Announced at CES 2013, the VivoTab Smart ME400 (opens in new tab) is Asus’ second entry into the brave new world of Windows 8 tablets, following on from last year’s VivoTab RT (opens in new tab). The VivoTab RT was an interesting device; both a competitor to Microsoft’s Surface RT (opens in new tab) and an attempt to bring the company’s Android-focused Transformer (opens in new tab) concept to the Windows platform.
On the face of it, the VivoTab Smart ME400 isn’t quite so distinctive. It’s a straight tablet rather than a convertible, and it lacks the VivoTab RT’s Transformer-like metallic construction. Looks can be deceiving however. In many ways this is the strongest Windows 8 proposition we’ve seen yet.
Design and construction
On the one hand, the VivoTab Smart ME400 isn’t one of Asus’s most visually arresting tablets. It’s theoretically available in white, black and red, though we’ve only seen the black one available in the UK. The front is all glass with a thick black bezel, a discrete Asus logo and the mandatory Windows logo. The rear is one panel curving in to form the sides, fashioned from a rubberised plastic. Controls are limited to a power button on the top-left, a volume rocker on the right and a tiny reset hole at the top near the right-hand corner. As always, the Windows logo acts like a soft Home button.
The VivoTab Smart ME400 is nice and light at 580g, 55g lighter than the similar Dell XPS 10 (opens in new tab) and 100g lighter than the Surface RT. What’s more, the materials make it very comfortable to grip and hold. Build quality is up to Asus’ usually high standards, though there’s a little too much flex beneath the top-left-hand corner for me to say that it feels totally robust.
After looking at so many Transformers it feels strange to see an Asus tablet without a docking connector, but here one is. In fact, at first connectivity is fairly limited by Asus standards, not to mention those of other Windows and Android tablets.
It appears that there’s a micro-USB port, a headphone socket, and that’s your lot. However, a tiny cover near the top-left corner – which you might just about prise free – covers a micro HDMI port, and there’s also a microSD slot for expanding onboard storage. Be careful with the cover for this one; my first attempt resulted in it pinging off and hitting me in the eye. For wireless connectivity, the VivoTab Smart ME400 supports 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth; the latter is crucial for reasons we’ll go into in a minute.
Usability turns out to be one of the VivoTab Smart ME400’s strengths. The advantage of being a tablet that’s just a tablet, not part of a convertible laptop setup, is that it can be designed specifically for use when held. The VivoTab Smart ME400 is light, well-balanced and comfortable enough to be used for long periods. The touchscreen is very responsive, and the Windows 8 onscreen keyboard is rapidly becoming one of my favourites. It’s a great device for everyday use.
The downside of the tablet-only approach is that you don’t get a physical keyboard or any support for working with the tablet sitting up – there’s no Surface-style kickstand on this one. Asus gets around this with what it calls a 'TranSleeve keyboard' a slimline Bluetooth keyboard with a foldable cover that, through some nifty origami, transforms into a stand.
While one wasn’t provided with our review sample, we know that the TranSleeve keyboard will cost approximately £80 extra, and connects to the VivoTab Smart ME400 by magnets. It’s not as elegant a solution as the Surface RT’s touch and type covers, but it should do the job. Meanwhile, the VivoTab Smart ME400 will work perfectly well with existing Bluetooth keyboards and mice, so there’s no reason why you couldn’t use it as a DIY netbook if you needed to.
Screen and sound
Asus has fitted stereo speakers along with its SonicMaster audio technology. The output is clearer and brighter than you get from many tablets without turning brash, but there’s not much weight at the low-end and maximum volume levels are relatively low. We’d still recommend some good headphones if you want to watch films or play games.
Here comes the big reveal: you might expect the VivoTab Smart ME400 to be running Windows RT on a Tegra 3 or some other ARM-based SoC, but in fact it’s running full-fat Windows 8 32-bit on a dual-core Intel Atom CPU Z2760.
Now, I’m not one of those Windows RT haters; for certain applications it’s a perfectly fine OS, and the software library is growing, albeit slowly. All the same, I’d have to say that the VivoTab Smart ME400 gives you the best of both worlds; a touch-friendly Windows 8 interface and apps, plus the Windows desktop and existing Windows applications should you want them. Needless to say, most of these won’t be optimised for touch, but with a Bluetooth keyboard and possibly mouse that isn’t such a problem.
One of the good things about Windows 8 is that manufacturers can’t mess around with ill-advised UI 'enhancements'. Asus provides its own Camera app, a selection of utilities for file-sharing and online storage, plus the SuperNote note-taking app, but that’s about it. Good. That’s all we want.
The VivoTab Smart ME400 has an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera with autofocus and an f2.2 lens, but don’t get too excited. While it can capture a respectable amount of detail, colours are muted and there’s not an awful lot of dynamic range. It’s better than the average tablet snapper, but that’s all you can say. The 2-megapixel front-facing camera is fine for video-chat purposes, though low-light performance is, as so often the case, poor.
As well as the Atom Z2760, the VivoTab Smart ME400 packs in 2GB of RAM and 64GB of flash storage, upgradable via the microSD slot. In general use, the tablet feels slick and nippy, handling web browsing, casual games and HD video playback with ease. You can switch between tasks without any real delays, and most applications work fine. The Sunspider score of 721.9ms puts ARM-based Windows tablets to shame.
The news isn’t all good. Some frame-rate stutter in Hydro Thunder Hurricane proves that the Atom Z2760 isn’t ideal for gaming, and the VivoTab Smart ME400 isn’t going to replace even a Pentium or Celeron laptop any time soon; watching it struggle through the Cinebench benchmark just left us feeling cruel, and the woeful 0.35 score hardly justified it. The VivoTab Smart ME400 is well-equipped for the tasks you’re likely to want to do on a tablet, but it’s no content-creation powerhouse.
If there’s one area where the Windows RT crowd generally have the edge over Windows 8 tablets, it’s battery life. On average we’ve had roughly eight hours of mixed use from the VivoTab Smart ME400, including games and video playback. That puts it slightly ahead of the Dell XPS 10, but slightly behind the VivoTab RT and the similarly specified Acer Iconia W510 (opens in new tab). That’s not amazing, but it’s also not bad enough to count as a major flaw.
Were you just looking for a tablet and not a convertible netbook-like device, then the £399.99 VivoTab Smart ME400 (opens in new tab) has an awful lot going for it. It’s well-designed, nicely balanced, has a great screen and feels fast enough for anything bar serious gaming and media creation. It doesn’t have the wow factor or rock-solid build of the Surface RT, but then it’s running a 'proper' Windows OS that doesn’t have the quirks or limitations of Windows RT. It’s better in most respects than the Dell XPS10, and you can always use it with a Bluetooth keyboard if you need to get some real work done.
If you have a little extra money and you want a more versatile device, then the similarly specified Acer Iconia W510 ships with a keyboard dock for just £100 to £129 more, albeit with half the amount of flash storage. Still, those of us who are more concerned about getting a solid, usable Windows 8 tablet than a transforming netbook can grab ourselves a bargain: if you want Windows on your table, Asus’ latest is hard to beat.
Manufacturer and model
Asus VivoTab Smart ME400
1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760
microSD memory card
10.1in 1,366 x 768
Micro-USB, micro HDMI, headphone
25wHr Lithium Polymer
Size and weight
171 x 262 x 9.7mm, 580g