Asus Eee Slate EP121
We've been testing and reviewing Windows tablets for many years, the latest being the new Acer Iconia Tab W500P, but have typically found them lacking--both in comparison with more powerful Windows laptops, and with other tablets, such as Apple's popular iPad.
One Windows tablet that we've been eager to check out after seeing it at CES 2011 is the Asus Eee Slate EP121, a high-end touch-screen tablet with a separate Bluetooth keyboard. Asus is, for the uninitiated, most responsible for the (now faded) popularity of low-cost Netbooks, and the company is now pushing the boundaries of what we expect from Win 7 tablets by making the EP121 a high-design, high-powered system, thanks to a fast Intel Core i5 processor.
That means that, unlike nearly every other Windows tablet we've ever laid a finger (or stylus) on, the EP121 responds instantly in most cases, with much less of the sluggishness that has plagued similar systems in the past. The CPU in question is still a bit of a compromise. It's a low-voltage Core i5-470UM, and not part of the upgraded 2011 line of Intel CPUs. That means it lacks the better integrated graphics and battery-enhancing properties of the latest Core i3/i5/i7 CPUs. Still, compared with the typical Intel Atom found in many touch-screen Windows devices, the difference is like night and day.
We've seen the EP121 on sale for $999 with a 32GB SSD drive, or $1,399 for a 64GB version (which seems like a hefty premium for that kind of upgrade).
Rather than the 7- or 10-inch screens we're used to on touch-screen tablets, Asus bumps up the display to 12.1 inches, making this feel much closer to a full-size laptop (or at least a 13-inch one). The display resolution is 1,280x800 pixels, similar to the 1,366x768 pixels found on most small to midsize laptops, and the screen's nearly edge-to-edge glass looks slick, but is a fingerprint magnet. Whatever fingerprint-resistant coating Apple puts on the iPad and iPhone 4 isn't to be found here.
The body feels solid and well-made, thanks to the edge-to-edge glass and thin metal bezel. The back is white textured plastic, but the trade-off is that the weight is only about 2.5 pounds, which makes it feel very light in the hand.
Two USB ports are hidden behind hard-to-open plastic tabs along the left edge, along with a Mini-HDMI jack, an audio jack, an SD card slot, and a volume rocker switch. Along the top edge you'll find a switch to lock the screen rotation (as on every Windows tablet, the screen rotation is painfully slow, and occasionally overly sensitive) and a quick-launch button for the built-in Windows 7 onscreen keyboard.
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Using that onscreen keyboard is a bit easier than on some other tablets we've tried, because of the larger screen size. But it's never going to be anyone's preferred input method. Instead, we'd rather use the bundled Bluetooth keyboard, which is designed to match the EP121's design and has a slightly curved, ergonomic keyboard. The keyboard worked fine, but we wish it included either a tiny touch pad or even a ThinkPad-style trackpoint. Instead, your only cursor input options are a fingertip, the included stylus, or a USB or Bluetooth mouse. Interestingly, the stylus is pressure-sensitive, which is a feature that's probably only useful in supported painting programs, such as the included ArtRage Studio.
The slate part of the EP121 can also fit into an included leatherlike folio case, which has a couple of positions it can be folded into, much like an iPad case. The folio doesn't match the slick look of the tablet itself, and a built-in kickstand could have been a much cooler way to set the screen and keyboard up like a traditional laptop. However, compared with the impossibly clunky keyboard docking mechanism of the similar Acer Iconia Tab W500P, we'll take the EP121's simple Bluetooth connection every time.
We were able to stream 720p online videos smoothly, but anything beyond basic casual games will be impossible (we ran Street Fighter IV at native resolution at 9.6 frames per second). With a current-gen Intel Core i-series CPU, you could probably do much more robust gaming. However, having several browser windows open at once, playing video, and running an art program at the same time didn't cause any slowdown, so this has been one of our best Windows tablet experiences to date.
This post represents our initial hands-on impressions after unboxing and using the system for several hours. We're currently running the Asus Eee Slate EP121 through our standard benchmark tests, so check back for more on performance and battery life in our full review.