Asus VivoTab Smart ME400 £399.99
19th Mar 2013 | 17:22
The Windows 8 tablet to beat?
Windows 8 tablets haven't exactly set the world alight so far. Indeed things have been positively low key. Firstly there was uncertainty – many Microsoft partners had prepped their own devices when suddenly, last summer, Microsoft said it would be launching its own hardware in the shape of Surface.
That device runs Windows RT, the accompanying release to Windows 8 that looks the same yet runs solely on ARM-based tablets.
The idea was sound, but the execution of Windows RT was flawed. After all, it should have left the field open for more powerful devices to be powered by Intel and AMD and made the market a clearer place – low power tablets with ARM processors that run Windows RT accompanied by stronger, bigger devices from the others.
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Instead, it confused consumers, left manufacturers in two minds about pricing and their approach, and essentially led to fewer Windows 8 tablet-type devices being released than any tech observers had anticipated. That's where our 10.1-inch review tablet comes in – the touchscreen Asus VivoTab Smart ME400 ups the ante with an Intel processor and full-blown Windows 8.
The Asus VivoTab ME400 is, to all intents and purposes, a low-end laptop inside a tablet shell. Running full-blown Windows 8 is a real advantage for the device, which is referred to as the Asus VivoTab Smart in some territories (you may find you need to search for that term rather than ME400 to find it, depending on where you are).
Windows 8 represents a fundamental shift in the way Windows works and is far more touchscreen-orientated for use on tablets as well as traditional PCs. All apps in the Windows Store will run on all the different versions of Windows 8.
The reason why it's important that the VivoTab ME400 has Windows 8 instead of Windows RT – because RT isn't full Windows, unlike Windows 8.
It won't run legacy desktop software (you can only download apps from the Windows Store) and despite Microsoft's repeated pleas that any confusion would be sorted out when people came to buy these things, it simply wasn't. That's bad news for Windows RT, but we're not sad about that, because why would you buy something that holds one arm behind your back?
Thankfully, the ME400 doesn't suffer from this issue, and can run newer Windows 8-style apps in addition to older desktop software that you may have from your previous installation of Windows.
RT tablets were also supposed to be cheap. But the RT version of Surface is £399/US$499/AU$559 rather than costing less. Some manufacturers wanted to go higher, but to be more expensive than the iPad is to, essentially, give up and go home.
But nobody banked on Intel and the manufacturers deciding that £399/US$499/AU$599 is where they need to be too – and that's where the VivoTab ME400 sits.
Bear in mind that Asus also makes an RT version of the VivoTab (don't get them mixed up) which is around the same price. That runs on an Nvidia Tegra 3 processor.
There are two types of Intel Windows 8 tablet currently – ones that run Core processors (much like any Windows laptop) and those that run Intel's latest-generation Atom processor. This is one of the latter. A Core processor-powered tablet (like Microsoft's higher end Surface Pro or the Toshiba U920T) has shorter battery life yet is more powerful; a proper laptop replacement if you like.
The Atom-powered devices have long battery life yet lack in processor grunt - more on that shortly.
The TranSleeve available for the Vivo Tab can also double as a stand. It's extremely similar to the iPad's and has previously been seen as an accessory to Asus's Android Transformer tablets.
The cover. It wasn't available for our review unit, but we has a short look at it during CES 2013 and can say that it was a convenient solution. Unfortunately we found ourselves using numerous objects to prop up our device, though a decent tablet Bluetooth keyboard and stand will help you here.
But you could use any Bluetooth device with the ME400, so we'd recommend getting a Bluetooth keyboard – though you'll need some way to stand the tablet up.
Then there's a microSD port, NFC compatibility for wireless payments and a micro HDMI port for connection to an external display. There's also the usual array of tablet-spec sensors included with the device, including a compass and gyroscope as well as an ambient light sensor.
A ME400CL version is also on the way with 4G support, though it's unclear which territories it will launch in.
While the micro USB port doesn't have a cover, it's not the case for the microSD and micro HDMI ports. Both seem very difficult to access - the cover for the HDMI port was particularly difficult to get off, while a colleague managed to spring the cover for the SD slot under a neighbouring desk.
We're sure these ports will become easier with use, but they proved a challenge during our testing. We guess they're a result of the unibody design used and the desire to create a flush shape that's tactile. We certainly prefer Asus's approach to that of some other manufacturers that include flimsy port covers.
You really could use the Asus VivoTab ME400 as a full PC if you connected it to an external display and used Bluetooth peripherals (the latest Bluetooth 4.0 standard is supported). Finally, there's a headphone jack as well as a micro USB port for charging, though you can connect other devices if you have the right cables.
In terms of memory and storage, there's 2GB of RAM and a 64GB disk. Both are what we'd expect for a tablet in this class, and it's worth remembering that the base iPad comes with less storage.
However, a sizeable amount of the flash storage is taken up by Windows itself, so don't expect miracles in the amount of things you can store – there's around 35GB still available, but once you install apps, this will quickly be taken up.
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Microsoft Office 2010 is preinstalled already, though you'll need to enter a key, use it as a trial or uninstall it. Microsoft recommends using its cloud storage service SkyDrive with Windows 8, so that gives you 7GB of free storage straight away. Once again, it underlines that you probably can't use the ME400 as a main PC, unless you are clever in your use of storage and files; a network drive could be a good way to store your video and music when at home, for example.
The 5-point multi-touch display isn't Full HD, but it's 1366 x 768, so it's hardly low res. There's also a good level of contrast while the viewing angle is also decent, although it's not a display two of you would want to watch a movie on.
Talking of movies, we really liked the fact this tablet has a 16:9 display rather than the 4:3 aspect ratio used by other tablets such as the iPad. It's ideal for video playback. We would, however, have liked a bit more in terms of brightness. It's not that it's dull, it's just that the reflections can be a little distracting and we'd have liked a little more beef in this department.
Audio has been given a boost thanks to Asus's own SonicMaster technology, but it's not as good as some devices out there. We'd recommend plugging it into headphones or external speakers if you are going to be watching video content or listening to music for an elongated period of time.
Like many tablets nowadays, the Asus ME400 has full image taking capabilities, too. You get an 8MP rear camera with flash, autofocus, five-element lens and 1080p Full HD video recording.
Then there's a front 2MP camera for video calling – the Windows 8 Skype app has been preinstalled by Asus, as have several other games and applications, including a tutorial to help you get used to using Windows 8's gestures, including swiping in from the sides and bottom as well as how to multitask between apps.
We really do like the look and feel of the device. It's thin, at 9.7mm/0.38 inches, while the tactile back means it doesn't slip (although it does get a little fingerprint-tastic). It's a real oblong at 171mm/6.73 inches in height and 263mm/10.33 inches in length, so it's a great shape for either holding or standing up.
It's not the very lightest, at 580g/1.5lbs, but feels fine in the hand – Windows 8 devices are, unashamedly designed so you can hold them with two hands and use your thumbs to perform other actions such as gestures. Its black exterior is smart and seems durable enough to be placed in a bag. We would, however, recommend a case for the device.
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Despite the Asus VivoTab ME400 featuring the very latest Clover Trail generation dual-core 1.8GHz processor, it's immediately and sadly noticeable that performance can seem a little slow, especially if you have a few desktop apps running. Atom is not a performance processor at present, and for gaming you can only play mobile-style Windows 8 game apps rather than desktop games.
The Atom processor is able to be passively cooled, so you don't get any annoying fans or grilles like you'd find on a device powered by an Intel Core processor. That's not to say those devices would necessarily be noisy, but it does mean this small form factor can be used.
Graphics power is lacking across the board, with the PowerVR SGX545 chip really lacking any kind of punch. Benchmarks barely registered, and 3D tasks are beyond it. This is a shame, since while basic image editing can be achieved, it's about the limit of what is capable. Even some desktop apps can't run, since the graphics simply aren't powerful enough, though these are rare and would require a reasonably powerful laptop to run anyway.
The processor and graphics are, however, adequate for most general use – browsing and word processing are no problem, for example. The graphics can also accelerate even Full HD video on an external display while web video, such as that from iPlayer, works without issue.
Aside from the processor and graphics, the remainder of the specification on offer is staggering, while the whole package remains excellent for the money.
Battery life should always be a major consideration when buying a tablet, and it's one of the reasons why Intel believes Atom-based Windows 8 devices will do well. A 25Wh lithium polymer battery is used here.
Asus cites 9.5 hours of battery life, but it is possible to get more if you turn everything off, such as the Wi-Fi. However, for practical use you can get around seven to eight hours and at very peak performance spooling HD video we got around 3.5 hours, which still means that the Asus VivoTab ME400 will last a train journey or more. Or pretty much all of a 10 hour flight, especially as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth will be off.
It does seem strange not to turn a Windows 8 device off as you would with a conventional PC, but you do get used to it quite quickly, and soon we found we were using the tablet just as we would an iPad or phone. There's no way to really par down the device to save power, but it's quite refreshing not to have to nurse a Windows device through different power saving modes.
You get very little inside the box, just a charger, cleaning cloth and a few leaflets, but a year's warranty is included.
So the main question - should you buy the Asus VivoTab ME400? Well we do love it. In fact, we'd certainly go as far as to say this is the best Windows 8 tablet we've yet seen in terms of power efficiency and capability. But we do have reservations over the processor, which can cope with basic tasks yet does struggle due to the complexity of Windows and multitasking with desktop apps.
In terms of apps, Windows 8's Start screen is still the poor relation of the iPad. But the breadth of apps available in the Windows Store is getting better, and there are now plenty of apps from big names such as Amazon, AudioBoo and Dropbox.
And Windows 8 wins in terms of productivity because of the desktop – you just can't beat a mouse and keyboard if you're dealing with an Excel spreadsheet (though you'll need to buy or install a copy of Office, of course).
The VivoTab ME400 is being marketed by Asus as the best of both worlds – a device that can be used for business and for pleasure. And for that we would recommend it.
But because of its lack of poke, this isn't that Holy Grail Windows 8 tablet we were hoping for – a tablet that can be used as a multi-purpose main PC. But it really is just the processor that is holding the ME400 back.
But perhaps we're expecting too much. After all, it is only £399/US$499/AU$599. And as such it's a great alternative to the iPad. Essentially if you want a slate device that's more like a PC than Apple's device, then this is the tablet for you.
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When you think about the tablet leader, the iPad, it's hard to look past its stunning combination of performance and power at a great price point. That, combined with the Retina display, means that if you just want a tablet device for apps, entertainment and basic work, it's still by far and away ahead of the pack.
But the Asus VivoTab ME400 is our favourite Windows 8 tablet yet – it's not as efficient as an iPad, but you can use it with your existing software and have the best of the Start Screen and traditional desktop modes on the same device. We loved it, we'd just love it to have a little more poke.