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

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The Good Asus' Vivo Tab RT 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.

7.0 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 7
  • Performance 7

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.

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.

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.

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