This will be a multi-part review that will focus on the different aspects of Windows 8 tablets and will be entirely written using these tablets. We will compare the two most capable tablets from both Windows 8 versions, Windows 8 vs. Windows 8 RT. We will cover the differences, similarities, shortfalls, and benefits of each platform while simultaneously comparing two of the largest Taiwanese computer vendors in the world, ASUS and Acer.
In this review we will be pitting the Acer Iconia W510 against the ASUS VivoTab RT. Both tablets are 10.1” tablets with very similar specifications and hardware capabilities. These two tablets will likely be the most popular among the majority of people looking for Windows 8 tablets that come with keyboards. If there is one thing we can say from the very beginning it is that both of these keyboard dock tablets really feel like touchscreen laptops with impeccable battery life. The difference between using one of these versus a touch screen laptop in most scenarios is marginal at best.
In our review, we will be comparing the hardware, software, user experience, and benchmarks. We will save the majority of our benchmarks for a later date because at the time of this writing there really are no good benchmarks available for us to get a reliable and easily comparable benchmark across all platforms. We will, however, compare browser benchmarks as those are available cross-platform without any issues.
Hardware Affecting Software
In terms of hardware, these two tablets are very similar with one major exception, their processor. The ASUS tablet is running an Nvidia Tegra 3 quad core processor while the Acer tablet is running on an Intel Atom Z2760 1.8GHz dual core processor. What makes these two so different is the fact that the 1.4GHz Tegra 3 is based on the ARM processor architecture while the Atom Z2760 is based on the x86 processor architecture. These two architectures have mostly stayed within their own respective camps, with ARM being mostly inside of low power devices like smartphones, routers, and other embedded applications. The x86 architecture is one that was originally devised by Intel and later on adopted by the majority of the PC industry as a standard for most personal computers and servers. For the last 20 or so years, Microsoft’s market has been primarily been on x86 based systems. This is applicable in both the PC and server markets where Microsoft has been present for quite some time.
These two architectures have for the most part stayed out of each other’s own markets up until very recently. Microsoft, a traditional PC company, has recognized the growth of the ARM architecture into the consumer space and has worked with ARM vendors to try to release a version of Windows that works on ARM. The real truth is that Microsoft is worried that ARM has seen a great amount of growth on the Android and iOS platforms and the tablets and smartphones using ARM may erode Microsoft’s market share if they have not yet already. There is a strong argument that many users are replacing their netbooks and Windows laptops with Android and iOS tablets.
Windows 8 is Microsoft’s attempt to cater to the new tablet market while enabling full Windows functionality that many users are accustomed to. They have done this by introducing a new tablet-friendly user interface (UI) across all devices. This UI was formerly known as the Metro UI which was ported from the Windows Phone platform with live tiles. This decision has been met with quite a bit of apprehension because it completely changes the way people interface with their computer. Frankly, Windows 8 is a fantastic operating system as long as you have touch; be it a touch screen all-in-one, a touch screen laptop, or a tablet like one of these.
Personally, I believe that Microsoft made the mistake of not allowing users to pick which UI they would prefer, be it the original Windows Desktop UI or the ‘Windows 8 Style’ UI. Nevertheless, the decision has been made and the experiences between different Windows devices have been modified, to a certain degree.
What has happened with Windows 8 on tablets is a rift between the Windows 8 tablets running x86 processors and the Windows 8 RT ones running on ARM processors. There are some serious differences between Windows 8 and Windows 8 RT and their overall functionality. We can see that Microsoft has made an attempt to unify the experiences but currently there are still some drastic differences that we will address in this review.
Design and Function – Hardware Designs that Affect Usability
When it comes to these two tablets, they are fundamentally very similar as they are both Windows 8 tablets with keyboard docks that have built-in batteries and full-sized USB ports. Here alone, these two tablets already put almost every other tablet to shame. Neither of these tablets sports a full-sized USB port built into the actual tablet, but rather on the keyboard dock. This is in contrast to the Microsoft Surface tablet, which actually has a full-size USB 2.0 port on the tablet itself. We believe this to be a fairly major drawback of these two tablets compared to the Surface.
The Acer Iconia W510 (W510-1422) has a mostly plastic housing which has a bit of a more modern feel. The plastic itself is pretty solid and does not necessarily feel cheap at all, even though it does have a bit of flex to it, which is necessary. It does, however, have a multitude of unique hardware features that make it a versatile PC tablet. First, it features a sharp and bright 10.1” IPS screen, which runs at a relatively low resolution of 1366x768 with multi-touch.
We would have liked to have seen 1080P, but that’s available on the more expensive W700, which comes in at a more expensive $899 price point and features faster, more laptop-like hardware. The W510 also has a slew of expected features like an 8MP backwards-facing camera with flash and a 2MP front-facing camera with 1080P video on both.
It also has a microUSB port as well as a 3.5mm headphone jack and a microSD card slot for additional expandable memory, along with a microHDMI port. The Acer W510 also has a stereo speaker set built into two very thin slots on the sides of the tablet. This is all powered by a 27 Watt-hour Lithium Polymer battery, supported by an additional 22 Watt-hours (Wh) from the optional keyboard dock with a similarly sized battery. Do note that there are no official specifications for the $150 optional keyboard dock (included with this model of the tablet). The Acer Iconia W510 also weighs in at 574 grams and 1269 grams with the keyboard dock.
The ASUS VivoTab RT (TF600T-B1-GR) is very similar in terms of connectivity and hardware specifications. The first thing we must note, though, is that the ASUS VivoTab RT feels significantly sturdier than the Acer Iconia W510. This is primarily due to the fact that the entire body of the tablet as well as the keyboard is actually made from metal. This gives the tablet a very unique feel compared to the Acer Iconia W510 and many users will find themselves gravitating towards the feel of the VivoTab RT. This physical feel is very similar to their Transformer line of Android tablets which also feature metal casings and keyboards that add functionality and battery life.
(left to right: Keyboard Charging Port, Dock Release, Speakers, MicroSD Card Slot, MicroHDMI)
(left to right: 3.5mm headphone/microphone jack, volume rocker, full-size USB 2.0 port)
Just like the W510, the ASUS VivoTab has a 10.1” screen with a resolution of 1366x768 and similar IPS multi-touch display. The VivoTab RT also has an 8MP back-facing camera and a 2MP front-facing camera with 1080P video on both. The tablet also has a microHDMI port which is hidden behind a plug to make the tablet more aesthetically pleasing. The VivoTab also has a ‘quad-speaker’ setup with ‘SonicMaster Audio Technology’. Since the tablet does not have any flat sides, the speakers are built into the tapered edges/back of the tablet.
Bottom of the keyboard dock
Similarly to the Iconia, the VivoTab RT packs a 25 Watt-hour battery with a 22 Wh keyboard battery. So, the battery capacity is in fact quite similar to the Acer Iconia W510. The ASUS VivoTab RT loads all of this into a relatively lightweight package weighing in at 1085 grams with keyboard and tablet, while the tablet itself weighs in at just 538g, only slightly lighter than the Iconia W510.
In terms of internal hardware, as we stated earlier, the Acer Iconia W510 features an Intel Z2760 Atom dual core CPU and the ASUS VivoTab RT features an Nvidia Tegra 3 quad core CPU. The Acer W510 packs 2GB of LPDDR2 while the ASUS VivoTab has 2GB of LPDDR3, which theoretically should give it more memory bandwidth. We will have to see how this affects performance in our follow-up benchmarking article. This VivoTab stock model comes with 32GB of flash memory, while this model of the Acer comes with 64GB. From what we have seen so far, a 32GB tablet turns into a 16GB tablet after OS install + ASUS Software and a 64GB tablet turns into 25GB after the OS install + Acer software. Since both of these tablets come with microSD card slots, a 64GB microSD or microSDHC card is almost a must for any type of media (music, movies, etc).
Both tablets require an (included) adapter in order to connect a full-size USB device directly to the tablet without the presence of the keyboard dock. This is something that the Microsoft Surface tablet does not have to deal with.
Software – Stock Software and Differences on Windows 8
When it comes to stock software on both of these tablets, there are a few differences. The first and most noticeable one between the two tablets (and operating systems) is the fact that Windows 8 RT ships with Microsoft Office 2013 RT Preview. This gives you the ability to use Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote on the tablet, free of charge. It will eventually get updated to Office Home and Student 2013 RT once it launches. The regular Windows Iconia W510 has a pre-installed version of Office 2010 that requires a key to activate and use. This is Microsoft’s attempt to even out the disparity between Windows 8 and Windows 8 RT. Windows 8 RT currently does not have enough applications or enough support from developers to be used as a desktop Windows computer.
After this big difference is recognized and understood, one can see that Microsoft is pushing a few of the same apps across all Windows 8 devices. These apps are found in the first block of applications starting from the left. These are likely to be the most heavily used applications like Desktop, Mail, Photos, People, and Microsoft Store among many others.
Following those applications, you have the ASUS and Acer productivity and cloud applications. Each of the manufacturers has their own gallery application as well as their own camera application. They also implement their own cloud services in addition to the Microsoft Cloud also known as Skydrive. Personally, I would have preferred that these companies just used Skydrive as the primary solution, however, Microsoft now only offers 7.5GB of storage as opposed to the 25GB they originally offered to the first users of Skydrive (myself included).
Admittedly, there is some bloatware on both of these tablets even though most manufacturers had made quite a bit of headway with bloatware on Windows 7. Applications like HuluPlus and Amazon are found on these tablets as well as eBay. Admittedly, it is not difficult to remove some of this bloatware, but we would definitely like to see less of it rather than more.
In terms of browsers, both tablets ship stock with Internet Explorer 10 (IE10), which is designed specifically for touch. There is no doubt in my mind that IE10 is the best browser that Microsoft has put out, especially with the tablet in mind. This is most evident when comparing Chrome against IE10 on the Acer Iconia W510, since the W510 runs full-blown Windows 8 and allows you to install virtually any application you want. Because you can install Chrome, you can compare the two on the Acer tablet and see that IE10 is without a doubt more touch friendly with tabs showing up as small windows rather than hard to touch tabs at the top of the browser. IE10 simply has more gesture support for Windows 8 than Chrome, even though in our testing we found that Chrome was faster than IE10.
The ability to install essentially any application that we desire led to quite a few differences that affected the user experience in daily use. This leads us into our next section that covers user experience including both hardware and software.
User Experience – Using a Windows Tablet for Daily Work
In this section we will be going over the general user experience of these two tablets and how the hardware and software differences affected our daily use.
One odd thing that we noticed as we were powering on both tablets was that the power button on the W510 is on the top right hand corner, while the VivoTab has it on the top left hand corner. We found it very odd that they would pick opposite sides. The volume controls are similarly on the right side of the W510 and on the left side of the VivoTab RT.
The first thing we noticed was that in boot times, the Acer Iconia W510 running Win8 was noticeably faster than the ASUS VivoTab RT running Win8 RT. We measured this by completely powering off the tablet and then powering both of them on at the same time and measuring the boot times. Note, that the boot times we measured were averaged from a data set of 5 different boots and averaged into one boot time. Our average boot times were 8.46 seconds for the Acer Iconia W510 and a significantly slower 23.3 seconds on the ASUS VivoTab RT. Once you log in, however, the ‘Windows 8 Style’ UI loads at approximately the same speed.
Once you have gotten past the start screen, there are a few things that you notice when using this tablet. One of them is that the Acer Iconia W510 takes a bit longer to re-associate to wireless networks than the ASUS VivoTab RT. Before a recent update, the Acer tablet actually had a lot of issues with WiFi networks disconnecting mid-session and requiring us to disconnect from the current network and reconnect to regain connectivity. This issue has been fixed; however, it does show how Windows 8 tablets are still a work in progress.
The truth is that most Windows 8 tablets are getting weekly, if not daily, updates to applications and drivers. This is primarily due to the fact that Microsoft did not spend enough time working with hardware vendors on drivers and in many cases even with the added effort to platforms like RT, they still were not finished. A good example is Qualcomm, who is the latest to the Windows 8 game with only one tablet shipping. They had dozens of Microsoft engineers sent to them to help them fine tune their drivers and even with the added assistance they were not able to deliver a working tablet on the launch date of Windows 8. Furthermore, Qualcomm currently only has one shipping design win as opposed to quite a few for both Nvidia and Intel. AMD has yet to show up to the Windows 8 tablet game, but as they showed us earlier this year, they are planning on launching something soon.
Getting back to the experience, we began to play with the customization of the operating system and noticed a few stark differences between the full version of Windows 8 and Windows 8 RT. We make this distinction because simply put, certain features in Windows 8 are missing in RT. We believe that Microsoft, in the next generation, will iron out these differences for their RT partners, but in the current generation they are quite visible. The first thing that we had noted earlier was that we could not install Chrome on the ASUS VivoTab RT. Personally, Chrome is my favorite browser and enables cross-platform sharing of bookmarks and other personal data that makes my overall browsing experience better. Lots of people that like Chrome and prefer Chrome will consider this single setback a major one.
In addition to the lack of Chrome on Windows 8 RT, there is also the inability to do things like Google Hangouts, which more and more people are beginning to use instead of Skype when they want to video conference easily with more than one person. This may be considered a minor thing for most, but there are other little issues as well. One notable thing is printers; my network printer is not compatible with the Windows 8 RT VivoTab, but it is with Windows 8 Iconia W510. What this means is that a document that I wrote up on Word that Microsoft so happily bundles with Win8 RT effectively becomes a digital copy only, with no way to print it.
Moving past productivity, we decided to explore our entertainment options. These appeared to be very similar between the two tablets and operating systems, with one big exception. We were able to get applications like Netflix and Skype for both tablets as well as games like Flow Free. In fact, under Microsoft’s Top 100 Free Applications, almost all of the applications are identical. What is different is that with RT, these applications are the only choices you have. With the full version of Windows 8 we were able to get Spotify and run it as a desktop application. What this means is that we are actually able to play Spotify for free (with commercials), which likely will not be possible on Win8 RT since it will be considered a ‘mobile application’ and will require a subscription.
Similarly, we were able to find a uTorrent app for our Windows 8 tablet, but could not find one for Windows 8 RT.
Entertainment cannot be experienced without sound, and the difference between these two tablets is really night and day. While we cannot completely explain how or why, Acer’s Iconia W510 has the best damn speakers we have ever heard on any tablet, ever. Not only that, but the tablet is able to reproduce sound at such high quality and volume that it fills an entire room and people start asking where the speakers are located. When you point to the little slits in the side of the tablet, people look at you in disbelief. The sound on the Iconia W510 is without a doubt, amazing.
We also tried typing with both keyboards in general as well as for parts of this review. When looking at the two tablets, one will notice that the keyboard dock for the W510 is actually slightly larger than the dock for the VivoTab. This slight physical difference makes a huge difference for the keyboard because the Acer’s keyboard actually feels like a keyboard that one can type on for a long period of time and does not have as much of a netbook/nettop feel as the ASUS’ keyboard does. One slightly annoying thing about the Iconia W510 is that if the tablet is tilted a little too far back, the weight of the tablet lifts the front end of the keyboard off of the surface it is sitting on. The ASUS VivoTab RT at the same angle does not tip like the Acer Iconia W510 does, and you are forced to hold your palms on the keyboard if you have the tablet open past 100 or so degrees. Admittedly, both of these tablets do have a lot of netbook/nettop DNA, but Acer goes the extra mile to make it feel like a tablet that can double as a laptop.
Upon using these tablets with keyboards, you realize how incredibly awful the onscreen keyboard for Windows 8 is. Furthermore, you begin to really appreciate the ability to use a keyboard with the tablet since Microsoft clearly does not have a good keyboard for 10.1” displays. Additionally, the ASUS keyboard dock only opens a little more than 90 degrees, probably around 135 degrees. The Acer Iconia’s keyboard actually has 295 degrees of rotation and can be rotated around to become a stand for the tablet. While this feature probably does not have many use cases, it does make you wonder why ASUS did not do the same thing. The one saving grace of the Windows 8 keyboard, however, is the ability to write with a capacitive stylus/pen instead of having to type. Using the Windows keyboard in stylus mode is quite good, as the handwriting recognition is spot on.
We noticed that both companies spent quite a bit of time working on the touch part of the tablet, with both tablets responding very well to touch. We did not notice any major flaws on either tablet when it came to touch and we even tested both tablets’ displays with metal slugs to make sure we had the most precise touch and the least variation between our tests of the different tablets.
This brings us to the next step of our experience, the docking and undocking procedures. The location of the locks on the two tablets is very different in terms of function and placement. The lock on the Acer Iconia W510 is in the middle of the tablet and keyboard dock. The lock on the ASUS VivoTab RT is located on the left hand side of the tablet itself and requires you to pull down on the lock while pulling up on the tablet. What this does is that it makes the undocking process awkward. It does make the overall solution appear elegant, but in the process of undocking you will look anything but elegant. We also noticed that the ASUS VivoTab RT at times had issues connecting to the dock and we would have to re-dock in order to get keyboard functionality. It did not happen very often, but often enough to worth noting.
In terms of wireless connectivity, these two tablets are very similar as they both feature Broadcom wireless chips. The difference is that the Acer W510 has an A/B/G/N Wi-Fi chip while the VivoTab RT has just B/G/N. We did not encounter any situations where this presented an issue, since most networks are 802.11n or 802.11G. Both tablets also have NFC ability, which should theoretically allow for cross-platform NFC sharing, but for now there is no unified standard so functionality is sporadic. The most consistent functionality we were able to get was to share a webpage from our Android based HTC One X Global (Tegra 3) to both tablets. When we tried sharing pictures to both tablets, our phone indicated that the devices did not support sharing of large file sizes.
While we have not had an opportunity to accurately benchmark battery life, we can say with certainty that both tablets are capable of delivering full-day battery. In both cases, we were able to use the tablet freely throughout the day and not once worry about charging them up. The ability to have an always-on tablet that you do not have to worry about charging is a great feeling. One interesting note about the batteries is that these two tablets handle battery measurement very differently. The Acer Iconia W510 reports battery for both the keyboard and tablet separately, while the ASUS VivoTab RT reports the remaining battery capacity of both combined. This is in spite of the fact that both tablets drain power from the keyboard first before draining from the tablet. You can also charge both tablets through the keyboard dock and the tablet gets priority.
Since benchmarks for Windows RT are still in development and being perfected, we are very limited in the system benchmarks that we are able to run. Because of this, we have decided to hold off on the comparison between Windows 8 and Windows 8 RT devices until those benchmarks develop, and hopefully by then we will be able to get our hands on a Qualcomm based tablet as well so we can compare all three SoC vendors against each other in terms of Windows 8 performance.
As such, we are going to stick with a preliminary browser performance test. This test is Rightware’s Browsermark 2.0 test, which we have used in the past. This browser benchmark is not as involved as the BrowsingBench, but we will have that benchmark included in our overall performance test when we test CPU, memory, and graphics performance as well as the system as a whole.In this benchmark, we compared each tablet’s browsing performance against the other using IE10 since we knew that browser would be available on both tablets.
In Browsermark 2.0 the Acer Iconia W510 got a score of 2,228 and the ASUS VivoTab RT got a score of 2203, a difference of 1.2% (almost just the margin of error). The Acer Iconia W510 consistently reproduced this ever-so-slight edge over the ASUS VivoTab RT. What was interesting to us was how Chrome would perform against IE10 on the Acer Iconia W510 and how having browser choice due to having app freedom could affect performance. With Chrome, we were able to get a score of 2494, a performance difference of about 12% when compared to IE10 on the VivoTab RT.
Photography and Video
Video Playback - Both tablets were both able to quickly recognize and install drivers for a USB drive that was plugged in and successfully play back a 1080P video smoothly without any issues. This video was a 35 second video shot at 30 FPS and had a bit-rate of 21Mbps, which is an extremely high bit-rate for video, putting a lot of stress on the GPU. Neither tablet displayed any form of stutter, slow-down, or dropped frames.
Personally, I am not a huge fan of video or photography with tablets, but many tablets nowadays have cameras and some people really like taking pictures and video with them because of the large displays. We decided to go to the beach and take some pictures and videos with both tablets and let you judge how they came out.
Watching both videos you can see that both tablets are able to catch the incoming waves at a very smooth and consistent frame rate and that the ASUS VivoTab RT clearly has the sharpest and best color depth of the two tablets. The video on the ASUS VivoTab RT simply looks better in every single way. Do note that we made sure we were using both tablets default video capturing applications.
Acer Iconia W510 at 8MP
ASUS VivoTab RT at 8MP
Looking at the two photos we captured on both tablets, we can clearly see that the ASUS tablet has a superior camera. Even though both cameras have 8MP sensors and both cameras are being used to their full capability, it is clear that the ASUS camera has a much more vivid picture in terms of sharpness and color depth. We have not modified any of these pictures other than to make them fit within the boundaries of the webpage.
When you talk about value with these tablets, there is a lot of information to cover. Each of these tablets is both a standalone tablet and a quasi-laptop/netbook. Admittedly, these tablets put the netbooks and tablets of the past to shame, so they really deserve their own category. Each of these tablets has something unique that it brings to the table.
The Acer Iconia W510 currently retails at the MSRP of $749.99 for the 64GB model with keyboard dock. Without the keyboard dock, this tablet retails for $599.99. The 32GB ASUS VivoTab RT is selling for $549 on sale from $599.99 when it first came out. In addition, ASUS is running a promotion where they will throw in the additional $150 dock for free if you buy it before December 31st, 2012. At the current promotion, it almost seems like a no-brainer to go for the ASUS VivoTab since they’re essentially throwing a $150 accessory at you for free. However, once that deal expires, these two tablets will be very close in terms of final price.
Comparing the two tablets’ value propositions we must also consider that both manufacturers did not include any additional accessories beyond the proprietary power adapters, warranty cards, screen cleaning cloths, and full-size USB adapters.
Taking into account that both tablets also have one year warranties, neither manufacturer decided to go the extra mile in terms of warranty. The ASUS tablet physically feels like it has better build quality, but it forces you into a much more closed ecosystem compared to standard Windows 8. Microsoft does make this up to you as a consumer by throwing in Microsoft Office, but as more and more competitors begin to provide solid alternatives to Office, the need for Office becomes less important to users. I will admit, having a full version of Microsoft Word on the ASUS VivoTab RT is extremely nice and feels very productive, but it comes at a cost.
Considering all of the positive and negative aspects of both of these tablets, it is quite evident that Windows 8 is a touch operating system and should only be experienced with a touch environment. I personally did not like Windows 8 until I started to use it with these two tablets, and since then I have grown to love it even more than Windows 7. The decision that Microsoft made to force all users onto the ‘Windows 8 Style’ UI was a horrible one, and they do have the opportunity to reverse it if they choose to.
Comparing these two tablets, though, we can see how much hardware and software affect each other and how having an x86 based processor in a tablet is incredibly beneficial to productivity while simultaneously still delivering great battery life, something that was unheard of in the past. Similarly, Microsoft has finally managed to bring their operating system to the same architecture that has been running the majority of tablets prior to Windows 8.
The real question is, is Windows RT good enough right now to compete with fully featured Windows 8? The answer is a resounding “absolutely not.” Nvidia and ASUS have made a valiant effort to make the ASUS VivoTab RT a very well rounded tablet with a great user experience; however, it falls short in the most critical ways that make a tablet useful. This is especially true when we are talking about a Windows tablet. Both of these tablets are very comparable in features and usability, but the inability to do fundamental things that a PC is designed to do have made Windows 8 RT fall short. Microsoft needs to keep working with developers to continue to improve application selection and to increase the driver library for these tablets because not being able to print to a network printer is unforgivable for any personal computer. Perhaps for a tablet it is excusable, but not for a PC. If the shortcomings of the Windows 8 RT operating system do not faze you, then the ASUS VivoTab RT is a fantastically built tablet with great battery life.
We will be following up this review with a performance review covering things like actual measured battery life, CPU performance, GPU performance, memory performance, data transfer speeds, and much more. We do not consider this review completed, however, at the current moment we find ourselves leaning towards the Acer Iconia W510 purely due to the freedom it provides with a fully featured OS.