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Asus ZenPad S 8.0 review: The price is right for this sleek Asus tablet

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MSRP: $199.00

The Good The Asus ZenPad S 8.0 is affordable, lightweight and thin, with a sleek design. Its brilliant screen is razor sharp and can be color-corrected with preloaded Asus software. Adjusting the screen's color balance, saturation and sharpness is a breeze thanks to its user-friendly UI, and its microSD card slot expands up to 128GB.

The Bad The front-facing speakers are weak, and the cameras takes underwhelming photos.

The Bottom Line The Asus ZenPad S 8.0 is one of the best Android tablets around, with a price that belies its impressive quality.

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8.3 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 9
  • Performance 8

The Asus ZenPad S 8.0 is one of the best Android tablets I've ever seen. However, in a world where the word, "tablet" is synonymous with "iPad," does it even matter?

The iPad (and for the sake of comparison to the ZenPad, the smaller iPad Mini) is like the Adele of tablets. Its excellent track record feeds the fervor around its name brand appeal, and that popularity makes it easy for its universal acclaim to go mostly unquestioned by those looking for a new tablet. But, what if there's something out there that you might like just as much, that requires a little bit more digging to find? The Asus ZenPad S 8.0 is like a charming, fresh-faced soul singer from Texas you discovered last week on Spotify -- not the best ever, but just as enjoyable and accessible.

Arguably, Apple's dominance in the tablet category is stronger than its powerful presence in phones and computers. With the long and wide shadow of the iPad's influence, it's hard for any tablet to stand out in its own light. The Asus ZenPad S 8.0 is worthy of its own special spotlight. It's a stylish Android tablet with swift performance and a $200 price that's just right.

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Not the best Android tablet ever, but pretty great for the price.

Josh Miller/CNET

Like an iPad Mini, but cheaper

Most people I describe my job to (I review tablets) are stunned to hear that tablets other than the iPad actually exist. That's unfortunate for the Android-based ZenPad S 8.0. It's a great tablet with a $200 price tag (£200 in the UK, Australia availability has yet to be announced, but the domestic price converts to AU$278); that's $70 (£20, AU$70 converted) less than the Apple iPad Mini 2 (unless you're picking up one this week) and half the starting price of the $400 (£320, AU$570) iPad Mini 4.

For comparison's sake, we're juxtaposing the ZenPad with the iPad Mini 2, since they're both within the same price range and have similar specs. The iPad Mini 4 offers a faster processor, better display, sharper camera, Touch ID fingerprint sensor and Apple Pay features. And that's why it costs $400. It's in a league of its own -- you can read more about it in its review.

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This isn't your average budget tablet.

Josh Miller/CNET

Despite the price difference, the Asus's screen is just as sharp and colorful as the Apple tablet in a side-by-side comparison, and the ZenPad offers double the amount of internal storage -- 32GB opposed to 16GB, (it's also available in a 64GB model for $300 or £250; AU$417 converted) with a built-in microSD card slot; the iPad doesn't support native storage expansion. It's also thinner and lighter than the Apple iPad Mini 2 and delivers similar performance. Simply put, the Asus ZenPad S 8.0 is real competition that's priced to sell.

Comparing the Asus ZenPad S 8.0 and the Apple iPad Mini 2 results in the type of conversation that two future best friends might have when they first meet; they have so much in common it's almost easier to just point out where they differ. The Asus runs Android 5.0, houses 32GB of internal storage that's expandable up to 128GB via microSD card and packs 4GB of RAM. The iPad runs on iOS 9, holds 16GB of internal storage with no native storage expansion, and includes 2GB of RAM.

Both perform swiftly when checking email, loading Web pages and streaming video. Even 3DMark gaming benchmark scores were pretty close. When it comes to the casual tasks most tablets are meant for, I didn't notice a difference in performance that would warrant more money for one over the other.

The industrial-chic aesthetic mirrors the high-brow meets low-brow spirit of the Asus tablet; its distinct, classy design gives no inclination that its price ranks it amongst the contemporary ocean of mediocre "budget tablets" -- a term usually reserved for tablets $200 and under. It's also one of the skinniest and most lightweight tablets around. Whenever I carried it around in my bag, it consumed so little space I constantly forgot I had it with me. However, as evidenced by The Dress, aesthetics are subjective, so I'll let the photos speak for themselves.

Sweet settings

Android's interface is as beautifully malleable as a jazz solo and, running Asus' modified Zen user-interface, the 8-inch tablet offers an extra serving of custom-happy features. In addition to changing the wallpaper and adding useful widgets, you can also spice up your scrolling animation and change your main font and its color, all by long-pressing on the home screen.

If you'd like to tweak your tablet even more, the ZenPad S 8.0 comes preloaded with Asus's Splendid app, which allows you to optimize the color balance, saturation, and sharpness of the screen, similar to a full-size monitor's menu settings. The same app also has a blue light filter to prevent tired eyes -- important for those who like to read a lot. A tablet with this type of screen calibration software is virtually unheard of, though some of Asus's recent tablets offer it as well. You don't have to dig through settings and menus to do any of this either; it's all incredibly accessible via the home screen.

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Sean Hollister/CNET

The user-friendly UI and baked-in apps nicely bridge the gap between the desire to deck out your device and the absence of hacking skills to do it yourself. Also, Android is flourishing as an operating system with every new iteration and the Google Play Store is quickly catching up to the Apple App Store in breadth and selection.

Similar to the nuanced complexities of jazz (I'm a fan, if you haven't noticed by now), the Android's custom-friendly features aren't everyone's cup of tea. Many might prefer the clean design and neat organization of iOS. But me? I'm a sucker for customization.

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A super-sharp screen to stream "Supergirl."

Josh Miller/CNET

Just as good, but not all good

Despite its near-perfect pricing, the Asus ZenPad S 8.0 isn't a perfect device. It's plagued by woes that affect most tablets. Not deal-breakers to be sure, just little niggles most tablet models fall prey to.

Like laptops and phones, tablets usually have underwhelming speakers that satisfy when watching YouTube clips or a few episodes of "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," but not much else. The ZenPad's audio sounds fine at low and mid-volumes, and tinny at full blast. There's a lack of bass, but that can be said of pretty much every tablet. The preloaded AudioWizard app helps optimize sound for movies, games and music and it helps a bit; background noises in movies or vocals in songs will become clearer. To its credit, the Asus's speakers are front-facing, so they won't be muffled when holding it horizontally, like the iPad's single speaker is.

No one should be taking photos with a tablet. You look silly while doing it, and your phone is a much more apt device for the task. That said, the ZenPad does have a camera, so we should talk about it. The 8-megapixel rear camera isn't terrible, but it isn't great either. Photos come out in-focus in well-lit locations, but with muted colors. Photo quality at full resolution is visibly grainy, and edges get even fuzzier in darker environments. The front-facing camera does a fine job for video conferencing, and the native camera app offers a bevy of weird selfie settings. Options like "skin lightening" and "face thinning" are too problematic for me to dig into here, but if you like looking like a creepy demonic doll, you may enjoy these odd choices.

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Not my best look.

Xiomara Blanco/CNET

Unless you have a Google branded device, exactly when you'll receive Android operating system updates is a mystery. Google gadgets get them first, but most other Android products have to wait until the respective device manufacturer is ready, if that time ever comes. Asus isn't known to push out OS updates to its tablets very quickly, which makes me pessimistic about the ZenPad's longevity. This is all projection based on Asus's old Transformer line of Android tablets, whose updates stalled after about a year. Maybe -- hopefully -- Asus has improved since then. At this moment, the review unit I have is running Android Lollipop 5.0 and there's no word from Asus on when that will change.

Comparing is caring

The Asus ZenPad is a chic tablet with a sharp, colorful screen and a user-friendly interface. This isn't true for every tablet, especially similarly priced models. The Lenovo Yoga Tab 3 and the Samsung Galaxy Tab A 8.0 are two of my favorite budget tablets in the Asus ZenPad's price range. Starting at $170 (AU$330; UK availability hasn't been announced but price converts to £118), the Lenovo rocks an out-of-the-box design that features a surprisingly useful built-in kickstand and impressive rotatable camera. The Samsung Galaxy Tab A 8.0, which can also be found for around $180 (similarly unavailable in the UK as well as the AU. Price converts to £117 and AU$250), is distinct for its slim, on-trend design, but not much else. The Asus is worth the extra cash because its screen quality, performance speeds and sleek construction tower above what you're getting from the other two.

Historically, Apple's had a stronghold in the category, thanks to impeccable design and a pretty and pristine operating system. Still distinct in both categories, Apple aficionados might use those as reasons to justify the iPad Mini 2's more expensive price. The Asus ZenPad S 8.0 goes toe-to-toe with the Mini 2 in ways other tablets haven't. Looking at the cold hard facts reveal that the ZenPad is crazy comparable to the iPad Mini 2, just Android-based and cheaper. Savvy shoppers who don't mind a price cut for a less popular pick should scoop the Asus with the pride; the tablet is one of today's best hidden gems.

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I hold the Asus ZenPad S 8.0 in high esteem.

Josh Miller/CNET

The ZenPad S 8.0 is almost an oxymoron; a tablet this good shouldn't be $200. Or should it? Have we been brainwashed by consumer electronic giants to believe that a leisure gadget for streaming video, gaming and reading should cost $400? Or is the Asus ZenPad S 8.0 one of the first premium tablets with a price that's right on the money? Either way, it's reductive to call the Asus ZenPad S 8.0 a budget tablet simply because of its affordable pricing. Not only is it one of the best iPad Mini 2 alternatives, it's also one of the best Android tablets.

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