Samsung Ativ Smart PC £699
31st Jan 2013 | 14:32
It's hybrids galore as Samsung gears up for Windows 8
So, Microsoft and Intel really want to get into tablets. We know this not just because they've told us, but because they're really throwing everything at it.
First Microsoft offered Surface RT, which matched the iPad in having an ARM processor and a scaled-back operating system. Then Microsoft and Intel joined forces to make the powerful Surface Pro, a tablet-shaped Ultrabook.
Now there's an attempt to get something in between these two: enter the Samsung Ativ Smart PC XE500T1C, an 11.6-inch multi-touch tablet.
It runs full-blown Windows 8 (not RT), so supports legacy apps, desktop apps and anything else you'd care to fill it with. It boasts Intel's new Atom Z2760 processor (also known as Clover Trail), which is designed to offer the superb power efficiency of ARM processors, but still be a traditional Intel x86 chip.
So, you've got a Windows 8 tablet that promises all-day battery life. Is it too good to be true?
For a start, the tablet part of the equation is actually optional - the Ativ Smart PC comes with a clamshell keyboard, meaning you can turn it into a kind of Ultrabook. This kind of add-on seems to be a theme for these Intel Atom tablets: the Acer Iconia W510 uses the same processor and offers full Windows 8, while also offering a keyboard dock.
The difference is that the Iconia's dock contains an additional battery, but the Samsung Ativ Smart PC's doesn't.
It has to be said that this isn't the most portable tablet on the market - its relatively large screen means that it's not small at 296 x 184 x 9.9mm (11.6 x 7.2 x 0.38 inches), with its thickness rising to 20.5mm (0.8 inches)with the clamshell. And at 744g (1.65lbs), it's heavier than an iPad 4 or Google Nexus 10, though lighter than the Surface Pro.
In terms of looks, the Samsung Ativ Smart PC is reminiscent of Samsung's Chromebooks - all plastic and rounded edges. Well, not all plastic - the multi-touch screen is glass. But with its shell of blue plastic, with a brushed effect, it's more what you'd expect to see in a laptop than a tablet. It won't win any design awards, but the build quality seems sufficient.
The clamshell is actually a slightly different colour, and the mismatch makes it look kind of low quality, but then it is a budget machine. The clamshell itself sounds hollow and rattly when you tap it (because it more or less is hollow, presumably), but the hinge is also built solidly.
Two latches hold the tablet in place when it's in the clamshell, but it's easy to pull out. The Windows Start key just below the screen is hidden when it's in the clamshell, but then that's why you have one on the keyboard. You can still reach the other keys on the rim of the tablet, though - the on/off switch and the rotation lock key (which is less useful in the laptop mode, naturally).
The clamshell offers you a full keyboard and a small trackpad, which supports multi-touch gestures. It's not the only add-on you get, though - there's also Samsung's S-Pen stylus, with a compatible digitiser built into the screen.
The Samsung Ativ Smart PC is priced at £699/US$749.99/AU$999, which includes the clamshell and S-Pen. It also has a big brother available, the Ativ Smart PC Pro, which includes an Intel Core i5 processor instead of the Atom, and is generally higher-specced across the board, much like the Surface Pro. That one goes for £999/US$1,199.99/AU$1,399.
The Samsung Ativ Smart PC XE500T1C is no Microsoft Surface Pro. Let's be absolutely clear on that from the start. Yes, it's a widescreen tablet. Yes, it docks with a keyboard. Yes, it runs full Windows 8 on an Intel chip. No, it is not a Surface Pro.
The key difference is the type of Intel chip used here: the Surface Pro has an Ultrabook-class Intel Core i5-3317U chip, as sported by the Toshiba Satellite U840 and Lenovo IdeaPad U410, among others.
The Samsung Ativ Smart PC instead offers an Intel Atom Z2760, which was designed to be competitive with the likes of the Tegra 3 chip used in the Surface RT (and myriad Android devices) in terms of power use. Intel doesn't list its power use levels the way it does for other chips, but does reveal that the Atom Z2760 is a lot smaller than the Core i5 chip used in the Surface Pro.
What we're looking at, then, is a processor that's heavily scaled back compared to what we'd expect to see in an Ultrabook or other home laptop. It's dual-core, and runs at 1.8GHz, as well as offering Hyper-Threading, so can appear as four virtual cores.
It's a system-on-a-chip, too, so it has graphics built in. Rather than Intel's own HD graphics, used in the Core i-series chips, the Atom Z2760 uses a PowerVR SGX535 GPU - the kind of thing more commonly seen in smartphones.
RAM is another area where significant corners have been cut compared to a normal PC processor: the Atom Z2760 offers 2GB of DDR2 RAM. This is competitive with the latest Android tablets, such as the Google Nexus 10, but is half as much as you get in the Surface Pro (and the type of RAM is slower). And let's not forget that this is running full Windows 8, so more RAM is generally better.
The display is 11.6 inches and features a resolution of 1366 x 768, which makes it roughly equivalent to an iPad 2 in terms of display density. It's a typical resolution for cheaper Windows 8 devices, including Ultrabooks with larger screens, making it sharper here than in many laptops.
The display is multi-touch, but also features a digitiser that works with Samsung's S-Pen, which sits in the bottom corner of the tablet, ready to be slipped out.
There's 64GB of fast SSD storage built in, but you won't actually be able to use that much. Much like the Surface Pro, a large chunk is taken up by the operating system. In this case, the amount of space available to use it just over 26GB. Which is quite a lot less than 64GB, as you've probably already worked out while spitting out whatever drink you were sipping on.
There is, however, a microSD port, so you can add more available storage that way. In terms of connectivity, you're not doing too badly for a tablet of this price in other areas. You've got one USB port on the tablet, with the clamshell adding another two. A micro-HDMI port offers video-out functionality, while there's the requisite headphone/microphone port.
Wirelessly, you're able to connect to Wi-Fi networks (802.11a/b/g/n), and it offers Bluetooth 4.0.
As we said before, we know the Samsung Ativ Smart PC is not a high-powered machine. Let's get the benchmarks out of the way immediately, so we can talk about what it's like to actually use it.
Cinebench R10: 711
3DMark 06: 371
Battery Eater Pro 05: 317 minutes
The performance benchmarks are abysmally poor. Ludicrously low. The Asus Zenbook UX32A costs around the same price, but scores 9,145 in Cinebench. Yes, that's almost 13 times the score.
Perhaps some better context might be against a mobile device: we also ran Geekbench on the Ativ, and compared it to an iPad 4. The Samsung Ativ Smart scored 1,377, the iPad bested it with 1,770. OK, so now we know what ballpark we're in, but remember that the Ativ runs full-on Windows 8 with this meagre processor offering.
It's a similar sort of deficit for the graphics - the HD 4000 graphics in the Zenbook UX32A are around 13 times as powerful.
But perhaps we see the reason why these are so low in the battery life benchmark: a colossal 5 hours and 17 minutes. This is a truly great score, and should mean that you get about a normal working day's use out of the Ativ Smart PC.
We did encounter one snag here, though. At 9am one morning, we grabbed the Samsung Ativ Smart PC at full charge and chucked it in our bag. At 5.30 that evening, we took it out to use and discovered that the battery had dropped to 20% during the day.
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We had it in the clamshell during that time, but as far we could tell, it was on standby, so that level of power loss is concerning - if you left it on standby overnight, it might be flat by the morning. Most Ultrabooks and the MacBook Air are designed to stay alive on standby for a lot longer than this, so it does harm it as a work computer.
Regardless, the battery life is still possibly the strongest point of the Ativ Smart PC. While the rest of it has decent moments, it's all not good enough for the price.
Performance is all over the place, usually running smooth enough if you're just in the Windows 8 Tiles menu, but crunching to a halt any time you want to do anything.
The thing is, every operating system has quirks, especially new ones, that you live with. But now you get the fun bonus game of guessing what's a quirk and what's a crash. You know the processor is slow, so should you just wait for a slow app to load, or assume nothing is going to happen?
Very simple games will run, but often with major controller lag or something else, and that's if the framerate is tolerable in the first place.
Generally, it's the not the newer, optimised Windows 8 stuff that's the problem (despite apps being sluggish to open), but anything outside that was inconsistent.
At one point Chrome just stopped loading web pages. Another time, The Samsung Ativ Smart PC just stopped installing software. For two days, trying to drag windows around the touchscreen was borderline impossible, due to the lag being nearly two seconds.
All of these things fixed themselves later (for one of them, we tried to restart the Samsung Ativ Smart PC Ativ, which also caused it to crash, restarting forever. Well, probably forever. We gave up after half an hour).
What caused these problems? Will they come back again? These are not questions you should have to ask of a brand new £699/US$749.99/AU$999 computer.
The trackpad is equally odd, sometimes declining to respond the first few times you run your finger over it. When it does work, it's fine. The click is a little loud, but it functions. The keyboard on the clamshell is similarly average - the key size is really good, with a nice layout, but the keys are a little soft and dead, so don't give a lot of feedback. You can work on it comfortably, though.
We could add more here - the finicky light sensor, the way most background tasks bring the OS to a halt (which is especially annoying when the pre-installed Samsung update software appears from nowhere, demanding that you start updating and giving you no option to cancel, thus destroying your productivity until it finally finishes loading, at which point you can get rid of it) - but there's no point in droning on.
It's important to say that the Samsung Ativ Smart PC does function, but it's with a litany of irritations. Yes, it works. No, it did not work well for us.
There some good parts to note, though. The screen is bright enough, and offers pretty good viewing angles. The touchscreen is also responsive, even when the operating system is not.
And while we're on the touchscreen, the S-Pen is a great addition. It flows in and out unobtrusively, and offers precision that's in another league compared to what you get from capacitive iPad styluses. You can track the dot around by hovering just above the screen, and then draw with pixel precision.
The thing is, the pen is too small and fiddly to be good for long sessions (for artists, say), so isn't so much a selling point as a nice bonus. It's excellent for note-taking in the built-in S Note app, though.
Being based on flash storage, the Samsung Ativ Smart PC turns on pretty damn quickly, and wakes from sleep more or less instantly. That's all great, but the issue of the amount of space rears its head here, as it did with the Surface Pro.
Though it's billed as having 64GB of storage, the actual free space in the Samsung Ativ Smart PC is about 26GB. You can add more storage with the microSD card port, or by attaching portable storage to the USB port, but this is something that needs to be taken into consideration.
For comparison, a 64GB iPad offers around 57GB of usable space, the 64GB Surface Pro offers around the same amount of space as the Samsung Ativ Smart PC, and the 64GB Surface RT offers around 45GB of space.
In terms of holding it and using it as a tablet, the extra weight over something like the Google Nexus 10 or the iPad 4 is noticeable. The 16:9 screen is also somewhat severe in its width or height (depending on how you hold it) compared to many of these tablets, and is massively lower in resolution, despite being slightly larger.
Personal preference comes into play here, but for us, a 16:9 screen isn't good for tablets, even if it is a better ratio for watching movies on.
Basically, it isn't all that pleasant to use as a standard tablet - at least, not compared to the competition. Oh, and the screen is a nightmare to get fingerprints off, and the clamshell gets discoloured really easily.
If the idea of Windows 8 is that it's 'no compromises', someone probably should have brought that mantra up during the design meeting for the Samsung Ativ Smart PC. This thing is all sorts of compromises.
This idea of convertible Windows 8 tablet-laptops is all well and good, but as a tablet, this is underpowered. As an Ultrabook, it's criminally underpowered.
The best thing here is easily the battery life, which is great while in use. That it runs down quickly on standby is frustrating, but doesn't change how much work you can get done on it.
The S-Pen is a highlight, too. The precision it offers is well beyond what capacitive styluses offer. It's good for navigating the desktop environment on the go, and for taking notes.
The screen isn't bad in terms of colours and viewing angles, and the touch sensitivity is spot on. The rapid wake/boot times are good as well, though nothing you wouldn't expect for a tablet.
It's just too underpowered. We're sorry, Intel, but this Atom just isn't cutting it for Windows 8. Yes, it runs. At its best, it's fairly smooth. But when faint praise like that is the absolute best we can offer, that's a problem.
Responsiveness is all over the place, multitasking is a pain and there's only 26GB of available storage. Oh, and the clamshell isn't that nice to type on. And the screen is low resolution for the price.
Ah yes. The price. What. The. Flip? This is where the Samsung Ativ Smart PC goes from being an underperformer to an affront. At nearly £700/US$750/AU$1,000, it costs as much as an Asus Zenbook UX32A, which is much better made and comically powerful in comparison.
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The Samsung Ativ Smart PC is the worst part about computers - the uncertainty - amplified and distilled into a convertible tablet. It's too fiddly, too slow, and too low-quality.
Yes, it has its good moments - the battery life and the pen input. But the Acer Iconia W510 has almost the same spec and beats it for battery life, while the pen input is something you can look to either the Surface Pro or this tablet's own big brother, Samsung Ativ Smart PC Pro, for.
Ultimately, though, the question is: why would you buy this for this price, when you could have something orders of magnitude better? Get an iPad 4 or Google Nexus 10 for a better tablet experience. Get an Ultrabook (like, any Ultrabook) for a better Windows 8 experience.