smaller-than-usual shift key. On the right is a USB 2.0 port and on the left is a charging port. Through an included adapter, the charging port can become a second USB port.

When attached, the tablet and the keyboard weigh 2.38 pounds. Together, they take on the appearance of a more traditional laptop or ultrabook than the Surface. We like that the buttons depress downward, unlike the Surface's, which give you a physical form of feedback. Furthermore, when typing on a lap, the Vivo Tab can remain upward without a kickstand, making it easier to move around and adjust yourself.

Asus Vivo Tab RT keyboard
Though sturdy, the Vivo Tab RT's keyboard is small and uncomfortable compared with the Surface's. Josh Miller/CNET

On the whole, though, because the Surface's Touch Cover and Type Cover have more generously sized keys, it's more comfortable to type on and we made fewer typing errors than on Asus' keyboard. In addition, there were a lot of times when we connected the Tab RT together with the keyboard, but the trackpad's cursor would never show up unless we rebooted the tablet. And we have to admit, the magnetized snapping feature on the Surface's keyboard is way more satisfying, superficial as it may be.

The device is equipped with a Corning Fit Glass 10.1-inch IPS+ touch screen that has a 1,366-by-768-pixel resolution, a 16:9 aspect ratio, and 600 nits of brightness. On the back there's an 8-megapixel camera with a LED flash and on the front is a 2-megapixel camera.

Get to know the Asus Vivo Tab RT (pictures)

See all photos

Hardware features
Powering the device is a 1.3GHz quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 CPU and a 12-core GPU, also from Nvidia. It and the keyboard run on a 25-watt-hour and a 22-watt-hour battery, respectively. Also included are 2GB of RAM, Bluetooth 3.0, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi support, a gyroscope, an accelerometer, and a GPS.

Software features and OS
The Vivo Tab RT runs on Windows RT, which is split between two interfaces: a tile-based interface (formerly known as "Metro") that includes the Start screen and a somewhat traditional Windows interface called Desktop. Desktop includes most control panels and settings one would expect on a Windows operating system, in addition to a skinned version of Internet Explorer 10 made to look like 9 and a free copy of Office 2013 preview. No additional apps can be installed to the Desktop interface, however.

Though Microsoft no longer calls its new interface Metro (and has not given it a new name), for the sake of clarity, we're going to continue calling it Metro here. If you own an Xbox 360, you'll already be very familiar with Metro's look. Each app is represented by a tile and each can be arranged into different groups. Groups can further be zoomed out and named as you see fit. Tiles can also be made smaller or larger.

Windows RT Charm bar
The accessible Charm bar lets you search and share content quickly. Lynn La/CNET

Swiping inward from the right bezel brings up the Charm bar, which consists of Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings. This menu is context sensitive so depending on which app you have open, selecting Settings, for example, will deliver you the settings for that particular app.

Swiping from the left bezel into the screen launches the most recent app, and if you swipe right then left, you'll get a list of recent apps. Swiping from the top or bottom bezel reveals additional app options at the bottom of the screen, and finally, swiping from the top bezel to the bottom closes an app.

Windows RT split screen
Though still cramped, the split-screen feature is useful when you need two apps opened. Lynn La/CNET

This is obviously different from other tablet interfaces, and it's a lot of new stuff to learn. Some users will be discouraged by the unfamiliarity of things (we know we were), but those who stick with it will discover that's it's actually an elegant tablet interface solution.

Selecting search from the Charm bar allows you to search within the current primary app. Share allows you to quickly e-mail information from the current app or share it to social networks via the People social app (which integrates Twitter and Facebook). Start toggles between home and the last app that was opened. Devices is a list of hardware you currently have networked to the tablet that can interact with the current app, including microSD cards and printers.

Windows RT PC settings
It would be better to break out the keyboard section under its own heading. Lynn La/CNET

And finally, Settings accesses the basic wireless, volume, and screen brightness, as well as the settings for the currently opened app. Also available from this menu is PC settings. While most of the options here are self-explanatory, some are just poorly organized. For example, the General list feels too cluttered, and most of what's found there would feel much more appropriate in a separate "Keyboard" or "Typing" settings list.

Also, settings like screen timeout, which is usually easily accessible in most tablet interfaces, is instead located in a Windows Desktop control panel here. This wouldn't be so bad if the Windows Desktop had somehow been redesigned and optimized for touch. As it stands now, navigating through a traditional Windows interface can be a frustrating experience.

Windows RT control panel
Buried much? It takes several steps to set simple settings that should be readily available. Lynn La/CNET

Also, some Windows features are completely useless. The control panel Programs and Features, for example, serves no purpose here. Since no programs can be installed on the Desktop, there's no reason for a list of installed programs. And to a finer point, why is Desktop mode necessary at all? Couldn't Office run through the Metro environment instead?

We think it could, and we'd love to see Microsoft move even farther away from the traditional Windows environment. This tablet and other ARM-based Windows tablets would be better for it.

Other considerations
Other than requiring you to access a Windows Control panel in order to set the screen timeout options, there were a number of other very un-tablet-like things we noticed. They're ultimately minor infractions, but are worth mentioning. If you're attempting to edit a Google Drive Web document without a hardware keyboard connected, the software keyboard fails to pop up automatically. Instead, you'll have to go into settings and engage it manually.

Google Docs with no keyboard
Manually conjuring up the keyboard on a tablet is never any fun. Lynn La/CNET

When you download an app, you're only able to open the app from the app store page for a brief moment. After a couple of seconds, the option to open it disappears and you'll have to exit the app first and find its tile on the Start screen. It's a small detail, but just one of those small conveniences that illustrates the Windows Store's immaturity compared with Google Play and Apple's App Store.

Also, there's no confirmation prompt when holding down the power button to shut the tablet down. The tablet simply shuts off. Lastly, there's no battery meter on the Start screen. It appears on the lock screen and when the Charm menu is engaged, but still has no actual percentage information surfaced. Once again, you'll need to access the Windows Desktop to get this information.

Xbox games
None of our own games, but we see Xbox, Windows Games, and then Xbox 360 games again? Organization in the Xbox gaming portal isn't its forte. Lynn La/CNET

Apps are the fuel tablets run on, and without a steady supply of quality entries, a tablet can get boring fairly quickly. However, some people just want a portable device for watching movies, checking e-mail, or possibly getting some work done when away from their actual workstations.

While Windows Store app support will deepen in time, right now it's very sparse. Fortunately, Asus included some goodies of its own for the Vivo Tab RT. These include a Web storage app, an entertainment portal, a product guide, a dictionary, a library center to store your eBooks, a memo app called SuperNote, and finally, Asus Camera. This app offers more options, like color effects, scene modes, and white balances, which aren't natively included in the default camera.

Asus camera
Asus offers a handful of more photo options than the Vivo Tab RT's native camera app. Lynn La/CNET

Xbox video includes a wide selection of movies and TV shows in HD and SD for both rental and purchase. Prices are comparable to the same content on iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon Prime. Xbox Music allows you to stream free music from a library of 30 million songs. Of course, you'll be expected to listen to the occasional ad unless you're willing to pay $9.99 per month for the ad-free version.

Internet Explorer
There are two versions of Internet Explorer in Windows RT: the Desktop version and the Metro version. The desktop version looks the same as Internet Explorer 9 currently does in Windows 7, with a similar-looking interface and options. The Metro version is only available in Windows RT and Windows 8.

IE10 Metro has a slightly different look compared with most browsers. For one, its address bar appears at the bottom of the screen as opposed to the top and both it and any open tabs disappear unless summoned with a swipe from the top or bottom bezel. It also includes a cool feature called Flip ahead, giving the user the capability to swipe through a multipage story on a Web site without having to click any links.

On maximum brightness, Vivo Tab RT's screen is noticeably brighter than the Surface. Colors were also richer and more saturated, and the color white displayed more accurately (the Surface, on the other hand, was slightly tinged with yellow). However, due to the Surface's more muted tones, there were some incidents when we could see more detail. The subtle linings of a leaf, for example, were lost on the Asus' display.

Tested spec Asus Vivo Tab RT Asus Transformer Pad Infinity TF700 Microsoft Surface
Maximum brightness IPS mode (Super IPS) 495 cd/m2 422 cd/m2 (644 cd/m2) 391 cd/m2
Default brightness 262 cd/m2 112 cd/m2 148 cd/m2
Maximum black level, IPS mode (Super IPS) 0.45 0.34 cd/m2 (0.53 cd/m2) 0.27 cd/m2
Default black level 0.23 0.10 cd/m2 0.10 cd/m2
Default contrast ratio 1139:1 933:1 1480:1
Maximum contrast ratio, IPS mode (Super IPS) 1100:1 1241:1, (1,215:1) 1448:1

Furthermore, we had some issues with the touch screen's sensitivity. Oftentimes, it didn't sense our touch, and we had to tap on links or apps a few times over. In addition, some of our taps were registered inaccurately, especially in Desktop where text is very small, and this lead us to accidentally open up something we didn't mean to.

The 1.3Ghz quad-core processor was impressive and gameplay ran incredibly smooth and stable. Images were crisp and the frame rate while playing Hydro Thunder was pretty much on par with the Surface (about 25fps). However, compared with the new iPad, graphic rendering on Apple's tablet was noticeably more fluid.

The 8-megapixel is capable of capturing 1080p video. To activate the shutter, you can press anywhere on the screen. For the most part, the camera operated smoothly, and there was no lag time between our moving of the tablet and the feedback we saw. Photos from either camera didn't blow us away, but they were adequate enough that images were clear and generally in focus.

Despite it being dimly lit, the Vivo Tab RT's 8-megapixel camera managed to take a decent indoor shot. Lynn La/CNET

The tablet has a reported battery usage time of 8 hours, and bumps up to 14 hours with the docking station. Though we haven't finished carrying out CNET's battery life test, the device performed respectively. After leaving it on maximum brightness and spending a few hours with it browsing the Web and playing games, the battery barely lost a fourth of its reserves and it can definitely go a workday or two without a charge with casual use.

With Windows RT, the Vivo Tab RT takes some getting used to. There's a high learning curve and access to several key features is either unintuitive or buried.

But once you get the hang of it, there are a lot of things to like as well. Despite being somewhat hidden, the features are useful, and what we liked best of all was the refreshingly elegant user interface. Navigating through the Start screen feels especially silky and the dynamic live tiles are fun and informative.

Software aside, however, the Tab RT falls barely short of the Surface. Though the former has a brighter screen, other factors give the Surface that extra sliver and edge. For example, its novel keyboard is much more portable and comfortable to type on. And its larger screen offers a more cinematic, immersive experience. Just as with any flagship product, it's no surprise that when it comes to creating a better Windows RT experience, look to Microsoft itself to carry the torch.

Asus Vivo Tab RT

Asus Vivo Tab RT

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 7